Morality and the Market: Contested Commodification in Eighteenth-Century England

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


My research will compare case studies of contested commodities, covering cadavers, food-stuffs and baby-selling. It will explore how legislation, social groups, and individuals responded to conflicting views perceptions and what this reveals about social and market relations. This project will focus on eighteenth-century England as this century represents an important period of economic change, as a time of nascent capitalism and shifting moral and market relations. The financial, industrial and consumer revolutions affected the functioning of the economy and influenced social relations, moral concerns, perceptions of commodities, and legal and popular attitudes to ownership. In exploring conflicting perceptions of commodities and the market, this project has the potential to make a significant contribution to the history of capitalism, the body and social protest.

This research project takes inspiration from a combination of socio-economic, legal, anthropological, and philosophical theories relating to the present day, such as that of property law theorist Margaret Radin who claims that commodification occurs on a complex spectrum. Cognitive theorists Fiske and Tetlock explain resistance to universal commodification through theories of mental compartmentalisation. People place money, objects and relationships into distinct mental categories and find value comparisons between categories confusing and distressing. Such theories should be considered in an eighteenth-century context to assess how they add to or contradict the findings of historians relating to moral, market, and credit economies. I intend to consider such theories alongside seemingly contradictory ideas, such as Thompson's moral economy, which suggests early modern society involved more unofficial cognitive restrictions on trade than modern. This will lead to a deeper understanding both of theories of commodification and the early modern social economy.

To address the layered perceptions of social and market relations, this project will focus on three case studies: trade in cadavers, food and infants. In comparing contested commodities, it will explore social, moral and market interactions. In the eighteenth century, the growing popularity of anatomy resulted in a steep increase in demand for cadavers for dissection. A great deal of controversy surrounded the commodification of the dead body, such as in determining the ownership of a corpse. Moreover, the trade in cadavers was deeply connected to criminality as the insufficient legal supply resulted in a black market in 'resurrected' corpses. Consequently, conflict is evident in riots at executions, court cases of 'resurrectionists', the disciplining of surgeons, anti-anatomy satire and legislative changes.

Complete commodification is entirely unrestricted. Therefore, eighteenth-century food riots, which arose following technically legal trade practices which failed to meet moral standards, indicate incomplete commodification from the perspective of the rioters. In contrast, the law, which was increasingly influenced by laissez-faire market ideology, and the merchants involved, considered such trade practices acceptable. Therefore, I will consider the contested commodification of necessities such as grain, and how the changing markets influenced such perceptions and resulted in protests.

In the eighteenth century, despite its legality, trade in babies was highly controversial, largely due to its connections to infanticide and illegitimacy. In contrast to the present day black market in infants, the early modern market had a higher supply of babies than demand, therefore a comparison between present day baby-selling and early modern baby-selling should provide insight into the effect of supply and demand on contested commodification. This research will incorporate ideas about class, gender, age and religion as these factors affected individuals' perceptions of commodities.


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2247864 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 20/09/2023 Saskia Polly Lowe