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Economic Justice

Economic Justice in Early Modern Europe (1450-1850):

Commemorating Fifty Years of E. P. Thompson’s ‘Moral Economy’


Midlands Eighteenth-Century Research Network 

Annual Workshop 

University of Warwick 

4.30pm to 6.00pm 20 May - 9.30am to 3.30pm 21 May, 2021 


For the Programme, either scroll to bottom of this page OR click here.

For video recordings, click on the links in the programme below.


To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of E. P. Thompson’s ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ in Past and Present, the organisers of the annual workshop of the Midlands Research Network propose to assess the on-going relevance of Thompson’s analytical concept while exploring the theme of economic justice more broadly. Thompson argued that crowd rebellions in the eighteenth century should not be dismissed as the ‘irrational’ manifestation of mob psychology. They should be seen as the expression of longstanding beliefs about the obligation authorities had to ensure that the poor had access to the means of survival. The moral economy put the notion of a ‘fair price’ over ‘market price’.  


With the shift from class to culture in the 1980s, interest in the ‘moral economy’ declined. Some scholars took up the study of political economy, but they tended to focus on ideas about commercial society and how governments could best expand markets. How political-economic ideas drew from, or contradicted, popular notions of economic justice was generally neglected. This workshop invites reflections on whether the concept of the moral economy has (or could have) any relevance in current scholarship. Questions include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • How have more recent historiographical concerns (such as with the emotions, postcoloniality, gender) transformed our understanding of economic justice in the early modern era? How have they altered the way we think about the interactions between the lower ranks and those in power over matters of need and fairness?
  • Are the lower classes the only group with a ‘moral economy’? Did elites have notions of socioeconomic justice?  
  • Is it helpful to think of the moral economy as instantiated only by crowds or were notions of it propelled through networks and sociability?  
  • If ‘class’ is considered to be an outmoded category of analysis, how do we account for different notions of economic fairness circulating in early modern and eighteenth-century societies? Do those notions have any social basis?  
  • Were markets and communitarian notions of economic justice necessarily opposed to each other? According to more recent scholarship, Enlightenment theories of market society incorporated morality and sympathy. How then should we rethink moral economies in light of this fact?
  • Did the development of European empires have any impact on notions of economic justice?


The workshop welcomes contributions related to the themes of economic fairness and political economy anywhere in Europe or its empire. Studies of British and non-British contexts are welcome. In addition to an introductory panel session on E. P. Thompson's concept, we invite two kinds of papers: those reflecting on the relevance of the moral economy for current scholarship and those presenting research related to the theme of economic justice.  


Scholars working in any of the Humanities or Social Sciences at all levels are welcome: faculty, postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. Contributions should run for no longer than ten minutes. This will leave time for open discussion. 


May 20 (Thursday)


4:30 – 6:00 pm

Plenary: E. P. Thompson and New Approaches to the Moral Economy

Chair: Charles Walton (Warwick)


Carl Griffin (Sussex): ‘Food Riots and the Moral Economy: Revisiting Thompson's Concept’


Mary Fairclough (York): ‘Eighteenth-century sympathy and the moral economy’


Fred Reid (Warwick): ‘Reminiscences of E. P. Thompson and Reflections on the Moral Economy’



May 21 (Friday)


9:30 – 10:30

Panel 1: Food, Famine and Loot, from India to London

Chair: Callie Wilkinson (Warwick)


Rebecca Earle (Warwick): ‘The Moral Economy of White Bread’


Guido van Meersbergen (Warwick): ‘Trade and Economic Justice: The Mughal Response to European Piracy in the Indian Ocean c.1700’


Manu Sehgal (Birmingham): ‘Wealth and Dearth of Nations: Famine and the East India Company in the Georgian public sphere'



11:00 – 12:00

Panel 2: Economic Justice and Revolution: US, France, USSR

Chairs: Mark Philp and Claire Shaw (Warwick)


Tom Cutterham (Birmingham): ‘Bourgeois Revolutionaries, Loyalist Crowds, and the Antifederalist Alliance in the United States’


Charles Walton (Warwick): ‘The Rise and Fall of Social Rights in the French Revolution’


Chris Read (Warwick): ‘The Moral Economy and the Russian Revolution’



1:00 – 2:00

Panel 3: Finance, Trade and Notions of Economic Justice

Chair: Kate Smith (Birmingham)


Ronan Love (Warwick): ‘The Moral Economy of Privilege: the Politics of the Old Regime and the Revolution of 1789’


Serena Dyer (De Montfort): ‘“Well regulate your Cash; to Trade attend”: The consumer as the arbiter of the moral economy’


Angel-Luke O’Donnell (KCL): ‘Economic justice of early Pennsylvanian mortgages’



2:30 – 3:30

Panel 4: Between Obligation and Schism: Ghosts, Taxes and Reform

Chair: Karen Harvey (Birmingham)


Steven King (Nottingham Trent): ‘Voluntary taxation: the Old Poor Law and levelling up, 1700-1800’


Martha McGill (Warwick): ‘Economic justice in early modern British ghost stories’


Dave Steele (Warwick): ‘Class, schism and popular politics 1795-1850’