Coda: Crossing Companies, Theories of Agency, and Early Modern European Empire

Publication Date: 
September 2020
Journal of World History 31 #3 (September), 477-97
Isaac Ariail Reed

Publisher Link 


Spain, Portugal, the Dutch Republic, England, France, Sweden, and Denmark all sought and acquired empires in what is conventionally, in European history, called the early modern period. The study of these empires and other states and state-like entities in their orbits has exploded in recent decades. Some of the questions asked may not be new – they were first posed by observers in seventeenth - and eighteenth-century Europe and were later canvassed by twentieth-century scholars all over the globe. But they have been taken up anew and taken in exciting new directions by recent scholarship, as part of a larger trend that includes work on non-European early modern empires, including the Ottoman empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Mughal empire on the Indian subcontinent, and the Incan empire in Latin America.

Thus, it is an excellent time to examine the specificity of early modern European empire both comparatively and theoretically, and, as this collection of essays does impressively, to place companies and their agents squarely in the midst of that focus. As Felicia Gottmann and Phil Stern note in the introduction to this issue, “much of early modern transcontinental and global connections was forged not by states but by a range of agents that navigated between public and private, not least of which was the organized, chartered joint-stock company.” How to theorize these linkages among persons, states, and imperial projects in all their variety? In this coda, we take up the challenge of discerning in these remarkable papers a change in the interpretation of early modern European empires - and perhaps even in the very term ‘empire’ more broadly. In so doing, we take the archival foci of these papers on, for example, “interloping families” or Kaarle [End Page 477] Wirta’s early modern sci-fi-style “cross-imperial jump-shifters” as affording, not only these remarkable papers, but also, via translation into other languages in the human sciences, an emergent theoretical argument.