Market Place, Angoulême; engraving by M.J. Starling

The Print Collector/Alamy

Market Place, Angoulême; engraving by M.J. Starling after Thomas Allom, nineteenth century

Neither of these titles includes the word “globalization” or even “global,” though the knitting together of the world is in fact the subject of both of them. The terms related to things global are now so clichéd that it is almost a relief not to have them brandished again. Yet what could be more vital to the interweaving of the world’s regions than credit or the movement of people? Rather than trace them, as is often the fashion, through the analysis of big data, which means statistical information gathered primarily by states, the authors of these two remarkable books approach their topics in ways that are at once traditional and original. They each begin with something seemingly small—a family, a signed slip of paper—and show how these open up much wider worlds.

The family in question for Emma Rothschild, a professor of history at Harvard, in An Infinite History is that of Marie Aymard, the illiterate wife of a furniture maker who lived in the small southwestern French town of Angoulême in the eighteenth century. Angoulême is a good stand-in for all that was signified by “provincial backwater”; Honoré de Balzac described its society in the early 1800s as one of “the most fatal immobility.”

Aymard, the mother of eight children (two of whom died in infancy), came to Rothschild’s attention during her research in the departmental archives because in 1764 Marie went to a notary to get a power of attorney so that she could send someone to investigate the fate of her husband, Louis Ferrand. He had gone eleven years earlier to the Caribbean island of Grenada, at the time a French colony, which was more than four thousand miles away from France. Rumor had it that he had done well enough there to buy slaves but had died in Martinique on his way back home. Aymard needed that inheritance, as she had more debts than assets. Even in Angoulême, therefore, signs of long-distance interconnection burbled beneath the surface of supposedly still waters.

Marie Aymard never received any legacy from her dead husband, and she never left Angoulême during her eight decades of life, yet she did leave a long trail of descendants whose disparate fates animate this “infinite history.” Their stories do not depend, for the most part, on personal reminiscences. Marie’s immediate social milieu has been recreated from information gleaned about the eighty-three people who signed the prenuptial contract of her eldest surviving daughter, Françoise. The contract, drawn up just a few weeks after the request for a power of attorney, was not signed by Marie because she did not know how to write, but it was signed by the twenty-four-year-old Françoise and her intended, Étienne Allemand Lavigerie, the son of a tailor who had become a Latin teacher. They subsequently had thirteen children, and it is their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who provide the red thread of the tale.

It is a family history unlike any other because of the way Rothschild tells it. She starts with the discovery that ordinary people in the most mundane places developed connections with distant locales. Marie’s husband was not the only one who jumped at the chance of better opportunities elsewhere; her youngest son left Angoulême with his wife in 1777 and opened a shop in Le Cap, the principal city in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), selling coffeepots and oil cruets. By 1795, after years of slave rebellion, this former slaveholder had returned to France as a destitute refugee. At the other end of the narrative line, Marie’s great-great-grandson Charles Martial Allemand Lavigerie was named archbishop of Algiers in 1866, then cardinal in 1882 and archbishop of Carthage in 1885. His antislavery campaigning in faraway places helped make him one of the most famous individuals in France in the nineteenth century.

This is no rags-to-riches fairy tale, however. It is a “history by contiguity,” that is, a history of social relations across space and time. That might sound rather abstract, but somehow Rothschild manages to make it as gripping as a realist novel without any of the advantages of fictionalization. Mini-biographies of the characters have been developed with little evidence of their inner lives. The research behind their stories combines sophisticated software for visualization of their family and social networks with the drudgery of retrieving hundreds, even thousands, of individual birth, marriage, and death records from now often digitized databanks. The individual records had to be collated and then enhanced by tracing those names in notarial documents of marriage contracts and property transactions as well as a multitude of published sources. Each individual’s life was subsequently reconstructed from those accumulated intersecting pieces of information.


By reassembling the connections lost from view over time, Rothschild brings a kaleidoscopic variety of worlds into our field of vision. Rotating in one direction highlights overseas connections; turning another way reveals the importance of just one Angoulême street over many decades. At various moments, life in the colonies, revolutions, military service, government administration, railway building, shopkeeping, Catholic practices, marriage, or retirement might come into focus. The possibilities seem infinite.

The names of ordinary people rarely attract this kind of intense attention. When considering family history, demographers and historians usually seek trends over time, such as life expectancy, average age at marriage, average number of children, and the like. The individuals therefore count only when considered as part of an aggregate. Rothschild, in contrast, is after the people who make up the typical, and it turns out that their chronicles, when patiently recreated from the faint traces of them left in the archives, are anything but average. Labeling her approach is next to impossible; it is not a social history of a group or a microhistory of a unique individual or event. It is not even the history of an entire family, because the spotlight is trained on one branch of a maternal line (Marie and her daughter Françoise).

By starting with the names and tracing them over space and especially time, Rothschild not only upends the usual methods of study but also compels a rethinking of many prevailing views about the politics, economy, and society of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Consider the example of banking. Where others have examined the careers of leading national and international bankers or followed the development of the institution through the actions taken by states, Rothschild discovers that the trajectories of Marie’s family members require a different kind of account. The second son of Françoise, Pierre Allemand Lavigerie, moved apparently effortlessly from captain in the new revolutionary armies in 1795 to army paymaster and finally became a commercial accountant in Le Mans, the home of his wife’s family, some two hundred miles north of Angoulême. Pierre’s son Scipion started a business there in packaging and debt collection, but within a few years he and his partner had been listed in a local directory as bankers. Scipion became a judge in a commercial court and adjunct mayor of Le Mans. Banks thus were not just established institutions with routinized procedures that included accepting money on deposit and giving it out on loan. Banking was a set of social and economic practices that evolved step by step out of the opportunities afforded by political upheaval and changing economic conditions and grasped by those with ambition, perseverance, and a modicum, no doubt, of luck.

Scipion’s younger brother, Camille, came to banking by a more roundabout route but had even more influence on its institutional development. He began as a merchant’s clerk in Lille and then worked as a traveling salesman back in Angoulême before accumulating enough capital to set up as a wholesale merchant. When the provisional government that emerged from the revolution of 1848 in France established a system of national discount banks based on public-private partnerships, Camille was appointed the first director of the Angoulême branch. By then he had bought the house next door to a property owned first by five of his aunts and then by various female cousins. His aunts, the five unmarried daughters of Françoise and Étienne, did not become bankers, but in true Balzacian fashion they parlayed murky notarial transactions and work as shopkeepers and schoolteachers into major property holdings. They passed these on through female lines. The eldest daughter, Jeanne, died in 1860 at age ninety-two and left her share to her niece.

The family’s banking story did not end there. Jeanne’s inheriting niece, Françoise Méloé Topin, had married her first cousin, Camille, the eventual branch bank director. Their only surviving child, Marie Louise Allemand Lavigerie, married Jean Henri Portet, a clerk in the Angoulême commercial court. They all moved to Le Mans when Camille inherited from his brother, Scipion, and as Le Mans became an industrial center, the Portet-Lavigerie bank invested in marble quarries, railways, and even the Panama Canal, while specializing in arbitrage in the London markets. As a sign of the bank’s success, the daughter of Marie Louise and Jean Henri Portet, Valentine, married Olivier Boittelle, the son of the prefect of police of Paris and a senator in Napoleon III’s government.

Portet formed a partnership with Félix Talvande, the son of the director of the Nantes office of the Banque de France, but a few years after the partnership was dissolved, Talvande’s company went bust, and Talvande declared bankruptcy and was arrested. Portet found himself pursued as a member of the advisory board, and in 1890 the commercial court in Le Mans, the same court in which his wife’s uncle had been a judge, ordered him to pay the staggering sum of 500,000 francs in damages. (A pit worker in the mines in 1890 made about 1,300 francs a year.)


Rothschild did not pick this family because of its later successes or failures. In a sense, it picked her because of the unusualness, or so it seemed, of Marie Aymard’s quest for knowledge about the fate and fortune of her dead husband. One thing led to another, and over time striking patterns emerged from the jumble of contrasting and even contradictory bits of information about this family’s adventures. They look like adventures to us, but not because the people in question called them that. The sister of the cardinal and great-great-granddaughter of Marie Aymard, Louise Lavigerie Kiener, destroyed all the family papers in her possession before her death in a small village in the Pyrenees in 1906. She had traveled to Algeria and taken photographs of her brother there but is otherwise a shadowy figure.

By casting as much light as possible on these individuals, even against their own resistance and against the amnesia inherent in the passage of time, Rothschild reminds us that history is not just about the big names that appear in lists of prime ministers or even about those who manned the barricades and subsequently appeared in police or judicial accounts; it is also about ordinary people who turn out on closer inspection to be extraordinary. What matters is the closer inspection. Rothschild has recovered and then recounted the full interconnectedness of these lives and thereby has inspired us to care about these people even though we have little access to their inner selves. She has given us enough knowledge to exercise our own imaginations. The result is not only a keener sense of the local meanings of colonialism but also a more vibrant sense of the moral mission of historical work: to do everything possible to discover what past experience might have been like for those who lived it.

Francesca Trivellato ranges across a different scale of space and time but with a similar aim of understanding the mechanics and meanings of the global. Trivellato, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is best known for The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and the Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (2009), a groundbreaking book on Sephardic Jewish merchants and the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century exchange of Mediterranean red coral for Indian diamonds. In The Promise and Peril of Credit, she turns to the legend of the Jewish invention of bills of exchange, which were the primary private credit instrument of the early modern era. Bills of exchange were pieces of paper about the size of a modern bank check. In the centuries before the establishment of an international network of banks, they enabled the transfer of funds among three, four, or more parties without requiring the actual shipment of gold or silver coins, which was always hazardous when sea voyages or long overland travel was required. Thus a merchant in Lyon could send a bill (in French, a “letter of exchange”) to a local banker with connections in Italy who then arranged the desired payment to a merchant or manufacturer in Florence. As is true now, money—gold or silver—did not necessarily change hands; the credit involved was guaranteed by the reputation of the signatories, and its cardinal virtue was its fungibility.

Jewish merchants did not invent this practice, but Trivellato’s purpose is not to debunk this already discredited myth but rather to discover where it originated, what it tells us about commercial practices in an era of cumbersome communication, and why it had such staying power. Using digital resources, she tracks the legend back to French and other European writers of the 1600s, in particular to a lawyer in Bordeaux, Étienne Cleirac, whose 1647 compilation of maritime law, Usages and Customs of the Sea, baldly asserted that Jews had invented bills of exchange and even marine insurance. Cleirac claimed to have gotten this information from a Florentine chronicler of the 1300s, but in fact the Italian author, a partner in two of Florence’s main banks, made no such allegation, though he did discuss Jewish usury. The connection to the medieval period was crucial to the legend about bills of exchange; Jews had supposedly devised them in order to avoid the confiscation of their properties when they were expelled from France and other European countries during the Middle Ages.

The pinpointing of this moment of fabulation in the mid-seventeenth century is vital. Although the legend gained credibility because of the long-standing Christian association between Jews and usury, it had its origins not in Catholic sermons, popular plays, or anti-usury polemics but rather in the eclectic commentary of a seventeenth-century provincial lawyer on the historical sources of marine law. Cleirac wrote for merchants who were confronting the new uncertainties created by paper credit, and he was eager to show them how to avoid the bad practices he blamed on Jewish moneylenders. At the same time, he was insisting on the virtues of commerce in a society that had long considered trade incompatible with noble status. Part compilation of Roman and French jurisprudence and regional customs, but also filled with examples of contracts, practical instructions, and moralizing tales, Cleirac’s treatise must have owed much to his personal experience in Bordeaux, which was a vibrant Atlantic port and legal hub and was home to a population of about five hundred “New Christians” (crypto-Jews). The New Christians were the descendants of those who had fled the Iberian Peninsula after the great expulsions and forced conversions of Jews in the 1490s. Since the French government did not allow the open practice of Judaism in Bordeaux until 1723, in Cleirac’s time the true sentiments of the New Christians remained opaque. Cleirac repeatedly accused the Jews of usury, cheating, and fraud, though he also reproached other groups on occasion for the same bad practices. “Mohammedans,” “Turks,” “Saracens,” and even rapacious Christian bankers such as the “Lombards” and “Cahorsins” (merchants from the southwestern town of Cahors) all provided examples to be avoided by merchants who wanted to use bills of exchange to good and fruitful ends.

Cleirac’s work enjoyed considerable success, thanks in part to a second edition with a large print run for the time (1,200 copies), but the legend got its true imprimatur from Jacques Savary, who published in 1675 the single most influential merchant manual of early modern Europe. In The Perfect Merchant, Savary took out most of the anti-Jewish ranting found in Cleirac’s pages and thereby made the legend palatable and highly transmissible. Despite some valiant efforts to disprove the connection between Jewish merchants and bills of exchange and to argue for either their Italian or uncertain origins, the legend took hold among both philo- and anti-Semitic authors. In the mid-1700s Montesquieu praised the Jews for inventing bills of exchange and thereby injecting new energy into Europe’s economy, yet during the debates about Jewish emancipation at the time of the French Revolution, its advocates still argued that the Jews must give up their “thirst for gain” if they were to become true French citizens. In these accounts, the invention of bills of exchange had been just another example of the Jewish idolatry of money, forced on them by centuries of Christian persecution, to be sure, but becoming over time an innate characteristic.

By the 1800s, the legend of the Jewish invention of bills of exchange was so commonplace that it appeared in a wide variety of genres, from treatises of commercial law to novels. Among the most influential were the grand theories of the rise of capitalism (and/or the rise of the West). Karl Marx showed no particular interest in the invention story, but in his early works he went even further and identified capitalism itself with the Jews; what was required, in his view, was not the political emancipation of the Jews but rather “the emancipation of society from Judaism,” meaning “from haggling and from money.” In his view, Christian society had become Judaized.

When Max Weber published his influential essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), which argued for the crucial importance of the Protestant and especially Calvinist work ethic in the development of capitalism, Werner Sombart responded with The Jews and Economic Life (1911). Sombart went beyond the legend in his own fashion: he attributed virtually every public and private financial innovation to the Jews. Weber then riposted with lectures and a book that specifically argued against the association of Jews with true capitalism (as opposed to “pariah capitalism,” usury, or “booty-capitalism”), while Sombart went on to argue that the Jews could never assimilate, though they did form a nation of their own, a position embraced by Zionists and rejected by liberal Jews.

No one now seriously argues that the Jews invented bills of exchange, but the association of Jews with the manipulation of money has never disappeared and is now reemerging with renewed force, not least in the United States, where George Soros now occupies a central position in the anti-Semitic phantasms of the far right. Trivellato does not propose to explain that recurrence; she aims to provide the setting for an earlier, related, but not identical history. The legend about bills of exchange materialized at the very moment when international commerce began to take off in Europe, but also at the same time that a measure of toleration made it possible for Jewish merchants to participate in that commerce. Toleration thus took shape just when international credit relations became essential and especially frightening because of their opaque complexity. It may have given Jewish merchants more access to markets, but it did not make them less marginal or potentially disruptive in the imagination of many in the West.

The Jewish invention of the chief instrument of private credit may have seemed far-fetched to some but believable to many because the Jews were at once inside and outside of commercial relations, imagined as insiders by virtue of their long association with the commerce in money yet still seen as outsiders by virtue of their long exclusion from Christian society, politics, and culture. Through patient tracking of sources, aided by the digitization of so many of them, but also by careful reading of the documents in question, Trivellato has succeeded in piecing together a story that is both familiar (the supposed link between the Jews and money) and strange (why so many people, including leading intellectuals, believed in this legend for so long). By doing so, she brings into high relief one of the darker sides of globalization whose consequences are very much still with us.

The books by Rothschild and Trivellato might be conceived as presenting two faces of the global: on the one side, the positive tale of individual aspiration and a family moving up the social ladder thanks to the new opportunities afforded by commerce, and on the other, the negative narrative of blaming supposed outsiders for all the traps awaiting unwary believers in new options. In truth, however, they are both part of the same story: new connections have outcomes that no one can entirely predict or control. Living with that uncertainty is perhaps the only certainty available in worlds that are increasingly intertwined.