Kranzberg Lecture by Dagmar Schäfer

Cotton and Silk. Capitalism, States and Market Regimes in Premodern Technological Change

Monday, 22nd July 2019, 18:30-22:00 (followed by a reception)
Silesian Regional Parliament, ul. Juliusza Ligonia 46, 40-037 Katowice

 Dagmar Schäfer is the director of Department III, “Artefacts, Action and Knowledge” at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin; Honorary Professor, History of Technology,
Technical University, Berlin; Adjunct Professor, Institute of Sinology, Freie Universität, Berlin; and Guest Professor, School of History and Culture of Science, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China.

Her main research interest is the history and sociology of technology of China, focusing on the paradigms configuring the discourse on technological development, past and present. She has published widely on materiality, the processes and structures that lead to varying knowledge systems, and the changing role of artefacts – texts, objects and spaces – in the creation, diffusion and use of scientific and technological knowledge. Her monograph The Crafting of the 10,000 Things (University of Chicago Press, 2011) won the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society in 2012 and the Association for Asian Studies: Joseph Levenson Prize (Pre-1900) in 2013. Her current research focus is the historical dynamics of concept formation, situations, and experiences of action through which actors have explored, handled and explained their physical, social and individual worlds.


Dalmatic. North Germany (Stralsund), first half of the 14th century, five lampas fabrics. Yuan dynasty China or Mongol Persia. Stralsund, Stralsund Museum, inv. no. 1862:16

This lecture discusses historical theories of technological change and power and wealth. Up until the 19th century,  textile production was a major generator of power and wealth. Globalization and industrialization, too, can be related to changes in textile trade. Historians herein have mainly embarked on material differences, drawing clear lines between cotton and silk: cotton thus was market-driven and capitalist and silk represented elite/imperial power, luxury and state control when elaborating the Great Divergence, Levers of Riches and a Hegemonial Western/Modern world. This lecture proposes to shift the comparative view on technological change from materials to technology and techniques. My case in point will be Yuan-Mongolian  and Italian Premodern approaches to cotton and silk which, I believe, hold some interesting lessons also for modern textile technologies and sustainability debates.

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