2020 Jacques Barzun Prize

The selected recipient for the 2020 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History is Francesca Trivellato, Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, for her book The Promise and Peril of Credit: What a Forgotten Legend about Jews and Finance Tells Us about the Making of European Commercial Society, Princeton University Press, 2019.

This remarkable book ‘examines key episodes in the West’s millennium-long struggle to delineate the place that finance ought to occupy in the social and political order’.   It centers, as its title says, on the idea of credit, a word that suggests and requires faith but also makes people worry about whom to trust.  This ambivalence is at the center of Professor Trivellato’s work, where ‘the disruptive character of credit’ and ‘the hidden dangers of credit markets’ have to be negotiated alongside their obvious commercial merits.  How were ‘far-flung merchants’ in the 17th century to operate if they could not rely the scraps of paper known as bills of exchange?  How were they to modernize?  

The book begins with a 2002 quotation from Warren Buffett, and moves back to a close study of crucial earlier documents before returning to the present day.  It tells a story of financial facts but also of unshakable fantasies, all of them involving a supposed special relation between Jews and money.  This is the ‘legend’ that Professor Trivellato keeps invoking  -  the baseless but endlessly repeated notion that medieval Jews invented bills of exchange and marine insurance.  The legend is understood either as a tribute to their ingenuity or (more frequently) a sign of how manipulative they are.  The ‘anxieties created by Jews’ potential invisibility in the marketplace’, we learn, ‘could be mapped onto the increasing abstraction of the paper economy’, allowing the legend to ‘bring to the fore the misgivings that went hand in hand with the rise of capitalism and formal equality as pillars of European modernity’. 

They could be so mapped, and they were, since this legend ‘constituted conventional wisdom from the 1650s to the 1910s’.   The Jews’ ‘potential invisibility’ was for many people a matter of their ‘perceived ubiquity’, so the Jews could take the blame for ‘the perils lurking behind ever more complex financial markets’.  The Promise and Peril of Credit makes a very strong case for studying historical fantasies alongside historical facts.   ‘Tales that once held sway over people’s imagination’, Professor Trivellato writes, ‘disclose forgotten cultural models’, and ‘origin stories continue to fascinate historians, anthropologists, and literary critics, less for the veracity of their content than for what they tell us about shared beliefs of societies different from  ours’.   This claim is all the more powerful, we may think, when the content has no veracity, and the society in question is perhaps not as different from ours as we would like to think.

The Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History is awarded annually to the author whose book exhibits distinguished work in American or European cultural history.  Established by a former student of Jacques Barzun, the prize honors this historian and cultural critic who was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1984.   

The selection committee consisted of Michael Wood (chair), Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Princeton University; David Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley; and Robert B. Pippin, Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor, Committee on Social Thought, Department of Philosophy, University of Chicago.