James ShawDr James Shaw

M.A. (Edin.), Ph.D. (E.U.I. Florence)

Senior Lecturer in History

Early Modern Italy; markets; law; ethics


+44 (0)114 22 22591 | Jessop West 3.06

Semester One 2019-20 Office Hours: Wednesdays 11:00-13:00



James-Shaw-I joined the History Department at the University of Sheffield in 2005. Before this I was an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and completed my Ph.D. at the European University Institute in Florence (1998). I subsequently held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Oxford, for a research project examining petty crime and small claims litigation in early modern Venice. This research won a British Academy Competition for Postdoctoral Monographs and following publication in 2006 as The Justice of Venice: Authorities and Liberties in the Urban Economy, 1550-1700, was awarded The Gladstone Prize of the Royal Historical Society.

In collaboration with Prof. Evelyn Welch, I was Postdoctoral Researcher for the Wellcome Trust project Selling Health in Renaissance Italy from 2002 to 2005, based at the University of Sussex and subsequently Queen Mary University of London. The project examined how pharmaceutical remedies were bought and sold in Renaissance Italy. Through quantitative analysis of the accounts of an apothecary shop, it showed how such businesses acted as intermediaries between changing medical theories and contemporary practice. At the same time, the project emphasized how exchange in this period was strongly embedded in personal connections. This research was published in 2011 as Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence. See the reviews in the Oxford, Cambridge and Chicago Journals.

Additionally, I won a Senate Award for Excellence in Learning and Teaching in 2009.

Professional Roles

Royal Historical Society - Fellow

Renaissance Society of America - Member


Current Research

My research focuses on the relationship of legal structures (laws, practices, institutions) to the daily practices of economic life. During 2009-10, I examined credit disputes in early modern Florence through close study of supplications for justice. These sources are invaluable for presenting credit disputes embedded in a narrative of personal circumstances, providing rich evidence of market practices, laws and ethics, as well as key aspects of the operation of justice, authority and power in the early modern state.

My new project applies this approach to early modern Venice using denunciations for fraud. Here plaintiffs typically made a moral case that their contractual relations must be interpreted with regard to personal circumstances, in contrast to the normally dry and formal records of debt litigation. I aim to use these records to explore what ethical and legal concepts meant in practice for those operating in the market.

Together with Dr Simon Middleton, I am presently seeking to develop a research group with interests in the operation of markets, laws and ethics in the early modern period. I welcome contacts with other researchers working in this field, particularly where the approach spans legal, economic and social history.

Research Supervision

I welcome applications from postgraduate students with an interest in the history of early modern Italy, particularly projects adopting social, economic and legal approaches.

Completed students:

  • Philip Back - ‘If you build it, they will come': the origins of Scotland’s Country Parks.
  • Richard Scott (second supervisor) Dreams and Passions in Revolutionary England.

All current students by supervisor PhD study in History


Full list of publications by James Shaw.


Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence, with Evelyn Welch (Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2011)

James Shaw Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance FlorenceMaking and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence, with Evelyn Welch (Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2011)

What did you do when you fell ill in fifteenth-century Florence? How did you get the medicines that you needed at a price you could afford? What would you find when you entered an apothecary's shop? This richly detailed study of the Speziale al Giglio in Florence provides surprising answers, demonstrating the continued importance of highly personalised medical practice late into the fifteenth century. Drawing on extensive archival research, it shows how personal relationships and mutual trust, rather than market forces, made payment possible even for those with limited incomes. Examining the spaces, people and products involved, Making and Marketing Medicine investigates the roles played by sociability, information networks and regulation in creating communities as well as in promoting health in Renaissance Italy.

The Justice of Venice: Authorities and Liberties in the Urban Economy, 1550-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Awarded The Gladstone Prize of the Royal Historical Society, 2007.

James-Shaw-2The Justice of Venice: Authorities and Liberties in the Urban Economy, 1550-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Awarded The Gladstone Prize of the Royal Historical Society, 2007.

The rulers of Venice prided themselves on their unique brand of justice, which was a source of both ridicule and admiration for foreign commentators. Dr Shaw uncovers what this special justice meant for ordinary subjects by studying the history of one of the oldest magistracies of the city, a body responsible for handling petty market crime and small claims litigation. This volume examines how changing ideas about justice at the level of the political elite were related to judicial and policing practices in the courtroom and on the street. It shows how failure to invest in the state bureaucracy allowed corruption to flourish and effectively delegated power to private interest groups such as the guilds. At the same time, the volume reveals that the bottom level of civil justice was fast, cheap and accessible. Everyone had the chance to be heard, and the poor and disadvantaged could hope for justice along with the rich and powerful. This volume will be essential reading for historians of Venice and specialists in the history of early modern cities, and also of wider interest to scholars interested in the connections between economic, legal and social structures.

Book Chapters

'Liquidation or Certification? Small Claims Disputes and Retail Credit in Seventeenth-Century Venice' in Buyers and Sellers: Retail circuits and practices in medieval and early modern Europe eds. Bruno Blondé, Peter Stabel, Jon Stobart and Ilja Van Damme, Studies in European Urban History (1100-1800), (Turnhout, Belgium, Brepols, 2006).

This book brings together contributions from urban historians, social historians and art historians to explore the issues of exchange, shopping behaviour, social interactions, gender and physical space.

'Institutional Controls and the Retail of Paintings: The Painters' Guild of Early Modern Venice' in Mapping markets for paintings: Europe and the New World, 1450-1750, eds. Neil De Marchi and Hans J. Van Miegroet, (Turnhout, Belgium, Brepols, 2006).

Over the course of the fifteenth century easel paintings edged out tapestries, frescoes and wood inlay pictures on the walls of private dwellings. Millions of such paintings were produced in the period 1450-1800, in all shapes and sizes, and across the whole range of prices. Who bought them? How were they distributed? What place did they occupy among other "luxury" possessions? Such questions seem to require that visual culture be treated as an integral part of family spending and commercial pursuits. This volume is the outcome of a four-year collaboration between art historians, economists, social historians and museum professionals from the US, Australia and Europe; its aim was to map the new ground identified by these and related questions, in local contexts, but with comparative and longitudinal concerns constantly in mind. The result is an entirely new matrix of the business and artistic interactions through which visual cultures in early modern Europe were formed. The editors, Neil De Marchi and Hans J. Van Miegroet, an economist and an art historian, have collaborated across their disciplines for ten years. Here they have interspersed participants' essays with brief connecting observations, to produce a text that respects disciplinary expertise while making connections across locations and across time. Much has been written about European paintings; but how markets in paintings emerged, who they served, what roles and institutions were developed that enabled them to function effectively, and how exchange affected visual preferences, have not been studied in such a deliberately wide-angled, comparative way. Mapping Markets is not only a book about paintings, but a compendium of cross-disciplinary methods and insights. It charts the state of research in this trans-disciplinary field, identifies gaps, and poses questions for scholars and students wishing to pursue further the issues raised here.

'Justice in the Marketplace: Corruption at the Giustizia Vecchia in Early Modern Venice' in Institutional Culture in Early Modern Society, eds. Anne Goldgar and Robert I. Frost, (Leiden, Brill, 2004) pp. 281-316.

The essays in this volume take a fresh look at the history of institutions in the early modern world. Casting a broad look across a variety of institutions, from missionary societies to guilds, from lawcourts to academies, and exploring institutions across western Europe and Britain, the volume as a whole invites a newly comparative understanding of the nature of formal institutions in the period. By envisaging disparate institutions as having, to some degree, similar self-perceptions, strategies, and rituals, these essays begin to build up a picture of how early modern institutions functioned overall. The book will appeal to anyone interested in the social and culture history of early modern communities, as well as offering insights into the relationship of institutions and the developing state.

Journal Articles

'Market Ethics and Credit Practices in Sixteenth-Century Tuscany', Renaissance Studies, 27(2) (2013), pp.236-252.

This paper examines the moral economy of mid-sixteenth-century Tuscany, with a focus on the everyday practices of credit and exchange. Supplications for justice addressed to the duke and redirected to the Mercanzia (Merchants' Court) provide rich evidence of the way that people negotiated the rules, ethics and practices of the market. The sources raise questions about the prices recorded in documents, since loans might be disguised as sales of goods, or incorporate the interest into the price. They also suggest that credit practices might be associated with a culture of gambling, where borrowers and lenders willingly took on additional risk. Poverty was a key reference among the mitigating circumstances appealed to by supplicants, and women were particularly prominent here. The paper focuses on the difficult structural conditions that might be faced by women, the legal protections that were available to them and the ways that these might be exploited.

'Writing to the Prince: Supplications, Equity, and Absolutism in Sixteenth-Century Tuscany', Past & Present, 215(1) (2012), pp.51-83.

Equity expressed the concept that because the general rules of law could not account for all the circumstances of particular cases, it might be necessary to bend or 'temper' the law for justice to be done. This paper examines supplications addressed to Duke Cosimo I in mid-sixteenth century Tuscany, as a case study in a wider question about the role of equity in state formation. Supplications were a key means by which absolutist princes of this period stamped their authority on the judicial system. Although in reality supplication was an increasingly bureaucratic process, the form of supplication and the principle of equity constructed the fiction of a personal (though hierarchical) relationship between individual subject and absolute ruler, establishing direct, personal bonds of loyalty. These principles, put into practice in Ducal Tuscany, were subsequently to receive their fullest articulation in Jean Bodin’s theory of justice and the state.

'Zanobi Machiavelli, Battista Strozzi and the high altar of the Badia Fiesolana', Burlington Magazine 153, no. 1305 (2011).

'Retail, Monopoly and Privilege: The Dissolution of the Fishmongers' Guild of Venice, 1599', Journal of Early Modern History 6, no. 4 (2002), pp. 396-427.

In 1599, centuries of tradition came to an end when the Venetian fishmongers' guild was dissolved. In the late sixteenth century, the government had increasingly adopted a position that linked retailers to the crime of "monopoly," abusing their position at the expense of consumers. However, this simplistic conception of economic behavior proved disastrously misguided, and only a few years later the guild had to be restored. This humiliating reversal of government policy led to an important reappraisal of the role of retail guilds, and nothing similar would be attempted until the eighteenth century.


Teaching Team

Debt, Money and Morality, HST3304 (Level 3 Comparative module)

Debt, Money and Morality, HST3304

This module takes a comparative approach to the history of debt in societies across time. Students have the opportunity to engage with and formulate their own interpretations of a subject that raises significant questions of historical and contemporary relevance: the nature of money; the ethics of lending and borrowing; markets, trust and institutions; the role of the state; globalization and finance capital. The module adopts an interdisciplinary approach, in which historical examples are related to theoretical perspectives from sociology, economics, anthropology and literary theory.

Module Leader

Historians and History, HST202 (Level 2 module)

Historians and History, HST202

This module introduces students to some of the most influential and significant developments which have shaped the ways in which historians think about and write about the past. Since History became professionalised as a specific academic discipline in the nineteenth century, historians have adopted a variety of different approaches to their studies. For some, ideas about the past have been shaped by political beliefs, by the application of political ideologies and philosophies, and by the desire to produce a more inclusive version of history, focusing on the experience of the working classes, women, and groups marginalised in established accounts. Others have been influenced by different methods of research, and the opportunities offered by particular types of source material to tell different stories about the past. Others still have been inspired by intellectual theories and by borrowings from other disciplines, like literary studies and anthropology, to explore new ways of thinking about history. The module allows students to think more about the different ways in which we can study History, and to engage with the work of a number of historians whose influence can still be felt today.

It aims to equip students with the necessary background to develop a more critical approach to the secondary literature which they encounter throughout their degree course and to build bridges between the various modules they are studying at levels 2 and 3.

The Myth of Venice, HST2010 (Level 2 optional module)

The Myth of Venice, HST2010

Historians have traditionally sought to dismantle inherited myths about the past from what 'actually' happened. In this module, by contrast, we are not so much interested in the reality of Venetian history as in Venice as an idea, an imaginary city that was 'true' in people's heads. This module explores the Myth of Venice, its production, diffusion, and reception, as well as its inverted 'Anti-Myth' variants. Venice was celebrated as the ideal republican government, but it was also regarded as the city of state terror and seductive 'oriental' luxury. Students will examine a wide variety of sources and develop the skills required for their interpretation: descriptions of the city by Venetians and foreigners; political tracts; architecture, sculpture and paintings; theatre and literature.

Art, Power and History: Ideals and Reality in Renaissance Florence, HST3085/3086 (Level 3 Special Subject module)

Art, Power and History: Ideals and Reality in Renaissance Florence, HST3085/3086

Renaissance Florence was renowned for its rich artistic and material life, financial innovations, and vibrant humanist culture. This module uses the exceptionally rich visual and documentary sources available to historians (and in translation) to explore the complex interrelations of social, cultural and political history. Our particular focus will be on the understanding of the way that Florentine identity was constructed through a strong sense of their place in history, expressed through texts and images. In doing so it provides the essential context for the understanding of key figures such as the political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli, the humanist ideologue Leonardo Bruni, and the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Throughout our aim is to explore the tensions between the ideals that Florentines proclaimed as central to their identity and the practical realities of social and political power and hierarchy.

Reading Italian for Historical Research, HST6032 (Postgraduate module)

Reading Italian for Historical Research, HST6032

This module aims to give students a basic foundation in reading historical texts in Italian. (Please bear in mind it is not intended to develop skills in listening, writing or speaking Italian). Instead, the emphasis is on developing the vocabulary and grammar to read some basic texts in Italian. These will consist of primary and secondary materials relating to the history of Renaissance and Early Modern Italy. The module is intended to provide a bridge for students interested in pursuing research into Italian history and/or culture at a higher level. Students should have some basic skills in Italian, even if only at beginners´ level.

Microhistory and the History of Everyday Life, HST6055 (Postgraduate module)

Microhistory and the History of Everyday Life, HST6055

The choice of scale is of fundamental importance in determining the kind of history that is produced. It influences the choice of source materials, the way these are handled, and the sorts of conclusions that can be reached. In this module we critically examine the theory, method and practice of two related historiographical approaches: microhistory and the history of everyday life, both of which emphasized the intensive study of the small scale and were influenced by anthropology. Students will develop an appreciation of the theoretical issues and practical experience in applying this to their own research.

Public Engagement

Public Engagement

To Follow

In The Media

To Follow

Administrative Duties

Administrative Duties

James is currently the Director of Postgraduate Studies for the History Department.

Previously, he has served as Exams Officer, Senior Tutor, Level 3 Tutor and Unfair Means Officer.