French Jesuits, English political economy, and a ‘most remarkable accident’.


Paper for the 10th Annual Conference of the

European Society for the History of Economic Thought,

on the theme “The popularisation of economic ideas”,

University of Porto, Porto, 28-30 April 2006.




For much of the seventeenth century, debates on issues broadly definable as economic were in their own way far more widely popularised and topical in France than in England, despite retaining the scholastic garb of which they were soon to be largely divested by the early English political economists. This range of issues is brought into particularly high relief by the circumstance that William Petty (1623-87), widely regarded as a founding figure of English political economy, may well have received his first exposure to debates on economic issues from the French Jesuits, due to a ‘remarkable accident’ which led to him studying at a Jesuit college in France during the late 1630s, and, moreover, a college that was soon to become particularly deeply involved in that most characteristic of French controversies of the period – the debate over Jesuit casuistry. An examination of the economic aspects of this debate in relation to Petty’s subsequent economic thought thus provides a valuable opportunity to explore the issue of the transmission of economic ideas from Continental Europe into England during the early and formative stages of the development of English political economy.


Introduction: The popularisation and transmission of economic debate in seventeenth-century Europe.

1. ‘The schoolmasters of Europe’.

2. A ‘most remarkable accident’.

3. An ‘excellent college’, better than any in England.

4. From Jesuit casuistry to English political economy.

5. The ‘Caen theses’.

6. The ‘twice five fathers’ of Le Mont.

Conclusions: Popularisation and prejudice in the history of English political economy.

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