Oeconomics in the Early Modern Global Imagination

Foundational critical work on early modern European literature has probed the interrelationships between an accelerating ‘economy’ (in the modern sense) and imaginative transformations of affective, instrumental and sexual relations of the household or ‘oeconomy’. More recently, however, these critical questions have given way to more urgent questions of decolonization, the racialization of slavery and environmental exploitation.

Our two workshops will start from the idea that imagining ‘oeconomy’ is also racially and environmentally salient. That is, that thinking about representations of the early modern English household and its credit, honour, kin and wealth generation in relation to the racialization of transatlantic slavery and legitimization of sea spoilation.

We will look at how early modern texts mediate ancient stories and theories of slavery, freedom and the sea. We’ll look at four primary texts: Plautus’s Rudens or The Rope; Shakespeare’s Pericles; Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum or The Free Sea (tr. Richard Hakluyt) and John Selden’s Mare Clausum or The Dominion, or Ownership of the Sea (tr. Marchamont Nedham). Short passages to be discussed are available below as are links to the full texts for those who wish to consult them.

Part of our aim is to examine the ways in which early modern ‘economic’ and legal discourses about what can and can’t be owned are themselves affective, figurative, poetic, anthropomorphic – not separable from discourses of home, family, sexuality, desire and honour – and to consider what this can tell us about legitimating discourses of slavery, commerce and colonization.

These workshops are open to all. They will take place on 24 and 25 May, from 12.00 to 2.30pm in the Mure Room, Merton College. Details for those wishing to participate online will be available in due course.

Lunch will be provided. Participants are asked to register via Eventbrite here for catering purposes.

Workshop 1, Cultural Cargo: Ancient Slaveries

In workshop 1 we will look at slavery, the household and human trafficking in the Roman comedy and Greek political theory avidly read by early modern Europeans.



Plautus, Rudens, tr. Wolfgang de Melo [Loeb, 260] (Harvard 2012).

Mary Nyquist, ‘Ancient Greek and Roman Slaveries’ in Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny and the Power of Life and Death (Chicago, 2013) 20-49. 

Amy Richlin, ‘Human Trafficking and the Road Home’ in Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy (Cambridge, 2017) 351-387. 

Noémie Ndiaye, ‘Blackspeak: Acoustic Blackness and Accents of Race’, Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance (Chicago, 2022) 137-186


Square metal plaquette depicting a scene from Plautus.

Caradosso, scena della Gomena di Plauto, c. 1485.

Workshop 2, Promiscuous and Chaste Seas

Building on workshop 1, workshop 2 will look at the debate over whether the sea might be put ‘in servitude’ or ‘bondage’. In this workshop we’ll pay particular attention to poetic aspects of legal debate.



Shakespeare, Pericles ed. Suzanne Gossett (Arden, 2004)

Hugo Grotius, The Free Sea tr. Richard Hakluyt ed. David Armitage (2004) ch. 5, ‘That the sea or the right of sailing on it is not proper to the Portugals by title of possession’, 20-37.

John Selden tr. Marchamont Nedham, Of the Dominion Or, Ownership of the Sea (1652) Book I, ch.22, ‘An Answer to Objections touching the defect of Bounds and Limits in the Sea’.

Bradin Cormack, A Power to Do Justice (Chicago, 2007) 227-290.

Image of ship with many coloured flags surrounded by sea from Grotius's Mare Liberum.

Hugo Grotius, Mare Liberum. Lugduni Batavorum: ex officinâ Ludovici Elzevirij, 1609.


These workshops are generously supported by the Oxford-Berlin Partnership.