A treasure in the Library: the manuscript of Cantillon’s Essai, the first modern economic treatise

Joaquín Selgas

The Banco de España’s Library houses a late 18th-century manuscript of the first known Spanish translation of Richard Cantillon’s Essai sur la nature du commerce en général. This work is considered to be the cradle of modern economics.

“Cantillon’s essay is, more emphatically than any other single work, the 'cradle of political economy'”

William Stanley Jevons (1881)

The Banco de España houses great treasures, some in the form of books in the Library. One of these is the manuscript in Spanish of Cantillon's Essai sur la nature du commerce en généralOpens in new window (Essay on the Nature of Trade in General in English), a fundamental 18th-century work in the history of economic thought. As we will see below, both Cantillon himself and the manuscript had very interesting lives.

Over more than 200 years, the Library has built up a collection of books and documents to assist the Banco de España’s employees in their work. Since 1980, the Library, with its collection, has also been open to the public. It includes the Special Value Collection File PDF: Opens in new window (86 KB), which comprises some 16,800 items that stand out for their age and rarity value. This is the most complete antique book collection in Spain in the field of economics.

One of these items is the manuscript whose title page illustrates this blog entry (Picture 1) and which, albeit with hardly any identifying signs, is the earliest conserved Spanish translation of Cantillon’s Essai, together with another attributed to ForbonnaisOpens in new window.

Picture 1

SOURCE: Banco de España Library. Institutional repository

Why is Cantillon’s Essai so important?

Richard CantillonOpens in new window (1680?-1734) was an Anglo-Irish entrepreneur who led an eventful life. He was a banker and investor in Paris. There he had dealings with John LawOpens in new window, who developed the use of paper money (banknotes) in Europe and was responsible for the Mississippi BubbleOpens in new window, a speculative crisis that broke in 1720 and made Cantillon a millionaire. He died in London in 1734, seemingly as the result of a fire at his home, although it is generally believed that the fire was staged to cover up his murder.

Essai is an ambitious and far-reaching work covering a wide range of topics

Cantillon wrote his Essai a few years before his death, but it was not published until 1755, anonymously and in French. It is an ambitious and far-reaching work, covering aspects, summarised here in Figure 1, ranging from the difference between price and value to the role of the entrepreneur and monetary theory.  

Figure 1

SOURCE: Essai sur la nature du commerce en général, Cantillon (1755)

Cantillon´s Essai made a great impact throughout 18th-century Europe and his ideas were incorporated into the writings of numerous later economists. Authors such as HumeOpens in new window, TurgotOpens in new window, QuesnayOpens in new window, SmithOpens in new window and SayOpens in new window, or the Austrian schoolOpens in new window were all influenced by Cantillon, although in many cases without due recognition. Cantillon’s contribution was reasserted by Jevons in the late 19th centuryOpens in new window and since then his legacy has been held in higher esteem, including by authors such as HayekOpens in new window or SchumpeterOpens in new window.

A singular manuscript

It was only from 1760 that Cantillon’s Essai began to receive attention in Spain. CampomanesOpens in new window had a copy in his library, and in 1781 JovellanosOpens in new window stated that he had translated it for his own use. But it was not until 1833 that what – until recently – was believed to be the first Spanish version was published, under the title Fuentes de la riqueza pública, translated by Antonio Domingo PorlierOpens in new window (although he incorrectly attributed authorship to Hume).

However, in 2015 the Banco de España’s manuscript was identified as being a complete translation of Cantillon’s Essai. In addition to being much closer to the original, it is also in all likelihood older than Porlier’s version, as it appears to date back to the late 18th or early 19th century, based on the type of paper used (handmade), the ink and the lettering.

The end of the text provides a key clue in the form of a small annotation: the signature of “Montarco” (Picture 2). The Count of MontarcoOpens in new window (1749-1814) came from a Biscayan family of traders and enjoyed a long career serving the monarchy. His signature probably dates the translation between 1789, when he received his title, and 1794, when he left the Board of Commerce and Council of the Treasury.

Picture 2

SOURCE: Banco de España Library. Institutional repository

Essai was translated with a view to publication: the corrections made during the revision entailed some self-censorship

Another distinctive trait of the manuscript is that it was the work of two people: one who was responsible for the main text and another who corrected terms and even crossed out entire paragraphs that could have been less acceptable to a Spanish audience. This suggests that Cantillon’s Essai was translated with a view to publication, with the corrections and changes likely having been made during a revision that entailed some self-censorship.

Although the manuscript bears his signature, we cannot be fully certain that it is the work of the Count of Montarco, but it could well be, as he translated a number of economic texts while working at the Board of Commerce. The Count of Montarco could therefore have either translated the text himself, or commissioned and revised the translated work.

Despite not ultimately being published at the time, this translation illustrates how economic thought spread in 18th-century Europe: through sales of copies of published works, or handwritten translations, adaptations or even plagiarised texts.

A digital copy of the manuscript is available to the public in the Institutional RepositoryOpens in new window, along with another 6,500 works from our Library’s collection, illustrating how the Banco de España contributes to the dissemination of these historical documents.

Joaquín Selgas
Joaquín Selgas
  • Unit Manager, Library
  • International and European Relations

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily coincide with those of the Banco de España or the Eurosystem.

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