Risk and Fortune (2016-2018)

Lucky Cat

During the academic years 2016/17 and 2017/18, the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies focused on the topic of Risk and Fortune. Notions of risk have been important to human societies for centuries. Soothsaying, insurance, medical prognostication, financial investment, and gambling all contend with—or try to contain—possible losses. Conversely, good fortune has had its talismans and theorists throughout history.

Topics Included:

  • How have different cultures tried to tame chance, or comprehend its whims?
  • To what degree have the practices of commerce relied upon, or alternatively reified, risk?
  • Do technological systems generate hazards they are not capable of controlling?

This two-year seminar brought ogether scholars working on risk and fortune in historical societies around the world in all time periods, on topics including (but not restricted to) economics, science, religion, industry, statistics, and agriculture.

Davis Center Fellows


Giovanni Ceccarelli, Università di Parma
"Risk, Culture, and Business in Renaissance Florence"

Jacco Dieleman, University of California, Los Angeles
"Risk and Fortune in Ancient Textual Amulets"

Shennette Garrett-Scott, University of Mississippi
"Invincible Daughters of Commerce: The Independent Order of St. Luke and Black Women in Finance, 1900-1940s"

Pablo F. Gómez, University of Wisconsin, Madison
"Risky Bodies: Quantification, Fungibility, and Slave Trade in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic"

Caley Horan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"Actuarial Age: Insurance and the Emergence of Neoliberalism in the Post-WWII United States"

Vanessa Ogle, University of Pennsylvania
"Archipelago Capitalism: The Shadow Political Economy, 1920s-1980s"

Carl Wennerlind, Columbia University
"Atlantis Restored: Political Economy during Sweden's Age of Greatness"


Robert Aronowitz, University of Pennsylvania
“Medical Efficacy in a Highly Intervened-in World”

Monica Azzolini, University of Edinburgh
“Trembling Earth and Burning Mountains: Responses to Environmental Risk in Early Modern Italy (ca. 1500-1750)”

William Deringer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“Discounting: A History of the Modern Future (In One Calculation)"

Esther Eidinow, University of Bristol
“Social, Religious and Environmental Risk in Ancient Greek Myth Narratives”

Jeffrey Freedman, Yeshiva University
“Controlling Risk, Generating Fear: Policing, Medicine and the State in Old Regime France”

Bryna Goodman, University of Oregon
“Finance and the New Chinese Republic Risk, Rationality, and Rights”

Mae Ngai, Columbia University
“The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics, 1849-1910”

Laurie Wood, Florida State University
“Risks & Realities: Death and Credit in the French Tropics”

Davis Center Conferences

In Search of Fortune: Migration and Risk in the Pacific World (March 2018)
God and the Stars: Medieval and Early Modern Religion, Society, and Astrology (September 2017)
Risk on the Table: Food, Health, and Environmental Exposure (March 2017)

In Search of Fortune: Migration and Risk in the Pacific WorldGod and the Stars: Medieval and Early Modern Religion, Society, and Astrology posterRisk on the Table: March 10-11, 2017


Risk on the Table: Food Production, Health, and the EnvironmentRisk on the Table: Food Production, Health, and the Environment

Edited by Angela N. H. Creager and Jean-Paul Gaudillière
Copyright 2021 Berghahn Books