The Origin of Money 7 – Medieval Money

The Great Recoinage

As this article notes, the Crisis of the Third Century caused a disruption in Rome’s internal trade network. The effect this had was a shrinking of markets and reversion to more locally-based economies as the Roman political system broke down. Although it recovered somewhat under Diocletian, the path toward the Middle Ages was being paved.

For many centuries after the fall of Rome, during the so-called “Dark Ages”, the use of money and markets all but disappeared along with the Roman state. This alone should be proof that these are not ‘natural’ phenomena separate from political governance, but rather enabled and fostered by them. If libertarians are correct, we would have expected money and trade to flourish in the absence of “oppressive” taxes and government regulations.

Instead, what happened was a collapse of local and international trade and a dramatic fall in living standards. People returned to subsistence farming, economies reverted to barter, advanced technology was lost (e.g. concrete, wheel-turned pottery), and the Roman patronage system mutated into feudalism, with the villas transitioning into the self-sufficient manors of medieval Manorialism:

Immediately after the fall of Rome in the middle of the fourth century AD, its money disappeared. From a narrowly economic standpoint, the demand for media of exchange and payment sharply contracted. Imperial trade and production diminished, and mercenary soldiers’ wages no longer needed to be paid. But most importantly, the fiscal flows that constituted the social and political relations of the Roman Empire ceased to exist.

This situation held particularly on the Celtic margins of the former empire, where coinage became redundant for two centuries after having been in continuous use for over five hundred years. As the archaeological finds of large ‘hoards’ of money imply, it was no longer routinely needed and, given the very small silver content of the coins of the late Roman empire, it is likely that they were literally dumped. The two basic functions of money as a unit of account and means of payment were unable to operate. The social and political system that was ‘accounted for’ by the abstract money of account no longer existed. [1]

During the Carolingian Renaissance after A.D. 800, there was a “great recoinage” of Europe as coins were introduced back into circulation by Charlemagne. What he did was to reintroduce the standard units of account–Pounds, shillings and pence (we’ll use English terms, but the French equivalents are livre, sous and deniers). Much like the Mesopotamians earlier, the unit of account was fixed against a weight of silver; one livre was equivalent to one pound of silver. What he did not do, however, was introduce a “standard” currency that was equivalent to these units.

Instead Charlemagne licensed out the exclusive right to mint coins and issue money to his vassals; one might call this an early form of “franchising.” The metallic content of the coins varied greatly , but what they were worth was dictated by the ruling body that issued them in reference to the standard. If the ruler said their coins were worth, say, 1/2 a livre, or one sous, then that’s what they were worth, and so on. What this meant was that, although the standard was consistent throughout the realm, the worth of the coins issued by various mints was all over the board:

…the use of a standard money of account across the Christian ecumene did indeed eventually provide the foundation for a trans-European market… three kinds of coin were struck, but with countless variations in weight and fineness – by scores of authorities in many hundreds of mints…These circulated freely across European Latin Christendom; and all were evaluated against a benchmark money of account…[2]

Once again, the standard units of account, as determined by governments, is what allowed market transactions to take place by fixing the prices of things against one another for taxation purposes:

Charlemagne reinvented the Roman empire in the West, and part of this process was the re-introduction of the Roman monetary system into an ‘un-monetised’ feudal economy where exchange was rare, that is one without currency circulating.

Because coin was scarce, Charlemagne’s bureaucrats specified the exchange rate between common goods and money in order that the taxpayers could pay there [sic] tax. If you were a small holder and had been assessed for one shilling tax, if you did not engage in the market economy you would not have a shilling, so the government told you a shilling equated to a cow.

This fixed the prices of cows, an unintended consequence, since Charlemagne’s bureaucrats probably couldn’t care less about what was happening in the market place. However the impact was enormous – there was no incentive to move goods from places of abundance to places of scarcity…

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

A standard unit of account allowed for taxes to be assessed and market transactions to occur, but because there were so many different types of currencies circulating at so many different values, it became very hard for commerce to take place, especially between different political entities. In the old Roman Empire, the same coins were used throughout the empire. In the fractured and decentralized political landscape of post-collapse Europe, however, hundreds of coins circulated with different values, since there was no single, unified, political authority to guarantee their value:

The persistence of Charlemagne’s monetary units formed the basis for this extensive remonetisation, but it also gave rise to its chaotic practical organisation. Whereas the original introduction of money to Europe had taken place under the auspices of a unified Roman political authority, its reconstitution was the definition of piecemeal…[3]

Throughout the feudal period the right of coinage belonged not alone to the king but was also an appanage of feudal overlordship, so that in France there were beside the royal monies, eighty different coinages, issued by barons and ecclesiastics, each entirely independent of the other, and differing as to weights, denominations, alloys and types.

There were, at the same time, more than twenty different monetary systems. Each system had as its unit the livre, with its subdivisions, the sol and the denier, but the value of the livre varied in different parts of the country and each different livre had its distinguishing title, such as livre parisis, livre tournois, livre estevenante, etc.[4]

What a mess! This meant in practice that people a hard time knowing what their money was “really” worth at any given point in time. It made money exchanges and market transactions very difficult.

Now, there are a few crucial concepts you need to understand in order to understand the history of money at this time.

The first thing to understand is this: coins have both an exchange value and a commodity value. Normally the exchange value is greater than the commodity value. The difference in these two is called seignorage. Because sovereigns had the exclusive right to issue coins, the difference between these two values was major source of revenue for medieval monarchs:

Seigniorage, also spelled seignorage or seigneurage (from Old French seigneuriage “right of the lord (seigneur) to mint money”), is the difference between the value of money and the cost to produce and distribute it. Seigniorage derived from specie—metal coins—is a tax, added to the total price of a coin (metal content and production costs), that a customer of the mint had to pay to the mint, and that was sent to the sovereign of the political area.

Seigniorage (Wikipedia)

The coin is a token with its exchange value set by fiat. It’s value comes from it’s ability to pay taxes to the government. The commodity value, by contrast, is set by the market for that particular commodity (gold, silver, copper, bronze, nickel, etc.):

Coins did have a metal value, since they could theoretically be converted into bullion, which had its own price, albeit at some cost. But they also had a coin value, which was simply the value dictated by the sovereign, since coins could be used to pay taxes.

The metal value and the coin value were related, but they were related in the sense that the value of a currency today is related to the economic fundamentals of the country that issues it. That is, the relationship between metal value and coin value was managed by the government using a variety of policy instruments. One of those was setting the number of coins that would be minted from a given quantity of metal (and the number of those coins that would be skimmed off the top for the sovereign).

Mysteries of Money (The Baseline Scenario)

In other words, coins were a fiat currency! The sovereign reserved the right to dictate what the coins were worth. For example, In Renaissance England:

A central principle of late medieval English law, enshrined in the early 17th-century Case of Mixed Money, was that the sovereign had the absolute right to dictate the value of money:

“the king by his prerogative may make money of what matter and form he pleaseth, and establish the standard of it, so may he change his money in substance and impression, and enhance or debase the value of it, or entirely decry and annul it . . .”

If Queen Elizabeth said that worn, clipped coins had the same value as brand-new coins from the mint, even if the former had only half the silver content of the latter, then they had the same value. She could say that because the value of pieces of metal depends on what you can use them for, and so long as you (or someone else) can use them to pay debts and taxes, they have value.

Mysteries of Money (The Baseline Scenario)

The second thing to understand about this period is that the circulating media of exchange did not match the units of account. Think of a dollar or Euro coin (which Europe commonly uses). It has “one dollar” or “one Euro” inscribed on it. It is always worth one Euro. Devaluing the currency means devaluing the coin.

Medieval money, by contrast, did not have a face value written on it. Rather, what the coin was worth according to the standard units of account (pounds, shillings, pence) was determined and published by the state. So you could use pretty much whatever coins you wanted to pay for stuff, as long as the published values added up to the total.

People used all sorts of coins to settle accounts, and coins were constantly being evaluated against one another. Much of the faith in currency was determined by the finances of the issuing state. If their finances were not sound (or if they were in danger of being invaded or overthrown), then their currency wasn’t worth very much. Coins’ value wasn’t determined primarily by their metal content, although coins with more precious metal might retain more value just because the bullion in them was worth something.

The biggest difference is that in the medieval age, base money did not have numbers on it. Specifically, if you look at an old coin you might see a number in the monarch’s name (say Henry the VIII) or the date which it was minted, but there are no digits on either the coin’s face or obverse side indicating how many pounds or shillings that coin is worth. Without denominations, members of a certain coin type could only be identified by their unique size, metal content, and design, with each type being known in common speech by its nickname, like testoon, penny, crown, guinea, or groat. Odd, right?

By contrast, today we put numbers directly on base money. Take the Harriett Tubman note, for example, which has “$20” printed on it or the Canadian loonie which has “1 dollar” etched on one side.

…Back then, sticker prices and debts were not expressed in terms of coins (say groats or testoons) but were always advertised in the abstract unit of account, pounds (£), where a pound was divisible into 20 shillings (s) and each shilling into 12 pence (d). Say that Joe wants to settle a debt with Æthelred for £2 10s (or 2.5 pounds). In our modern monetary system, it would be simple to do this deal. Hand over two coins with “1 pound” inscribed on it and ten coins with “one shilling” on them. Without numbers on coins, however, how would Joe and Æthelred have known how many coins would do the trick?

To solve this problem, Joe and Æthelred would have simply referred to royal proclamation that sets how many coins of each type comprised a pound and a shilling. Say Joe has a handful of groats and testoons. If the king or queen has proclaimed that the official rate is thirty testoons to the pound and eighty groats in a pound, then Joe can settle the £2 10s debt with 60 testoons and 40 groats or any another combination, say 75 testoons. If the monarch were to issue a new proclamation that changes this rating, say a pound now contains forty testoons, then Joe’s debt to Æthelred must be settled with 100 testoons, not 75.

What makes medieval money different from modern money? (Moneyness)

The third major thing to understand is that medieval rulers used their power to dictate the value of currency to raise revenue when they needed to. This served as a proxy form of taxation. In fact, it was the major way the governments of the period raised revenue, since actual tax collection was costly and inefficient in this period as we saw above.

When the state’s coffers were bare, due to the need to pay mercenaries and wage war, or just due to the profligacy of the royal household, then the amount of revenue needed to be increased.

The way they did this was simple. The rulers simply declared that the coins were worth less according to the monetary standard than they were before. In other words, the coinage had been “cried down,” or, conversely, the monetary standard had been “cried up.”

…In an age when the imposition of direct taxes remained a logistical and economic challenge…the levying of seigniorage by the manipulation of the monetary standard represented an invaluable source of revenue. An important feature of the monetary technology of the day made this simple to do.

The dominant technology for representing money was coinage, with silver the metal of choice for higher-value coins, and bronze or other less valuable metals and alloys for smaller denominations. But unlike today’s coins, medieval types were typically struck without any written indication of their nominal value: there was no number stamped on either face-only the face or arms of the issuing sovereign or some other identifying design. The value of the coins was then fixed by edicts published by the sovereign on whose political authority they were minted.

This system had a great advantage for the sovereign. Simply by reducing the tariffed, nominal value of a coin, the sovereign could effectively impose a one-off wealth tax on all holders of coined money.

A certain coin, the sovereign would announce, is no longer good for one shilling, but only for sixpence. The coin had been “cried down”; or equivalently, one could say that the standard had been “cried up.” An offer might then be made to recoin the cried-down issue, upon presentation at the Mint, into a new type. The sovereign could then in addition levy a charge on the re-minting operation.[5]

So, in this situation, issuing coins, and then adjusting the value became the major way for medieval sovereigns to raise revenue, rather than taxation or borrowing. This was a separate phenomenon apart from the precious metal content the coins, which continued to be variable:

Under these circumstances, it is most unlikely that any metallic coin could have served as the standard, monetary policy did not primarily involve manipulation of the metallic content of coins. Rather, it entailed devaluation and revaluation of the money by ‘crying up’ and ‘crying down’ the money of account.

… Medieval sovereigns had few ways of raising revenue apart from the proceeds of their personal domains: levying direct or indirect taxes was far beyond most feudal administrative capabilities. Seigniorage was therefore a uniquely attractive and uniquely feasible source of income-and medieval sovereigns happily indulged in it…when the need arose, a sovereign could raise enormous sums by crying down or even demonetising altogether the current issue of the coinage and calling it in for re-minting off a debased footing.

In 1299, for example, the total revenues of the French crown amounted to just under £2. million: of this, fully one half had come from the seigniorage profits of the Mint following a debasement and general recoining. Two generations later, the recoinage of 1349 generated nearly three-quarters of all revenues collected that year by the king…[6]

Seignorage–the profits made by issuing money–was a major source of revenue for medieval governments, who could not rely upon taxes or selling bonds. Increasing taxes or confiscating property was very unpopular, and could cause a revolt if done to heavy-handedly. And besides, tax collection was fraught with problems. For a good overview, see section II of this review of Seeing Like a State.

The absolute power of medieval monarchs discouraged people from lending to them. Plus, charging usury was forbidden. In fact, many loans to monarchs by major banks were simply annulled! The English king Edward III borrowed a huge sum of money from Italian banks to fund what became the Hundred Years’ War in France, only to default, taking down the banking houses (which paved the way for the rise of scrappy new upstarts like the Medici).

However, the precious metal in the coins did serve as a “floor” under which the coin’s value could not fall. That is, the commodity value served as collateral for the credit of the issuing sovereign. This meant that the coins were always worth something. This facilitated their use among the subjects.

It’s true that certain standards were set by the mint, but these were unrelated to the coin’s exchange value; rather these were mainly to prevent counterfeiting. They also did not affect prices.

It must be said, however, that there is evidence to show that the kings …were careful both of the weight and the purity of their coins, and this fact has given color to the theory that their value depended on their weight and purity.

We find, however, the same pride of accuracy with the Roman mints; and also in later days when the coinage was of base metal, the directions to the masters of the mints as to the weight, alloy and design were just as careful, although the value of the coin could not thereby be affected. Accuracy was important more to enable the public to distinguish between a true and a counterfeit coin than for any other reason. [7]

The problem is that the cost of buying precious metal fluctuates constantly, depending on the vagaries of supply and demand. For example, the vast amounts of New World silver flowing into Europe from the mines in Potosí in Bolivia (along with better mining technology) caused a drastic fall in the price of silver (excess supply), which made profits for coins high. This had macroeconomic effects throughout Europe—More coins were minted causing inflation (the so-called ‘Price revolution’). However, if the exchange value of the coin fell below the bullion value, there was a strong incentive to melt the coins down (or shave or clip them) and sell the precious metal abroad:

How Much Is A Nickel Worth?

It depends on whether you are talking about its use value or its exchange value. Normally, the exchange value of a good used as money is equal to or greater than its use value. If the value of the metal in a nickel is only worth 3 cents melted down and sold in metal markets, you are better off using it in exchange rather than using it as a commodity. But when the use value exceeds the exchange value, the commodity money will go out of circulation. The U.S. mint has issued new regulations in an attempt to prevent this from happening to pennies and nickels.

… Start with $50.00 and purchase 1,000 nickels. Next, sell the 1,000 nickels for their metal content at 7 cents per nickel and collect $70.00. Use the proceeds to buy 1,400 nickels, sell the 1,400 nickels for $90.80, and you’ve nearly doubled you money already.

It’s unlikely that you’d receive the full 7 cents per nickel, but even at, say, 6 cents per nickel (so that the value is $72.00 instead of $90.80 after two rounds) there’s a powerful incentive to smuggle nickels out of the country. And at 2.13 cents per pre-1982 penny, the incentive is even higher.

When the values are reversed, when the exchange value exceeds the use value, you’re not allowed to go in the opposite direction either. For example, you cannot take 3 cents worth of metal and mint your own counterfeit (“plug”) nickels and realize a 2 cent profit on each one. But when the economic incentive is high enough – e.g. turning paper into $20 bills – some people still try.

How Much is a Nickel Worth? (Economists View)

As Mitchell-Innes notes, if coins were just standardized lumps of precious metal issued merely for the convenience of traders, there would have been no need to force people to use them! People would simply exchange the coins for whatever the precious metal in them was worth.

There are only two things which we know for certain about the Carolingian coins. The first is that the coinage brought a profit to the issuer. When a king granted a charter to one of his vassals to mint coins, it is expressly stated that he is granted that right with the profits and emoluments arising therefrom.

The second thing is that there was considerable difficulty at different times in getting the public to accept the coins, and one of the kings devised a punishment to fit the crime of refusing one of his coins. The coin which had been refused was heated red-hot and pressed onto the forehead of the culprit, “the veins being uninjured so that the man shall not perish, but shall show his punishment to those who see him.”

There can be no profit from minting coins of their full face value in metal, but rather a loss, and it is impossible to think that such disagreeable punishments would have been necessary to force the public to accept such coins, so that it is practically certain that they must have been below their face value and therefore were tokens, just as were those of earlier days.[8]

In fact, it was often very difficult for monarchs to get their hands on enough silver to issue coins. This was another reason that market exchanges were rare in the early Middle Ages—there simply wasn’t enough money circulating! Often, the only way to get more silver was to issue coins with less silver, or to melt down and reissue existing coins with less silver. In fact, getting silver may have even been a motivating factor for the Crusades according to Niall Ferguson:

The Roman system of coinage outlived the Roman Empire itself. Prices were still being quoted in terms of silver denarii in the time of Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. The difficulty was that by the time Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Augustus in 800, there was a chronic shortage of silver in Western Europe.

Demand for money was greater in the much more developed commercial centres of the Islamic Empire that dominated the southern Mediterranean and the Near East, so that precious metal tended to drain away from backward Europe. So rare was the denarius in Charlemagne’s time that twenty-four of them sufficed to buy a Carolingian cow. In some parts of Europe, peppers and squirrel skins served as substitutes for currency; in others pecunia came to mean land rather than money.

This was a problem that Europeans sought to overcome in one of two ways. They could export labour and goods, exchanging slaves and timber for silver in Baghdad or for African gold in Cordoba and Cairo. Or they could plunder precious metal by making war on the Muslim world. The Crusades, like the conquests that followed, were as much about overcoming Europe’s monetary shortage as about converting heathens to Christianity.  [9]

This differential between the commodity value and the exchange value set by the sovereign was to have dramatic consequences.

Cry Me Up, Cry Me Down

By adjusting the value of the currency, the effect these edicts had was to raise prices. As Wikipedia puts it, “…By providing the government with increased purchasing power at the expense of the public’s purchasing power, [seignorage] imposes what is metaphorically known as an inflation tax on the public.” People going to the markets suddenly found that their coins were worth less, so producers demanded more of them.

In mediaeval society, currency depreciation would take place all at once, even in a single day. While historians and economists alike have long told stories about monarchs who purposely debased coins (by reducing gold content)…[i]nstead, nominal value was announced by the monarch and maintained at government pay offices. A coin’s nominal value in circulation would be determined by its value in acceptance of payments to government. When the monarch found he had already issued too much credit (such that he was unable to purchase desired goods and services), he would simply reduce the official value of the coins already issued (such that, say, two coins would have to be delivered at public pay offices rather than one).

By doing so, monarchs ‘reduced by so much the value of the credits on the government which the holders of the coins possessed. It was simply a rough and ready method of taxation, which, being spread over a large number of people, was not an unfair one, provided that it was not abused’.

In short, government ‘cried down’ the coins in place of raising tax rates, but in the process this would devalue the market value of the government’s debt – an overnight devaluation that would be manifested as soon as markets adjusted prices upward in terms of government coin. [10]

To help understand this concept, think of a casino. I turn in my hard-earned dollars and get tokens (chips) in exchange that I can use inside the “monetary space” of the casino. Let’s say each dollar gets me a nice plastic or clay chip.

I then go and gamble. In the meantime, the casino has declared that the chips (tokens) are now worth, say 3/4 of a dollar. So, let’s say at the end of a long night at the poker table you end up breaking even–you wind up with the same amount of chips you started with.

You then go to redeem your chips at the window at the end of the night only to find out that they can now only be redeemed for 3/4 the value you came in with–they are worth less. You are now 1/4 poorer, despite having not lost any chips! This should give you some idea of the effects that “crying down” the currency, or “crying up” the standard had in the real world.

Not only that, but the casino’s “debts” to you are simultaneously lowered. Recall that coins were a record of the sovereign’s debt to the holders of the coinage. Thus, by reducing the standard, sovereigns could also lower the debts and liabilities they owed to the holders of the currency, i.e. to the general public. This also had the effect of transferring resources from the subjects to the sovereign:

We can now understand the effect of the “mutations de la monnaie,” which I have mentioned as being one of the financial expedients of medieval French kings. The coins which they issued were tokens of indebtedness with which they made small payments, such as the daily wages of their soldiers and sailors. When they arbitrarily reduced the official value of their tokens, they reduced by so much the value of the credits on the government which the holders of the coins possessed. [11]

But because it was such an effective way of increasing revenue to the crown, it was abused. The temptation was always there when monarchs played fast and loose with their finances, or wanted to make war on their neighbors:

Some kings…whose constant wars kept their treasuries permanently depleted, were perpetually “crying down” the coinage, in this way and issuing new coins of different types, which in their turn were cried down, till the system became a serious abuse. Under these circumstances the coins had no stable value, and they were bought and sold at market prices which sometimes fluctuated daily, and generally with great frequency.

The coins were always issued at a nominal value in excess of their intrinsic value, and the amount of the excess constantly varied. The nominal value of the gold coins bore no fixed ratio to that of the silver coins, so that historians who have tried to calculate the ratio subsisting between gold and silver have. been led to surprising results…The fact is that the official values were purely arbitrary and had nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the coins. Indeed when the kings desired to reduce their coins to the least possible nominal value they issued edicts that they should only be taken at their bullion value.

At times there were so many edicts in force referring to changes in the value of the coins, that none but an expert could tell what the values of the various coins of different issues were, and they became a highly speculative commodity. The monetary units, the livre, sol and denier, are perfectly distinct from the coins and the variations in the value of the latter did not affect the former, though, as will be seen, the circumstances which led up to the abuse of the system of “mutations” caused the depreciation of the monetary unit. [12]

Given these factors, if much of your wealth were held in coin, would you be pissed off? My guess is that you would be. The thing is, so were the holders and users of medieval currencies.

But what this meant in practice was that no one was really sure of the value of their money at any given point in time. This meant in practice that much of the medieval economy remained effectively unmonetized.

Of course, it was those whose business required the use of money—people such as landlords and merchants– who were the most pissed off. Felix Martin calls them the “money interest.” As the medieval economy became increasingly centered around monetary exchanges, this money interest became more powerful, and more determined to rein in the rulers:

The remonetisation of Europe over the so-called “long thirteenth century,” from the late twelfth to the mid-fourteenth century therefore generated two phenomena that would eventually come into conflict.

The first was the emergence of a class of individuals and institutions whose wealth was held, and whose business transacted, in money-a politically powerful “money interest” beyond the sovereign’s court. The second was the growing addiction of sovereigns to the fiscal miracle of the seigniorage-a miracle which grew in proportion with the increasing use of money.

The more activities were monetarised, and the more people were drawn into the money economy, the larger the tax base on which seigniorage was levied. As sovereigns were to discover, this apparently magical source of fiscal financing did in fact have limits. They were not technical, however, but political. At some point, the new money interest was bound to assert itself against the sovereign’s perceived excesses. This point was reached in the mid-fourteenth century. [13]

Cat-and-Mouse Game

Now, recall once again that coins had a commodity value that set the floor under what they were worth. If the standard were cried down too far, the metal in the coins will be worth more than they are worth in exchange. The commodity value will exceed the exchange value.

What, then, would the sovereign do? The only answer was to issue coins with less precious metal in them, to make sure their commodity value remained under their exchange value. This is, a falling exchange value (or, conversely, a rising precious metal value) inevitably meant issuing coins with less precious metal content.

Naturally, this [seignorage] process was unpopular with users of the sovereigns coinage. Fortunately for them, there was one partial, natural defence. High-value coins-minted from silver, for example-had an intrinsic value regardless of the tariff assigned to them: the price at which their metal content could be sold on the open market to smiths and jewellers, or indeed to competing mints. They included, as it were, portable collateral for the sovereign’s promise to pay.

This meant that there was a lower limit to the tariffed value which the issuing sovereign could assign his coinage. If a coin was cried down too far, the collateral would be worth more than the credit the coin represented, and holders could sell it to a smith for its bullion value. On the other hand, the alert sovereign could respond by reducing the silver content of the new type when the coinage was re-minted-a so-called “debasement.”

It was a recipe for a constant game of cat-and-mouse between the coin-issuer and the coin-user, with even a coin’s precious-metal content, which effectively served as collateral for the creditworthiness of its issuer, always vulnerable to erosion by the predations of the sovereign. [14]

If the standard got too far out of whack, the coins would simply be melted down and shipped abroad. Because melting down coins was illegal, people simply tended to “clip” them, shaving a bit off at a time, and collecting the shavings. Sovereigns eventually responded by making coins with edges that were hard to clip. In any case, “bad” money tended to drive out “good” (Gresham’s Law).

The net effect was that if the standard fell too far, there would be a chronic shortage of precious metal circulating in the kingdom, since coins would be melted down and shipped abroad. This would reduce the amount of currency circulating, leading to deflation. Consequently, a fall in the price of silver might cause more coins to be minted, causing inflation. This fluctuation in the metal content of the coins caused by fluctuations in the standard and the price of bullion led to the misconception that “debasing” the currency by issuing less precious metal in them is what caused price movements.

Because heavily indebted states were perennially “crying down” the currency, this gave rise to the erroneous belief that the precious metal content was related to the value of the currency. States with debt problems issued coins with less precious metal in them. But the problem was fundamentally not with the precious metal, but with the state’s finances.

All our modern legislation fixing the price of gold is merely a survival of the late medieval theory that the disastrous variability of the monetary unit had some mysterious connection with the price of the precious metals, and that, if only that price could be controlled and made invariable, the monetary unit also would remain fixed. It is hard for us to realize the situation of those times. The people often saw the prices of the necessaries of life rise with great rapidity, so that from day to day no one knew what his income might be worth in commodities.

At the same time, they saw the precious metals rising, and coins made of a high grade of gold or silver going to a premium, while those that circulated at their former value were reduced in weight by clipping. They saw an evident connection between these phenomena, and very naturally attributed the fall in the value of money to the rise of the value of the metals and the consequent deplorable condition of the coinage. They mistook effect for cause, and we have inherited their error. Many attempts were made to regulate the price of the precious metals, but until the nineteenth century, always unsuccessfully.

The great cause of the monetary perturbations of the middle ages were not the rise of the price of the precious metals, but the fall of the value of the credit unit, owing to the ravages of war, pestilence and famine. We can hardly realize to-day the appalling condition to which these three causes reduced Europe time after time…[15]

As Innes notes, during times of pestilence, war and famine (such as the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages), governments went heavily into debt to fund wars and output production was curtailed. Coinage was debased and prices went up. But the ‘debasing’ of the coinage, i.e. issuing coins with less precious metal in them, was not the cause!

Since coins were a record of government’s debts to the public, the “trust” in coins tended to reflect the faith in the government issuing the coin. If a government were heavily indebted, it would likely cry up the standard, and/or remint the coins. Hence, the value of coins tended to reflect the fundamental financial soundness of the issuer –the currency of heavily indebted states was worth less.

…prices rose owing to the failure of consecutive governments throughout Europe, to observe the law of the equation of debts and credits. The value of the money unit fell owing to the constant excess of government indebtedness over the credits that could be squeezed by taxation out of a people impoverished by the ravages of war and the plagues and famines and murrains which afflicted them…

The depreciation of money in the middle ages was not due to the arbitrary debasement of the weight and fineness of the coins. On the contrary, the government of the middle ages struggled against this depreciation which was due to wars, pestilences and famines – in short to excessive indebtedness. Until modern days, there never was any fixed relationship between the monetary unit and the coinage.

We imagine that, by maintaining gold at a fixed price, we are keeping up the value of our monetary unit, while, in fact, we are doing just the contrary. The longer we maintain gold at its present price, while the metal continues to be as plentiful as it now is, the more we depreciate our money. [16]

Problems with Money

These problems with money led to several reactions. The “money interest” went to great lengths to dissuade the sovereign from exercising his or her seignorage power too liberally. In one case, they even got a prominent medieval scholar, Nicolas Oresme, to write an entire treatise on money.

Oresme’s argument basically boiled down to this–although the sovereign theoretically controlled the value of the currency, in a real sense, the currency “belonged” to the whole community. Thus, by abusing his power, the sovereign prevented orderly commerce from taking place, and caused harm to his subjects. In other words, he was derelict in his duties. It was an early case of the money interest attempting to assert its control over sovereign governments; a problem which continues to this day.

A second solution was to avoid coins altogether and use the older, more “primitive” technology of tally sticks instead.

Even in the heyday of coins, they were hardly the only form of money. For one thing, most everyday transactions were conducted using debt—what we would call trade credit, although it was used by consumers as well as businesses—because the smallest coin was simply too big to pay a day’s wages, let alone buy a beer, at least in England.

For another, as early as the 14th century, carved sticks of wood known as tallies were circulating as money. Tallies began as records of taxes collected, then became receipts the crown gave to tax collectors for advances of coin (the idea being that, at tax time, the collector could show the tally and say, “I already paid”), and finally evolved into tokens that the government used to pay its suppliers (who could then cash them with tax collectors, who would use them at tax time). In most of the 15th century, a majority of tax receipts came in the form of tallies rather than cash. Again, if the government is willing to take something in payment of taxes, it becomes money.

Mysteries of Money (The Baseline Scenario)

“Issuing a tally” became another critical way for medieval sovereigns to raise needed revenue, especially when silver was scarce.

Kings learned to ‘anticipate’ tax revenues by issuing tallies in payment (‘raising a tally’). Holders of the tally stocks were then entitled to collect tax revenue, turning over the stocks to those who paid taxes. These would then be returned to the King as evidence that taxes had been paid.

Both sovereign and private tallies began to circulate widely in Europe during the later middle ages, taking on the characteristics of negotiable and discountable financial instruments, and were increasingly used as the primary means of financing sovereign spending. [17]

The fact that wooden tally sticks have by-and-large not survived to the present day and coins have colors our understanding of money to this day. Clearly people were not exchanging tally sticks for the value of the wood in them.

The other way they got around the problems with sovereign money was to use trade credit instead. What merchants and bankers did was to conduct their business using sophisticated paper instruments called bills of exchange. These bills of exchange, mediated through the great trading houses of Europe, would allow international business to be conducted in this fractured monetary landscape. While they could be converted into the local government currencies, they were denominated in a totally different monetary unit established by the banks themselves called the ecú de marc.

…there was, by definition, no sovereign authority to regulate commerce between countries, and no sovereign money with which to transact. So it was here, in the international sphere, that banking’s potential to accelerate the commercial revolution was first fully realised. The central innovation was the perfection, by the mid-sixteenth century, of the system of “exchange by bills”: a procedure for financing international trade using monetary credit issued by the clique of pan-European merchant bankers, denominated in their own abstract unit of account, recorded in bills of exchange, and cleared at the quarterly fair of Lyons. [18]

The bill of exchange was invented in the Arabic world and probably introduced into Europe by the Knights Templar, making them Europe’s first exchange bankers. The Templars, a religious/military order, also acted as moneylenders and pawn brokers. The true “secret” of the Templars may be how they managed to accomplish this in an era long before mass communication, and the Templar “treasure” may have been the vast hoards of wealth they managed to accumulate through their international banking operations.

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe. Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.

Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades. We don’t actually know how the Templars made this system work and protected themselves against fraud. Was there a secret code verifying the document and the traveller’s identity?

The Templars were not the first organisation in the world to provide such a service. Several centuries earlier, Tang dynasty China used “feiquan” – flying money – a two-part document allowing merchants to deposit profits in a regional office, and reclaim their cash back in the capital. But that system was operated by the government. Templars were much closer to a private bank – albeit one owned by the Pope, allied to kings and princes across Europe, and run by a partnership of monks sworn to poverty.

The Knights Templar did much more than transferring money across long distances…they provided a range of recognisably modern financial services. If you wanted to buy a nice island off the west coast of France – as King Henry III of England did in the 1200s with the island of Oleron, north-west of Bordeaux – the Templars could broker the deal. Henry III paid £200 a year for five years to the Temple in London, then when his men took possession of the island, the Templars made sure that the seller got paid. And in the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were kept at the Temple as security on a loan, the Templars operating as a very high-end pawn broker.

The warrior monks who invented banking (BBC)

The Templars were violently disbanded (on Friday the thirteenth, 1307), bringing their banking operations to a halt. In their place, “Lombard Banking” originating in Italian city-states like Venice, Florence and Genoa developed the bills of exchange into a private international currency system that existed alongside the coins and tallies issued by local governments. In the process, they became the world’s first modern banks.

The effects this had were profound. What it did was introduce a parallel international currency system which functioned alongside the coins issued by states, but remained outside of any government’s control. It’s this system we’ll take a look at next time.

[1] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 189

[2] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 191

[3] Felix Martin: Money, the Unauthorized Biography, p. 87

[4] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 29

[5] Felix Martin: Money, the Unauthorized Biography, pp.87-88

[6] Felix Martin: Money, the Unauthorized Biography, pp. 88-89

[7] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, pp. 28-29

[8] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 28

[9] Niall Ferguson: The Ascent of Money, pp. 24-25

[10] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 220

[11] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 42

[12] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 30

[13] Felix Martin: Money, the Unauthorized Biography, p. 89

[14] Felix Martin: Money, the Unauthorized Biography, pp. 88-89

[15] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 43

[16] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 63

[17] Wray: State and Credit Theories of Money, p. 3

[18] Felix Martin: Money, the Unauthorized Biography, pp. 105-106

One thought on “The Origin of Money 7 – Medieval Money

  1. I’ve been reading about the time of King John. I am impressed by the variety of interesting ways the rich had for settling debts between themselves, for example:

    – Transfer of title to land
    – Transfer of castles (separate from land)
    – Keeping family members as hostages (killing captured nobles was taboo)
    – Marriage of daughters (with the land they would inherit)
    – Direct military service, inc. raising an army
    – Oaths of allegiance
    – Promises to pay cash (which may or may not ever be called in)
    – When the cash runs out, paying mercenaries by simply allowing them to take whatever they want from captured territory 🙂

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