Coins Jingle Money Talks

4 March, 2013

This week On the Reading Rest I have a translation of an essay in historical anthropology first published in French 2010.

Le Geoff, Jacques. Money and the Middle Ages: An Essay in historical anthropology. Cambridge. Polity Press. ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-5299-3

CoverBecause money is embedded and entangled in social relations, not least in the Middle Ages, money eludes definition. In the end of his essay Jaques Le Goff (JaLGo) points to these two characteristics – the first insight is a legacy of Karl Polanyi’s wiki/Karl_Polanyi , the second, which he brings in from the historian Albert Rigaudière membres/academiciens-depuis-1663/article/rigaudiere-albert-jean-marie , is made significant not least by himself.

JaLGo points to these characteristics because they guided him all the way through his analyses. To prove his point in a not too formal way, he quotes Le Petit Robert on the word ‘money’ demonstrating the elusiveness of any definition. The quotation breaks off after some of the colloquial terms before it becomes tedious, but also before the tangled embeddedness becomes reflected in the sheer mass of words and varieties. However, if we surf to there is a list of almost 300 words, nouns most, but also verbs and adjectives, making up a muddle of synonyms. There are useful phrases too: a quote, in Latin, from Ovid, about bearable barbarians, one more in Latin (anonymous, slightly distorted, but nevertheless Cicero about the sinews of war), a German saying, which also explains war, and a gentle line by Tennyson, i.e. not the one about ‘lust of gold … … war of old’, which is too long and pompous for a dinner conversation. Moreover, to complete the entry there is a warning not to confuse ‘Capitol’ and ‘Capital’ because ‘the similarity between the words is purely coincidental’ – well not ‘purely’. Who would have thought that Latin was so important when making economic conversation and not a fool of oneself.

Accountants & Bankers Dinner '08 (Photo: Anne Conover)

Accountants & Bankers Dinner ’08 (Photo: Anne Conover)

In Money and the Middle Ages (MoMa) JaLGo devotes 19 pages, an introduction and three short chapters, to arrive at the glorious and long 13th c. — 1160 to 1330 CE. It takes the following 62 pages and five chapters to bring us to the second half of the 14th c. and 66 pages and 7 chapters to analyze the last 100 years and the end of the Middle Ages in the 15th c. always taking the glorious (long) 13th c. into account eventually defending his thesis that there was no capitalism in the Middle Ages. This thesis, rather than stated as a point of departure stands out as an outcome, and capitalism thus ‘turns out’ to refer to the kind we associate with liberalism and the free market. A student paper structured that way, defending that thesis, would alert the serious wisdom and advice of any academic teacher – even kindly professors – unless of course the student could write as interestingly as JaLGo about MoMa.

The reason why I read the book is twofold. (1) I think it is essential to discuss history analyzing concepts which, similar to money, evade traditional definition. (2) I think that next e.g. to money one of these concepts is ‘modernity’, which in my opinion is not an era commencing sometime after the Middle Ages, but a confident relation with the future as defined and predicted by the past. The modern writes the structure and dynamics of the present into the future, preferably by presenting the future as solution. Consequently, the future when seen as a predicament triggers the less-modern, i.e. revision and an interest in the historic as a means to understanding the future. No era or century is either modern or non-modern and modernity may well exist as a subculture within a society structured by canonical obedience or historical revision.

In this perspective the history of the modern becomes interesting, and so does wealth and money, because they make up a sometimes open and sometimes
restricted field for modernity. On the road to modernity the long 13th c. is eventually checked by crises highlighting the non-modern. The late 14th to early 15th century, on the other hand, lay the foundation for a much more assured modernity, based on a new historical understanding.

Chapter Six, ‘Money and the Nascant States’, discusses the way the booming coin- and currency-related activities included merchants, King and Church among their actors. The Merchants were obviously the ones who knew how to make profit by means of trade and world systems, the Kings were obviously the ones most interested in the administration of the values of the state, thus partly creating the state, and the Church took pains to keep the moral issues alive arguing against usurers — cautiously transferring money (sometimes with a questionable profit) between private and limited public spheres.

Because of the boom, the North European exploitation of natural resources with roots at least in the Roman Iron Age, became visible in the Hanseatic trade echoing the pre-Medieval North European ingot and weight based economy, now hampered by the lack of a heavy silver coins belonging to a common currency — probably because it was impossible to convince trappers to use money with no guaranties against inflation. Failing to do so is the sure sign of a not-working non-liberal market. The Hanseatic system, like the Royal European systems, modeled or revived Roman and Iron Age systems. The great difference and the main problem for those trying to develop the administration of wealth and the practice of trade into a modern economic system was no doubt the Church, because it wasn’t able to create a discussion on morals in relation to a concept of modernity nor to create a discussion of the need to revise history in view of future or imminent problems.

JaLGo’s discussion of lending, debt and usury (p. 63 ff.) highlights the confrontation between scholastics and the ‘new intellectuals of the 13th c’. To the scholastics the past as guideline was described in the Bible in such a way that the present and thus the outcome of the future was given, while at the same time the present and future road to this outcome was in practice traumatic. To the ‘new intellectuals’ a study of mankind and the past, e.g. through Aristotle and later Graeco-Roman philosophy, was necessary in order to manage the present and the imminent future. The mixture of scholastic and non-scholastic views is typical of the in-between fundamentalism and modernity of the long 13th century. In the eyes of the scholastics teachers, those who received payment for their teaching (as if they were ancient sophists) were like ‘merchants of knowledge’ selling ‘words’, which rightfully belonged to God – i.e. they sold the value of His words in a way similar to the usurer, who acquired a profit without working and thus without the sweat of his face – earning money even as he slept. JaLGo points out this conflicting way of reasoning – drawing on the value of work and eventually on value and risk – and he defines it as something new to the long 13th century. This means that he probably doesn’t appreciate the significance of the following passage from a dialogue by Aelfric written c. 1000 CE:

Merchant: I embark on board ship with my wares and I sail over remote seas, sell my wares and buy precious objects that are unknown in this country. I bring these things to you over the sea enduring great danger and shipwreck with the whole of my goods hurled overboard and with me hardly escaping with my life.
Teacher: What sort of wares do you bring us?
Merchant: I bring purple cloth and silk, precious stones and gold, various sorts of clothes and dyes, wine and oil, ebony and brass, tin and brimstone, glass and like products.
Teacher; Do you want to sell your goods here when you have bought them elsewhere?
Merchant: I don’t want to, but where else can I make a profit from my work? I want the selling price to be dearer than the purchase price so that I can make some money to feed my wife and sons. (Translation from Latin: Ann E Watkins)

To scholastics, nevertheless, value and profit make up a dangerous path to follow because we may wonder how long, without getting sweaty, should the value or profit of one’s work last? Can risk and danger not teach a man to sweat? Is inheritance not a way of acquiring wealth without labour, even if your father is not an usurer? And if a merchant makes a profit that covers more than his needs when selling his goods is that not usury? But then again what are his needs and those of ‘wife and sons’?

The criticism of usury comes from everyday life in dynamic and flowering times when people think that the costs for surviving are too high – not primarily from the Bible. As JaLGo shows usury as a moral complex is not a great problem in the countryside, where subsistence is under the control of household economy. This economy produces a surplus of people, who for want of something better supply the towns with people because living in a town stands out as better than vagabonding in the countryside. If you belong to the rural community the value of you time is relatively constant given the modes of production, but in the towns, i.e. in the urban practice the value of time fluctuates, not so much in the productions of the crafts as in the time it takes to subsist. In the towns the remedy is money as long as there is food to buy.

In the chapter that concludes those concerning the glorious 13th c. ‘A New Wealth and a New Poverty’ – a convincing paradox – JaLGo introduces a couple relation that guides the distribution of money while at the same time it is unable to distribute it more evenly. In MoMa the subject is money, but the theoretical problem seems to be the way urbanized people think about their universe trapped between wealth and poverty, secular and Heavenly justice, merchant companies and mendicant orders or between vice and virtue — unable not to embrace both.

oresme salisburyIn this connection JaLGo draws attention to Nicolas Oresme’s ‘De Moneta’ since his analysis is the beginning of the modern or the proto modern analysis inasmuch as it is a new historical analysis, i.e. an analysis of Classical, Roman and Byzantine authors as a means to explain the principles that should guide our future. This kind of analysis will remedy future predicaments, such as those already experienced. In theory Nicholas Oresme represents emancipation from the unfruitful couple relation of the long 13th century.

An early paragon of the ‘new intellectual’, John of Salisbury, brought the ethical discussion of political science back from antiquity in order to inform Kings of the needs of their subjects, i.e., their responsibilities as secular monarchs towards their subjects. He is critical of the urban life of his day and age and sets out to reform the couple relation between the ruler as a ‘moral person’ and the ‘divine law’ by introducing the needs of the subjects – a very modern or non-canonical view on subjects. Characteristically, John is not as radical as the anonymous author of the 6th c. Dialogue on Political Science discussed OtRR 30 April 2012. Nevertheless, John, who writes between 1150 and 1180, introduces a new a kind of analysis emphasizing the citizen. Nicholas who writes in the mid-14th c. writes in the middle of a demographic crisis that led to war in the 14th and 15th century and his message to those in power is thus urgent.

We may see the depth of the demographic crisis in the 14th-15th century as consisting of an economic crisis in the beginning of the century resulting in famine later turned into a demographic catastrophe by the Plague. But why was a state of continuous warfare the outcome of famine and plague? Why did a population reduced by 30-50% start to fight each other? Why didn’t ‘the long 16th’ century commence immediately after the long 13th century?

In MoMa JaLGo argues that money is embedded in social relations, but also that progress in the form of capitalism and a real market economy (an embryonic Liberal capitalism) could not develop till after the Middle Ages, i.e. only after the Middle Age when we have done away with the Biblical understanding of money, usury, caritas etc. are we able to step into modernity. The reason for this, on the one hand, rests with the fact that the use of money is embedded in social relations, on the other (seemingly) it rests with the fact that history proceeds in cultural steps forever putting eras such as the Middle Ages behind us.

When capitalism enters the scene following in the footsteps of risk, credit and justifiable profit its steps are irreversible. Nevertheless, this view doesn’t sit well with the idea that money eludes traditional definition because it is embedded in social relations, which do not proceed in a series of stages excluding each other. As soon as money, the commensurable, is introduced risk, credit, fair profit, usury, caritas and so on must always be taken into account, irrespective of their being important or not. Defining day one of capitalism let alone the end of canonical financial moral is impossible.

Work at the exchequer

Work at the exchequer

When Aelfric, c. 1000 CE, indicated that merchants should be compensated for the risk they take, when John of Salisbury pointed to the needs of the subject as being on par with the rights of the King, and when Richard FitzNeal described the fairness of the Exchequer system of account, split tallies, administration and justice c. 1180, the arguments pointed towards social relations that became popular with JaLGo’s capitalism and modernity. But in JaLGo’s discussion important elements of capitalism cannot have been around for two or three hundreds of years without resulting in any change. Modernity cannot be a substratum of the Medieval. To many, not least British historians this is nevertheless quite possible. The reviewer of MoMa in Times Literary Supplement (01 Feb 2013) for one, is as good an exponent of this tradition as ever Aelfric, or John of Salisbury or Richard FitzNeal.


Let us return to the questions posed above: Why was there such as thing as the squeezed 14th-15th century? To JaLGo this question is irrelevant because the period is just one in which capitalism doesn’t happen. That is why the answers one might point to are not likely to be accepted by JaLGo. Nonetheless, one may point to the following: In the dwindling and soon drastically reduced populations, the amount of money per capita grew. And since coin economy, owing to all the circumstances put forward by JaLGo, was not spread to every corner of society and since there was thus a surplus of money, money was invested in wars. Instead of pointing to the anachronistic understanding of the early 14th century frescos in Siena as allegories of good and bad government, as JaLGo does, one might instead stick to their original topic, the difference between war and peace. War, not bad government was the problem of the squeezed 14th and 15th centuries.


A demographic crisis may be the result of inadequate energy regimes perhaps caused by factors such as the Little Ice Age and a subsequent breakdown in subsistence systems, which causes people to die of starvation. In the 14th century this kind of crisis was followed by the plague which reduced the population drastically and money thus became relatively speaking abundant and of limited use. In this situation it is typical of the wealthy capital owner with access to money, i.e. when money is cheap and populations decreasing, to start investing in wars, to follow the interests of power policies because it pays although it destroys the countryside. Rebuilding the economic system from its foundations is not the first capitalistic option – not even today. The point is simple: because there was an embryonic capitalism, investors followed the hopes of Kings lending them money to invest in wars because as bankers they had money. Both Investors and Kings thought it would be profitable; to begin with it was, in the end it wasn’t.

It is difficult to embrace JaLGo’s view upon capitalism, but in the end one finds that that is not a problem because MoMa is a book that should be read not for its thesis but for its ‘plaidoyer’.


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