Economic Ethics in Late Medieval England, 1300–1500

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This is followed by an examination of the stories that money can tell the historian, before a brief conclusion points out possible directions for further research.

Gary Richardson, University of California, Irvine

To understand medieval money, perhaps the most important thing to do is to shed the modernist understanding of it, beginning with the first of the modern myths. It has been popular folklore among economists that money originated more or less spontaneously, whenever two or more individuals got together to seal a deal at market and exchanged something that one party wanted but could only produce for her- or himself at large opportunity cost, for another commodity that the other party could produce or procure with much greater ease and efficiency.

So, if a shoemaker wanted to eat, he or she might ask the baker to give him some bread. But as one pair of shoes would easily pay for several loaves of bread, and the baker would have no use for just one shoe, nor the shoemaker for ten loaves at once because the bread would go stale or mouldy before it could be eaten , the theory is that the baker and shoemaker would get together, invent money, and thereby solve all their coordination problems.

In this way they would reduce what economists call transaction costs and facilitate exchange. Historians agree that money, in the shape of coins, was often created earlier than and sometimes quite independently from a pre-existing market economy. Therefore, more often than not, money came first, then the exchange-based or market economy, 10 not necessarily the other way round as the ideal world of the economists wants to have it.

Hence, in many ways, the modern concept of the definition, function, and purpose of money found in economics textbooks of today, usually based upon the classical introduction by Jevons, is counterintuitive. We should, however, for reasons of fairness and completeness, remind ourselves that the basic ideas promulgated by — inter alios — Jevons, of money being mainly a means of exchange, storing and denoting value, and facilitating the economic process, go back in spirit to writings by Aristotle.

Article excerpt

It tells us more about what money in the Middle Ages was not , and quite a lot about what modern economists think money is and was. According to the modernist concept, money serves a general purpose as a means of exchange, a means of expressing value, as well as a means of storing value or conserving transmitting purchasing power over time i. On this coin you will find an image of mine. But such was not the case in early modern and medieval Europe.

At this time, the notion of legal tender in the modern sense — meaning that there should be one legally exclusive currency for each territory — did not exist. The result was a bewildering number of edicts and ordinances detailing and sometimes picturing each and every single coin type that was permitted or prohibited. Usually such legislation was meant to be temporary , often for a year and often tied to market rhythms of the weekly urban markets, quarterly and annual regional fairs, and yearly markets.

Episode 9 Late Medieval Society

There was an element of temporality in pre understandings and models of currency and monetary policy that has vanished from the scene since the development of modern forms of marketing. In consequence, until very recently into the 19th century, in fact most people in continental Europe used a bewildering variety of currencies and coin types of different sizes, denominations, and origins.

This process was tariffing by valuation or valvation , as contemporaneous German legal terminology had it. Far from being limited to denoting financial or economic value, coins since biblical times carried further hidden, deeper meaning. Copper, of course, represents small change — and nearly always has in the European context — which fits the overall story better than silver.

According to the canonical gospels, only someone like Judas would venerate the money for what it was — a Chrematistic tool directed at enriching himself at the expense of others.

Gary Richardson, University of California, Irvine

Rhodian tetradrachms were venerated as pieces of the original Judas wage all over Europe in the 15th century. Money was and often still is also frequently charged with some notion of magic, mishaps, or evil spells as well as, more positively, proliferation and fecundity. Since the earliest times coins were used as relics, cult objects, and objects of veneration; as cures and protection against ill-health, including epileptic spasms and dangerous childbirth. We also find practices involving the healing power of coins on Good Friday. From the days of King Edward ii , and presumably also Edward i , the English kings placed a handful of coins before the Cross of Neith, which was said to have contained splinters of the original cross upon which Jesus had been crucified.

Economic Ethics in Late Medieval England, 1300–1500 (Instant Digital Access Code Only)

Symbolic offerings resulted in the creation of metaphysical value. Johannes Rothe — related, around , the legend of how coins had originated. Upon the Great Deluge people exchanged their possessions against gold and silver to store value. Of course, coins also feature prominently in northern European folklore and fairy tales, where they were usually related to the creation of wealth in return for a soul promised to the Devil.

From the Black Death to the New World (c.1350–1500)

Coin hoards were often buried near graves or graveyards, which was an effective means of protection and concealment. If there is one thing we can be quite certain of, after recent research on the use of coins and particular types or classes of coins and moneys by particular social groups, actors, and classes, 16 it is that more often than not coined money did not completely fulfil the function of a means of expressing value, because coin value could be debated, negotiated and fought over quite frequently.

It accordingly did not always fulfil the criteria of acting as a safe store of value, either. And coined money frequently gave away conflicting messages, more often than not resulting in social conflict, up to the point of social unrest. Then their market or accepted value was discounted, their intrinsic value valor intrinsecus being lower than their imputed nominal value decreed by the government or ruler valor extrinsicus , valor impositus. During the Middle Ages coins represented the main share of monetary stock. They were usually made of some precious metal with the addition of some base metal.

On the one hand, it was physically impossible to produce pure silver or gold coins. On the other hand, the varying ratio of precious to base metal within a particular coin determined its purchasing power in the market.


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But silver and gold were marketable commodities in their own right. There were competing claims on this resource, apart from the state, which issued the money, and the financial markets that traded in coins and precious metal. Silver- and goldsmiths were also important in the competition for silver, catering inter alia for conspicuous consumption. The fine-tuning of monetary policy according to the needs of society and economy, as well as the fluctuations of the metal market, required very intricate techniques of metallurgy and minting.

Coins were struck in mints using quite primitive techniques. Silver and gold in the shape of old or foreign coins, raw gold and silver, bullion ingots , jewellery, and ornaments delivered to the mint were smelted, then transformed into sausage-like pieces or bars. There were as yet no machines or means of mechanizing parts of the process. Mintmasters also had to possess considerable metallurgical and financial knowledge.

Accordingly, they were usually recruited from the long-distance trading and merchant class, whose members had an intimate knowledge of the financial markets as well as the financial means to run such a high-profile business as a royal or princely mint. In the early and high Middle Ages, small-change coins, usually pennies, were imprinted only on one side, because they were too thin and too small to bear a double imprint. These circulated in a relatively restricted area, usually tied to a particular town or city with a weekly market.

They were meant to be carried around and handed over in transactions using small leather bags. These coins were frequently recalled and thus limited in terms of temporal validity, and were unknown in Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and the Low Countries. In later periods, as techniques developed, the European economy grew, and the hunger for cash expanded, larger denominations were struck, from shillings and groats grossus , pl.

However, hohlpfennige or bracteates of the old type remained in circulation in Saxony and many parts of central Europe into the 16th century. They often gave cause for unrest and anger, as their value and according purchasing power fluctuated heavily and could not be established accurately. This gave rise to negotiation, cheating and disputes. Muslim denarii or dirhams in the 8th and 9th centuries are said to have contained more than letters or characters at times; early modern coins could be much more primitive and less complex as containers of information.

This should caution us not to assume linearity in the technological process or progress of making coins: there were huge variations not only over time but also space, in terms of technique and quality of the circulating means of exchange. While it is obviously impossible and largely speaking unfeasible to determine the amount of money in circulation or the relation between coins cash and cashless means of payment credit, velocity of money in the overall monetary stock at any point in time or for any society or economy during the Middle Ages, coins represented the major part of the total money supply.

So the monetary stock was, during the Middle Ages, almost entirely represented by gold, silver, and copper embodied in coins; towards the later Middle Ages and during the 16th century both high-value or full-bodied money and small change tended to be dominated by silver. Gold florins fell more and more out of daily use but remained important for notation of obligations, payments, and dues, i.

The dawn of the modern period was also the dawn of the Silver Age. Gold and silver had competing uses for different purposes, such as jewellery, silverware, and other means of conspicuous consumption and saving. This did not exactly facilitate a stable or even secure supply of liquid means of circulation. In fact, it created numerous economic and social problems that were quite characteristic of the pre-modern age. During the early Middle Ages the only coin that existed physically was the penny or denarius d.

Only in later years, by the 13th century, would larger coins or multiples of the penny be minted, i. Neither the pound nor the shilling, however, actually existed physically, i. The Middle Ages thus had a clear understanding or monetary concept of virtual money, which is something very modern. Just recall that today the amount of virtual or book money in circulation far surpasses the amount of US dollars physically available in coins and bank notes both in as well as outside the United States!


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  • Here the boundaries between money and credit became fluid. In medieval times, at least in the urban commercial environment, people employed at least three different concepts of money. These could be various, sometimes to a bewildering degree. The third or most general concept was the monete di conto or money of account, i. This money of account was usually the libra-solidus system at 20 solidi to the pound or 21 groats to the florin or gulden in the German lands towards the end of the Middle Ages the groat being akin to the shilling in terms of its position on the nominal or monetary scale.

    From the 13th century onwards, with the quickening of economic life after the commercial revolution, larger coins were minted to represent multiples of the denarius. In France, the first gros tournois at 12 deniers containing 4. In England, groats were minted beginning in , and on a more sustained basis in They contained 3.

    The Venetian ducat , at 3. The purchasing power of a denarius or penny could be quite high. In the 7th or 8th century, it might have bought you as much as one sheep. But even in the later period, pennies could bear a high purchasing power, especially during times of deflation and economic depression in the urban market economies when the price level for consumables was low and unemployment high.

    Around the daily wage of a labourer in England could be as low as two denarii or pennies per day. But the monetary payment of wages was topped up by non-monetary components, including housing, clothing, and food. This perhaps illustrates best the slightly different position and role money had in society then compared to nowadays.

    Throughout the Middle Ages the shape, size, and form of the penny and its fractions such as the heller German half-penny , mite , and farthing one-quarter of a penny, England varied from region to region and across countries, time, and space. As we have seen above, around the Holy Roman Empire alone had open mints and only slightly fewer political authorities or states with the right to mint coins.

    This means that at any one point in time and space any individual would have in hand a plethora of different coins of diverse regional origin, age, and denomination. The varieties available could easily number several hundred.

    Economic Ethics in Late Medieval England, – - Ghent University Library

    As coins often travelled long distances and frequently crossed political borders, the composition of the monetary stock was varied and inhomogeneous. This power was derived from the amount of silver or gold the coins contained. Moreover, old coins coexisted alongside new ones. This created many economic and social problems, particularly within the medium- and low-size value spectrum, 29 where the intermingling of old, new, foreign, and native coins created difficulties of valuation and comparison which led to conflicts over small-change coin use in day-to-day transactions.

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