Alan M. Stahl

title.none: Wood, ed., Medieval Money Matters (Alan M. Stahl)

identifier.other: baj9928.0508.015 05.08.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alan M. Stahl, Princeton University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Wood, Diana, ed. Medieval Money Matters. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2004. Pp. ix, 86. ISBN: $36.00 1-84217-146-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.08.15

Wood, Diana, ed. Medieval Money Matters. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2004. Pp. ix, 86. ISBN: $36.00 1-84217-146-1.

Reviewed by:

Alan M. Stahl
Princeton University

"Economic history without even an attempt at quantification makes a pretty thin brew." This apology (p. 74) by Nicholas Mayhew for the approximations and assumptions he uses to attempt even a rough outline of the monetization of England in the later Middle Ages speaks to the dilemma of medieval economic history and qualms about it on the part of both medievalists and economic historians. In recent decades, many medievalists have come to eschew the positivistic, even mechanistic, assumptions of economic history in favor of a more interpretive and subjective approach to the history of the age. For their part, economic historians have become increasingly insistent on the kinds of continuous series of data that are simply unavailable for the pre-modern period. Nevertheless, medieval Europe did have an economy, and historians can hardly claim to understand the age if they depend solely on anecdotal sources for interpreting its economic phenomena.

One of the chief obstacles to performing the kind of analysis that would meet the requirements of medievalists and economists alike is the complexity of the monetary situation in Medieval Europe. At least from the late Carolingian period on, the continent was home to a dizzying array of coinages produced by kings, lords, ecclesiastics and communes, often varying in standard from town to town and from year to year, with disparate issues circulating side by side. Even in cases where data on wages, prices and production are relatively continuous and trustworthy, monetary considerations are often so complex (and the relevant bibliography so obscure or inadequate) that scholars are justifiable wary of producing the kind of analyses that would allow comparisons across geographical or chronological boundaries. What economic analysis is published is often on a highly restricted range of times and places, and sweeping assessments of economic developments are generally left to (or often left out of) general overviews that can avoid a discussion of the limitations of the sources.

If any area of medieval Europe provides the potential for usable quantitative monetary and economic analysis, it is post-Conquest England. In England, coinage was a simple regalian right, with all mints issuing at the same standard and foreign coinage (usually) effectively banned from circulation. From the reign of Henry II on, the coinage was kept very consistent, with only a few changes of weight and appearance in the succeeding three centuries. Even denominations higher than the silver penny did not come into regular circulation until the mid-fourteenth century, and these were directly tied to the sterling standard. The production of English medieval coinage is also better documented than most others, and numismatists there have applied themselves assiduously to the chronology and the volume of undocumented issues. Most of the literature on English medieval coinage has, however, been written and read by a relatively small group of specialists and has only rarely served as the basis for discussions of more general economic phenomena.

One needs to look only to Domesday Book and the great series of pipe rolls and manorial court records to appreciate how well endowed medieval England is with the kinds of data that beg to be submitted to a quantitative analysis for inferences on the economy. Several books in the past decade have sought to assess the role of various factors in the overall development of the medieval English economy. In The Commercialisation of English Society 1000-1500 (Cambridge: CUP, 1993) [TMR 98.06.06], Richard H. Britnell conducts a large-scale survey that stresses the interaction of a range of factors in this development and argues against the overriding importance of population growth that some historians have identified as the principal engine of commercialization. A volume of studies that is to some extent a companion to that book, R. H. Britnell and B. M. S. Campbell, eds., A Commercialising Economy, England 1086 to c.1300 (Manchester: MUP, 1995), features an essay by Nicholas Mayhew, "Modelling medieval monetisation," which sets forth the monetarist case that improvements in the supply and circulation of coinage were important contributory factors to the growth of a commercial economy in the later Middle Ages. A caution against placing too much emphasis on monetary (or demographic) growth as an causative force is a significant element of the theoretical argument of John Hatcher and Mark Bailey in Modelling the Middle Ages; The History and Theory of England's Economic Development (Oxford: OUP, 2001) [TMR 02.09.32].

The five articles in the volume under review here examine the data and theories on the growth in the supply of medieval English money to assess its contribution to the development of the economy as a whole. The authors discuss the assumptions and results of numismatic analysis as well as a wide variety of documentary sources. There is much overlap as well as divergence of opinion in the articles, but taken together they do provide an overview of issues relating to the development of the monetary economy of medieval England.

In his article "What is money? What is a money economy? When did a money economy emerge in medieval England?" James L. Bolton cites classical anthropological and economic definitions to answer his first question, lists a series of criteria for the second (again from the standard literature), and then examines a wide range of evidence to come to the conclusion that a money economy can be identified in England with the achievement in 1300 of an average of 36 pennies per person in the circulating money supply, up from only 6 pennies in the year 1000.

In "Uses of money in medieval Britain," Richard Britnell traces the monetization of the English economy in the substitution of coin for labor and payment in kind in estate records, the development and diversification of local market places, and the inclusion of movables along with land in tax assessments, all of which events he likewise sees as culminating around the year 1300. He also deals with developments in prices, reporting (p. 24) a rise in the price of ale from 9 to 10 gallons per penny in 1200 to only 20 pints per penny in 1300, a dubious comparison which could stand as a caution of the limitations of inferences derived from the use of scanty data from incommensurate sources.

The fiscal profit from coinage, or seigneurage, figures in Martin Allen's essay "The English currency and the commercialization of England before the Black Death." Allen notes the benefit to royal revenues from Henry II's introduction of an unchanging coinage, but faults it for increasing the presence of worn and otherwise underweight coins in the circulating currency.

"Money and credit in the economy of late medieval England" by Pamela Nightingale presents a detailed examination of the late fourteenth-century account book of Gilbert Maghfield as the basis for an evaluation of the role that credit had in the overall money supply, especially in the face of what has generally been seen as a contraction of circulating specie in the later Middle Ages. She uses rather sweeping extrapolations and comparisons with modern phenomena to estimate that the value of all credit in late medieval England was about half that of the circulating coinage. She concludes that credit acted as a general multiplier of the size of the circulating coinage, contracting in the face of the fear of a shortage of coin and expanding in periods of confidence in its abundance.

In "Coinage and money in England, 1086--c.1500," Nicholas Mayhew re-examines the issues he dealt with in his 1995 article, stressing the limitations of moving from quantitative assessments of minting to the supply of bullion, and from bullion to the growth of trade. He proposes modifications to the application of the classic Fisher equation relating money supply to the price structure, especially in terms of the variable usually expressed as V, the velocity of circulation. He sees in the drop of V (considered by him to be a variable dependent on the factors of money supply, price structure and GDP) in the course of the Middle Ages an index of the increase in monetization of the English economy.

Though the attempts at quantification adduced in these essays do not solve all of the problems of applying monetary analyses to the Middle Ages, they do show that the brew served up by a careful extrapolation from existing documentary and numismatic sources produces a deeper understanding of economics developments than could have resulted from a more conservative approach.