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13.10.12, Bolton, Money in the Medieval English Economy

13.10.12, Bolton, Money in the Medieval English Economy

For centuries observers have recognised a connection between the ready availability of money and the behaviour of prices, but the first half of the twentieth century saw this idea formalised in economic theory by Irving Fisher and in historiography by Earl J. Hamilton. However, from the 1950s historians of English prices were more influenced by concerns about the ratio of population to resources. Demographic factors were increasingly seen as the key influence on prices, and monetary considerations were largely discounted by mainstream historians. A few hardy souls such as Mavis Mate, and John Munro continued to protest the importance of monetary factors, but the prevailing historical orthodoxy promoted by the great M. M. Postan and his school saw thirteenth-century English prices driven by rising population and the threat of soil exhaustion. Soon after the Black Death population pressure obviously eased and prices stagnated till the sixteenth century saw population and prices rising once more.

Nevertheless, the late 1980s and 1990s did see a growing awareness among medieval historians of the burgeoning commercialism of English society, and, in the wake of this renewed consciousness of everyday buying and selling, came a revived interest in medieval money. John Day and Peter Spufford made the study of medieval money respectable, and a consensus developed which saw population as the driver of an increasingly monetised economy. Nevertheless, mainstream historians for the most part continued to shy away from monetary history, while conceding that in certain periods money may have been influential, only monetary specialists contended that the money supply had a major influence on prices, and on the economy as a whole, throughout the later middle ages.

That is why Bolton's book is something of a landmark. For the first time a mainstream historian of medieval England has asserted that the money supply was "one of the most important variables in the working of the economy" (304). Accordingly he has devoted a full- length historical monograph to the subject.

Bolton has tackled the task with very great thoroughness. Part I usefully addresses the theoretical underpinnings of the subject, though it is disappointing that he promotes the mistaken suggestion that monetary historians think money the sole determining factor in the economy. Part II provides a chronological account, which distinguishes three periods: A--973 to 1158, B--1158 to 1351, and C--1351 to 1489. The general historian might find these particular dates unfamiliar, since they mark important recoinages in England, but the three periods are identified with distinct phases of English monetary history. Bolton argues that Anglo-Saxon and Anglo- Norman England had "a monetised economy" but not of "a money economy." Peter Sawyer, who first drew attention to the wealth of Anglo-Saxon England, likewise did not represent Anglo-Saxon England as a money economy, though he was hugely impressed by the extent to which it was monetised. But there is a difference of tone between Bolton's treatment and Sawyer's. For one the monetary glass was half empty, for the other half full. While Sawyer needed to correct the misapprehensions of generations of early English historians who believed money payments, and indeed coin itself, was extremely rare, Bolton saw Anglo-Saxon money through the lens of the thirteenth and fourteenth century monetary booms. Bolton also lays much emphasis on the progress of literacy and numeracy in his second period B, though Anglo-Saxon specialists may feel that Bolton underestimates early English achievements in this field. Moreover, by treating the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman eras as a single period, there is some danger that the period as a whole may be coloured by the lower mint output of the later period, rather than by the very high coin production characteristic of the early eleventh century.

Period B--1158 to 1351 is characterised by Bolton unequivocally as the time when "a money economy" emerged, with dramatically increased money supply, credit, and record keeping, and this is surely right. However, though Bolton celebrates the role of money in this period, he remains convinced that it was population which drove the economy. Although he cites Langdon and Masschaele in his on-line bibliography, he does not address their suggestion that population could be the consequence of commercial activity and growth rather than its cause.

The final Period C--1351 to 1489, however, is one of the most puzzling in English economic history. Why did the economy take so long to recover from the long late medieval recession? The introduction of gold and of different silver denominations complicates our understanding of the money supply, but the fall in population after the Black Death must have increased per capita supplies of coin. Wages rose to reflect the shortage of labour, but prices remained sluggish throughout the later fourteenth and fifteenth century. Bolton accepts the shortage of, particularly silver, coin, which is so apparent from the mint output figures, but argues that credit arrangements prevented a monetary recession. Bolton's work on international credit allows him to speak with authority here, but he is challenged by Nightingale's work which shows that credit follows the rise and fall of the money supply, rather than compensating for it.

This work should be welcomed by historians as an even-handed statement of the role of money in the medieval economy, and celebrated by monetary specialists, since it finally accords their subject the importance it deserves. Even those who disagree with some of his judgements will recognise that Bolton attempts to present the evidence fairly, and most will now accept that any rounded study of the medieval English economy must encompass money supply, prices and wages, population levels and estimated GDP, rather than seizing on any single factor as a sole determining agent.