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Money and society

Money and Society from late Antiquity to the Financial Revolution

Dr M Allen and Others

  • Have we experienced the first 'Credit Crunch' in human history?
  • Where did the modern financial 'system' come from?
  • Can you have a society without money?

Money has a crucial role in our lives today, and it has had a profound influence upon the history of human societies, but it is often neglected by historians. Fortunately there is nothing difficult or esoteric about the study of money in society, and there is no need to become an economic historian or a sociologist to do it.

This option covers the period from the establishment of Barbarian kingdoms and the Byzantine Empire to the beginnings of the modern financial system, but a detailed knowledge of medieval or early modern history is not required. The course is concerned with money in its widest sense, including coinage, credit, commerce and banking.

This course provides a rare opportunity for history students to engage with material culture, such as coins, as well as with more conventional primary and secondary sources. The classes are held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which has one of the greatest collections of coins in the world, and there will be opportunities to see many coins and historical artefacts at first hand.

Course website [Access restricted to registered course participants]
Fitzwilliam Museum Department of Coins and Medals website
Introductory reading:

  • Philip Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  • Philip Grierson, 'Numismatics', in James M. Powell, ed., Medieval Studies. An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 114-61.
  • Peter Spufford, Money and its use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  • Jonathan Williams with Joe Cribb and Elizabeth Errington, eds, Money. A History (London: British Museum Press, 1997).
The Classes are as follows:


1. Introduction to Money and Society

The use of money is so universal in the modern world that it is easy to take it for granted, without much thought about how it works or where it came from. The growth of electronic means of payment and the decline of the use of cash in recent years has shown, however, that there is nothing immutable about the forms that money can take, and the current 'Credit Crunch' shows what can happen when money malfunctions.

Cowrie shells used as currency

Until the invention of coinage in the seventh century BC, and in many parts of the world until recently, commodities of various kinds performed some of the functions of money as we now understand them. Commodities could be used as a means of exchange, to obtain other goods, and as a standard of value (for example, something could be worth a specified number of cattle). Some commodities (such as precious metal objects) could be used as a store of value, if they could be kept for long periods without deterioration or loss of value. Coins fulfilled all of these functions more conveniently than any form of commodity money, and their use was fundamental to the development of trade and state formation in the ancient and medieval worlds. The use of money took a further major leap forward with the spread of paper money and banking in the early modern period, laying the foundations for the financial systems familiar to us today.

2. Coinage and currency in early medieval Europe

A seventh-century hoard of Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian gold coins

This class focuses on the Early Middle Ages (fifth to eleventh centuries), a period when the written sources relating to money and its use are sparse and can only be understood when compared with the evidence of the surviving coinage and the archaeological record. The session will concentrate on coinage and material culture as a primary source of historical evidence. While structuring our discussion around sources, we will be looking for answers to a range of general questions about monetary circulation, such as: Where, when and by whom were coins struck? What was the purpose of coinage, and what incentives did the authorities have to issue it and the people have to use it? To what degree of regulation was there over the production and initial distribution of coinage, and the subsequent use of it? Were old coins or foreign coins banned? Were there fluctuations in the amount of coinage in circulation, and what effect did this have on the way people carried out transactions and on the economy generally?

3. Monetary circulation and economic development in the Byzantine Empire

Justinian II (first reign, 685-695), gold solidus
This class will examine the relationship between economic and monetary conditions in the Byzantine Empire, focusing in particular on the issue of Byzantium's seventh-century crisis, when the empire suffered major territorial contraction and large scale de-urbanisation. The extent to which a monetary economy survived this period of crisis, and how it was able to recover in the context of military and political stabilisation, will be examined through consideration of both numismatic and written sources.

4. Merchants and money in Italy during the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, c. 1000-1500

Woodcut from an Italian merchants' manual of 1490, showing a bank in Florence
With the take-off of the Commercial Revolution in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Italian merchant activity began to take on a more structured character. Itinerant merchants still plied the trunk routes, carrying their goods between important markets, fairs, and cities, just as they had during the early Middle Ages. From the twelfth century onwards, however, the great merchant-banking companies of northern and central Italy established far-ranging networks with a central office in the home city and permanent branch offices in foreign cities, giving rise to the rapid expansion of long-distance or international trade. At the same time, local banking and trade also grew.


5. Money in medieval England I: The use of money in urban and rural society, 1086-c. 1500

Market stalls in a fifteenth-century manuscript

In this class we shall investigate three themes. The first theme is the crucial role of money in the development of England's urban economy, from the time of Domesday Book to the late medieval period. The second theme is the increasing use of money in the countryside. We will consider the role of commercialisation in the changes to be observed in the organization of life on the English rural manor. In Domesday Book the land yields a complex mixture of money rents, commodities and labour services. By the time of the Black Death rural life is increasingly dominated by the sale of produce and wage labour, to pay rents, manorial obligations converted to cash, and taxes. The third and final theme is the role of government. The sources show English medieval governments regulating the quality of the coinage, severely punishing mint officials blamed for making bad coins and taking measures against the import of foreign money. We will consider what effect these actions may have had upon the economy, and what they reveal about prevailing attitudes to money.

6. Money in medieval England II: Credit, debt and usury; the state and the money supply

Quentin Matsys (1464/5-1530), A Money-lender and his Wife, c. 1514

This session focuses on two broad themes: the use of credit, and the role of the state in the monetary economy. These themes are set against the background of the Hundred Years War, and the dramatic population change wrought by the Black Death of 1348-9. We shall look first at the use of credit in town and country, concentrating in particular on the link between credit supply and the shortage of coin. The state extracted money from the urban and rural economy by taxation, which could be a principal cause of shortages of coin, as well as redistributing money by expenditure. We shall examine the lay subsidies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the records of which provide important evidence for the distribution of wealth, and later developments in taxation (especially the Poll Taxes of 1377-81).

7. Early modern coins and credit

Halfpenny token of 'John Dod at the Red Hart and Antelop in Cambridge', 1667

This class will examine the strains put on the circulating gold and silver currency in the seventeenth century by an expanding market economy. We shall examine currency shortages as well as the nature of problems with the circulating coins, as well as the use of tokens. We will also look at some writings of Daniel Defoe on the use of credit and the problems of trust.

8. The currency crisis of the 1690s and the Financial Revolution

The Bank of England in its first premises at Grocers' Hall, 1695

In this class we will examine the currency crisis of the mid 1690s, brought about by the cost of the war with France, which resulted in the Great Recoinage of 1696 and the creation of the Bank of England. We will also look at the some of the contending literature on banks published in the period, as well as Defoe's ideas about state credit.