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Money in the Medieval English Economy: 973-1489

Author(s):Bolton, Jim
Reviewer(s):Munro, John

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Jim Bolton, Money in the Medieval English Economy: 973-1489.? Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.? xv + 317 pp.? $35 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-7190-5040-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Munro, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.

Embracing a most impressive range of research, cogently organized, penetrating in its analysis of all aspects of the medieval English economy related to money, and elegant in its prose, Bolton?s Money in the Medieval English Economy: 973-1489 is one of the most important books published in English medieval economic history during the past two decades.? Indeed, I do not know of any other comparable and equally comprehensive study of English medieval monetary history. The book is cast into two unequal parts.? Part I (pp. 3-86) is theoretical, beginning with the Fisher Identity and the relationships between money, population, and prices in the medieval economy, followed by uniformly excellent chapters on the roles of money in a developing market economy: in terms of? bullion supplies, coinage, and credit instruments.? The longer Part II (pp.? 87-309), analyses the changes in coinage and other forms of money, and then in more detail the changing roles of money in the actual economy, sector by sector, over three distinct eras: 973-1158, 1158-1351, and 1351-1489.
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This section thus begins with the monetary reforms of Edgar of Mercia, first to be crowned and remain king of England, in 973; and it ends with Henry VII?s issue of the first gold sovereign coin, representing the value of one pound sterling, in October 1489 (the shilling came later).? A far more logical end-point would have been the onset of Henry VIII?s Great Debasement in 1542-44, as in Martin Allen?s recent, magisterial Mints and Money in Medieval England (2012), to which Bolton acknowledges his great indebtedness. Manchester University Press?s severe space limitations evidently prevented Bolton from extending his study beyond 1489, and also from including his 25-page bibliography, now available only online (URL on p.? 310).
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Beyond the general objectives just outlined, Bolton?s book has two other major goals.? The first is achieved with great success: to prove, in chapters 6 and 7, that England did not acquire a fully-developed money economy until the era from 1158 to 1351, i.e., up to the onset of the Black Death.? In his fully justifiable view, a money economy essentially meant a well-functioning market economy, one that required not only a considerable expansion in the circulating coinage but also rapid population growth and the concomitant development of towns and villages with urban and regional fairs, the establishment of effective forms of royal taxation, the development of the requisite commercial, financial and legal institutions, especially those needed for various forms of credit; and for the latter, the spread of both literacy and numeracy.? He demonstrates that, while population growth from 1086 (Domesday Book) to 1300 at least doubled and may have tripled (from 2.0/2.5 million to 5.0/6.0 million), the money supply expanded by 27 to 40 fold: from ?25,000/?37,500 to more than ?1.0 million ? most of that from the 1220s, though attributing the major increases in coinage to the Central European silver mining booms of ca. 1160 to ca. 1230.? He cites Mayhew?s estimates (2004) that per capita GDP rose from ?0.18 in 1086 to ?0.78 in 1300 (and to ?1.52 in 1470: Table 9.2, p. 295). Depending on sources,? methodology, and population estimates, he contends that per capita supplies of silver coin rose from 3.2d/6.0d in 1042-1066 to 65.5d/101.3d in 1310 (Table 2.2, pp. 25-27).? Thereafter, the introduction of gold coinages (from 1343-51) created significant problems for both our estimates of money supplies and the well-being of the English domestic economy, especially since the English government consistently and seriously overvalued gold to the severe detriment of silver coinage supplies (in effect, England exported silver to acquire gold), given that silver coin was the chief mechanism for transacting domestic trade, wages, and other such payments.
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That problem, however, leads us to his second goal, for which he is much less successful: to refute the current ?monetarist? views that later fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England experienced severe monetary scarcities (whether seen in terms of stocks or flows), most especially in silver coin supplies.? A disclaimer is in order: I am evidently one of those so-called monetarists under attack.? The tenor of the book becomes most evident in his statement (p. 75) that: ?It [the money supply] was not the sole determining factor [of price levels] as monetarist historians argue.?? I do not know of anyone who now does so.? That negative viewpoint may be deduced from his lengthy discussion, in his opening chapter, of the well-known and much abused Fisher Identity: M.V = P.T.? Thus, if one accepts the view that changes in V (velocity) and T (volume of transactions) cancel each other out, one might deduce that the price level P ? usually measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) ? is directly and proportionately a function of changes in M.?? But, even if some historians still use this antiquated formula, few if any economists do so, preferring? the modernized version in the form M.V = P.y (the occasionally-used equation M.V = GNP is unacceptable as an analytical tool). In this version, y, representing real net national income (or output), thus replaces the completely unmeasurable T; and V thus becomes the income velocity of high-powered money (however defined). Most economists now prefer even more to use the Cambridge ?cash balances? approach, with a demand-for-money equation: M = k.P.y, in which M, P, and y remain the same, while k represents that proportion of national income that the public collectively chooses to hold in non-earning real cash balances, according to determinants of liquidity preference, so that k is often sensitive to changes in interest rates.? Mathematically k is the reciprocal of V.

As may be deduced from either (revised) formula, an expansion in M may have been offset by some decline in V (with a lesser need to economize on coin use) and thus by some increase in k, and also by an increase in y:? especially if an increased M led to a decline in interest rates (with no changes in liquidity preference) and to a greater stimulus for investment and trade, so that P would have risen less than proportionately, if at all.? But the converse was not necessarily true, for the various forces contracting monetary stocks may also have constricted monetary flows: i.e., also reducing V and thereby increasing k.? These revised formulae clearly demonstrate that any analysis of changes in the price levels requires a detailed understanding of changes in both money stocks and money flows (especially liquidity preferences) but also changes in the real economy, as represented by y:? i.e., changes in population, technology, economic organizations, real capital investments, etc.? In my recent publications involving coinage debasements, I have sought to prove that in late-medieval and early-modern Europe, increases in M never resulted in proportional increases in the price level, even during Henry VIII?s Great Debasement (Munro 2011, 2012a, 2012b). None of this constitutes the supposed ?monetarism? that Bolton portrays, except to indicate that ?money matters? (a proposition that Bolton admittedly never denies).
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Bolton?s specific goal, in the final two chapters, 8 and 9, is to prove that increases in the supply and use of various credit instruments fully offset the two supposed ?bullion famines?: those from ca. 1375 to ca. 1420 and from ca. 1440 to ca. 1480.? Indeed, his focus on the expanding role of credit allows him fully to accept the nature and extent of these two ?bullion famines? as portrayed by so-called ?monetarists,? in contrast to the published views of the current group of ?anti-monetarist? historians (such as Sussman 1990, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2003).? He thus accepts the three prevailing theses to explain that coinage scarcity: a severe decline in outputs of European silver and gold mines; the disruptions in the trans-Saharan African gold trade to the Mediterranean; and increased bullion outflows to the East, particularly for purchases of Asian spices and other luxury goods.? But this third thesis seems inconsistent with his view that late-medieval England always enjoyed a surplus in its balance of payments with the continent. I myself am far from convinced that any payments deficit with the East, so chronic from Roman times, became proportionately worse during the later-Middle Ages, especially because the specific evidence adduced in favor of this thesis (from Ashtor 1971, 1983) comes from the 1490s, when the Central European mining boom, having commenced in the 1460s (peaking in the 1530s) was supplying vast new quantities of silver to promote increased Venetian trade with the Levant (Munro 2003a).? The more significant of these factors, therefore, may have been the reduction in European inflows of African gold, from the 1370s: a trade that the Portuguese later sought to restore, from the 1440s, and with considerable success from the 1470s.
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What Bolton neglects to consider as a major factor in these ?bullion famines? is changes in Cambridge k (and thus in V): i.e., an increased liquidity preference in the form of hoarding ? not by burying precious metals in the ground but by converting them into plate and jewelry, readily changeable back to coin, in times of war-induced taxation.? The one (other) historian who has given such emphasis to changes in liquidity preference and hoarding (?thesaurisation?), as a reaction to general economic pessimism and risk aversion in times of chronic plague, other forms of depopulation, economic contraction and periodic depressions, is Peter Spufford (1988); but Spufford still places greater emphasis on the roles of the European mining slump and bullion outflows to the East.

Bolton obviously does not wish to entertain the Spufford thesis ? which necessarily implies a decrease in the income velocity of money ? because he seeks to show that an increased use of credit fully offset the bullion famines by increasing either V or M or both.? In this debate, on the role of credit, his chief opponent is Pamela Nightingale (1990, 1997, 2004, 2010), and indeed the two have continued this debate is recent issues of the British Numismatic Journal (2011, 2013).? I continue to support Nightingale.? That might seem obvious for one accused of being a ?monetarist,? so that readers of this review must judge for themselves by a careful examination of their respective publications (and the others cited here).? In my view, Bolton fails to refute or contradict Nightingale?s two major propositions.? The first, and most important, is that the supply of credit remained essentially a function of the coined money supply, because most (if not all) credit transactions depended on the use of coin, and especially on the creditor?s confidence of being fully repaid in coin:? so that credit generally expanded with increases in the coined money supply and conversely contracted with any decline in the supply or circulation of coined money, often disproportionately.? On this important issue, Nightingale receives full support from many other monetary historians: Peter Spufford (1988), Nicholas Mayhew (1974, 1987, 1995, 2004), Reinhold Mueller (1984: for Italy), Frank Spooner (1972: for France), and most recently (if less strongly) Chris Briggs (for England: 2008, 2009).? Nightingale?s? second proposition, also endorsed by most of these historians, is that the wide variety of credit instruments used in late-medieval England were not yet negotiable, and thus, while affecting velocity (V), they did could not and did not add to the money supply (M) ? though the differences between the two may here be moot.? To be sure, many of these credit instruments were, and long had been, assignable ? transferable to third parties.? But as Eric Kerridge (1988) ? whom Bolton cites for other purposes ? long ago stressed: ?transferability is not negotiability,? a point that Michael Postan had also earlier made (1928, 1930), despite Bolton?s assertions to the contrary. The fully developed legal institutions required for secure negotiability of commercial bills, in protecting the full rights of assignees and bearers to claim and enforce payment on redemption, were first established in the Habsburg Netherlands by imperial legislation enacted in 1537 and 1541, as Herman Van der Wee has clearly demonstrated (1963, 1967, 1975, 2000),? Not until the early seventeenth century do we find comparable full-fledged English acceptance of negotiability and no national legislation until the Promissory Notes Act of 3 & 4 Anne c. 8 (1704).
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Equally essential for full negotiability was the legal acceptance of discounting, a problem related to the issue of usury, given short shrift not only by Bolton but also by Nightingale and most other financial historians (except, notably, De Roover 1967, also in Kirschner 1974).? To be sure, we may fairly assume that many medieval creditors did disguise interest in a loan by increasing the amount stipulated for repayment; but disguising such implicit interest was far more difficult to achieve in discounting (selling a bill for less than face value before redemption).? As Van der Wee has also demonstrated for the Habsburg Netherlands, discounting, along with multiple transfers by endorsement, spread only after an imperial ordinance, issued in October 1540, explicitly permitted interest payments on commercial loans up to 12%.? He also demonstrated that nominal interest rates in the Netherlands dropped sharply in this era, by almost half: from 20.5% in 1511-15 to 11.0% in 1566-70; real rates dropped even further with the inflation of the Price Revolution.? Similarly, according Norman Jones (1989), an even sharper fall in English interest rates on commercial bills took place after Elizabeth I, in 1571, restored her father?s abortive statute (1545) permitting interest payments up to 10%: from about 30% in the 1560s to 10% by 1600, with further declines in the seventeenth century, to about 5% (see also Homer and Sylla 1997, pp. 89-143; Munro 2012c).? Bolton has also not taken account of the significantly increased restrictions on the use of credit in fifteenth century England, from both anti-usury and bullionist legislation, and also the prevailing social attitudes that remained deeply imbedded until the early Stuart era. As Lawrence Stone (1965) so aptly commented on Elizabethan England: ?Money will never become freely or cheaply available in a society which nourishes a strong moral prejudice against the taking of any interest at all. ? If usury on any terms, however reasonable, is thought to be a discreditable business, men will tend to shun it, and the few who practise it will demand a high return for being generally regarded as moral lepers.?
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If we were to accept, instead, Bolton?s contentions that an increased use of credit fully offset the coined money scarcity evident in the two bullion famines, then we would then be hard pressed to explain the sharp deflation of these two periods.? Bolton evidently sees no need to do so, for his book, most surprisingly, contains no tables or graphs on the price level (CPI); he provides only one price graph, on relative prices for just wheat and oxen, from 1160 to 1350 (p. 183).? Demographic decline cannot itself explain the periods of deflation (apart from its possible impact on V).? For note that the Black Death (1348-49), quickly reducing population by about 40%, was followed by three decades of rampant inflation: when the Phelps Brown and Hopkins CPI (1451-75 = 100) rose from a quinquennial mean of 85.53 in 1341-45 to one of 136.40 in 1366-70, falling slightly to 127.35 in 1371-75.? Thereafter, the CPI fell to a low of 103.70 in 1421-25, for an overall decline of 23.94%, despite the 16.67% silver debasement of 1411-12.? Rising thereafter to a peak of 124.22 in 1436-40, the CPI fell by 25.40 % during the second ?bullion famine?: to a nadir of 92.667 in 1476-80, again despite the 20.0% silver debasement of 1464.? Recent alternative historical consumer prices indexes ? those by Robert Allen (2001) and Gregory Clark (2004, 2007), neither cited by Bolton ? show the same patterns of inflation and deflation demonstrated in the older Phelps Brown and Hopkins Composite Price index (1956, 1981: revised by Munro).
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Bolton consequently does not take full account of the negative economic consequences of deflation.? If all relative prices had moved together in tandem, with proportional changes, then neither deflation nor inflation would matter. But price changes have never done so, especially factor prices in relation to commodity prices.? In general, deflation raises the burden of factor costs for borrowers and entrepreneurs, while inflation reduces that cost burden.? The most familiar such phenomenon is downward nominal-wage stickiness ? so widespread throughout Western Europe, unaffected by demographic factors, and persistent in England itself until 1920 (Smith 1776/1937; Phelps Brown and Hopkins 1955/1981; Munro 2003b).? But nominal interest rates and land rents were generally also sticky in this era, especially when defined by contracts, though for much shorter periods.? Thus all these real factor costs rose, at least in the short run, with the fall in the Consumer Price Index. If creditors were more reluctant to lend in times of monetary scarcity and depression, for fear of non-payment, debtors were also reluctant to borrow more in facing prospects of higher real costs in payments of both interest and the principal.? For both creditors and debtors that reluctance, in especially the mid fifteenth century, may have been due as much to the adverse circumstances of the commercial depressions that accompanied that bullion ?famine? and deflation (Hatcher 1996; Nightingale 1997; Bois 2000).
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A final problem, and one that pervades much of the book, concerns the proper distinctions between bullion, coinage, and moneys-of-account, and the closely related problem of coin debasements.? Bolton ought to have followed the model set forth long ago by Sir Albert Feavearyear (1931/1963), whose absence from the bibliography is astonishing.? By this model, silver and gold coins, bearing the official stamp of the ruler, generally circulate by tale (official face value), commanding an agio or premium over bullion.? That agio represents the sum of the minting costs of brassage (for the mint-master) and seigniorage (a tax for the ruler), added to the mint?s bullion price; but also, for the public, it represents their savings on transaction costs in not having to weigh the coins and assay their proper fineness.? As Douglass North (1984, 1985) has demonstrated, transaction costs are always subject to considerable scale economies: thus they are a major burden in small-scale, low-valued silver transactions in retail trade and wage payments, but far less so in very large volume, high-valued transactions, especially those involving gold in wholesale and foreign trade and major debt transactions.? Bolton is very ambiguous on whether coins circulated by weight or by tale, ignoring the scale economies of transactions, but seemingly supporting the former view (despite his evidence presented on pp. 120-21).?
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An increased tendency for coins to be accepted only by weight, in higher-valued transactions, arose when the quality of the circulating coinage inevitably deteriorated over the years and decades following a general recoinage: when its silver contents diminished through normal wear and tear, but especially when? the coinage became more and more corrupted by the nefarious practices of clipping, ?sweating? and counterfeiting ? none of which would? have been profitable had coins earlier circulated by weight. Such deterioration, the loss of public confidence, and growing refusals to accept coins by tale meant that all coins lost their former agio, with four consequences.? First, merchants, still accepting coins by tale, sought compensation for perceived silver losses by raising their prices; second, good, higher-weight coins were culled and hoarded or exported, often in exchange for foreign counterfeits (Gresham?s Law); and third, bullion ceased to flow to the mints, so that the king lost? his seigniorage revenues.? Fourth, the king consequently had no alternative but to debase his coinage to bring it in alignment with the current depreciated circulation, thereby restoring the agio and resuming the flow of bullion to the mints.? In Feavearyear?s view, this purely defensive reaction to coinage deterioration explains all English silver debasements before Henry VIII?s Great Debasement of 1542-52: in particular, the 10.00% silver reduction of 1351; the 16.66% reduction of 1411/12; the 20.00% reduction of 1464; and the 11.11% reduction of 1526 ? so that fine silver content of the penny fell from 1.332 g in 1279 to just 0.639 g in 1526.? Henry VIII?s Great Debasement was undertaken, however, for purely fiscal motives (as had long been the continental pattern): to augment seigniorage revenues. But the evidence on seigniorage rate changes indicates that such fiscal motives had also prevailed in Edward IV?s silver and gold debasements of 1464-65 (Munro 2011).
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None of this analysis or any credible explanation for debasement can be readily found in Bolton, who even denies that English kings debased their coinages before the Great Debasement, on the overly literal grounds that the sterling silver fineness (92.5%) was always maintained (except for the 1336 issue of 10 dwt halfpence = 83.33% silver halfpence).? Almost all monetary historians define debasement instead as the reduction of the quantity of fine silver or gold in the money-of-account unit (pence, pound). That was achieved by a diminution in fineness (adding more base metal), and/or by a reduction in weight ? but also, for gold coins, by an increase in their official exchange rates.? Thus Edward IV?s initial debasement of gold in August 1464 was achieved by increasing the value of the traditional, physically-unchanged gold noble, from 6s 8d to 8s 4d.? In this respect, I also regret the absence, for a book on money in the medieval economy, of tables on English mint outputs (except for one graph on the Calais mint), in both pounds sterling and kilograms of fine metals, with related details on specific coinage issues in terms of weight, fineness, and mint charges ? though much of that information can be found in both Christopher Challis (1992) and Martin Allen (2011, 2012). ???
Other readers may, however, place much less emphasis on the issues raised in this review; and some, suspecting an unwarranted ?monetarist? bias in this review, may well support Bolton?s views, especially on the role of credit in the late-medieval economy.? Indeed, I must stress the significant contributions that Bolton has made in this field, especially those based on his ongoing research on the Borromei bankers (Milan), and the roles of other Italian merchant-banking firms in both English foreign and domestic trade, i.e. in London. As I indicated at the outset of the review, this book is one of the most important published in English economic history in the past two decades, and one in which the virtues well outweigh the defects.? I recommend that you buy it; if so, get the online bibliography now, before it disappears from the web.

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Van der Wee, Herman (1975), ?Monetary, Credit, and Banking Systems,? in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, Vol. V: The Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe, ed. E. E. Rich and Charles Wilson.? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 290-393.

Van der Wee, Herman (2000), ?European Banking in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (476-1789),? in A History of European Banking, 2nd edn., ed. Herman Van der Wee and G. Kurgan-Van Hentenrijk,? Antwerp: Mercator, pp. 152-80.

John Munro is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto, specializing in the economic history of the late-medieval Low Countries and England, with a focus on money and textiles.? His recent publications in monetary history (2011 – 2012) are listed in the bibliography above; he has also recently published:? ?The Rise, Expansion, and Decline of the Italian Wool-Based Cloth Industries, 1100 -1730:? A Study in International Competition, Transaction Costs, and Comparative Advantage,? Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 3rd series, 9 (2012), 45-207.

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval