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Handbook of the History of Money and Currency

Editor(s):Battilossi, Stefano
Cassis, Youssef
Yago, Kazuhiko
Reviewer(s):Connors, Duncan

Published by EH.Net (July 2022).

Stefano Battilossi, Youssef Cassis, and Kazuhiko Yago, eds. Handbook of the History of Money and Currency. Singapore: Springer, 2020. xv + 1,109 pp. $799.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-9811305955.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Duncan Connors, DBA Programme, Otago Business School, University of Otago.


When teaching the history of economic thought, I often ask this question in the first lecture: ‘What is money?’ Invariably the answer is a simplistic, thought-terminating cliché, ‘It’s a means of exchange, of course!’ and the students smile with an all-knowing expression. Needless to state, I do not play nice and during the following hour demonstrate that money, and by association finance and economics, is far more complex, diverse, and multifaceted than an average 18-year-old can possibly comprehend. Such is the condition of modern secondary education; many undergraduates (even postgraduates) lack an appreciation of the history and evolution of finance as an activity. There is, however, an antidote in the form of the Handbook of the History of Money and Currency, a collection of the latest work in the field that has an introductory research role as well as a pedagogical one.

The Handbook can be commended for the high level of synthesis between the many components. Indeed, when forming an academic ‘supergroup,’ the goal has to be more akin to the impeccable harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) and not so much the extended solos of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), whose members travelled to concerts in separate limos and played very long individual solos because, frankly, they did not enjoy one another’s company. This can be seen in many academic collections, which sometimes strike a discordant note as chapters follow their own paths at times divergent from the overall aim of the text. The fascinating synergies found within the Handbook, however, can be witnessed from the very first section on the origins of money, where Michael Hudson, Colin P. Elliot, and Bill Maurer complement one another’s work on the early origins of money, a trend that continues throughout the text, helped in no small part by Stefan Battilossi and Kazuhiko Yago’s comprehensive introduction that by outlines the complementary aspects of each contribution to the Handbook, hence the text is more CSNY than ELP. This approach allows the student or academic using this book as an introduction to monetary history not only to appreciate the chronological evolution of money but also the economic, or perhaps philosophic aspects of the subject.

An example of this comes from choosing to open the text with Michael Hudson’s chapter on the origins of money that started with a joyous debunking of the ‘myth of barter’ (something which again every 18-year-old economics and finance student should be made aware of) that proceeded to demonstrate that debt likely existed before money by using a thought experiment akin to those employed by the late (and much missed) David Graeber at the London School of Economics: how can barter work if grain has not been harvested or livestock cannot travel in 30-degree heat during a Levantine mid-summer? The pragmatic and practical answer is that it cannot and therefore the first lesson about the nature of money itself has been imparted. This is important from both a pedagogical and research perspective as student and academic alike still cling to the notions of barter being utilised by early humans that were put forth by Aristotle and Adam Smith, despite the lack of evidence for such a view. This is a good way to start the text as it outlines the motivation of those trying to create stable and purposeful money over many millennia: to produce an item recognised for its value and remains so over time.

However, as W. Stanley Jevons and Carl Menger pointed out, value is subjective and can be based as much on utility as status, and this fluidity is discussed throughout the text, not just in the final sections dedicated to exchange rates, attempts at integration, central banking, monetary banking and aggregate price shocks (this final section appeared incongruous on first reading but in actualité acts as a fascinating segue into the current ‘crypto’ age) but throughout the text. One notable example of this can be found within the sections dedicated to the development of money in Asia, notably because until relatively recently developments in Asia were barely touched upon by western focused historians of financial and monetary history. Yohei Kakinuma’s chapter on the monetary system in ancient China is a particularly fascinating and welcome addition to the literature. The chapter covers early paper money, the ‘rise and fall’ hypothesis, and the complementary yet completely different currencies – silk, gold, and coin, the use of which depended on circumstances, status and geography. It is reasonable to argue that our understanding of monetary systems is constrained within a western theoretical bias and, consequently, just as recent research has challenged notions of barter used in early societies, the study of ancient Chinese currencies and other monetary developments over many millennia could add to our understanding of the evolution of early money.

This chapter leads onto work by Niv Horesh and Hisashi Takagi on the later period of monetary consolidation within China and Japan that led to currencies, once both nations had opened to trade with the western powers, based upon the Mexican (formerly Spanish) Silver Dollar. Indeed, on this point it could also be argued that the post-Enlightenment era of burgeoning trade and empire led to increased effort to standardise a common metric for currencies, what in geographic or navigational terms would be referred to as a datum: a base mark or reference point from which all measurements are taken. That the Silver Dollar in the late 18th century was a truly international currency and the basis of the US Dollar as well as the Chinese Yuan and Japanese yen (Indeed it was the basis for currencies across Asia) suggests a desire, at both government and commercial levels, for a monetary consistency that transcends time and borders, an important feature of a pre-telegraph and radio era global economy where transactions were drawn out along temporal and geographic lines. These trends are discussed in detail within the sections on exchange rate regimes and monetary integration, with notably fascinating chapters by Peter Kugler and Tobias Straumann on the Bretton Woods system, Catherine Schenk on the Sterling Area, and Anders Ögren on currency unions. The latter chapter is worthy of note for its analytical use of Robert Mundell’s ‘Optimal Currency Area’ to draw historical lessons from the Latin Monetary Union (LMU) of 1865 and the Scandinavian Currency Union (SCU) of 1873 that could be applied to the European Monetary Union and the euro. It should be noted, however, that despite the LMU starting out as a bimetallist system which included silver and gold (until 1878 after Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, treasurer of the Papal States decided to debase its silver coinage to increase the supply of gold) that ultimately both unions were a response to a burgeoning gold standard in global trade in the mid to late 1800s. This could have been discussed in more detail and linked into the chapter on the Gold Standard by Lawrence H. Officer.

The final section of the text, on aggregate price shocks, was very welcome and, with Richard C. K. Burdekin’s contribution on deflation, very timely. However, monetary history can be described as a series of epochs between repeated crisis and this section could have been more extensive, including work on collapse of Bretton Woods, hyperinflation in Latin America and the post-Soviet sphere or even the global financial crisis that invariably follow the declaration of war (Richard Roberts, the pre-eminent history on the financial crisis of 1914 is sadly no longer with us and I was left wondering what contribution he might have made to this section). Indeed, discussion of such events could have segued well into some of the economic theories and models that were absent in this text. This is a very important point (particularly as we re-enter an age of inflation after COVID-19 and the events in the Ukraine) as reiteration of the circular nature of financial and monetary history could have been more informative to academic and students alike, particularly additional contributions on aggregate price shocks and rapid changes in the value of money over very short time frames.

This book is a welcome addition to the field. The juxtaposition of synthesis with new and orginal thought on the subject is welcome as many similar texts in related disciplines have in the past have been victims either of groupthink or provided a series of fractious contributions that are hard for the reader to reconcile. The editors of the Handbook of the History of Money and Currency, Stefano Battilossi, Youssef Cassis, and Kazuhiko Yago, have created an exceptional resource for both the research community, particularly doctoral students in the field or those working in related disciplines, as well as for those of us who teach the history of economic thought and the development of finance. If there is one criticism which could be levelled at the text, it is that the discussion of economic theories related to the evolution and perceptions of money were touched upon only fleetingly and a wider acknowledgement of meso-level social trends would have been equally welcome. Nevertheless, this is an important and substantial contribution and is a recommended read for all those working within the field of monetary history.


Duncan Connors is Senior Lecturer at the DBA Programme at Otago Business School, University of Otago. His publications include A History of Money, Fourth Edition, with Glyn Davies (University of Wales Press, 2016) and “The Atomic Business: Structures and Strategies,” with Maria del Mar Rubio-Varas and Joseba De la Torre (Business History, 2020).

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative