Money: A History


The book begins by tracing the growth and development of monetary systems, from the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt to the establishment of coinage in the Greek and Roman world. The following chapters develop a broader world view, exploring the monetary systems of Europe during the Middle Ages, the Islamic world, India and China. In the final part of the book the focus is on the processes by which money has become a global phenomenon, with chapters looking at the expanding role of money in early ...
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The book begins by tracing the growth and development of monetary systems, from the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt to the establishment of coinage in the Greek and Roman world. The following chapters develop a broader world view, exploring the monetary systems of Europe during the Middle Ages, the Islamic world, India and China. In the final part of the book the focus is on the processes by which money has become a global phenomenon, with chapters looking at the expanding role of money in early modern Europe and the Americas and the introduction of paper money and banking, the effect of European contacts on the local payment systems of Africa and Oceania, and concluding with an examination of the increasing impact of economic thought on monetary affairs.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780714118147
  • Publisher: Gardners Books
  • Publication date: 5/1/2007
  • Pages: 272

Meet the Author

Catherine Eagleton is curator of paper money and modern coins in the British Museum.

Jonathan Williams is curator of Roman and Iron Age coins in the British Museum.

Joe Cribb is curator of Asian coins in the British Museum.

Elizabeth Errington is curator of South Asian coins in the British Museum.

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Table of Contents

Preface 7
Acknowledgements 9
Introduction 10
1 Mesopotamia, Greece and Egypt 16
2 The Roman World 39
3 Medieval Europe 62
4 The Islamic Lands 86
5 India and South-East Asia 108
6 China and the Far East 135
7 The Early Modern Period 162
8 Africa and Oceania 193
9 The Modern Period 218
Select Bibliography 250
Illustration Acknowledgements 252
Index 253
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It is easier to write about money than to acquire it; and those who gain it make great sport of those who only know how to write about it.
- Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764)

Writing about money can be a hazardous enterprise, and involves treading on sensitive ground. Few phenomena in human history have been the focus of so much constant and fevered attention, occasioned so many moral and religious strictures and been the cause of so much violent strife and competition between individuals and states. This book attempts to describe how this happened, and to give some idea of the reasons why.

How are we to approach this difficult subject? We might begin by generalizing about human nature, examining the role of money in different cultures and societies from an anthropological perspective. Or we might treat the problem as one of economics, looking at the statistics and general theories which are the basic tools of the economist and the economic historian. The approach taken in this book, however, is neither anthropological nor economic, but historical. Yet this is not simply a traditional history of money from its 'origins' to the present day. Rather it is several histories, broadly chronologically arranged, each investigating money in one of a number of cultures as diverse as ancient India and modern Europe.

The diversity of the forms of money described in the following chapters necessarily raises the question of general definitions. In the abstract, money is often defined primarily as a means of exchange, while on a concrete level the word refers to those classes of object commonly used to perform this function. As this book, and Chapter 8 in particular will show, definitions such as these are mostly unhelpful, being a reflection of an inherently modem and Western point of view. There is more to the history of money than just buying and selling.

All the chapters in this book have been written by curators in the Department of Coins and Medals in the British Museum, specialists in particular areas and periods of the history of coinage and paper money. Their responsibilities include the care and presentation of the Museum's collections and the acquisition of new and important pieces. But behind the care of objects — relics of the past and apparently of interest only to antiquarians and collectors — lie the particular historical contexts which underpin and explain the bewildering variety of functions and material forms that money has adopted. In the chapters that follow we shall be concerned not only with the objects themselves, but with what people in history have done with money, what they have thought about it and what effects it has had on them. The real history of money lies not in statistics, nor even in numismatics, though both can be found in this book, but in human attitudes and behavior.

Take, for example, the painting in fig.3. It was produced around 1514 by the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys. The two main characters are husband and wife. He is a money-lender, sitting at a table and carefully weighing a pile of coins. His wife sits on his left and also concentrates on the transaction taking place, while absent-mindedly fingering the book of devotional reading that lies half-open in front of her. There is a third participant in the scene, artfully concealed as a reflection in the mirror standing on the table. We assume that he is the customer of the moneylender, come to conclude a deal.

On one level, the painting is simply a well-observed scene of daily life in the Netherlands of the early sixteenth century, when trade was booming and the merchants of the Low Countries were among the richest in Europe. But if we look again, we may see it also as a story, a scene from the dramatic narrative of the history of money. Where is the focus of action and attention in the work as a whole? There is no obvious interaction between the couple in the picture, nor between them and us, the viewers. The picture is not primarily about relationships between people. All eyes, ours included, are fixed on the coins being counted out on the table. Money seems to be the focal point of the human world depicted here. As such, it appears to be competing with two other central features of the European society of that period: religion (witness the wife's neglect of her prayer-book) and the sacred bond of matrimony (the money lying on the table draws the married couple's attention away from one another and inexorably towards itself).

We might possibly conclude from this interpretation that Matsys meant us to understand the work as a fairly straightforward, moralising attack on money, a tirade against its destructive effects on human values. But perhaps this picture is not just a sermon in line and color. It may in fact be considerably more subtle in its implications. After all, the woman may be momentarily looking away from her prayer-book, but she has not abandoned it completely; nor has she entirely left her husband's side for other distractions. A more complex interpretation of the painting might suggest that the artist is attempting to represent the ways in which money, religion and family actually co-exist in the real world, the world of history, rather than depicting a simplistic or moralising opposition between the material world of wealth and the higher realms of spiritual and emotional life.

The central characters in the painting are looking at a heap of physical objects — objects which for them meant money. Money, for early fifteenth-century Europeans, was for the most part gold and silver coins, and this fact is important. Other histories of money have perhaps tended not to look very hard at the objects involved, because of an unfortunate divergence in approach between historians and numismatists. In this book, however, coins and other objects will often take center stage. Without them, an account of the history of money would be incomplete.

A book such as this cannot claim to be comprehensive, but neither is the choice of subjects arbitrary. The emphasis of the chapters will vary according to the nature of the period and culture under discussion, and each will attempt to characterize what is specific to that period or culture, in order to illustrate the immense geographical and chronological variety within the history of money. The first half traces the development of money in the 'Western' tradition, beginning with the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, where the first written records of monetary and commercial activity have been found, and moving on to the Aegean civilization of the Greeks and to the
Mediterranean and continental world of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. In the subsequent chapters the 'Eurocentric' balance is redressed with a triple focus on the perhaps less familiar histories of the Islamic world, India and China, and a chapter considering the indigenous monies of Africa and Oceania. In the final chapter, however, which looks at the modern world, it has been difficult to avoid considering the subject from an almost exclusively Western point of view. This can largely be justified by the increasing influence of European and, later, American culture on world history as a whole, and on the history of money in particular. The processes of colonialism, the two world wars and the developments in communications and technology which have led to the increasing 'globalization' of the world economy perhaps make this bias inevitable, as the origins of these various factors seem to lie mostly in the West. Modern monetary practices are so firmly rooted in the 'Western'
tradition that even in the eastern countries of the Pacific Rim, with their own diverse traditions, Western-style money has been adopted as an integral tool in their ever growing economic power. If money is among the most influential factors shaping humanity in the modern world, then this, perhaps, is a particularly appropriate time to take another look at its history.

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