The Social Life of Money in the English Past

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In an age when authoritative definitions of currency were in flux and small change was scarce, money enjoyed a rich and complex social life. Deborah Valenze shows how money became involved in relations between people in ways that moved beyond what we understand as its purely economic functions. This highly original investigation covers the formative period of commercial and financial development in England between 1630 and 1800. In a series of interwoven essays, Valenze examines religious prohibitions related to avarice, early theories of political economy and exchange practices of the Atlantic economy. In applying monetary measurements to women, servants, colonial migrants, and local vagrants, this era was distinctive in its willingness to blur boundaries between people and things. Lucid and highly readable, the book revises the way we see the advance of commercial society at the threshold of modern capitalism.
Deborah Valenze is Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City. She is the author of The First Industrial Woman, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England, and numerous scholarly articles.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Deborah Valenze's extraordinarily original The Social Life of Money in the English Past removes the history of money from the economists and inserts it into the lives of people who cannot quite understand it but find they have to live by it. The issues it raises go well beyond 18th-century Britain."
-Eric Hobsbawm, The Manchester Guardian

"Valenze's rich book illuminates a number of important, and oft-overlooked, social practices associated with money during a pivotal period of English history."
-Scott Breuninger, Canadian Journal of History

"Not the least of the contributions of Deborah Valenze's book, The Social Life of Money in the English Past, is that, in the process of defining its own subject, it surveys and intellectually criticizes a wide spectrum of this new work and links it to an equally wide range of relevant provides a rich array of new perspectives on a topic usually examined through the narrow lens of economics."
-Woodruff D. Smith, University of Massachusetts, Business History Review

"...Her argument has particular resonance for historians working on early modern Britain, but those working in other fields will find this book useful both for the interpretive questions it raises and for the eclectic and sophisticated theoretical foundations on which it is based."
—John Smail, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Journal of Modern History

"...Valenze's book sheds important light on the process by which a modern sense of money and its function came to predominate. The details of this shift are not well known and the author's work placing it at the crossroads of economic, social, and cultural history is truly valuable." -Dana Rabin, H-Albion

"This wonderful book is filled with far too many fascinating ideas and examples to be covered here. It will be of interest to a wide range of readers, particularly in its demonstration of the transforming power of money and its ability to redefine social relationships and to remake the identity of users." -John Patrick Montano, The Historian

"Valenze's...will be the most useful to readers unfamililar with the history of finance because her historical range is wide and her primary resources quite varied." -Alexander Dick, Eigteenth-Century Life

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521852425
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2006
  • Pages: 324
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Valenze is Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City. She is the author of The First Industrial Woman, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England, and numerous scholarly articles.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521852420 - The Social life of money in the English past - by Deborah Valenze

Introduction: The Social Life of Money, ca. 1640–1770

In September of 1688, Samuel Pepys made his way to Bartholomew Fair in search of pleasure after a day’s work. There he chanced upon an amusing demonstration in the form of “a Mare that tells money,” probably by a stamp of the hoof or shake of the head. The spectacle cost Pepys twelvepence. Given his careful recording of the performance, the energetic naval secretary could not have been dissatisfied. Perhaps he had perceived an affinity between his own line of work, which entailed sorting out money matters, and that of the winsome, four-legged accountant.1

   Everybody in seventeenth-century London recognized the worth of money and knew that it would be folly to try to navigate the city without some of it in their pockets. The apparent similarities between early modern assumptions and our own must stop there, however. Coins in the past may have met with universal approbation, particularly in urban settings, but they were hardly standardized or ubiquitous. The British state would not issue small coins for the masses until the early nineteenth century, and shopkeepers in London were accustomed to making do with poor substitutes. Coins commanded none of the same respect that modern money now enjoys: they were too often clipped, bitten,counterfeited, chucked, and generally abused. A bewildering variety jostled for recognition; like struggling dialects, some managed to retain their value despite changing standards in a multilingual universe. Indeterminacy characterized paper money in an equally pronounced way, though with greater consequences for a more elite world of finance. In the form of bills and notes, new varieties evolved to fill new needs and desires. Experimentation with investments was unprecedented from the late seventeenth century through the first third of the next century and would not be repeated to such an extent until our own era. Money during the early modern period could best be described as functionally unstable: to paraphrase the monetary theorist, money was what money could do.2

   Our modern-day vantage point, then, offers limited help in recovering the meanings and functions attributed to money in the past, and the long eighteenth century presents a particularly problematic phase of history in Britain. No single institution claimed an absolute monopoly over money from the late seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and public opinion had not yet developed a consensus on what constituted appropriate applications of its properties. For the twenty-first-century investigator, the study of money requires a critical alertness to the unexpected variety of elements contributing to economic life. With these points established, I wish to disengage this book from the task of providing a systematic account of the history of money. If such a treatment of money is even possible, it is not what I have set out to do in the following pages. Instead, I hope to extend our grasp of the subject by presenting a series of interwoven investigations into what might be called the social life of money, its propensity to become involved in relations between people in ways that move beyond what we understand as its purely economic functions.

   My basic premise is that English people of the period from roughly 1640 to 1770 carried with them a wide repertoire of concepts and techniques for understanding and using money, a fact that had important implications for personal lives and society at large. In the course of their daily activities, early modern people regarded the money they encountered as laden with qualities that indicated its character and connections within broad social networks of meaning. Its powers defined by historically variable contingencies, money might signal an awareness of political or moral boundaries that delimited its use, or ignited the hope of disrupting or transcending established hierarchies of value and rank. Money also regulated areas of social life at variance with what we think of today as its rightful province: as “blood money” in encouraging the apprehension of thieves and vagrants, for example, or as a payment that legitimated the sale of wives in a plebeian form of divorce. Such social uses of money, as historians have argued in the study of other societies, tend to enhance the degree to which its measuring and evaluative functions may seep into other areas of life, thus becoming generalized in common practices outside economic activity.3 As the following chapters will attempt to argue, such monetary measurements and evaluations were ubiquitous throughout early modern English society, though we have yet to assess their significance.

   My argument has a second thread, which grows out of the first: in its early modern, protean form, eighteenth-century money evolved through mutually defining relationships with elements of human life. The abstracting power connected to money, particularly as it related to imaginative activity and self-fashioning, seems to have had a marked impact on British culture in its widest sense.4 Literary critics have led the way in illuminating this subtle reticulation of economy and culture, revealing how, for example, a conceptual distinction between persons and commodities was highly permeable in an age when language and custom elided the two. This was particularly true in the case of women, whose legal persons were surrendered upon marriage, as wealth, goods, and identities were transferred from household to household within a culturally specific system of exchange.5 In the imaginative world of literature, the free flow of images of persons and things was particularly evident, through narratives, for example, which animated coins or objectified persons.6 Such works released countervailing impulses into the psychological lives of readers: the possibilities of freedom, as well as subjection, were commonly identified with money and these linkages emerged as important features of literary and popular culture.

   The subject of money in England, in particular, presents a problem worth investigating for several reasons. Boasting an early example of a centralized nation state, England appears on the European stage as a hospitable setting for a precocious and sophisticated market society. The early decay of feudalism, the commutation of tenant obligations to monetary payments, the use of money, not produce, for the payment of rents, and flourishing trade in both country and town nourished a complex involvement with money across England.7 From early medieval times, money made its presence felt in legal dealings and theological considerations.8 Historians of England have long since recognized that some version of market values, such as the goal of systematic profit-making and the maximization of potential in land and its produce, played a role in the development of the society and culture in general.9

   The development of commerce since medieval times allowed for an unprecedented expansion in the circulation of people and the exchange of goods, which provided an obvious context for the use of money. Emphasis needs to be added to the simple fact of geographical mobility: England was a nation of people on the move.10 The magnetism of London as a destination of migrants, both English and foreign, established a demographic trend that was remarkable by the early sixteenth century.11 The apparent restlessness of the English population generated movement outside this predictable pattern. Studies have revealed that various forms of internal migration before the Civil War reached as high as 82 percent of the population in selected counties; in the post-Restoration period, rates declined in some areas but still remained higher than in most European countries. Movement to North America and the West Indies from the 1630s onwards represented “a very considerable leakage of population,” which constituted a new and significant expansion of the English predilection for changing places of residence.12 Laws of settlement more likely regulated rather than deterred migration after 1660. Furthermore, as a new generation of studies has argued, the history of migration must take into account every category of geographical movement, including that of unfree labor. From the vantage point of the history of indentured servitude, convict transportation, as well as the voluntary emigration of English laborers, David Eltis has argued, “the British were preeminent in the business of free as well as coerced long-distance migration.” The salience of this phenomenon in English social life provides one of the distinctive backdrops for this study.13

   Given the propensity of English people to move from place to place, local governments and Parliament were drawn into the business of regulating their passage in ways that involved the use of monetary payments and fines attached to human bodies. The poor laws of the sixteenth century can be seen in this light, along with various local mechanisms to deter illicit traffic across even longer distances. In such cases, the state sometimes jostled for authority with merchants and adventurers. As David Harris Sacks showed in his study of mid-seventeenth-century Bristol, the transport of labor to the colonies became a complex, competitive enterprise involving questionable practices with money and people, including “the inveigling purloining carrying and Stealing away boyes Maides and other persons” to fill out holds and render a profit by trading in people. As a result, Bristol’s local government initiated a somewhat successful method of registering servants, though this did not eliminate the market for “spirited” and kidnapped servants entirely.14 In addition to indentured or coerced migration of servants, the transport of convicted criminals employed language and conceptual categories marked by monetary amounts. Following the Transportation Act of 1717, “an unprecedented commitment of government resources” went into this project and, in so doing, further elaborated the way in which monetary thinking and bureaucratic control of subjects became allied.15 Developments such as this constitute one part of this study, namely, the emergence of administrative practices that employed money in ways that effectively categorized and “priced” people.

   My interest in this project originated in one particular aspect of the harnessing of money by the state, the administration of laws relating to vagrancy and the poor in eighteenth-century London. In examining the Middlesex Sessions Reports for the first half of the century, I was struck by the number of ways in which money was involved in the regulation of people found on the streets in London. These decades witnessed the reissuing of acts calling for the apprehension of vagrants, and with each proclamation, monetary rewards became part of a standard repertoire of a call to citizens for assistance in maintaining public order and police.16 The notorious use of rewards in the eighteenth century is well known, though the various social meanings and significance of such incentives have not been sufficiently explored. It is worth pointing out that the laws applying rewards to vagrancy apprehension coincided with the career of thief catchers like Jonathan Wild, alongside a rising concern about crime against property in London. In this age of rudimentary policing of the metropolis, rewards were part of a larger artillery of stopgap measures used by an understaffed constabulary.17 They also contributed to a conjunction of draconian laws aimed at violators of property and a rising awareness of the problem of poverty.

   The methods set out to handle the movements of the wandering poor entailed monetary transactions at every turn. Studded with perquisites, fines, and forfeits, the laws apparently took as their starting premise the effectiveness of money payments as both carrot and stick. Persons who obstructed the execution of the law pertaining to the apprehension of rogues, dating back to Elizabethan times, might be fined £5; if constables between the place of apprehension and the rogue’s parish of origin failed to cooperate, they might be fined £5; and if the Churchwardens and Overseers at the parish of origin refused to accept the rogue as their responsibility, they, too, were required to forfeit £5. A statute from the early seventeenth century declared that rogues were to be “Branded in the left Shoulder with a burning Iron, having a great Roman R upon it as broad as a Shilling,” giving tangible meaning to the power of money to seal these rituals with the authority of the Crown.18 Of course, the administration of the poor law, of which settlement law was a part, differed from parish to parish, between regions, and in town and country. Historians have argued over the extent of migration and the degree to which parishes monitored the traffic of laborers.19 While administration of the law followed an irregular pattern in this period, the concern generated by the obvious problem of the poor resulted in repeated issuance of recommendations, copies of statutes, and manuals on how to deal with migration and settlements. In the drive toward delineating solutions, the measure of money assumed a facilitating part.20

   By the eighteenth century, the system of poor law and vagrancy administration had generated a metalanguage of procedures mirroring market practices. Certificates and passes, accompanied by payments, marked each parochial duty, and officers referred to people in transit with monetary nomenclature. “Certificate women” and “certificate men” were passed along a network of constables, and those who transported vagrants eventually redeemed actual certificates for the cost of haulage. The letter of the law advised administrative legibility of the most painstaking kind as numerous petty layouts of cash, strung across several counties, were at stake. Recommendations in The Complete Parish Officer (1734) were typical of the many handbooks available for those new to the job:

When a Petty Constable has convey’d the Vagrant to the Place ordered by the Pass, on his bringing to the High Constable such Certificate as aforesaid, with the Receipt from the Constable or other Officer to whom the Vagrant was delivered, the Chief Constable shall pay such Petty Constable the Allowances ascertained in the Certificate, and no more, taking the said Certificate and his Receipt, which is to be allowed the Chief Constable by the Treasurer of the County.

Justices in Sessions are to appoint Allowances for passing Vagrants at so much a mile, or otherwise; and make Orders for raising Money for that Purpose, to be paid quarterly to the High Constables. And Rates for reconveying, being likewise appointed by Justices of Peace in the Sessions, the Constable must make Oath before a Justice of what Expences he is at in reconveying Vagrants to Ireland, or any Place abroad; whereupon the Justice is to direct the Payment by an Order under hand and Seal.21

At times, apprehension was carried out by ordinary citizens, and Giles suggested that Justices might “pay 2s. to the Person apprehending,...[as] a Recompence for Trouble and Loss of Time is to be satisfied.”22 The law thus conceived shed an aura of commodification on displaced laborers, who were, as it happened, penniless people captured in a system of monetary measurement.

   Given the legacy of vagrancy statutes dating back to Tudor times, these uses of money reinscribed the poor within a distinct transactional order related to a long-standing administration of relief. One might argue that rather than objectifying people by treating their bodies as commodities, this self-contained system worked towards preserving social cohesion and should not be confused with other, more commercially oriented spheres of monetary exchange.23 Such practices may have stigmatized the poor, but, as Thomas Sokoll has argued, eighteenth-century letters to parish officers show paupers as fully engaged participants, asserting their rights to the full extent of their entitlements through persistent negotiations.24 In the case of payments for apprehension and conveyance of the wandering poor, we might consider local parishes as substitutions for patriarchal households, which were empowered to exercise jurisdiction over the lives of their members. Parallels exist between such transactions and transfers occurring in colonial societies in Africa, where “rights-in-people” passed from one household to another when wives, wards, and offspring were exchanged for specified payments.25 As money passed between parties, family heads exchanged rights over the individuals in question rather than rights to their existence. Money accompanied these passages, offering material benefits to participants; but more importantly, such payments served to mark the identities of transferred people as dependent members of a network of families, not as people dehumanized through commodification.26

   As our example of priced vagrants can show, attributes of “modern” and “traditional” may operate side by side as they compete for dominance in the course of historical developments. This lack of synchrony needs to be recognized, as Natalie Zemon Davis’s work on gift exchange shows, as a way of cautioning us against seeing modern, contractual relations (often associated with money) as automatically canceling out more customary social relations of gifting. Just as “gift exchange persists as an essential relational mode, a repertoire of behavior, a register with its own rules, language, etiquette, and gestures” in modern settings, so too can relationships established around the use of money create their own customary rituals, which, to us, seem out of keeping with a more standard contractual model of eighteenth-century social relations.27 Such a revisioning of social relations is in keeping with recent work in anthropology, which has attempted to break out of the dichotomous thinking engendered by polarizing the features of western and “‘traditional’ non-Western” societies, imputing rationality of means and ends to western societies while attributing “embedded” characteristics to traditional settings.28

   Money in these cases acted as a red flag calling attention to the dependent and subordinated status of certain classes of people, whose objectified state resulted in physical constraint and sometimes abuse, or, put another way, marked vulnerability to the wills of others. Imbricated within the structures of eighteenth-century political power, money could reinforce hierarchical social obligations; yet it might also introduce competing suggestions of opportunity invested in circulation, evident in the common notion of “selling” oneself into service of limited duration in the colonies. The tension was not lost on contemporaries, who witnessed daily contradictions of market mentalities and the persistence of traditional obligations: poor mothers leased their babies as emblems of worthiness to beggars on the streets of London, for example, and pregnant servants turned to the courts to swear their babies to the responsible men, from whom they might receive paternity payments. The era was marked not only by restrictive forms of governance but also by the demonstrated desire for goods, money, and freedom that recent historians have recognized as universal and increasing in intensity during this period.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations; Acknowledgments; Abbreviations; Introduction: the social life of money, c.1640–1770; Part I. The Relationship Between Money and Persons: 1. Coins of the realm: the development of a demotic sense of money; 2. The phantasm of money: the animation of exchange media in England, c.1600–1770; Part II. Mutable Meanings of Money, ca.1640–1730: 3. Circulating mammon: attributes of money in early modern English culture; 4. Refuge from money's mischief: John Bellers and the Clerkenwell Workhouse; 5. Quarrels over money: The determination of an acquisitive self in the early eighteenth century; Part III. Regulating People Through Money: 6. The measure of money: equivalents of personal value in English law; 7. The price of people: rethinking money and power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; 8. Money makes masteries: the triumph of the monetary self in the long eighteenth century.

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