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Money in the Medieval English Economy 973–1489 by J. L. Bolton (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 1, 2013
pp. 226-228 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0033

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Jim Bolton’s study of money in the English economy runs through from Edgar’s reign to the beginning of the Tudor period. Rather than simply offer a chronological survey covering the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors, Bolton divides his analysis into two sections. First is ‘Theories and problems’, in which he attempts to model the medieval English economy taking both numismatic evidence (the coins themselves) and monetarist theory as his analytical foundation. Section two is ‘Coinage and the economy’, a survey of the coinage of the periods 973–1158, 1158–1351, and finally 1351–1489. Within both main sections of his text, Bolton’s overall goal is to reorient current understandings of how the medieval English economy functioned by giving renewed focus to the money supply itself, and factoring in supply as a major variable in economic growth.

Between Edgar and Henry VII, Bolton analyses the increase, on a dramatic scale, of the supply of coinage. He places this development alongside other changes over the centuries, including developments in auditing and accounting and the granting of credit, which cumulatively he suggests produced notable expansion in the economy and increasing sophistication in its mechanisms. Ultimately, Bolton argues that what is recognizable as a full money economy was in existence by the fourteenth century. After the fourteenth century, Bolton goes on to examine recoinages and deflationary pressures that by 1500, he argues, left money as a major variable even if there were by then clear economic deficiencies including the rise of a new class of landless labourers and the economic aftermath of plague.

The analysis, given its emphasis on money supply, takes note of landmark moments in the striking of coinage. The terminus post quem of 1489 is the year that the first pound coins were struck, and before this date Bolton notes other significant occasions in the production of new types of coin.

Throughout the text, Bolton offers clear analysis for major theoretical underpinnings of monetarist thought, and early sections are devoted to Irwin Fisher’s identity or equation of exchange, which Bolton discusses at the outset as a means of intellectually contextualizing the monetarist principles he applies to the medieval economy. In particular, he positions money and its availability or otherwise as a major variable in addition to others, such as rises or falls in the population level.

One of this book’s numerous strengths is the clarity of Bolton’s explanations. He moves through major concepts like circulation, monetization, deflation, the relationship between the state and money, and even foundational understandings of money, with precision. In this text, one can also read of the actual processes for producing or minting the money, alongside more abstract notions.

The study is also nuanced and while Bolton overall asserts a case for recognizing money as a more important variable in how the medieval economy worked than scholars have hitherto appreciated, he also falls far short of suggesting that the period of 753–1489 is marked by an uncomplicated forward development towards a monetarist economy. To start with, Bolton points to the importance of regional variations. There were regional mints in medieval England but the supply of coin or even bullion across the kingdom was not uniform, meaning that economic changes were not uniform. Bolton is also very often arguing from the perspective of evidence for what was taking place in London, East Anglia, and southern England, and the book in general tends to look away from the northern counties.

Another of the book’s strengths is that Bolton does not make absolute claims for the impact of the growth in money and also notes the importance of population growth (or conversely its decline because of the Black Death) as a driving force of economic change. Similarly, Bolton suggests not only the supply of money, but the development of economic systems and infrastructure including a credit market, and his book is especially valuable for using records of credit and debt for measuring and pinpointing economic stresses and for showing relationships between a town and its hinterland, or a town and a wider national level of economic activity.

With Money in the Medieval English Economy we are presented with an important reappraisal of...



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