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  • The Social Life of Money in the English Past
  • Mary Poovey
The Social Life of Money in the English Past. By Deborah Valenze (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006308 pp. $65.00 cloth $23.99 paper

The Social Life of Money usefully reminds readers that the modern understanding of money as a neutral, universal equivalent developed slowly, within a context and against the current of a heterogeneous array of attitudes and beliefs. Taking as her subject the period from about 1640 to 1770, Valenze argues persuasively that English people in these decades [End Page 271] "regarded the money they encountered as laden with qualities that indicated its character and connections within broad social networks of meaning" (2). Thus "blood money" might be the return for helping police vagrants and thieves, or, as "filthy lucre," money might be understood as the symbol of, and incitement for, temptation. Valenze argues that these social meanings tended to linger even as money began to acquire its modern connotations of neutrality and rationality. By the same token, she also argues that the "social uses of money . . . tend[ed] to enhance the degree to which its measuring and evaluative functions [might] seep into other areas of life, thus becoming generalized in common practices outside economic activity" (3). Thus, in the early modern period, money was a medium that allowed meanings to flow both ways—from practices to coins and from uses to other practices.

In the first two sections of The Social Life of Money, Valenze pursues her argument through a series of fascinating case studies, which derive their power from her skill as an archival historian. She finds in the diaries of Nehemiah Wallington and Ralph Josselin, two seventeenth-century Britons, an array of superstitions and fears about money, for example, and in the writings of the Quaker John Bellers she identifies an early attempt to convert money into moral measure, which should be distributed according to the amount of labor an individual expended rather than by the modern principles of surplus or risk. In her treatment of the Shetlander John Harrower, Valenze demonstrates that migration played a central role in stripping money of these early demotic and moral connotations; as individuals like Harrower traveled to London, they inevitably had to use money to facilitate exchange. She also examines the role played by Henry Peacham's The Worth of a Penny, or, A Caution to Keep Money (London, 1641) in helping to cultivate habits that enabled his readers to navigate urban space, where money was a constant necessity. By deftly choosing a range of such examples, Valenze simultaneously animates her narrative and illuminates the uneven stages by which money gradually acquired most—but not all—of its modern connotations.

Valenze is less successful when she generalizes from these individual cases to what she calls the "acquisitive self" (145) or the "monetary self" (262). Her discussions of such abstractions borrow from the work of literary historians like Finn and Lynch and from cultural theorists like Goux and Simmel.1 Valenze never explains why such a methodological shift from archival recovery to theoretical abstraction is warranted, nor does she integrate the two methodologies. The theoretical superstructure does little to illuminate the case histories or to develop the causal [End Page 272] narrative; more explicit commentary about how theory supports historical narrative rather than undermining it would have been helpful.

Mary Poovey
New York University


1. See, for example, Margot Finn, The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture (New York, 2003); Deirdre Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago, 1998); Jean-Joseph Goux, Symbolic Economics: After Marx and Freud (Ithaca, 1990); Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money (London, 1978).



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