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  • Making Money in Sixteenth-Century France: Currency, Culture, and the State by Jotham Parsons
  • Jonathan Patterson
Making Money in Sixteenth-Century France: Currency, Culture, and the State. By Jotham Parsons. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. 336 pp.

This is a work of mature excellence by a scholar who has over many years reflected on money, its (mis)uses, and its elusiveness within complex networks of exchange in early modern France. In his latest contribution, Jotham Parsons brings to light a large amount of previously unstudied archive material, the broader significance of which becomes compellingly apparent as he sets out his argument concerning the creation and circulation of currency during the troubled decades of the late French Renaissance. Parsons traces the development of a centralized royal monetary administration driven by the royal Cour des Monnaies. His engaging and erudite analysis highlights the impact of this institution in shaping contemporary understanding of money, its great potential as an instrument of economic and political cohesiveness, and its equally great capacity for harm. That money could destroy individuals and bring down kingdoms was an early modern commonplace; but Parsons shows with great precision where some of the key dangers lay vis-à-vis the Cour des Monnaies and its mission to regulate currency within France. Chapter 1 highlights the significance of the Pinatel affair, a corruption scandal that touched both provincial mints and the central Parisian administration during the 1540s and precipitated a policy of centralization from the 1550s. Not that this eradicated all scope for corruption; as Chapter 5 shows, crimes against the currency (clipping coins, counterfeiting) ebbed and flowed over the next forty years. Parsons deftly handles heterogeneous stories of counterfeiting that emerged during this period, stories that testify to an ingeniously active, socially diverse spread of billoneurs on the fringes of society — nobles and artisans alike, women as well as men, often with links to alchemical practices. At the macro level, the greatest threat to equitable monetary circulation in the late sixteenth century was the double-headed monster of inflation and civil-religious war. Yet Parsons persuasively argues that, despite some shortcomings, the government’s response was creative, effective, and broadly supported; with crucial currency reforms in 1577, and an emerging canon of rational monetary theory that bolstered royal legislative sovereignty, the long-term outcome for the French monarchy was in many respects positive. However, Parsons is not content to conclude his study on this politically triumphant note. He argues that if one is to understand at a deep level how the nature, power, and control of money played out in individual lives, it is literature to which one must finally turn. Chapter 6 offers diversely original readings of the monetary imagination of early modern France, through the likes of Ronsard, Brantôme, Corneille, Tristan L’Hermite, Sorel, and Furetière. We are left with a pungent taste of the ever-present dangers and instability of money, with its invitations to social intrigues and exchanges satirized in the period as monnaie de singe. In sum, this is a masterly study. Perhaps the only shortcoming is Parsons’s occasional tendency to dismiss religious discourses — Protestant and Catholic — as contributing little to his otherwise highly perceptive interdisciplinary work on money in the early modern world.

Jonathan Patterson
St Hugh’s College, Oxford


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