The Social Stratigraphy of Coin and Credit in Late Medieval England
Presented at the Harvard Conference on “The Medieval World of Value: Money, Credit, and Consumption” (2010)
“What was the ruler’s in name,” wrote a medievalist about coin, “ was the people’s to use.” It could have been a slogan for another petition that came to Edward III in 1363, the same year as the demand that he keep the money of England strong. The second petition asked that “the moneyers should be charged to make a moiety of the gold into mailles and ferlings” — small coins with the value of half-pennies and quarter- pennies. They should do that, the petition continued, “for the benefit of the common people, who could not purchase their victuals and other small articles with the nobles” – gold coins with a much larger value.
As the very notion of a slogan implies, money was a common medium and, in that (literal) measure, a contested territory. When the Crown and its allies designed English money as an array of coins with proportionate and determinate metal content, they made a currency that selectively configured exchange. Modern readers might assume that a disciplined approach to money would be tonic for the economy more generally. It should have allowed people to calculate the value of goods reliably, including at fractional levels; after all, the English had been minting smaller denominations since the second half of the 13th century. But complaints about a lack of small change persisted throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, flagged in a memorable way by the 1363 petition.