According to Karl Polanyi, the economy had no specificity in western society until the eighteenth century. It was, he said, embedded in what he called the labyrinth of social relations. I believe this observation to be equally true of the conceptions of the Middle Ages, which did not include the notion of economy, other than in the sense of domestic economy inherited from Aristotle, and I have tried in this book to show that this was true of money too. Money is notoriously difficult to define. As I indicated in my introduction, Albert Rigaudière has neatly demonstrated that the notion of money always eludes those who try to define it. The principal dictionaries bear witness to the difficulty of providing a precise definition: ‘[any sort of money] and by extension what this money represents: capital, funds, fortune, specie, cash, takings, resources, wealth, not counting colloquial expressions such as bread, dough, dosh…’ (Le Petit Robert, 2003 edition).
This absence of a medieval notion of money has to be seen in conjunction with the absence not only of a specific economic sphere, but also of economic theses or theories. Historians who attribute an economic thought to scholastic theologians or to the mendicant orders, particularly the Fransiscans, are guilty of anachronism. As a general rule, in most areas of individual or collective existence, medieval people behaved in ways that make them alien to us and which mean that contemporary historians need to turn to anthropology to inform their interpretations. This medieval ‘exoticism’ is particularly visible in the sphere of money. We have to substitute, for the general idea we have of it today, the medieval existence of many moneys, the minting, use and circulation of which expanded considerably in this period. It is difficult for us to appreciate the scale of this in the absence of adequate numerical sources from before the fourteenth century, and we are often ignorant of whether the money indicated in a source is metal coin or money of account.
The rise of money, especially from the twelfth century, during what Marc Bloch called the second feudal age, also permeated the institutions and practices we call feudalism. To oppose money and feudalism is to defy historical reality. The growth of money went together with the development of the whole of medieval social life. Though it was associated with the towns, money also circulated widely in the countryside. It benefited from the growth of trade, which is one of the reasons for the importance of the Italians in this sphere, including in northern Europe. The increasing use of money in the Middle Ages was also associated with the formation of princely and royal administrations, whose need for funds led to the creation, with varying degrees of success, of a range of taxes paid in cash. The greater presence of money in the Middle Ages took the form of a proliferation of currencies and it was only at a late stage, from the fourteenth century, and to a limited degree, that the use of these currencies was replaced by other means of exchange and of payment, such as the bill of exchange or the annuity. Further, even if the practice seems to have been less common at the end of the Middle Ages, types of thesaurization persisted, not only in the form of ingots but also and predominantly in the form of treasure and gold and silver objects.
It is also clear that, in parallel with a certain social and spiritual promotion of the merchant, the management of money benefited from a shift in the ideas and practices of the Church which, it seems, wished to assist the people of the Middle Ages in their desire to safeguard both their money and their lives, that is, both their earthly wealth and their eternal salvation. Given that, even in the absence of specific conceptions, a sphere like that of the economy existed outside of any consciousness of it on the part of the clergy and the laity, or rather lack of consciousness of it, I remain inclined to locate the use of money in the Middle Ages within a gift economy, money sharing in the general subordination of human beings to the grace of God. Two conceptions seem to me to have dominated the use of money in the Middle Ages in earthly practice: the search for justice, most notably found in the theory of the just price, and the spiritual requirement expressed by caritas.
It may be true that the medieval Church, in the course of time, was induced to rehabilitate those who handled money, if only on certain conditions, and that in the late fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries, within a restricted elite consisting of those we call the pre-humanists, wealth – and particularly wealth in money – was restored to respectability. It remains the case that, though it may have ceased to be accursed and infernal, money remained suspect throughout the Middle Ages. Lastly, I feel I need to spell out, like many famous historians before me, that capitalism was not born in the Middle Ages, and that the Middle Ages was not even a pre-capitalist age: the shortage of precious metals and the fragmentation of markets prevented the necessary preconditions from being realized. It was only in the period between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries that there took place the ‘great revolution’ which Paolo Prodi wrongly situated, as I have tried to show, in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, money, like economic power, had not liberated itself from the global value systems of Christian religion and society. The creativity of the Middle Ages lay elsewhere.
Jacques Le Goff: Money and the middle ages. An essay in historical anthropology (2012)
First published as Le Moyen Age et l’argent (2010).