About the Coinlands Site

Money, Coinage and Society

Money, Coinage and Society originated in the need for a general background on coins. How they were produced. Where the metals came from. What we know of their issuing authority: ruler, state, trading communities concerned. How the states prospered or didn't, their trading models and policies. And beyond that, the complex of historical, practical and aesthetic matters that made the coinage acceptable to its users and interesting to collectors in later centuries.

A more academic description would be the political economy of coinage — what coins tell us of the countries and rulers that issued the coins, their political and economic makeup, how and where their constituent metals were extracted, smelted, refined and made into the examples of numismatic art we have now, and what their designs suggest of customs and beliefs that were commonly very different from ours.

In time I came to realize that it was the social context that constituted the more pressing aspect now that looming national debts, bank bail-outs, digital transfers and quantitative easing make us wonder what money really is. David Graeber has covered some of these matters in his 2004 book on debt, but his findings remain somewhat unclear, perhaps because consumed at key points by a strong sense of moral indignation. What was needed, I thought, was a colder, more technical and sustained look at the institutions that human beings acknowledge in their everyday lives, but which tend to become reified into abstract concepts negating our common humanity. We rightly deplore religious fanaticism without realising that we too can make market forces and other self-evident matters into overriding persuasions, indeed into gods demanding unthinking obedience.

Coinage is particularly useful here because it turns abstract concepts like legitimacy and authority into tangible objects. A wealth of understandings and tacit beliefs underlies our use of a coin, not least the ease through which we can purchase goods and services from individuals who have no particular interest in our welfare. Because money is useful, it can also become over-powerful, and we find ourselves talking about the 'iron laws of the market', or the 'findings of economics', when these are not laws or findings at all, but contrivances of particular circumstances. No doubt we live in a scientific culture that expects all aspects of life to be governed by laws continuously and comprehensively applying, and this allows us to forget that science is only one way of looking at life, the limitations of which a little reading in philosophy soon demonstrates.

Nonetheless, that social context should be amenable to little essays on individual coins, I thought — until I came to realize that mainstream treatment of these matters was often far from acceptable. Many books and articles were surprisingly partisan, incomplete and out of date. Before writing anything, I should have to make my own summaries and assessments, which I include here in the hope that they may be useful to students wanting more than breezy generalities.

I have used secondary sources in the main, often the alternative press and contrarian historians for later events: this is not academic research so much as an attempt to make something coherent of very scattered and contested material. I have tried to draw on Internet sources wherever possible, or on books that provide a 'look inside' facility on Amazon. On occasion, where simple facts and mainstream interpretations were needed, I have also drawn on Wikipedia material, and would ask those who still compare this online resource unfavourably to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the university presses to remember that academic research, for all its claims to be 'pushing back the boundaries of knowledge', in fact works within fairly narrow and closely refereed terms of reference, and that the Encyclopaedia is associated with the University of Chicago and Rockefeller funds not too scrupulously obtained. Most information in fact has some hidden agenda — the desire to sway opinion, earn status or put bread on the table — and the theme here is power, and the way aesthetic, commercial and practical issues have served that end down the centuries, which we can see in coinage if equipped with the right perspectives.

So arises a rather unflattering view of modern society. The reader will find none of the pious tales that were taught at school to foster a sense of pride and confidence in our institutions, lessons which continue unacknowledged in mainstream media articles that preach to the converted, as indeed they must to maintain circulation figures and advertising revenues. Looked at plainly, our history is not an edifying spectacle, and money often brings out the worst in us: our greed, ambition and selfishness. It is easy to forget when dealing with beautiful objects like coins how much sweat, blood and sheer misery went into their production. Behind the economic trends they illustrate there commonly lie many horrors of warfare, coercive trade, injustice and exploitation. And much propaganda too: the emblems of authority and deceit are also woven into their glittering surfaces. As Glyn Davies himself remarks in his excellent A History of Money: 'Economists, and especially monetarists, tend to overestimate the purely economic, narrow and technical functions of money and have placed insufficient emphasis on the wider social, institutional and psychological aspects.'

But nor is the love of money the root of all evil. Money has profound capacities to do good, and there is scarcely an aspect of our contemporary world that would be possible without sophisticated trade and banking facilities. My outlook here is not far from that of numismatic historians, though I have a more critical view of economics and finance than they profess, perhaps because of working on a daily basis for several years with professionals in those fields. That is not a criticism of their honesty or competence, as both were present in a marked degree, but of perspective. Money makes the world go round, but in more ways that they perhaps saw or acknowledged.

The limitations of these chapters should be clear. They are snapshots, summaries, and simple introductions. No one person can re-evaluate three millennia of social and economic history, even in a lifetime of reading, and many sections can only be summaries of current views, doubtless rather dry in later pages, though I hope accurate and helpful. The essays on individual coins are simply examples of what could be done, a supplement to the many handsome surveys of world coinage published by the museum and auction house presses.

References are placed after the relevant sentence when references do not exceed some fifty odd per chapter, but aggregated at paragraph ends otherwise: the renumbering necessitated by updating becomes too time consuming when chapters draw on hundreds of references. To make the material manageable I have split the book into two. The first volume covers the ancient and medieval world, but includes chapters on metal sources, mining and minting practices to the present. The second volume covers the period from the rise of modern states to the world we know today, including chapters on statehood, economics, money banking and civil rights, to end where we started, an enquiry into the real nature of money. Just as coins serve as a token of wealth, so money serves as a token for complex social interactions. That is the finding of these volumes: money is not an inert accounting device, not something arising from the play of market forces, and not an abstract, fully quantifiable matter. Even the GDP contains socially positive and negative elements: hospital building and warfare, manufacturing and financial speculation, etc. Indeed, today´s GDP includes unearned income, interest on loans treated as profit, which earlier economists would have classed as overheads, as a burden on production.

Those who want the source references, and the opportunity to copy the text and diagrams may wish to purchase the pdf ebook, which is also formatted for easy reading on screens as small as those of 7" tablets. I am not expecting a flood of orders, but hope visitors realize that the real value of the information here lies in the references, not in my webpage summaries

I shall have nothing to say on coins as an investment medium, beyond noting that collectors naturally expect what they have poured considerable time and money into will eventually be retrievable in cash terms. As a professional dealer, I have helped people in this field, but then with some misgivings. Nowadays I even more doubt the wisdom of this approach, and would only repeat what others emphasize. Be clear about objectives. A coin collection made for investment purposes is quite different from one assembled out of historical interest in some period or country. The first needs help from a recognized investment specialist but also the connoisseur's eye for quality, plus detailed studies of price trends and commissions applying. A small collection of choice pieces wisely grouped about a popular theme will be worth greatly more than the same money spent on a haphazard collection of indifferent pieces. Inevitably this must be so, since the unrecoverable dealer's commission of 10% on an expensive piece will swell to 50% or more on a cheap one.

The uncomfortable view of our contemporary world is something arrived at reluctantly, after many years of thought and reading, and one I unfortunately don't have the time to defend or explain. The references should do that. On other matters please drop me a line if something needs correction or qualification. I was a professional UK coin dealer in the eighties, reasonably well known, and exhibiting at international fairs and the like. My specialties were ancients, the Islamic world and far eastern issues, but even here I often had to take advice from experts who knew far more than I did then, and certainly more than I will now.

It should go without saying that coin collectors should invest in coin and sales catalogues for valuation purposes, plus a wide range of history books and articles if their acquisitions are to come alive. I would also urge them to join numismatic groups, either their local club or the prestigious societies without whose work our pastime would be much the poorer. As in any walk of life, they will benefit from the communities in proportion to what they contribute.

Most collectors promise themselves that they will some day write up their collection, when the children are off their hands or retirement arrives, and though these articles are far from meeting that promise — and my own collection is now only a shadow of previous stocks — I shall be delighted if these pages encourage others to think beyond the usual confines of a popular and absorbing hobby.

References and Further Reading

Please consider the inexpensive ebook.