Sunday, July 16, 2023

Rory Naismith's "Making Money in the Early Middle Ages"

Rory Naismith is professor of early medieval English history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Corpus Christi College. He is the author of Early Medieval Britain, c. 500–1000, Citadel of the Saxons: The Rise of Early London, and Money and Power in Anglo-Saxon England: The Southern English Kingdoms, 757–865.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Making Money in the Early Middle Ages, and reported the following:
On page 99, the reader of Making Money in the Early Middle Ages is dropped into the midst of a discussion of how peasant farmers paid their rent in eastern France during the ninth century. This involved a mix of three things: labour (such as cutting hay and digging up vines), payments in kind (usually foodstuffs that the farmers had grown themselves) and payments in coined money. Surveys that detail these payments are a vital window onto how the bedrock of early medieval society worked. They show that a wide range of people used the silver denarii (pennies) that made up the currency at this time, and if tenants were required by their landlord to pay some or all of the rent in cash, that meant they had to use markets to get it, and in the process may well have done business on their own account too.

Another side of these payments I highlight on page 99 is the very complicated picture revealed by these surveys. Individual households within the same settlement owed significantly different amounts or proportions of money, produce and work to the landlord. That is in large part because these renders were an expression of status, a gauge of the relationship between tenant and lord. Broadly speaking, paying a higher proportion of the rent in cash was more favourable for the tenant, as it maximised their flexibility. Money was thus a signal of status as well as a transfer of value. This role was accentuated rather than diminished by the relatively small amount of cash in circulation during the early Middle Ages (approximately the sixth to the eleventh centuries). It meant that using coin was a statement, not the default, and the handover of coin tended to be a formal, public event.

Page 99 is therefore actually a good way into the larger themes of the book. My overall goal was to explain why people made and used coined money at a time of scarcity, and one of the answers was that it continued to be an important tool in expressing relations between people, as well as a factor – albeit often a small one – in more directly economic activities.
Follow Rory Naismith on Facebook and Threads.

--Marshal Zeringue