Archives mensuelles : avril 2020

Rila Mukherjee | University of Hyderabad, Gachibowli (Inde), School of Social Science – The Pervasiveness of a “Poors’ Money” in Bengal: 13th to 20th century

A first question came from the surprise that coinless societies are still carrying exchanges: in that sense they are not cashless. Second problem: some societies may have access to gold and silver but still prefer use other means of exchange such as cowries. What is the utility of these small medium of exchanges, which explain their use until the 19th c. as a circulating medium, and even in the 20th, still living in popular recognition.

Yesterday papers were from the 16th to the 19th c. Today, we will look at a very long time frame. It is not really money by the poor or money for the poor. Cowries were not intended as a money for the poor, but in time, they became the money for the poor.

Cowries circulated in four qualities (moneta and annulus being the main categories) and in a very wide space. A little bit about the networks of cowries, but we will here concentrate on Bengal.

In India they were not used at all if they were not in perfect shape. See also the new chronology born out from Chengdu discoveries, changing Han chronology, with very old bronze and gold cowries. Not in India. In India, in Bengal and next regions, only original cowries were used. But it is not limited to coastal areas: some are found in Northern India. They are related to a highly agricultural economy, from the 8th century on. Temples were also repositories of cowries: they were not just a circulating media but also religious or accumulated wealth.

All testimonies up to the 15th c. say that there was a lot of gold and silver (Harikela silver) but that people still used cowries. With the Islamic conquest of the East, wars, soldiers had to be paid. And cowries were not enough anymore, while huge commercial networks developed from the 11th c.

In the Western Indian Ocean, from the Indian side, we do not find continual cowry usage, especially after the 13th c. In Bengal, use and hoards of cowries are found until the 19th c. It seems that Bengal was less commercially integrated: cowries supported local trade and maybe regional as well. Bengal was indeed mainly a rural economy. Temples paid tribute and displayed images of means of value and merchant vessels and practices, thus Guns and muskets appeared early in temple imagery.

Is there a link between slave trade and shell money? It has been studied in Africa, but Bengal was also a slave economy: Bengal was depopulated by slavery. But at the same time, cowries and a variety of shell monies circulated here. Is there a relation?

Gold never lost its lustre, nor did cowries. We have archival references where rice and prices were exchanged and settled in cowries.

When British India started monetary reforms in the 19th c., rupees were exchanged, but cowries remained. What was then the significance of the use of cowries? Why despite having coins, Bengalese continued to use cowries? Silver is linked to strong intermediary exchange agents. And the lower class – the subsistence class – used cowries in their everyday life, leaving a linguistic trace up to today.


Marie Stella – Was that comparable to bimetallism?

A.: In India, the monetary system was mainly trimetallic. But there was no copper in Bengal, and cowries fulfilled that function.

Catherine Bregianni – Did shell money played the same role as the billon – link with the rural economy? Copper coins were in use because of the rural predominance of the economy.

A.: The main issue is rural. But that is a static picture of a very long period of time. Let’s go back to Lucassen’s regional variations: in Bengal there would be regional variations too, with the very strong presence of maritime trade from the 13th c. So are there relationships between villages producing staples and textiles and maritime exchange harbours?

Georgina Gomez – Were there prices that would translate amounts in cowries and silver?

A.: Yes but the evidence is fragmented. There are 100 years gaps on this. We also have transport prices with the cost of small crossings that had to be paid in cowries.

Catherine Baroin – What about the decoration aspect of cowries?

A.: No decoration, but in temples, holes existed were treasures were hold – interestingly, the medium was stored in the temple. But these temples were also used as nexus to exchange. And these temples served as marks on the shores for navigation. Maybe were they also storehouses. So a possible merchant economy could be linked to that.

Jan Lucassen – Sometimes we have production figures for coins. Can we derive from trade with Maldives an idea of the volume of cowry production? Slave raiding in Bengal – is there a link with cowries?

A.: No, there are not enough records to make time series. Why is Bengal going to Maldives? Maldives is a rice deficient economy and Bengal supplies rice there against cowries. Yet, the Malabar coast of India (Kerala) – adjacent to the Maldivses – does not use cowries as currency. So this relatively small value currency is transported over a huge maritime distance from the Maldives to Bengal. A glance at the map of India will bear this out. Pietro de Lavalle in the 17th c. was shipwrecked in the Maldives, where he witnessed Islamic ships from Bengal coming to raid the Maldives. At this time Maldives was shifting towards a silver coinage – the lari. Silver was the currency of the Indian ocean; but not of Bengal. Was this Bengali invasion an attempt to retain the Maldivian cowry system?

It is very speculative, but there was a link between cowries and the slave trade in Western Africa. Is there a possible link in Bengal also, where slave raids were organized by Portuguese and Arakanese?

There is no representation of cowries in wealth and temples. And when Ganesh or other gods depicting wealth are decorated, they do not use cowries. However, cowries played a part in death rituals in Bengal, when dead bodies were cremated a few cowries were put in the shroud, this was called “cowries of the last passage” (parani in Bengal—depicting a riverine passage) or journey.

The French archives on Bengal (Alfred Martineau, Correspondance du Conseil Supérieur de Pondichéry et de la Compagnie etc.) reference land bought by French Individuals and also the company in 18th c. Chandernagor using “ganda”—(that is an unit of 4 cowries). Was this just a unit of measurement or actual exchange value? This is not clear.

Jérôme Jambu – In my opinion, the role of cowries in the slave trade has been exaggerated. We have indeed a problem of sources about the French slave trade: never, in the records, do French ships bring cowries to Africa in order to buy slaves – and this is an important part of the slave trade; being the second most important slave traders in the Atlantic world, French do not use cowries. Do people exchanged cowries for something else? Did they not circulate locally instead of being used in the slave trade?

Sophie Laligant – On this issue, see Josette Rivallain.

A.: There was slavery on the African West coast but not on the East. The Swahili kingdom was much more developed. Textiles were used to buy slaves. In Bengal slave traders were not buying slaves, but raiding them. Then, there was the horse trade – you could not buy horses with cowries, but cowries were exchanged for silver to buy horses.

Jan Lucassen – Slaves were bought with clothes, but traders also exported cowries and beads for local circulation.

Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
rganization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

Jan Lucassen and Rombert Stapel | International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam – Deep Monetization in the Low Countries. A case study of the copper coin circulation 1827/1828

This study covers current Belgium and Netherlands. It shows how difficult it is to relate occupational structure and small coinage.

  1. Differentiation of « general purpose money » according to numismatics and to archeology

A starting point is that the poor are the majority of the population. So the angle chosen is that of history of work. Weekly wages were paid in cash, in packets: coins, or banknotes… Until the late 1960s.

All kind of functions were associated to money: saving, wholesale trade, common purchases – and different currencies were in use.

  1. Deep monetization in general

This general outline was developed over the years. It is a concept to compare across time, countries and cultures, linked to hourly wages. Small coins are part of deep monetization if they have a value of one hour of work or less.

At a ratio of small coins supply to hourly wage of about ten and about, you have really high deep monetarization. At least in the 19th century, three regions do not compare to that: Northern Europe (occupational structure), Russia and the US (aftermath of slavery), Southern Europe (high figures in Spain and Portugal but they exported their coins to their colonies).

A big limit to the calculation of this ratio is the importance of token and notes circulation and also, especially in England, of book keeping credit.

It is not a teleological argument: the ratio sometimes goes down – see the end of the Roman empire.

  1. Sources

Archeologic evidence, not only because lack of written sources, but because they give a very different image as compared to written sources when they exist.

Relative market prices of common coins as a proxy for circulation.

Mints statistics.

Demonetization figures: suddenly one can count how many coins were demonetized. And real calculations started in the middle of the 19th.

The concept can be applied to the total of Eurasia for the last 2000 years: there was massive production of small denominations in Europe, India and China at that time.

  1. The Low Countries and a meso analysis

We started to map all the mints and coin productions sites, bearing in mind all the sources limits. Liège was a major producer of copper coins, but we have hardly any evidence of it.

It is important to study at the regional level or even at the micro level (something historians have done for decades, with probate inventories, wage payments, etc.), but there is problem: how representative are the data collected?

Natural experiment: the demonetization of old copper coins in the Low Countries, 1827-1828. But there are problems: in the northern part of the country, coins of the different provinces circulated. In the South, there were coins from Luxemburg, Liège, Spanish Low Countries in addition to those from the Netherlands… From its start, the new Kingdom had produced small coins, and so only in 1826 did the government think they had produced enough to recoin the remaining older coins in circulation.

66 collections points were established, giving detailed sources for this northern regions. For the south, there is only one nice volume in Liège and no correspondence. Nevertelss, it shows regional big differences. 4 main areas appear, 3 in current Belgium, 1 from current Netherlands. But in fact it is even more complex. Liège’s coins were used in the city area but also to its west down to the sea. Monetization also varied by region: stronger in the West than in the East. A long belt from Brussels to Liège and Verviers, but also near Groningen in the North, was more monetized.

  1. Provisional explanations

Our data showed expected but also unexpected patterns in monetization.

It also presented us with numismatic issues: to what extent were foreign coins used? Did people made coin rolls in paper to make larger payments that could replace silver?

  1. Unexpected results:

In West Flanderen, the high population density (highly proto-industrialized regions) comes with low level of monetization. One reason: they used Prussian and also French money.

Occupational structure: there is no yet evidence of a relationship – with no proper information for occupational structure for 66 districts, but only for larger regions. And the level of analysis is very important.

For example, the occupational structure (industry) does not match copper use (regional level). The same is true with the map of steam engines.

But we should also look at the different levels of hourly wage at the regional level.

  1. Conclusions

Still much work to do to reach clear results: need more information and data.


Jérôme Jambu – I expected a better correspondence between the maps. Two other factors are highlighted by Thuillier and Olivera: the role of specie buyers in the countryside, who offered agios and deposited the coins thus raked in places different from where they were collected. And where are the tax offices? Could these two factors explain the scale discrepancies?

A.: We planned to visit the SGB archives and the correspondences there. See also the prices and exchange rates in the North, or what the charitable institutions collected every Sunday in small change.

Anders Ögren – What about the difference between face value and content value?

Moya – You seem to all have the same assumption of an equivalence between the money of the poor and small change. Why? As anthropologists, we are usually stroke by the ways the poor can access huge amounts of cash. When it comes to daily life of course they use small change. But to what extent does the historical data back the fact that there is an equivalence between small change and money of the poor?

Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
rganization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

Maria Stella Chiaruttini | Institut universitaire européen (Florence) – “Change of silver coins is an inexpressible agony in these places”: The money of the poor and Italian unification

« I’m not an expert of the money of the poor, rather of the money of the rich. » The sources on money are produced by experts and upper class people, and address mainly the monetary concerns of the rich and middle classes. But some marginal comments and ideas give an idea of what is going on at a lower social level.Notably, we can see the effects of monetary unification on social and regional areas. For example in Southern Italy where were high inequalities.

At unification point, Italy was a “Babel of coins”, with 7 states, 124 legal coins and 145 non-conforming coins, plus foreign coins (sometimes accepted, sometimes not, with or without legal tariffs) and notes. On the eve of unification, monetary standards divided the North where gold prevailed from the South on a silver standard. The Two Sicilies had the largest coin circulation both on per capita basis and globally. It was thus a good deal for the North to annex the South that had a large silver circulation to be sold on the international markets to move to the gold standard at a premium because of the declining price of gold relative to silver in the 1860s. And money managers could use the French market as the place of exchange between silver and gold.

In the south especially, there were losses: instead of full weight copper coins, people were given bronze coins of lower value. Soon, the situation degraded because of tensions between South and North and international crises: would the Bourbon come back? Civil strife and hoarding of silver developed in case the unification was reversed… That led to financial problems and large banknotes issuance after 1866. The Piemontese national bank obtained at that time the right to issue inconvertible banknotes. At the same time, minting stopped.

In Sardinia, monetary conditions were appalling. Ruled by Piemont and the poorest region of the kingdom, even relatively affluent there were poor compared to the rich Italians. They also had inconvertible paper money of very small denominations, issued at the time of Napoleon, and still circulating in very poor conditions.

In Sicily and Naples, the silver money was reformed after the Napoleonic War and Naples mint was excellent. Besides, convertible paper money circulated. But most of the money was concentrated in Naples and the rest of the country was little moneyed. There were no banks, but “corn banks” lending in seeds rather than money. The South was conquered and Garibaldi and Northern armies brought new monies, but in the absence of money changers, the Northern coins stayed in circulation. Because of the situation, the local good coins disappeared or were hoarded or exported. Good silver coins vanished.

Monetary unification and recoinage were a problem. The exchange rate was unfair for the smaller coins. See deputy Allieri, 1860: “at the expenses of the popular classes”, or Briganti-Bellini in 1862. Access to money changers was also expensive and it was very difficult to protest against changers dishonesty. Another problem was that was a fractional currency was made up of silver coins, and the state was slow in replacing it, which affected the poor.

A new devaluated bronze currency replaced the copper coins, against the will of Southerners. A temporary government in Sicily kept a bimetallic standard instead of the previous silver standard. Soldiers and employees were paid in gold but had to change to silver for their purchases. Francis 2nd, the flight king, continued to finance the war from Roma with small change and copper coins, mostly forged coins.

In 1866, note inconvertibility was declared, creating a huge premium on specie (10 to 20%) and fuelling prices increase. The inconvertible money of the rich was high denomination banknotes. That created a tension on small change supply. But it also took some time to produce small notes and more bronze coins, and the latter enjoying a premium over paper, were largely exported to France.

Then manufacturers either printed their own scrips, or they could stop producing, or even delay the payment of wages: the smaller 50 liras banknotes were about equivalent to a month wage, so people were paid only after one month (men) or two month (women). That created a strong premium in favour of landowners and speculating retailers. The poorer were always on the loss side. The rural labourers were more or less insulated, because they were paid in kind. But sooner or later, even farmers had to access money – it was not a purely barter economy. Once very small notes were printed, they were of very bad quality, but quickly circulated in huge quantity. They stayed in circulation for the whole decade so that the poor were always transacting in small pieces of paper, some unrecognizable to the point they lost almost all value. And because of that, they were very easy to counterfeit.

So in the end, scrips and small banknotes were the most counterfeited as well as the most ubiquitous means of payment, to the point that in Palermo there was a parallel market for counterfeited money.


Jérôme Jambu – What are the sources for the monetary breakout between gold and silver?

A.: From parliamentary sources gathered to calculate the cost of recoinage.

Patrice Baubeau – What are the sources on the money of the poor?

A.: For instance, paradoxically there are references to the money of the poor in the archives of Bank of Italy precisely because of remarks on the bad quality of notes. Or because the Bank of Naples complained about the quality of their own notes – comments of technocrats. Usually there was no concern about the money of the poor, but about that of low middle classes. There are also other kinds of records.

Catherine Baroin – Is there a link between money and Mafia?

A.: Mafia probably started before the Bourbons, and were used by them as a relay. It would be perhaps possible to study the monetary circuits of the Camorra, that controlled the transactions at the lower level in Naples. And for what I know regarding forgeries, the counterfeiting was particularly important in Naples. But priests were also involved. Was this specialization due to technicality or to mafia?

Jan Lucassen – Was there a high level of small money?


Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

Hisashi Takagi | Yasuda University – Means of exchange in small transactions in 16th century Japan: lower class bronze coins, silver currency, and credit use

The aim of the presentation is a case study of how bronze was used by common people in early modern Japan.

  Gold currency was a large currency rarely used by common people – it will not be discussed in this paper. The shortage of documents also prevent us from knowing about common people, and most documents were written by higher class people.

  Between 7th and 10th c. in Japan, zenis were the most used coins, but they stopped being issued. In the 11th c., they were replaced by imported Chinese bronze coins. Imitations soon emerged. These were also used as currency in Japan. This led to the resumption of copper production in Japan during the 12th and 13th c. Some coins were also produced without any inscription, and could still circulate. So inscriptions were not necessary. Another reason is that Japan did not produce tin, and tinless bronze could not be cast or minted with readable letters.

  During the 16th c. entrepreneurs hired craftsmen to produce coins, when the import of Chinese coins was discontinued, leading to a coin shortage. Coin production boosted as well as prices diminished. Another factor in these changes was civil wars.

  The supply side: imports decreased with late 16th c. events and the repression of coins smuggling by pirates. Chinese also started to mint counterfeited coins for export to Japan. All in all bronze coins imports in Japan ceased in the late 16th c.

  People used various coins, all with the value 1 mon (equivalent of 1 wen in China), thus being the standard coin. This principle went out of usage after the 16thc. and coins were hierarchized by size, leading to standard and substandard coins and the pluralization of coins.

  The regime accepted that hierarchization and defined the discount ratios of non-standard coins in 1569. For example the bita emerged from the Chinese coins scarcity. Bita refers to all coins except standard coins. Thus bita was worth less than 1 mon. But bita coins started to increase in parallel to the rising prices of rice. Thus, in 1570s, bita became the standard coin as it appreciated. The Oda regime in 1580 accepted to make bita the standard coin. Bita was distributed not only in the Oda domain but also outside: it was promoted through commercial practice and not political decisions. Its value was supported by merchant networks centred on Kyoto. Toyotomi Hideyoshi maintained the bita coin policy and defined it as his standard.

  A silver rush occurred in the 1st half of 16th c. At the same time almost all silver was exported to China. But because of its falling price (American competition) and bronze shortage, silver started to be used domestically. Thanks to this fall in value, the silver currency became convenient for small transactions, along small bronze. Silver was transacted by weight. Content and weight changed along manufacturers, which made silver rather inconvenient. The standardization of silver ingots ensued. And an official silver currency family was elected (Daikoku in Sakai) around 1590.

  Credit and book credit: credit worked in small transactions among commoners. Documents as early as the 14th c. See a famous trial related to cakes bought by Samurais. Credit permitted to reduce costs of transactions.


Common people used mainly bronze coins


Akinobu Kuroda – Copper coin 1st circulated at 1 mon, and later on the circulation stratified. But the exchange rate diverged region by region without relation to the actual content. Silver was introduced by weight, but monopolized by one merchant, under government rule.

A. : The bita value, variable from region to region, converged through social practice.

Anders Ögren – What about personal pledges and communal responsibility?

A. : Social practice: kunijichi: loan owner can request the debt to the debtor but also to the members of the same community.

Not sure of the relative value and number of coins. Sources do not allow for statistical analysis. In the Edo period, bita was not necessarily a counterfeited money, as it was the case in the medieval period.

Akinobu Kuroda – Historians say that in Edo period this currency was used to price rice. To make a price, they changed the quantity of rice. The transformation of the most important coins is related to how prices for food were designed and fixed.

A. : It is difficult to give a definitive answer, because of the shortage of documents.

Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021