Friday, April 19, 2019

Robert Leonard's "Curious Currency"

I was disappointed not to see an advance in the scholarship since the first edition of 2010. Make no mistake: this little book is very scholarly. An impressive 495 footnotes support the 126 octavo pages of text and about 250 illustrations (some are composites). But we all have our passions and prejudices. 

I am passionate about the research of Denise Schmandt-Besserat which tied the origins of writing and the invention of numbers greater than three to the creation of clay tokens in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East circa 7500 BCE. Though not traded as money or gifts, the tokens served an economic purpose: they recorded debts. 

Curious Currency: The Story of Money
from the Stone Age to the Internet Age
by Robert D. Leonard, Jr.;
Whitman Publishing, 2019;
153+vi pages; $16.95
That reinforced my prejudice for the research of David Graeber. Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011) completely overturned our common imaginings about the origins of money. Those airy theories were shared by both Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises. Marx at least relied on the best scholarship of his day. Mises just ignored the facts.

Trade did not originate with economic calculations of surplus. Money did not originate with trade for profit. Money did not evolve from barter. Coins did not evolve from money. 

Trade began as ritual gift exchange. Often it was the giving of a tangible to acknowledge an intangible based on social status. No example is known of a society that moved from barter to money, but many examples show that barter is what people resort to when money fails. Money as we understand it began with the payments of debts for torts. Coins began as honorary awards. Robert Leonard’s rich monograph supports those assertions. I am only sorry that he did not make them explicitly. 

I believe that Chapter 1, “What is Money?” is contradicted by the text. Leonard writes: “In simplest terms money is ‘anything used to make a payment that the recipient trusts can be reused to make another payment.’ This includes items used as money only for special purposes or situations, such as bride-price, funeral offerings, heiliges geld (offerings made to propitiate deities), trading with Westerners, or usage only by native chiefs. Among those bride-price is payment made to the bride’s parents as compensation for their loss of her valuable work services.” (Page 2) 

Obviously, of the items listed, none is an example of any expectation of further exchange. Bride-price is a case in point. The material offering only completed the social bonding of the families by the marriage. Calculating the labor of the bride eventually evolved thousands of generations later and in only in some places and times, not universally. Of course, the complement of bride-price is dowry. If bride-price is meant to be the result of an economic calculation that is carried out in money objects, what moneys are accepted as dowry; and if her labor is valuable, why is dowry being offered? Clearly, the complicated social context explains what appears to be a mere financial transaction. 

I also believe we all use the word “money” too readily to mean things that are not money. By analogy, I point to our confused speech about power, energy, and work, or velocity and speed. Generally, no harm is done, but physicists are not so casual. And as numismatists, we should communicate clearly about money, currency, and exchange.  Perhaps numismatists should convene an online standards committee to define our terms.

For a small book, Curious Currency delivers a lot to think about. We easily call it “coin collecting” even though numismatics is the art and science that studies all of the forms and uses of money. This dense little book is about the forms that “money” (exchange objects, ritual gifts) has taken over the thousands of years of human society. Of necessity, this is a broad topic, potentially encyclopedic in scope. Robert Leonard makes the information load manageable by wrapping the stories and narratives into convenient chapters based on those broad themes. 

After an introductory overview, the chapter titles are Raw Materials, Useful Articles, Ornaments, Customary Objects, and Money Substitutes. Coins fall under “raw materials” because they were valued as metal. But silver, gold, copper, bronze, and iron must take their place alongside obsidian and flint which also were money. Coins also appear under “customary objects” along with elephant tails, woodpecker scalps, and human skulls. 

Whiskey, tobacco, tea, cocaine, and postage stamps are considered “useful articles.” Beads of coral, jade, glass, clam shells, cowry shells, silver, and turquoise, arm rings, neck rings, anklets, and many kinds of necklaces are “ornaments” of course. 

That almost anything can be used as money underscores the broad extent of society and culture. Therefore, it may be perfectly fine that the book closes with examples of “nothing” as money. RFID transceiver chips that you wave at a gasoline pump, cellphones as proxies, and cybernetic cryptocurrencies bring the reader near to—but not at—the end of the story of money. 

Overall Curious Currencyis an excellent treatment of a complex and difficult subject. The book is easy to read and worth every minute. 


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