Credit lessons from the middle ages

Written by Eli Gothill Saturday, 07 January 2012 12:27
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In the middle ages (look it up, when that was) Roman bullion money ended up hoarded inside churches and monasteries, leading to a shortage of money in circulation.

This led to the creation of new, improvised forms of paper money, issued by the people rather than their rulers. Esoteric types of credit money, such as ‘tea checks, noodle checks, bamboo tallies, wine tallies’ emerged China [1]. In England, money was issued by ‘shopkeepers, tradesmen and even widows who did odd jobs.’ [2]

All over the world, money took on unprecedented forms as credit tokens issued by peers in relationships of trust, or ‘self-issued credit.’ In Europe, such forms of money were often denominated in Carolingian money, but did not rely on it as a basis for issuance.

Self-issued credit may have been widespread in the Middle Ages, but the history of money seems to be denominated by bullion.

This is partly because objects like paper notes and tally sticks don’t survive as well as coins do, even though they may have been used a lot more at a given time in history.

Traditionally, money is conceived of as something created by monarchs, or their central banks, and not by people. However, today we face cash problems which are similar to those at the onset of the Middle Ages in Europe: money is becoming scarce again, as banks are contracting, leaving people who are able and willing to earn a living without the means to pay for it. Perhaps we can learn some lessons from the abundant self-issued credit of the medieval era.

What is self-issued credit?

First of all, what is self-issued credit precisely? It could be defined as a recorded promise to deliver an equivalent amount of goods or services to the bearer of the note.

Such a promise would usually come with an expiry date, which limits the issuer liability in case of non-redemption over an extended period. Here’s an example: a “labour note” issued in the 19th Century: [3]

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Last modified on Saturday, 07 January 2012 19:27

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