Harper Torchbooks, NYC, 1936, 1962 reprint, 389 pgs., index,
bibliography, footnotes, illustrations, maps, paperback
Reviewer comment -
The most significant chapters relevant to the role of money are chapters 1 and
2. Then chapter 3 discusses the gradual increase of the bourgeois in the towns
and cities and their increasing recognition and influence. The author in this
book refutes much of the historical basis that economists such as Dr. L.
Randall Wray claim is the history of the nature of
money. And the book also fills in much of the historical record about the
increasing role and status of the bourgeois in the centuries prior to the
beginning of this development claimed in the three books on the bourgeois by Dr. McCloskey. I list several
other related references below.
Dr. Cheyney barely mentions the plague 'Black Death' that occured during his
time period, And he does not even mention the catastrophe of climate -cold and
rain - that caused a great famine and much political disruption as well. But
his discussion about coinage tracks with Fischer's discussion in
The Great Wave.
Chapter 1 - The Expansion of Trade and the Increase of Wealth
In his introduction the author presents background. "As we obtain a
clearer perspective, it becomes increasingly evident that by the middle of the
thirteenth century the real middle ages were over. A great era had passed away,
its special characteristics outlived, its work accomplished". ..."
the chief lines of commerce had been marked out". For the following 200
years he writes, "In these 200 years trade, industry and finance, under
the influence of a nascent capitalism, superseded agriculture as the main
economic basis of European society: Town life grew in importance, the middle
classes became more influential, the lower classes more restive, freedom took
the place of serfdom among the rural masses, signs of the awakening of a
national spirit became visible, boundaries of states were more settled".
"The most fundamental of the changes that marked the passage from medieval
to modern times was the increase of wealth, and the principal cause of the
increase of wealth was the extension of commerce. The exchange of goods has
been of great significance in the advance of civilization". ..
"Distant trade exerts a more profound influence" "Nor is the
process of trade merely an economic one.
Commerce has built bridges across which ideas as well as men and goods have
passed". . "Trade destroys isolation. Provincialism cannot long
survive the arrival and departure of ships and caravans, the intercourse of
merchants at markets and fairs. The exchange of goods, in early times, was the
most influential of economic processes". "During these years commerce
became Europe wide, just as a century later it was to become world wide"
"Capital came to be extensively used, not withstanding religious
opposition, and increased in volume. Commerce was the foundation of the policy
of some states and one of the leading motives for public action in all."
"In general literature the merchant becomes almost as familiar as the
knight, the monk or the minstrel".
Dr. Cheyney devotes pages to elaboration , citing the specific goods that were
the most obtained by long range commerce. These were most important for goods
that were in demand every where but produced only in specific regions, such as
salt, wool, and wine. Plus, of course, the really exotic luxury products
brought to Europe from the Near and Far East. He describes the routes of trade
and its centers of shipment such as Venice. He then describes the
transportation means such as the galleys organized into fleets. Finally he
turns to the people who dominated the development. "The whole feudal and
clerical castes were relatively valueless from the point of view of creating or
restoring wealth." "All saving of capital and all production of
utilities fell upon the merchant, the farmer and the artisan".
Chapter 2 - Merchant Princes and Bankers
In this chapter Dr. Cheyney focuses on individuals whose names are known and
groups that led the commercial transformation. Only the most wealthy or widely
active individuals are known by name, but the groups they represent are clear.
"Some of them were merchants pure and simple. What they did not spend for
comfortable or luxurious living or for religions, charitable or civic purposes
they used as capital for more extensive trading ventures. Capitalism entered
into the life of Europe earlier than is commonly realized and there were few
regions where its fructifying and disturbing influence was not already
In other words capital was the remaining difference between the cost of goods
being sold and their sales prices that was not consumed by the merchants
themselves. At this stage the merchants merely transported and distributed the
goods in question. Only gradually and in certain places (towns) were the goods
But, he notes also, "But there were at this time few rich merchants or
manufacturers who were not also something of money-lenders. In earlier times
successful merchants invested their money in landed property in the growing
towns and became a patrician class living on their rents and on the gains of
civil office. They were the oldest element of the bourgeoisie. In later times
trade and banking became quite separate. But in the period we are discussing,
the line between the merchant and the money-lender was an indistinct one. The
fortune of the merchant-banker was founded on trade, but it grew great by
lending money to kings, nobles, clerics and to any other who needed immediate
funds and could give some promise of repayment. It was this function, rather
than their activity as merchants, that has preserved to us their names and
"The rich merchant meets us everywhere. Early in the fourteenth century
Regnault d'Auriac of Montpellier in France extended his business so widely that
he had branch offices in Figeac, Paris, and Bruges...." "The
superabundant wealth of merchants undoubtedly provided much of the money
borrowed by kings and others. But there already existed a class of genuine
bankers, whose funds were either lent outright, or, if used in trade, served to
facilitate financial arrangements. Modern banking seems to have sprung from
four roots: first, from the excess profits of trade; secondly, from the
business of money-changers who bartered coin of one country for that of
another; thirdly, from the transfer for a consideration of money from place to
place, or its safe-keeping for a certain time; lastly. from the needs or
desires of kings, popes and others for ready money to carry on campaigns or for
Again, the author devotes more pages to naming some of the specific
individuals, both lenders and borrowers. The accounts are fascinating. One of
the major functions performed by merchant bankers and more full time bankers
was the transmittal of papal funds from one end of Europe to another by means
of paper letters of exchange. Italian banking houses did the same for rulers
and for merchants to avoid the necessity of transporting coins over dangerous
Some of the authors's comments: "In those times of shortage of bullion,
governments frequently forbade the export of gold and silver; goods only, not
money or plate, could be carried out of most countries. It was in this service
that the Italian bankers played, in the early period at least the most
conspicuous part. In the case of England the transmission of the papal dues or
their equivalent was much facilitated by the demand for English wool in
Italy". "The transfer of the papal residence from Rome to Avignon in
1309 brought about a great change in the relations between the bankers and the
papal treasury." "The coast was more clear for money-lenders and
banking companies in these later days of the thirteenth century than it had
ever been before". "Within the first quarter of the fourteenth
century eighteen banking houses either failed or allowed themselves to be
absorbed by others." (This was in England). King Edward III borrowed in
all directions to fund his expedition to France at a rate of 25% a year. He
pawned his royal crown and other valuables. Then there was Jacques Coeur,
"the richest man of his age".
The author next devotes a section to describing "The Origin of Modern
"When the principal Florentine companies failed in the middle of the
fourteenth century, the business of the Medici, too obscure to be seriously
affected by the crisis, survived". There also was the Fugger family, whom
the author traces from a linen weaver through several generations to become
head of "perhaps the most powerful financial concern that has ever
A book describing him as the richest man in Europe has recently been published.
In the next section we learn about the "Influence of coined money".
In addition to the growing use of credit instruments, commerce was funded
mostly on the use of coined money. This was possible due to a great expansion
in the mining of silver (and some gold).
"The growth of wealth and its economic and social effects were therefore,
largely conditioned by the increase of silver and gold mined and minted".
Again Dr. Cheyney describes this in detail with quantities and values. Of
special interest is his description of the process by which silver especially
(and gold) was obtained and turned into coined money. The expansion of commerce
within each country required more and more silver coin. Government prohibited
export of their coin but purchased abroad bar silver and gold as commodities by
exchanging exports of commodities (for instance wool from England) The author
writes, "In view of the drain of commerce, the anxiety of governments for
larger incomes, the constant demand for precious metals for ornament and the
relatively small production of bullion, practically all countries found it
necessary to forbid the export of their own money, and to seize and recoin all
foreign money imported. Foreign money was usually paid for by the export of
goods, not of coin. Various devices wee used to bring in money or bullion.
Exporters of goods were required to give bonds that they would bring back a
least part of the proceeds of their sale in silver or gold".
This was several centuries before the theory known as mercantilism, but shows a
cause for the thought. It also shows that there were hundreds of mints each
producing different coins. "Prior to the middle of the thirteenth century
the money of western Europe, except for a few gold bezants from the Eastern
Empire, had been exclusively of silver. Not since the time of Charlemagne had
gold money been coined west of the Adriatic. Now within a half century gold was
adopted for coinage in a dozen different states".
The author mentions the Florentine 'florin and the Venetian ducat. That
production usurped the Emperor's sole right to mint coins. And these gold coins
circulated throughout western Europe, not solely in Florence. The English king
paid his troops in the Netherlands with them. Then they were minted by others
in different countries. And the Venetian ducat circulated as widely also. But
even with these gold coins silver remained most important.
"Notwithstanding the prevalence of gold coins, they can have played but a
small part in the actual work of buying and selling. Commercial transactions
were still carried on in silver and often in very small units." For
instance, the author reports, "Not only the silver penny, but the great
number of half-pence and farthings that were coined at the English mints -
almost 3,000 pounds of silver were turned into 2,217,600 half-pence and
farthings, in the one year 1281".
"The tables of wages in the statutes of laborers that followed the Black
Death and other records leave no doubt that the wages of artisans were paid in
money, even in the country, and the manorial records so generally state the
value of agricultural services in terms of money - pence, half-pence and
farthings - that there must have been many cases in which actual money wages
were paid to the peasantry by lords, their stewards or well-to-do farmers"
"A 'money economy' is traceable even in the thirteenth century and even in
the lowest ranks of society".
The negative impact of the change from rents paid in kind or labor by their
tenants to the land lords became evident in succeeding centuries discussed in
Chapter 3 - The Rise of the Middle Class: The Development of
Dr. Cheyney turns to describe the people. "The attainment of political
recognition by the middle class was one of the principal characteristics of
this period. Alongside the feudal noble, strong in the support of his military
and feudal tenants, and the prelate, endowed with religious prestige as well as
land, appears on the political scene the townsman, the merchant, wealthy,
industrious, intelligent, trained to take part in government under the charter
of his town". "In addition to the success of individuals we have to
consider the rise of the burghers as a class"
The author begins with Spain to describe the expanded role of the middle class.
Then he turns to France, England, Italy and Germany.
"The growing opulence and population enhanced the desire for freedom from
overlords, royal, abbatical, episcopal, feudal."
His next lengthy discussion describes the political power of the new middle
class in parliaments, cortes, and estates.
Chapter 4 - Popular Insurrections
Chapter 5 - The Hundred Years War
Chapter 6 - The Decline of the Church: The Weakening of the Papacy
Chapter 7 - The Spread of Heresy
Chapter 8 - Language, Literature and Art
Chapter 9 - The Revelation of the East
Chapter 10 - The Eastern Frontier of Europe
Chapter 11 - Recapitulation
The author sums up with general observations on the events and developments of
the two centuries.
"The most marked characteristic of the history of Europe, considered as a
whole, during the period whose events have now been sketched was its
Peter Spufford - The Merchant in Medieval Europe
David Landes, Joel Mokyer, William Baumol - eds - The Invention of
David Hackett Fischer - The Great Wave
William Rosen - The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great
Famine of the 14th century