Book Review: Making Money in Sixteenth-Century France: Culture, Currency, and the State

Published by EH.Net (September 2015)

Jotham Parsons, Making Money in Sixteenth-Century France: Culture, Currency, and the State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. x + 324 pp. $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8014-5159-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Veronica Aoki Santarosa, University of Michigan Law School.

In Making Money in Sixteenth-Century France, Jotham Parsons (associate professor of history at Duquesne University) argues that money, as a technology of power, was imbricated within the larger web of social, political, and cultural structures of sixteenth-century France. In a series of interrelated essays (parts of which are published elsewhere), the book sets out to trace the intellectual origins of the idea of currency as a destabilizing force and to describe how the control over coinage became inextricably connected to the sixteenth-century French kings’ governance projects of state building and monarchic consolidation.

The first chapter describes in detail the technology behind the process of coining and examines the institutional structures that controlled the production and flow of coins in the second half of the sixteenth century. The second chapter turns to intellectual history to develop the conceptual backbone of the book. The third and fourth chapters focus on monetary policy between the reign of Henry II and the ascension of Henry IV and the Bourbon monarchy. Parsons traces how various governments confronted the Great Inflation of the second half of the sixteenth century and the economic consequences of the Wars of Religion (1562–1598). In the last third of the book, looking primarily at literary interventions and at the Cour des Monnaie’s law enforcement activities, he examines how a broader range of French society interacted with money.

Under the reign of Henry II (1547–1559), the Cour des Monnaies increased in size, power, and prestige. Drawing on newly minted theories connecting currency to sovereignty, the king made monetary policy a priority in the governance project of state building and set up a sophisticated legal and administrative apparatus to control coinage. Parsons argues, counterintuitively, that the numerous currency crises offered opportunities for the monarchy to centralize and strengthen the administrative control of the mint system. From a detailed analysis of the Pinatel scandal and a few other episodes in which the coinage system failed, Parsons extracts the lesson that creative and effective government policies and an efficient mint system were able to quell the various financial concerns the state faced in that period and achieve political stabilization. This view is, however, at odds with a large literature that exposes the ephemeral nature of the benefits of the ambitious 1577 monetary system reorganization, whose effects had largely reverted by 1602 (Blanc 2011; Sargent and Velde 2014), and the failed attempts by the various kings to restore royal authority and prevent its disintegration during the Wars of Religion (Parker 1983).

In fact, Parsons’ history of the Cour des Monnaies and the French monarchy’s responses to crises treats the political process as one of continuous learning and administratively efficient results. It is beyond doubt that monarchs often succumbed to the temptation to manipulate currency for self-interested reasons or to lessen the financial pressure created by warfare (Munro 2010). Beyond the few paragraphs dedicated to literary depictions of Charles X, “the prince counterfeiter,” however, Parsons does not discuss this possibility. Nor does he discuss the economic calculus of the king in weighing the profits of seigniorage against the loss of credibility with his subjects. There is also almost no discussion of what, beyond the sophisticated technology deployed to achieve consistency and prevent counterfeiting, kept the mints successful and honest, as the mints were farmed out to private contractors. Parsons’ approach is mainly qualitative and illustrative, with an emphasis upon individuals and the ideas that motivated them. However, in giving primacy to the influence of ideology rather than incentives, to motivation more than outcome, and to discourse rather than action, Parsons misses an opportunity for fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue especially with modern monetary theory, which, according to him, “has little to offer a non-quantitative study like this one” (p. 11 ).

Parsons argues more broadly that the ways money was theorized closely tracked to how governments responded to crises. In his view, an intellectual force — the roots of which he traces to Aristotelian philosophy — was the impetus behind both the expansion of the bureaucratic and administrative apparatus to control coinage and the profuse legislation regulating aspects of economic and social life. According to Parsons, well into the sixteenth century the French held Aristotelian conceptions of money. That is, they deemed money an “inevitable but dangerous and destabilizing product of commerce between households and polities” (p. 14). At the same time, the belief that one could control economic forces, and that the king had the ability to solve the dangers money posed, encouraged sophisticated theoretical reflections on government intervention in the economy. Challenging the received wisdom in the current literature that “[t]he genesis of what was later to be economic policy was only faintly perceptible in the sixteenth century” (Boyer-Xambeu et al. 1994, p. 44), Parsons makes an important contribution in tracing the emergence of a “science of maxims” and how these early theorizations in monetary policy shaped modern economic thought. However, perhaps because he constrains his attention almost exclusively to the wisdom produced by the political elites advising the king and omits the theological discourse on how money was conceptualized, the intellectual landscape in Parsons’ narrative appears surprisingly uncontested — in stark contrast to the religious and economic turbulence of the period. Turning to coinage regulation, Parsons’ thesis that the Cours des Monnaies’ regulatory activity was the explicit model for social regulation in general is perhaps his boldest. His comparison of coinage regulation with sumptuary laws is novel and persuasively reveals common patterns behind these bodies of law. According to him, both types of laws were addressed at punishing those who hoped to find social mobility through artifice and deception, and were motivated by contemporary thought that “associated disordered passions not only with individual vice but with political disorder” (p. 70). When counterfeiters manipulated the display of wealth, clothes and coins lost their value as a signal and fueled fears of inflation. Yet, clothing was just one “technology” which could be deployed to subvert the social order, and Parsons provides no clear analysis of how these were all interconnected: venal offices, dueling, marriage, etc. One wonders, however, how far the analogy between coinage and sumptuary legislation can take us as his analysis doesn’t rule out equally plausible alternative explanations for their perceived similarities. A perhaps more obvious point is that the shared spur behind these bodies of law was the protection of national markets and the national monetary space, in that these regulations were part of a broader proto-mercantilist policy. As Howell (2010, p. 218) plausibly hypothesizes, “[M]any of these laws had a distinctly mercantilist cast, for they targeted imported goods and seemed to equate such purchases with bad citizenship, even with treason.” For example, a 1543 French law condemned “excessive and superfluous expense on cloth and ornaments of gold and silver … the means by which huge sums of money are sucked from the realm,” which permits foreigners to “enrich themselves from the fat of our realm and give aid to our enemies.”

The first two-thirds of the book focus primarily on the elite’s reactions to a range of financial challenges and how they used currency to further their own projects of governance. The “view from above” predominates. In the last third of the book we are given glimpses into the world of the rest of society — those who traded for their needs –and their relationship to currency; these hints come mostly through such indirect sources as French poetry, theater and literary prose, and criminal records. Counterfeiting was severely punished as a crime against the sovereign (crime of lèse-majesté). The legal rhetoric embodied in the coinage regulation, though, was at odds with the social realities of such crimes as explored by Parsons. In Parsons’ records, counterfeiting was a “desperate attempt to achieve a new social position or to retrieve one that was slipping away” — not an attempt to conspire and threaten the authority or ideological foundations of the monarchy. This disconnect is perhaps a product of Parsons’s caseload sample, which is of mostly small-scale, urban crime.

Despite its title, this book is not about money in general but about coinage. Although not a symbolic vehicle for sovereign power, the circulation of privately produced money (book money, bullion, bills of exchange, unofficial substitutes) could, equally as coins, interfere with financial stability. To the extent that the government’s attempt to achieve financial stability was part of a broader strategy to enhance government power, the book would benefit from a discussion of policies directed at controlling these other mediums. To take just one example, in the second half of the fifteenth century, Philip and his successors in the Low Countries issued a series of ordinances that stifled the development of deposit banks due to fears that “money-changers, especially those acting as deposit-bankers, were a threat to the integrity of the ducal mints and of the money supply” (Munro 2003).

Making Money in Sixteenth-Century France will be an important and invaluable reference for anyone working in early modern economic history. It is ambitious in its analysis, engagingly written, and wide ranging. The great strength of the book, in addition to its history of economic thought, is Parsons’ astute weaving of different strands of sociological literature and unstudied archival material. In that account, his analysis achieves the right balance between breadth and depth. Coinage is a highly technical and ill-understood subject, and Parsons deserves much credit for his ability to make the intricacies of coinage in the sixteenth century understandable and interesting for a broad audience.


Blanc, Jérôme. “La réforme monétaire française de 1577: Les difficultés d’une expérience radical,” Journées d’études “La souveraineté monétaire et la souveraineté politique en idées et en pratiques: identité, concurrence, corrélation?” Paris: Centre d’études européennes, Sciences Po, 8–9 June 2011.

Boyer-Xambeu, Marie-Thérèse, Ghislain Deleplace, and Lucien Gillard. Private Money and Public Currencies: The Sixteenth Century Challenge. M.E. Sharpe, 1994.

Howell, Martha C. Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Munro, John H. \”The Coinages and Monetary Policies of Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547): Contrasts between Defensive and Aggressive Debasements.\” Working Paper, 2010.

Munro, John H. “The Late-Medieval Origins of the Modern Financial Revolution: Overcoming Impediments from Church and State.” Working Paper, 2003.

Parker, David. The Making of French Absolutism. Edward Arnold, 1983

Sargent, Thomas J., and François R. Velde. The Big Problem of Small Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Veronica Aoki Santarosa is an assistant professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and the author of “Financing Long-Distance Trade: The Joint Liability Rule and Bills of Exchange in Eighteenth-Century France” (Journal of Economic History, 2015).

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