Tuesday, May 28, 2024


An English penny minted by William the Conqueror, who brought monetagium to England. Source: History in Coins

The way that a modern mafia protection racket works is the mafia starts doing very bad things to regular folks, say you and your business. To stop the damage, you pay them a regular fee. Both sides come out ahead. The mafia earns a tidy stream of income. Your suffering comes to an end.

In feudal Europe, a monetary practice called "monetagium" worked along the same principles as a mafia protection racket. It began with the feudal lord threatening to do very bad things to the coinage. To prevent these very bad things from happening, the public would pay a fee called monetagium to the lord. Both sides came out ahead. The lord earned revenue. His vassals avoided a worsening of the coinage.

To better understand the intricacies of monetagium, or monetary blackmail, we need to explore how the monetary system worked back in the 11th and 12th centuries.
A feudal lord had a number of ways to earn revenue. These included gabelle, a tax on salt; heriot, a death duty that was paid to the lord upon the death of a tenant; merchet, fee paid on marriage, and the Saladin tithe, a tax paid by all those who did not go on Crusades. Another common revenues source was the prince's monopoly over the coinage. Anyone could bring their personal silver to the royal mints and have it be converted into coins, for a fee. This revenue source was known as seigniorage. The lord of the realm, or seigneur, often outsourced the running of their mints to professional third-parties, or moneyers, who collected the fee and remitted it to the seigneur after subtracting what was needed to pay their own costs and earn a profit.

Seigniorage provided a steady stream of revenue to the lord. But if he really wanted to turbocharge his revenues, a debasement of the coinage could be introduced.

A debasement means a reduction in the silver content of new coins. Post-debasement, a canny merchant could bring a chest full of old silver coins to the mint and get those converted into even more new ones. So for example, if he had 1,000 old coins on hand, and a 20% debasement had been introduced, a merchant would be able to have his 1,000 coins reminted into 1,200 new coins. He might have to pay 50 of those to the lord, leaving 1,150 coins. The extra 150 coins now in his possession provided him with the opportunity to buy more goods & services than before (at least until prices adjusted) and settle more debts.

To take advantage of the opportunity provided by the debasement, a wave of customers would arrive at the mint to convert their silver into new coins, the result being a temporary boost to the seigneur's minting profits. If a single debasement provided a one-time boost to the lord's revenues, a series of such debasements could repetitively turbocharge those revenues. (Henry VIII notoriously used this technique to fund his expensive French wars.)

Debasements may have boosted feudal revenues, but they were generally unpopular with the public, a fact that many writers from that period have commented on. And you can understand why. Debasing the coinage caused inflation, or a rise in the price level, and in no age has inflation ever been popular. Furthermore, the penny was the unit of account, or the means by which people reckoned and computed their financial lives. As the penny was mutated, its ability to serve as a measuring tool was compromised.

By the 11th century, Normandy's dukes had been resorting to regular debasements as a revenue device for some time. But they soon had an epiphany. They realized that they needn't enact an actual debasement to earn a profit. Instead, they could just threaten to enact one, and then extort the public for a ransom to prevent it from going through.

This tax was known as monetagium. By the late 11th century, monetagium was being levied on Norman citizens every three years in return for the Duke's promise not to reduce the silver content of the coinage. The tax worked out to 12 pennies per household, or hearth, which according to historian Thomas Bisson amounted to the wages of "a day's field work per year." Knights and the clergy were exempt. In scope, monetagium was an "important but unspectacular financial resource," says Bisson, raising a fraction of the much larger land tax on farms.

In other parts of France, including Orléans and Paris, the monetagium was known as the "tallage on bread and wine," writes Bisson. Calculated based on the amount of provisions that subjects had on hand, including measures of winter wheat and spring oats, the bread and wine tax was justified to the population as the king's generous substitute for debasement.

From the perspective of the king or feudal lord, monetagium must have been a superior tax policy to debasing the coinage. Gone was the need to force the population to trudge each few years with their silver coins to the mint for recoinage every three years. And the coinage at least stayed constant, removing the difficulties and uncertainties imposed by inflation on the feudal economy. But while monetagium was less capricious, it was still abusive  in the same way that the mafia's protection payments are abusive. This was especially apparent to the inhabitants of England.

There is evidence that the Normans exported the practice of monetagium to England after William the Conqueror's successful invasion of the island in 1066. The English version of monetagium appears to have operated on slightly different principles than the Norman one, however.

Whereas Normandy had a long history of debasement, England's coinage up till 1066 had remained relatively consistent in weight and purity, a tradition that the Norman invaders were expected to (and did) uphold. Unable to use the threat of a debasement to extract monetagium, England's new Norman lords came up with another excuse.

For almost a century prior to the Norman invasion, the English coinage had been regularly renewed each three years. That is, a new version of the penny was regularly issued, the imagery being updated but the silver content staying the same. So this was not debasement. The older versions of the penny were generally allowed to stay in circulation, although from time-to-time the most dated coins would be declared void, says W.J. Andrew, a numismatist. Once they ceased to be legal tender, citizens were required to bring in these discontinued coins to be reminted into new ones, for a fee. The fees earned from demonetization were one of the ways the English kings earned income.

According to Andrew, the English tradition of recurring triennial renovatio monetae gave the Norman kings the missing hook they needed to extract monetagium from the English population. By declaring all coin types to be void each three years (instead of just some of the oldest ones), as was his right, England's new Norman kings could place a costly burden on the population. English-folk would have to regularly haul all their coins to the local mint for costly conversion. To avoid this burden they were proffered an alternative: pay the monetagium every three years instead, and in return the king would let old pennies remain as legal tender.
This was not a popular practice with the English. When Henry I came to power in 1100 he would officially end it, proclaiming the following: "The common monetagium... which was collected through the cities and through the counties, which did not exist in Kind Edward's time, this I utterly abolish from now on."

The phenomenon of monetagium also pops up in Denmark in the 13th century in the form of a "plough tax," as recounted by historian Sture Bolin. Like many parts of Europe, Denmark's coinage was subject to renovatio monetae whereby it was routinely recalled and cancelled. The conversion rate was costly; for every three demonetized coins submitted, a Dane might receive only two in return. The policy of renovatio monetae was brought to an end in 1234 by King Valdemar II. In its place, a new tax was levied such that for every plough owned, Danes had to pay one öre in coin. Valdemar justified the plough tax to his Danish subjects as the price they had to pay to enjoy permanent coinage.

Notably, the coins that Valdemar issued in 1234 have the distinction of being the first European coins in the Christian era to have a date stamped on them. In the image below, they are dated MCCXXXIIII, although I must confess that I can't quite make it out. (This source may help you pick out the numerals.)

A penny from Roskilde, Denmark dated 1234 holds the honor of being the earliest Anno Domini dated coin in the history of European coinage Source: Reddit

Bolin suggests that the novelty of coin dating was intended to commemorate both the permanent nature of Danish coinage and the simultaneous introduction of the plough tax.


So what are we to make of all this today? Modern democracies are not feudal mafioso, yet they often face the similar dilemma of what mix of revenue sources to rely on, one of those sources being monetary debasement. A literal debasement of the coinage is no longer a policy that can be pursued  our currencies are no longer metallic. The modern equivalent would be for a democratic government to lean on the central bank to fund government spending, too much of this resulting in inflation.

In general, democracies have not resorted to modern version of debasement as a revenue source due to the unpopularity of rising prices. Instead, contemporary policymakers tend to rely on income taxes, consumption taxes, and property taxes. I suppose we can think of these obligations as our modern version of monetagium. They are the "better taxes," akin to the Danish plough tax or the Parisian grain and wine tax, that we subject ourselves to instead of the not-so-good taxes that get levied via the monetary system.

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