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‘The big problem of the petty coins’, and how it could be solved in the late Middle Ages

  • Oliver Volckart

In this paper, the problem of why low-purchasing power silver coins depreciated relative to high-purchasing power gold coins is examined. The standard explanation by Sargent and Velde is refuted. It is argued that the relative stability of gold was due to the demand from consumers able to detect debasements and to choose other suppliers; the rulers’ fear of a loss of reputation therefore allowed them to commit to monetary stability. Consumers of silver were less able to detect changes in the standard and therefore willing to accept debased coins, which meant that rulers could not easily commit to preserving stable silver currencies. The problem could be solved by establishing an independent agency responsible for monetary policies. As infringements of these agencies’ autonomy would be obvious to a wider audience, rulers could then commit to respecting monetary stability. Data on the standards of urban and princely currencies supports the conclusion that this mechanism solved the problem of maintaining the stability of low-purchasing power silver coins.

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File URL: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/22310/
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Paper provided by London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History in its series Economic History Working Papers with number 22310.

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Length: 55 pages
Date of creation: Feb 2008
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:ehl:wpaper:22310
Contact details of provider: Postal: LSE, Dept. of Economic History Houghton Street London, WC2A 2AE, U.K.
Phone: +44 (0) 20 7955 7084
Web page: http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/

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  1. Sargent, Thomas J & Velde, Francois R, 1999. "The Big Problem of Small Change," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 31(2), pages 137-61, May.
  2. Robert Sabatino Lopez, 1956. "Back To Gold, 1252," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 9(2), pages 219-240, December.
  3. Barro, Robert J. & Gordon, David B., 1983. "Rules, discretion and reputation in a model of monetary policy," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 12(1), pages 101-121.
  4. Oliver Volckart, 1997. "Early beginnings of the quantity theory of money and their context in Polish and Prussian monetary policies, c. 1520–1550," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 50(3), pages 430-449, 08.
  5. Sussman, Nathan & Zeira, Joseph, 2003. "Commodity money inflation: theory and evidence from France in 1350-1436," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 50(8), pages 1769-1793, November.
  6. Klein, Benjamin, 1974. "The Competitive Supply of Money," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 6(4), pages 423-53, November.
  7. Arthur J. Rolnick & Francois R. Velde & Warren E. Weber, 1997. "The debasement puzzle: an essay on medieval monetary history," Quarterly Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, issue Fall, pages 8-20.
  8. Gandal, Neil & Sussman, Nathan, 1997. "Asymmetric Information and Commodity Money: Tickling the Tolerance in Medieval France," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 29(4), pages 440-57, November.
  9. Greif, Avner & Milgrom, Paul & Weingast, Barry R, 1994. "Coordination, Commitment, and Enforcement: The Case of the Merchant Guild," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 102(4), pages 745-76, August.
  10. David Kreps & Paul Milgrom & John Roberts & Bob Wilson, 2010. "Rational Cooperation in the Finitely Repeated Prisoners' Dilemma," Levine's Working Paper Archive 239, David K. Levine.
  11. Peter N. Ireland, 2002. ""Rules Rather Than Discretion" After Twenty Five Years: What Have We Learned? What More Can We Learn?," Boston College Working Papers in Economics 530, Boston College Department of Economics.
  12. Paul R. Milgrom & Douglass C. North & Barry R. Weingast, 1990. "The Role Of Institutions In The Revival Of Trade: The Law Merchant, Private Judges, And The Champagne Fairs," Economics and Politics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 2(1), pages 1-23, 03.
  13. Munro, John H., 1988. "Deflation and the petty coinage problem in the late-medieval economy: The case of Flanders, 1334-1484," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 25(4), pages 387-423, October.
  14. Greif, Avner, 2000. "The fundamental problem of exchange: A research agenda in Historical Institutional Analysis," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 4(03), pages 251-284, December.
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