Lady Pecunia at the punching office: two poems on early modern monetary reform.

Author:Skwire, Sarah
 
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  1. Introduction

Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity perform a variety of useful services for free market economists. The first of these services is the books' enormous potential success in dissuading "people who think that capitalism is probably rotten, and who believe that a claim to bourgeois 'virtues,' of all things, is laughable" (McCloskey 2006, p. 5). The second is a lesson for free market economists themselves, however. the lesson that sophisticated economic thinking did not begin with Adam Smith, or with Hutcheson and Carmichael, or indeed, anywhere in the eighteenth century at all. (1) Instead, McCloskey reminds us that the innovations of rhetoric that accompany sophisticated economic thinking "happened after 1300 in isolated parts of the European south ... and after 1400 or so in other towns of the south and the Hansa towns of the north, and after 1600 in larger chunks of the north, and after 1700 in England, Scotland, and British North America, and after 1800 in southern Belgium, the Rhineland, northern France, and then the world" (McCloskey 2010, p. 40). In other words, sophisticated economic thinking does not so much begin as continue. And that continuation, with its many alterations, is expressed through language, rhetoric, and culture.

The rowdy commercial culture of seventeenth-century London provides fertile ground for an exploration of the cultural evidence of some of these bourgeois dignifying "habits of the lip" (McCloskey 2010, p. 7). Two economically focused poems, Richard Barnfield's "The Encomium of Lady Pecunia: Or, the Praise of Money" (1598) and the anonymous broadside ballad "Rare News for the Female Sex: Or, Good Luck at Last" (1695/6), offer us the opportunity to consider representations of high cultural and popular cultural debates about monetary reform at either end of the seventeenth century and to evaluate them for their contribution to a fuller picture of economic thought in the period, as well as a better sense of how thoroughly economic thinking had penetrated the culture.

Barnfield's "Encomium," when it is thought about at all, is thought about in connection with the genre of the paradoxical encomium as outlined by Henry Knight Miller in 1956. Miller defined the genre as "a species of rhetorical jest or display piece which involves the praise of unworthy, unexpected, or trifling objects, such as the praise of lying and envy, or of the gout or of pots and pebbles" (Miller 1956, p.145). Miller is careful to qualify that potentially dismissive definition, however, by citing Erasmus's comment on his own paradoxical encomium, The Praise of Folly, that "literary jests may have serious implications, and ... a reader with a keen nose may get more from a skillful trifle than from a solemn and stately argument." Barnfield references Erasmus and The Praise of Folly in his dedicatory epistle to "The Encomium of the Lady Pecunia," which suggests, from the work's earliest moments, that Barnfield is well aware of the complexities of a paradoxical genre where praise is meant to be critique, except when it isn't. We are thus wise to remember that while literary jests like Barnfield's "be madness, yet there is method in't" and to consider the poem as not merely whimsy, but as whimsically couched yet substantive cultural commentary.

From the moment we read the Horatian epigraph that opens the poem, "quaerenda pecunia prima est / virtus post nummos," which translates as "the first thing to acquire is money. Cash before conscience!" it is clear that we are entering precisely this kind of highly sophisticated literary and economic joke that will waver dizzyingly between praise and critique and back again while doing some useful educational work along the way. Written at the end of Elizabeth I's long reign and filled with explicit references to her, "The Encomium of the Lady Pecunia" provides a faux-mythical poetic history of money, in the form of the anthropomorphized Lady Pecunia. Barnfield lists her powers and fine qualities, as well as cataloguing the ways that she helps people at every level of society. In other words, the poem is interested in general in money and in those who use it. As the poem proceeds, however, it becomes clear that it is also interested in particular in money during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Holinshed's (1587) Chronicles remind us that once the Treaty of Edinburgh had ended the siege of Leith, Elizabeth was free to address the problem of badly debased English currency that awaited her when she took the throne:

The queens maiestie by the advise of hir most honorable council, meaning to abolish all corrupt, base, and copper moneies then currant in this realm of England, coined in the times and reignes of king Henrie the eight, and king Edward the sixt, to the great hinderance and decaie of the commonwealth of the realme and therewith to restore unto all hir subjects fine and pure sterling moneies, both of gold and silver, to the great honor and benefit of the whole realme: published a proclamation of Michaelmasse even before noone, that the teston [2] coined for twelve pence, and in the reigne of kind Edward embased by proclamation to six pence should now forthwith (that of the best sort marked with the portculeis) be currant for foure pence halfpenie; the second marked with the greyhound for two pence farthing [3]; the third and worst sort not marked as afore, not to be currant at all, nor received for anie value. The grote [4] to be currant for two pence, and former peece of two pence for a penie, &c. It was not long after this but that hir grace restoring to hir subjects fine sterling monie, called all the base and corrupt coines into hir majesties mint, allowing to them therefore the rate before mentioned, so much of the said fine monies as they brought in of the said base monies. (Holinshed 1587, vol. 6, p. 1194)

In other words, the crown first reassessed the value of all the coins circulating in the kingdom--generally revaluing them for about 25-50 percent of the stamped value--and then shortly afterward called in all the old coinage, minted new coins, and more or less "reset" the currency.

The Elizabethan recoinage points us to the early modern obsession with the metal content of commodity money coinage. Early moderns found it more or less nerve-wracking when the coin's stamped value did not equal the market value of the metal it contained. This concern was understandable, as coins whose face value did not match the value of their metal content were the equivalent of an inflation-debased currency today. (5) The early moderns...

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