I recently read Medici Money* and found it informative and, on a couple axes, disconcerting.
Informative because I’m not particularly expert‡ on fifteenth century Florence. Parks has a breezy style, packing a lot into a slender volume: banking, trade, mercenaries, politics, religion, and vividly sketched personalities pulled together for a coherent narrative. The book delivered the solid tidbits about banking practices that I was most looking for: bank organization, earnings of bank officials, the shifting goalposts of sumptuary laws, tax rates and prices for basic necessities and luxuries, and the semantic games by which one could earn interest-like money without technically being guilty of usury.
The breeziness caused some discomfort, even while I was zipping through the book. It is very much Not A Scholarly Work. The writing style declares it on every page, with every sentence fragment and exclamation point. I won’t go so far as to say it reads like fiction, but it’s definitely lightweight prose. Despite the style, I kept looking for footnotes early on. (I did break myself of the habit; still, despite the NASW aspect, it felt a bit weird that while there was an index there wasn’t a comprehensive bibliography, just an afterword-style Bibliographic Notes.) I did give a little shudder when reading about the “sterile arguments with other academics” in Kent’s Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance and praise for Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy though “historians today like to consider it outdated and mistaken.” Slightly hypocritical, perhaps, as I’ve read neither work and did not, in fact, feel like reading a heavy academic work on Florentine finance and politics. But I have always been loathe to dismiss something as too intellectual, an impulse that has only been reinforced in the anti-intellectual climate of recent years, so the Bibliographic Notes left me a little unhappy.
That digression aside…I was also pleasantly discomfited by the book, particularly in the second chapter, which contained many of the aforementioned tidbits.
Most of the material I’ve been working with at the APS is nineteenth century; most of it is hand-written. I typically consider that merely a function of the times, but Parks reminds that handwriting can be a feature, not a bug. A mere signature was not adequate to authenticate a document. The entire text had to be written by an appropriate bank official, and checked against handwriting samples on file. This, of course, makes me wonder about the competence of the handwriting analysis and the frequency of forgeries (successful and otherwise).
I knew that double-entry bookkeeping was an innovative Italian concept, but that did not (does not) extend to detailed knowledge of accounting practices. The idea of virtual currency, existing only in bankers’ ledgers to make currency conversion more straightforward, was delightful (of course the Ultima folks didn’t invent virtual currencies…); one of those things that is perfectly logical, once one hears of it, but utterly revolutionary in the instant before. It also highlighted one of my privileges: despite the dire state of the economy, and the very real (well, real in the consensual illusion sense of finance) fluctuations of the U.S. dollar, it’s still the U.S. dollar. I don’t really need to worry about whether or not I’m better off buying up EVE isk; for better or worse, the entire world has to care at least a little bit about the state of my currency.
More odd was the idea that one could not simply convert gold florins to silver piccioli or vice versa…that despite the existence of purely virtual accounting currencies actual money was still viewed (albeit strategically, the better to enforce class divisions and fleece the poor) in terms of material. You couldn’t convert from gold to silver, but you could use gold to buy silver (or vice versa). I now hear about “buying” currency X, investment-style, but I still tend to think in terms of conversion. And though pennies are for most practical purposes worthless (unless you convert them—using copper to buy paper, as it were) one hundred of them still add up to a dollar. So the florin/piccioli thing blew my little mind; I’m not sure if that’s more properly attributed to my ignorance of the medieval mindset or the financier mindset. Perhaps I should ask a medievalist. Or a financier. I do know people; and now I have a better idea of what questions to ask.
* It was mentioned in the “extras” of The Dragon’s Path, which is largely concerned with matters of late medievalesque finance. And since—in addition to writing really good, unsexy† books with solid worldbuilding—Abraham’s right about The Middleman, Bubbahotep, The Tick, etc., I figured I could do worse than pay attention to his nonfiction recommendations.
† Not an oxymoron. See especially The Long Price Quartet, in which a host of conventionally obvious developments—an emancipation quest, on stage character deaths and Drama™—simply don’t happen or are otherwise subverted in a way that is delightful and appropriate and wholly in keeping with the world created. There are many This Is How It’s Done™ moments in Abraham’s books.
‡ This is true, but it also occurs to me that I don’t think I’ll ever consider myself much of an expert in anything. It might be imposter syndrome in action—I guess I should hope that’s the case, because then logically I must in fact be the expert I believe I’m not, right?—or it may simply be a realistic assessment, or a function of fields I find interesting. The entire point of the humanities is to be fuzzy and open to re-interpretation.