Simon Middleton (Fellow, 2019–20; Associate Professor of History)
February 16, 2021
What is money and where does it come from? If asked, most people would likely respond to these questions by pointing to the notes and coins in their pockets—or maybe their debit and charge cards—and muse on some connection between the “government” and printed money. Concerning origins, most would probably add that money developed more or less spontaneously in the market in response to the inconveniences of barter exchange. Both answers are wide of the mark: most money—meaning credit and value—is created by the banks and the myth about money’s spontaneous market origins is traceable as far back as Aristotle. In this session we will survey the actual history of money, beginning from its origins in Iraq/Syria in 3000 BCE through to its latest reformulation as Bitcoin. We will also consider how changing understandings of monetary forms and functions have been linked to major political and economic developments, from the collapse of the monarchy in the early modern era to the rise of capitalism and its troubles in the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries. We will do this in nine, straightforward, and easy to follow powerpoint slides. To check on the accuracy of the assumptions above, here’s a challenge for you: Before you come to the session, ask a friend or family member what they think money is and where they think it originates.