Commodity Money Coins: Metalism versus Nominalism, Part Two

By L. Randall Wray

Last week we examined the origins of coins, arguing that coinage is a relatively recent development. From the beginning, coins did have precious metal content. We examined a hypothesis for that, because from the MMT view, the “money thing” is simply a “token” or record of debt. If that is true, why “stamp” the record on precious metal? For thousands of years, debts were recorded on clay or wood or paper. Why the switch? We argued that the origins of coins in ancient Greece must be placed in the specific historical context of that society. Use of precious metal was not a coincidence, but also was not consistent with the commodity money view. While it is true that use of precious metal was important and perhaps even critical, this was for social reasons and was tied to the rise of the democratic polis. This week we examine coinage from Roman times to the present in Western society.

Roman coins also contained precious metal. But there is very little doubt that Roman law adopted what is called “nominalism”—the nominal value of the coin is determined by the authorities, not by the value of embodied metal in the coin (termed “metalism”). The coin system was well-regulated and although precious metal content changed across coinages, there was no significant problem with debasement or inflation. In Roman law, one could deposit a sack of particular coins (in sacculo) and when repaid demand the same coins to be returned (vindication). However, if one were owed a sum of money (rather than specific coins), one had to accept in payment any combination of coins tendered that were “money of the realm”—officially sanctioned coins with payment enforced in court (condictio).

This practice continued through the early modern period, in which one deposited for safe keeping either sealed sacks of coins (and could demand exactly the same coins back in the still-sealed bag) or loose coins (in which case, any legal coins had to be accepted). Hence, “nominalism” prevailed in the general although what appears to be a form of “metalism” applied to specific coins in sacculo.*

In reality, it had more to do with the view that coins were a “moveable chattel”, something the owner had a property interest in. However, once the owner’s loose coins were mixed with other coins, there was “no earmark”—no way of determining specific ownership and hence the claimant only had a claim to be repaid in legal money—the legalis moneta Angliae, for example in England, which was stipulated to be a sum of “sterlings”. There was no sterling coin (indeed, England did not even coin the Pound, its money of account), rather, the debt was paid up by providing the appropriate sum of coins declared lawful money by the Crown—and could include foreign coins—at the nominal value dictated by the King.

The authorities that issued coins were free to change the metal content at each coinage; penalties for refusing to accept a sovereign’s coin in payment at the value stated by the sovereign were severe (often, death). Still, there is the historical paradox that when the King was paid in coin (in fees, fines and taxes), he would have them weighed—and reject or accept at lower value the coins that were low weight. If coins were really valued nominally, why bother weighing them? Why did the issuer—the King—appear to have a double standard, one nominalist, one metalist?

In private circulation, sellers also favored “heavy” coins—those that weighed more, or that were of higher fineness (more precious metal content). They certainly did not want to find themselves in the situation of trying to make payments to the Crown with low weight coins. Hence, a “Gresham’s Law” would operate: everyone wanted to pay in “light” coins, but to be paid in “heavy coins”. There was thus obvious concern with the metal content of coins, and fairly accurate (and quite tiny) scales were manufactured and sold to weigh coins individually. This makes it appear to modern historians (and economists) that “metalism” reigned: the value of coins was determined by metal content.

And yet we see in the courts rulings indications that the law favored a nominalist interpretation: any legal coin had to be accepted. And we see Kings who imposed long prison terms (the sentence was usually to serve “at the King’s pleasure”—a nice way of putting it! One can just imagine the King’s pleasure at holding indefinitely those who refused his coins.), or death, for refusing any coin deemed legal. It all appears so confusing! Was it nominal or was it metal?

The final piece of the puzzle appears to be this: until modern minting techniques were invented (including milling and stamping), it was relatively easy to “clip” coins—cut some of the metal off the edge. They could also be rubbed to collect grains of the metal. (Even normal wear and tear rapidly reduced metal content; gold coins in particular were soft. For that reason they were particularly ill-suited as an “efficient medium of exchange”—yet another reason to doubt the metalist story.)

This is why the King had them weighed to test for clipping. (As you can imagine the penalty for clipping was severe, including death.) If he did not, he would be the victim of Gresham’s Law; each time he recoined he would have less precious metal to work with. But because he weighed the coins, everyone else also had to avoid being on the wrong side of Gresham’s Law. Again, far from being an “efficient medium of exchange”, we find that use of precious metals set up a destructive dynamic that would only finally be resolved with the move to paper money! (Actually, even paper is less than ideal; perhaps some readers have experienced problems getting older paper money accepted—as I did even in Italy before it adopted the euro—due to Gresham Law dynamics. Thank goodness for computers and keystrokes and LEDs.)

Kings sometimes made those dynamics worse—by recanting his promise to accept his old coined IOUs at previously agreed upon values. This was the practice of “crying down” the coins. Until recent times, coins did not have the nominal value stamped on them—they were worth what the King said they were worth at his “pay houses”. To effectively double the tax burden, he could announce that all the outstanding coins were worth only half as much as their previous value. Since this was the prerogative of the sovereign, holders could face some uncertainty over the nominal value. This was another reason to accept only heavy coins—no matter how much the King cried down the coins, the floor value would be equal to the value of the metallic content. Normally, however, the coins would circulate at the higher nominal value set by the sovereign, and enforced by the court and the threat of severe penalties for refusing to accept the coins at that value.

There is also one more aspect to the story. With the rise of the Regal predecessors to our modern state, there were the twin and related phenomena of Mercantilism and foreign wars. Within an empire or state, the sovereign’s IOUs are sufficient “money things”: so long as the sovereign takes them in payment, its subjects or citizens will also accept them. Any “token” will do—it can be metal, paper, or electronic entries. But outside the boundaries of the authority, mere tokens might not be accepted at all. In some respects, international trade and international payments are more akin to barter unless there is some universally accepted “token” (like the US Dollar today).

Put it this way: why would anyone in France want the IOU of France’s sworn enemy, the King of England? Outside England, the King’s coins might circulate only at the value of precious metal contained in them. Metalism as a theory might well apply as a sort of floor to the value of a King’s IOU: at worst, it cannot fall in value much below gold content as it can be melted for bullion.

And that leads us to the policy of Mercantilism, and also to the conquest of the New World. Why would a nation want to export its output, only to have silver and gold return to fill the King’s coffers? And why the rush to the New World to get gold and silver? Because the gold and silver were needed to conduct the foreign wars, which required the hiring of mercenary armies and the purchase of all the supplies needed to support those armies in foreign lands. (England did not have huge aircraft to parachute the troops and supplies into France—instead they hired mainland troops and bought the supplies from the local outfitters.) There was a nice vicious circle in all this: the wars were fought both by and for gold and silver!

And it made for a monetary mess in the home country. The sovereign was always short of gold and silver, hence had a strong incentive to debase the currency (to preserve metal to fund the wars), while preferring payment in the heaviest coins. The population had a strong incentive to refuse the light coins in payment, while hoarding the heavy coins. Or, sellers could try to maintain two sets of prices—a lower one for heavy coins and a high one for light coins. But that meant toying with the gallows.

The mess was resolved only very gradually with the rise of the modern nation state, a clear adoption of nominalism in coinage, and—finally—with abandonment of the long practiced phenomenon of including precious metal in coins.

And with that we finally got our “efficient media of exchange”: pure IOUs recorded electronically. Precious metal coins were always records of IOUs, but they were imperfect. And boy have they misled historians and economists!

Admittedly, I have not yet made a thorough case that money must be an IOU, not a commodity. We need some more building blocks first.


* I thank Chris Desan, David Fox, and other participants of a recent seminar at Cambridge University for the discussion I draw upon here.

Randall Wray


L. Randall Wray is a professor of economics and research director of the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. His current research focuses on providing a critique of orthodox monetary policy, and the development of an alternative approach. He also publishes extensively in the areas of full employment policy and the monetary theory of production. Wray received a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Washington University, where he was a student of Hyman Minsky.