Author Topic: Communicating coin revaluations to the public  (Read 693 times)

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Offline FosseWay

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Communicating coin revaluations to the public
« on: September 25, 2018, 07:52:35 PM »
Peter has recently started a thread to show the Gun Money coins that we saw at the Airgead exhibition in Dublin the other day. In the thread he notes that when William had defeated James, instead of declaring James's tokens worthless, he allowed them to circulate at their intrinsic value.

This raises the question of how this was communicated to ordinary folk who spent or received them, and to what extent confusion and conflict arose as a result. James II's Gun Money is far from the only coinage to have had this kind of treatment. When Elizabeth I came to the throne she ordered base silver from Edward VI's reign to be countermarked and circulated for its intrinsic value (which was often a very awkward amount, such as twopence-farthing).

Today, authorities go to huge lengths to inform and educate the public before even swapping one coin for another of the same denomination (e.g. the UK £1), and even more when the units change relationship to each other (decimalisation in the UK and elsewhere) or a new currency is introduced overall (the euro). And this is in a context where virtually all coin users are numerate and literate, and where the coins have clear marks of value on them. Even so, we get reports when these kinds of change occur that people get confused.

I don't know what the intrinsic value of the Gun Money pieces was at the time of William's declaration. I know more about Elizabeth's countermarked coinage - here, shillings from Edward's second (very base) issue were countermarked with a portcullis and good for 4½d, and those from his third (extremely base) issue had a greyhound countermark and circulated for 2¼d. How were these revaluations communicated to the average Joe, who was illiterate and probably didn't go to some large city just to hear a proclamation?

And if that was a difficult situation, the situation with Gun Money is even worse. Here, there are no countermarks. The situation covers a number of different stated denominations, and some denominations come in large and small varieties containing more or less metal. The metal is of varying content. The general sociopolitical situation was much more tense and disorganised in Ireland in 1690 than in England in the first years of Elizabeth's reign. Many of the people who needed to know didn't speak the same language as the people telling them.

How on earth did anyone know anything other than what was written on the coins? There must have been no end of fraudulent practices and arguments/fights due to deliberate attempts to deceive or genuine ignorance.

Offline Figleaf

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Re: Communicating coin revaluations to the public
« Reply #1 on: September 29, 2018, 03:10:24 PM »
Fun thought. The scientific answer would be "I don't know", but that's not entirely true. Here's what I know about communication in those days.
  • Selling legal texts. Important laws were sold in book form.
  • Proclaiming and posting. The normal way for governments to communicate with their subjects would be by posting. Since illiteracy was high, that could be accompanied by a herald or town crier reading the decision. Do that on e.g. on a market day and you'll have a wide audience.
  • Word of mouth. Market stall holders would make sure they knew about banned or devalued coins. They would spread the knowledge by hammering non-acceptable coins on a stand of their stall. Try finding a coin of those days with a small, squarish hole in the centre. By the same token, money changers would make sure people could not offload banned coins on them.
  • Flyers and "newspapers". There were no newspapers as we know them today, but there were book sellers printing flyers, often enough with texts the government wouldn't like, political and social comments and pure demagoguery. Small entrepreneurs would have flyers printed with juicy or bloody pictures. They could sell them in taverns or on the streets.
In principle, all these channels were at some time and place used for coins. Books and posters with tariffed coins and banned coins still exist. Centrally holed coins are around, but go unappreciated for their function. Dean Swift ranted about Irish coins in newspaper-like publications.

In the specific case of the gun money coins, we know that William issued a proclamation from Finglas reducing the brass money to face value; the half crowns and large shillings were to be accepted as halfpennies and the small shillings and sixpences as farthings. On February 25, 1690 (1691 in the Gregorian calendar), gun money was demonetised. The Jacobites at Limerick, faced with the problem that people would try to offload their gun money coins on them, followed suit and first devalued and then demonetised their own money also. At least, they offered a receipt from the Jacobite treasury that promised full repayment when (not if) James recovered his throne.

I suspect that the main modus of communication was heralds and town criers. Posters would have had less use, as angry Irishmen would have torn them off. Word of mouth would have been the secondary channel. I could even imagine desperate priests reminding their flock on Sunday that a gun money sixpence was a farthing now and god knew that. :)

An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.