You can get on a plane to Europe or Australia with forty dollars in your pocket, enough for Starbucks at the airport, a book or a magazine, and a few dollar bills for tips. When you get to your destination, you can rely on an ATM machine to get you more cash. Your money is safely stored in an account in any bank. It was deposited by your payroll department directly into your account. You never touched the money. You worked, you earned, you received, you saved, you spent and you never touched a penny of real money. Money only exists because our society agrees that it exists, and all over the world we have bought into this agreement.
I am currently reading the book “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett. It is a novel staged in England in the early 1100. If you want to get insight into what life was like in medieval England, this is a great book to read.
An English penny, a silver coin, was the basic monetary unit. A farthing was a quarter of a penny (fourthings). There was also a half penny. Sometimes these were specifically minted round coins, but mostly they were literally pennies cut into half and quarters. Twelve pennies made up a shilling, twenty shillings a pound. A pound was therefore a bag of 240 silver pennies, weighing approximately a pound.
An English penny in 1100 was approximately a day’s wages for a laborer. A laundress, a construction laborer, a butcher’s helper, would earn a penny a day. An apprentice would earn half a penny. A skills craftsman, like a carpenter, would earn two pennies. So assume 240 work days in a year, a laborer would make a pound. The term penniless was formed then. If you didn’t have a penny, you had no access to food, lodging, transportation or any other services. You were on the street, or rather, in the woods.
This should make you think the next time you pay more than a pound for a cup of coffee at Heathrow Airport.
A war horse in 1100 cost about twenty pounds. A knight needed a war horse to fight for the king, in addition to armor, a sword, squires (helpers) and food. If a laborer could earn a pound a year, it would take 20 years of a laborer’s wages to buy just one war horse. Putting this into today’s perspective: If a laborer (say a retail worker at Macy’s) makes $25,000 a year, 20 years will earn about a half a million dollars. It was very expensive to be a knight. You had to have a rich daddy.
As you collected the pennies, you couldn’t just carry them around with you. There were no banks. You couldn’t leave them in the kitchen cabinet. People buried them under their hearths or other place in their houses, or in the woods, or wherever they thought they’d be safe. When you traveled, you’d strap on a money belt under your clothing, because you had to carry everything you’d need for the trip. You were exposed to “highway robbery” since thugs knew you had to carry all your money. So it was treacherously dangerous to leave your little village or town with any money at all.
I wonder what we’d find if we started digging under foundations of old houses all over Europe. There must be thousands of abandoned and forgotten stashes.
Now think for a minute what would happen if the Internet stopped working today. You could no longer access your accounts online. If electricity stopped existing, ATM machines would stop working. If you were stuck in Europe with forty dollars in your pocket, you’d have no way to get back home. All your assets, which were never buried under your kitchen, would no longer exist. You could not prove you owned anything. The international agreement on the value of money would collapse in a matter of days. If you knew how to make weapons, food or shelter, you’d be valuable. Otherwise, you’d be a burden. We’d be back in medieval conditions within weeks.
Our industrial society is tenuous indeed.