The Annales School 1931

How to Gather Ancient Prices

Source: Annales d’histoire économique, 1931, Vol 3, No. 10;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

Mr. Henri Hauser who, as our readers are aware, represents France on the International Scientific Committee for the History of Prices, has written “instructions for French collaborators.” In the first place, he begins with a few general observations concerning the very notion of France. Quite a number of our provinces in the past not only remained foreign, politically speaking, to the kingdom but ? and which is more serious ? belonged to groupings whose economic characteristics clearly differentiated them from the French milieu, such as the lands under Spanish domination. There would obviously be reason, in the elaboration of data, to take this fact seriously into account. As for knowing to what degree French investigations should extend to each of these regions or seek, in studying them, the assistance of collaborators from other nations is, Mr. Hauser justly notes, a question of documents. Everything depends on the current fate of the archives in question. There then follow remarks, no less judicious, on ancient measurements and the precautions to be taken in reducing them to metric measures; on monetary variations (we will have the occasion below to return to this aspect of the problem), and finally on the state of the sources, certainly far less abundant than in England and which, for this very reason, forces one to less refinement in the choice of veins to exploit. But doesn’t Mr. Hauser exaggerate a bit our poverty in the accounting records of religious establishments? Various surveys lead one to believe that one can hope that precisely from the Committee’s investigation many documents of this order will be brought to light, which are unknown rather than destroyed.

Once these useful remarks are presented, we pass to the very heart of the problem: how to carry out research on these documents? What elements should be retained? How should they be noted (the establishment of indices and tables)? With much good sense and verve, Mr. Hauser particularly puts us on guard against a serious danger: how many scholars across time and space, from the identity of name have concluded an identity of merchandise? And yet, how many dissimilarities. Not only is there wine and wine, field and field; not only, in every era, is the price of a horse in itself a senseless notion, grouping under a same average the racing horse of the gentleman and the field horse of the worker, but – an important fact often forgotten – the Norman or Charolais ox of today is a completely different animal from the emaciated quadrupeds that populated the herds of the Middle Ages. Even more: to these disparities in nature are added, more delicate to discern and yet capital, economic disparities: sugar, in the Fifteenth Century, was a luxury good, expensive, rare and part of a small market; sugar today, and even that of the Eighteenth Century, is a product of wide consumption. Putting in the same table, without a word of warning, the price of these heterogeneous goods – and even worse, calculating average prices – means committing the ever-renewed old error of the child who adds together apples and houses. For every piece of data a model index, carefully set up, is proposed to the collaborators.

Such are – briefly summarized and without our brief analysis pretending to exhaust its substance – these few pages, where we find clearly demonstrated an acute sense both of the realities of the past and the practical possibilities that command research. Their historical scope goes far beyond the investigation they are intended to guide. What enrichment of our studies can we not expect from an investigation carried out in this way?

In order to facilitate for workers the reduction of ancient monies to metallic values expressed in accordance with the current yardstick, instructions were completed by a table that traces, from 1258 to 1789, the variations in the livre tournois [1]. Mr. Henri Sée, with his usual devotion, accepted to draw it up. By an extremely fortunate innovation, the values in francs which in the older work instruments related back to the franc of the year XI, this time take the new monetary law into account. But it perhaps would have been useful to indicate with more precision which sources and which procedures assisted in establishing the figures. Saying that the tables of Natalis de Wazilly and the information provided by the Manuel de Numismatique of Mr. Dieudonné were used doesn’t suffice in satisfying our curiosity, for these works take their inspiration from divergent concepts. Not only is Wailly’s fifth table, which is usually used and which Mr. Sée uses at least once (1258), based on the floating value of specie, while Mr. Dieudonné uses the legal value , but it draws the value of tournois monies from the average of the official rates of gold and silver. Mr. Dieudonné, on the contrary, only took the trouble to express the equivalence of the pound in francs with silver coinage. There where Mr. Sée – most often it seems – follows the latter author, the table which he places before our eyes is thus tacitly monometallic. In other cases the very basis of the calculations and its sources escape me (just as I don’t understand why the sol tournois – as accounting money – is not always presented as the twentieth of a livre). I have no doubt that the bases are solid. My only regret is that so serious a methodological problem has been left in the dark and any verification prohibited. On this delicate question of the conversion of monies, instructions as luminous and penetrating as those of Mr. Hauser concerning prices properly speaking would have been welcome.

1. Medieval currency which, after it ceased to be used for daily activity, continued to be used for accounting purposes The currency was divided in livres and sols, there being twenty sols in a livre.