Friday, October 12, 2012

Masterpiece Theater Coinage

When the charming teenaged Demelza offers her body to Captain Poldark at their initial meeting for a shilling, you know several things. You know you’re watching Masterpiece Theater, that this is some twentieth century author’s fantasy of what Old England was all about, and that Demelza will become a formidable character if we just keep on watching. But what you do not know is the actual value of a shilling. You infer that it must not be much because Demelza is a slum-kid; that fact is signaled by her ragged clothing and dirt smudges on her face. Indeed all of the lower classes must have smudgy faces, and if they are males, staggering drunkenness is presumed. But let me not stray from my subject. You know that a guinea is worth something—because the rich and evilly scheming Warleggans hate even to spend a single one, and they are always (presumably) sweating under wondrous wigs. You know that a half-crown is less than a crown and both are more than a shilling, because a half-crown is the typical tip, given by someone dressed well to someone dressed coarsely and therefore having charge of the horses and such. You expect that penny is less then a shilling and that the farthing is the dismal bottom of all coinage because the phrase, “Not worth a farthing” must be uttered in a tone of contempt. Now you know, by context, that this is the England of the eighteenth century. Over in France the great Sun of Liberty, Democracy, and Freedom is about to rise, foreshadowing such future wonders as vice presidential debates even in the lost Colonies. But where, in all this, is the British pound? You never hear it mentioned. Well, Ghulf Genes to the rescue. But, based on past experience, what I learned today I’ll probably forget tomorrow and have to do all over again. Therefore this post is worth about 3s. 6d.

Let me begin with the here and now. The British coinage here and now, and in place since the 1971 decimalization took place, consists of the pound (also known as the pound sterling, symbol £); it is divided into 100 pence. None of the other coins is any longer in use. As of this morning, £1 was worth $1.61. Until 1971, £1 divided into 20 shillings, each shilling into 12 pence. After that date the shilling disappeared, of course, but it is worth 5 pence if converted. Therefore, in today’s U.S. purchasing power, a shilling is worth 8 cents. Poldark refused Demelza’s generous offer, thereby proving himself to be “a gentleman.”

Now let’s expand this view. The pound predates the guinea, but as a concept, not as a coin, and it goes all the way back to the reign of Charlemagne (742-814).  The Great Carolus defined a monetary value as the value of a pound of silver, named after the Latin libra, a unit of weight, in French livre. That word was abbreviated lb, hence that symbol stands for a pound to this day. The Brits took over the concept and its valuation. The shilling was a silver coin; twenty of them weighed a pound. The smaller coins that divided a shilling were modeled on Charlemagne’s denarius; for this reason (maddeningly), in written notation pence are written as d, therefore, above, 3s. 6d. means three shilling six pence. More maddeningly still, the s for shilling actually came from solidus, a very small Roman coin, not from the s in shilling. Solidus had survived for the same low-level coinage in France…

Now, oddly, the pound, referring to silver, was never actually a coin until modern times. It’s value was first physically represented by the guinea, a gold coin introduced in 1663 and worth 1 pound of silver. Under economic pressures, however, silver lost while gold retained its value, hence the value of a guinea fluctuated from its official definition as being worth 20 shillings. Later, in 1717, it was officially fixed at having a value of 21 shillings—illustrating that humans are not rational animals. In 1816 the sovereign, another gold coin, replaced the guinea, but by then, and already in Poldark’s times, £1 and £2 paper banknotes were in circulation owing to a shortage of gold.

Fortunately for fans of Masterpiece Theater, authors shy from really heavy historical labors and therefore crowns (worth 5s), half-crowns (2s 6d, also 2/6) are rarely mentioned. You hear people talking about a bob (another name for shilling). The farthing is never spelled out as one fourth of a penny, although its name suggests the word “fourth” being pronounced by someone with smudges on his face. Here’s also the ha’penny (½d), the tanner (6d), the florin (two bob), and the quid (£1); that last is thought to come from quid pro quo. Is there more? I wouldn’t doubt it. When totally confused, I retreat to my blessedly simple childhood memories. We had the pengö then, dividing into 100 fillér, and the 20-fillér coin had a hole in the middle. Where that was? Why in Magyaroszág.

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