Coins, Currency and Crisis

Coins, currency and crisis from c. 2000 BC – c. AD 2000: Silver, paper money and trust in historical perspective.

International workshop Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam 12-13 December 2014

Main Building, De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV Amsterdam.

Rooms 9A-06 (12 December) and 9A-10 (13 December).

Participation is free, but prior notice is required:

Program below.


General outline

Recently, the economic crisis that hit Greece was caused by excessive government borrowing. Two elements are thought to have contributed to the Euro crisis that followed: first, an increasing globalized capital market which allowed excessive borrowing against relatively low interest rates and, secondly, a single Euro-currency (the Euro), which, because this is a fiat money, contributed to a sudden decline in trust. The resulting unrest in the financial markets led in some countries to the cry for the reintroduction of local (or silver based) coins. Basically, the argument behind such pleas is that local governments should be able to increase or decrease the quantity of coins in circulation (and not rely on the policy of the European Central Bank), mainly because local governments supposedly have earned more trust. Also, if silver-based coins were introduced, the issue of trust would no longer be pressing, it is argued, since the money has a nominal value which is equal to its intrinsic value.

However, the question how monetary systems could prevent crises is still very much unresolved. Even though monetarists claim that it is largely the demand and supply of money as controlled by governments/central banks that create inflation which may affect the real economy via increased/decreased aggregate demand, many also agree that this offers an incomplete view. Indeed, in 1992 Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, a famous monetarist, wrote about the present monetary system:

Up to the present, the fiat monetary system has been characterized by wide fluctuations in price levels, interest rates, and exchange rates, as the major nations have been trying to learn to navigate in uncharted waters, trying to find some anchor for the price level other than conversion into a commodity. Whether and, if so, when the fiat system will lead to acceptable results remains an open question. Hence, a discussion of perhaps the most common earlier world system, bimetallism, may be of more than historical interest (Friedman, 1992, 87).

Indeed the question of how to create a stable monetary system, which, again, figures  prominently on the political agenda, cannot be resolved without taking into account past experiences. This workshop addresses this issue by taking a long-run perspective, from ancient Assyria to the modern world. It asks the question to what degree earlier monetary systems prevented economic crises, from ancient Mesopotamian times until the present. To this end, an international group of scholars will discuss if past monetary systems caused fewer, or different economic crises than present-day systems, and if so, why.



Prof.  dr. Bert van der Spek (VU University Amsterdam)              

Dr. Bas van Leeuwen (Utrecht University/ IISH)                            


Programme (Revised)


Day 1: Friday 12 December 2014  (Room 9A-06)


A. Silver and Money. General observations

* 9.00 – 9.15. Introduction (Van der Spek; Van Leeuwen)

* 9.15 – 9.45. Economic Theory from/for Silver History (Dennis Flynn) - paper

* 9.45 – 10.15 Deep monetization and the payment of wages in Eurasia ca. 1000-1950  (Jan Lucassen) - paper

* 10.15 – 10.45. Unproductive Debt Causes Crisis: Connecting the History of Money to the Current Crisis (Dirk J. Bezemer)


10.45 – 11.15. COFFEE BREAK


B1. Ancient economies (Near East)

* 11.15 - 11.45. Metals, trade and economy in Ancient Assyria (19th century BC) (Jan Gerrit Dercksen)

* 11.45 – 12.30. Silver and trust in Mesopotamia and the Levant (Bert van der Spek) - paper

& Silver Use in Babylonian Cities in the Iron Age and in the Middle bronze Age (Michael Jursa, presented by Reinhard Pirngruber) - paper


* 12.30 – 13.00. On coins and trust. In search for the differences between the Ancient Near East and Archaic Greece (J.A. Mooring) - paper


13.00 – 14.00 LUNCH


C1. Developments in Europe from the Middle Ages to the 18th century (Netherlands)

* 14.00 – 14.30.  Smoothing the flow: currency circulation and payment techniques in the Low Countries, 1500-1800 (Oscar Gelderblom and Joost Jonker)

* 14.30 – 15.00. Incentives and interests. Monetary policy, public debt and default in Holland, c. 1466-1489 (Jaco Zuijderduijn) - paper

15.00 – 15.30.  TEA BREAK


B2. Ancient Economies (Seleucid and Roman Empires)

* 15.30 – 16.15.  Who’s wealthier? An estimation of the annual coin production of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies (Panos Iossif, presented by Bas van Leeuwen) - paper

& The speed of coin diffusion within the Seleucid Empire and the EU compared ([Panos Iossif], Peter Foldvari and Bas van Leeuwen) - paper

* 16.15 – 1645. Monetary policy in the Roman Empire (Kevin Butcher) - paper


* 16.45 – 17.00. Presentation of the book A History of Market Performance: from Ancient Babylonia to the Modern World. Routledge Explorations in Economic History 68. Edited by R.J. van der Spek, Bas van Leeuwen and Jan Luiten van Zanden (London Routledge 2015 [2014]) to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, VU University, prof. dr. Michel ter Hark. There is opportunity to order the book with 20% discount.


Drinks and Dinner


Day 2: Saturday 13 December 2014 (Room 9A-10)


C2. Developments in Europe from the Middle Ages to the 18th century (England)

* 9.30 – 10.00. Money in England from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century (Nick Mayhew) - paper 


D. China

* 10.00 – 10.30. China: flows of silver and economic crises from the Ming until the Qing dynasty (1368-1912) (Xuyi and Van Leeuwen) - paper


10.30 – 11.00. COFFEE BREAK


* 11.00 – 11.30. Monetary developments and economic crises in the 19th and 20th century (Debin Ma / [Xun Yan])

* 11.30 – 12.00 From Latin America to China: Silver in global perspective  (Alejandra Irigoin).


12.00 – 13.00.  LUNCH


E. The end of the metallic systems and monetary crises in the 19th and 20th centuries

* 13.00 – 13.30. Monetary sovereignty under different monetary arrangements in the 1920s and 30s? The case of Spain (Juan E. Castaneda [and Pedro Schwartz]). - paper

* 13.30 - 14.00. Economic crises and monetary policy: institutions (Hans Schenk)

* 14.00 – 15.00. Concluding discussion. From Assyria 2000 BC to America AD 2014.  Lessons for the present crisis? (Van der Spek, Van Leeuwen).