A single currency to go down in history

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The call for a single currency came loud and clear today from an unexpected quarter.

From a professor of history at Milton Keynes University.

And it was a call with a difference. Because the single currency that Professor Eric Frinton wants is nothing less than a retrospective single currency going back into history.

Perhaps he ought to explain what he means by this.

"Perhaps I ought to explain what I mean by this," readily agrees Professor Eric Frinton. "Now, for a start, I am no ordinary professor of history. I am a professor of biography. As you know, biography is the new ..."


"No," smiles Professor Frinton. "I would hate for biography to be the next rock'n'roll. It must be awful to be anything like rock'n' roll. What biography is, is the new novel. But there are problems encountered in the biography which you don't find in the novel. You may have read my book, The Problems of Biography?"

"No, actually."

"Well, not many people have. Only my students, in fact. And then not through choice. But I have identified one of the main problems of biography as being the financial uncertainty involved."

"You mean, people don't get well paid for it?"

"No, no. I mean that the readers of a biography set in some past era are never quite sure what the sums of money involved are. Take this example, from a life of Hilaire Belloc by AN Wilson which I happened to be reading this morning, where he says that Belloc's mother entrusted her financial affairs to a stockbroker, who vanished after losing her pounds 12,000. She was left so impoverished that she applied to George Eliot for a loan of pounds 500, which, says Wilson, was a very large sum of money then, in other words in the late Victorian era. But how large? Wilson does not say. Would it be pounds 5,000? pounds 10,000? pounds 50,000? pounds 100,000? He does not say. Probably, he does not know or care. Because he knows that in order to calculate how much that pounds 500 would be worth today, it would take endless hours of research and comparison. You'd have to look at house prices of the time, food prices of the time, average incomes of the time, before you could finally tell us exactly what that pounds 500 was worth today.

"But, if you had a single historical currency, there would be no problem."


"Every time a biographer mentions a sum of money he feels constrained to translate it into modern terms. Sir Walter Scott had a debt of pounds 30,000, we are told, and the biographer adds, 'which in today's terms would be about pounds 400,000', but how much better it would be if we did not have to translate it. How much better if there were an agreed currency to express these things! We resent having to change currencies every time we cross borders, do we not? Well, I resent having to change currency every time we cross decades or centuries. I wish we could travel through time using the same historical currency."

"You mean, translate all the money used in the past into a common currency?"

"Why not? At least it would give us a common language. At the moment it is all meaningless. If we read that Mr Pickwick pays 3d for a glass of beer, or that Napoleon receives 3,000,000 francs for the sale of Louisiana to the Americans, both figures are meaningless. We have no idea if Mr Pickwick was being extravagant, or Napoleon was being diddled. But if we adopted a common currency in history, we would soon know."

"What currency would it be?

"Oh, I don't know. The historical ecu, perhaps? The thaler? The crown? The sovereign? The doubloon? It wouldn't really matter, as long as you had a common unit, tied to modern currency. In biographies writers never know in what terms to express currency. Sometimes they do it in terms of weekly wages and say: 'This was more than the average worker earned in six months in 1717'. Sometimes they do it in terms of travel. 'In those days, this would have been enough to get a traveller to Edinburgh and back'. But until there is agreement over a common currency the reader will always be left guessing. For instance, when Judas sold Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver, how much was that? 30p? pounds 300? pounds 3,000?"

"I don't know. How much was it?"

"Ah ha!" says Prof Frinton. "To find that out you'll have to read my new book, Money, The Bible and You. Available from all good bookshops at pounds 17.99, or from me at pounds 13!"