Golden Years

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(What follows is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-released book Messed-Up! ©2015 Scott Davis, All Rights Reserved)

When you get right down to it, money is a pretty bizarre concept. Look at a penny:  it’s a little disk made of a metal most people no longer have any use for, yet it is accorded the value of 1/100th of a dollar.  People work all their lives to earn dollars, which they then trade to other people for food, clothing, housing, trips to Bermuda, and cars. We trade dollars to skilled Physicians (primarily skilled at charging us more dollars) to heal our ailments, and some people actually accumulate enough of the stuff to trade it to other men to work for them.

The thing is, it doesn’t exist. It’s just a concept. A number. Don’t believe me? Not long ago, someone invented a fictitious currency called the bit-coin, and people immediately bought hundreds of thousands of them on the internet. You can’t keep a bit-coin in a bank, or use it to buy food … it wasn’t backed up by bullion Stored at Fort Knox, nor is it FDIC Insured – but you can buy all kinds of things online with them!

That is freaking nuts!

The idea of currency began with barter:  Man ‘A’ has got some apples, and he’ll give some to man ‘B’ in return for some oranges.  Like that. Next, of course, people began to compare apples and oranges, in an attempt to determine how many apples were a fair exchange for x number of oranges. It gets worse:  it turns out the guy with the oranges doesn’t like apples, and will only accept a gallon of milk for some of them, and Man ‘A’ doesn’t have a cow. He goes and finds the owner of a cow, and he doesn’t like apples either, and wants hay for his horse which shares a barn with the cow, which Man ‘A’ also doesn’t have.

It really is not going to take long before Man ‘A’ grows murderous with frustration, kills the guy with the cow, steals the horse, and rides it to raid the orange orchard, which he then burns to the ground in his enthusiasm after killing Man ‘B’, but before raping Man ‘B’s’ wife – and, during the burning of the orchard, of course, he barbecues the cow.

This, everyone soon agreed, was not civilized.

Ok, what we need here is neither apples, nor oranges, nor milk, nor hay, and certainly not a murderous rampage, accompanied by arson, rape, and barbecue. We need currency. Something Man ‘A’ can trade Man ‘B’, which Man ‘B’ can trade for milk, and the milk-guy can trade for hay. Everyone’s happy, no one is dead, and Man ‘B’s’ wife remains unviolated, though it’s a fair bet that he treats her like crap and she’s planning to divorce his sorry ass for alimony in the form of, yes, currency!

The idea of currency was invented in around 2000 BC.  A metal coin had cut into it a number which corresponded to how much grain you could buy with it in ancient Sumer, then Egypt. Trade was based on this principle, of, in effect, valuing everything in grain, for nearly 1500 years. Then people began asking awkward questions like “How do I know the grain is actually there?” and “How do I know those bastards from Nineveh aren’t going to break in and steal the grain?” (This was, of course, before everyone got together and solved the problem of those bastards from Nineveh, by sacking the place and burning it to the ground.)

The whole system pretty much went to hell, till late in the bronze age, when a series of treaties were established that set-up trade practices, and a sort of Ox-shaped copper ingot from Cyprus started being used as currency. I’ll give you three guesses what happened next, but you really should only need one – pirates started raiding the ships with the ingots.

(Ok, look, if you actually didn’t get it on the first guess, you missed three important facts: Cyprus is an island, people rob one another, and robbers at sea are called pirates. )

Real coinage started with a guy named Croesus of Lydia. To this day, no one is sure why gold was the medium. I mean it’s pretty, sure, but virtually useless for anything but decoration. Worse, it’s really heavy. The thing is, there are few metals in the world easier to purify, melt down, and cast and the Lydians were just as lazy as the rest of humanity. Plus, I suppose, there was little point in trading away a metal you could make swords with, so why not something as useless as gold?  The discovery, moreover, that you could scrape gold across a touchstone, and determine its purity from the color of the mark it made went a long way toward satisfying merchants that the guy they were trading with wasn’t cheating them – it was bad enough that they were dealing with one metal that couldn’t be used for anything practical, but early traders were damned if they were going to stand for someone foisting an even more useless pretty metal on them!  As a result, pretty soon little gold coins started circulating all over the Aegean, and soon after all over the known world.  A particular weight of gold could be assigned as the value of a commodity or service, and people started trading with the things in greater and greater measure,

Naturally, there was a hitch:  human beings are freaking cheats.

Almost as soon as people began exchanging things made of gold, other people began falsifying gold things, in order to cheat one another. You could do this by a number of methods: a favorite was to mix silver and gold.  This was the method used by a crooked goldsmith in Syracuse, who’d been commissioned to craft a crown of gold for the local king, and given the gold required. He figured he could pass off a knock-off of silver and gold, and pocket the extra …

Archimedes nixed that notion while taking a bath, leading to punishment for the goldsmith and 2300 years of laughter at his own expense, because he didn’t bother to get dressed after making his discovery, and ran through Syracuse butt-naked screaming like a madman.  (This is the first recorded incident of streaking – and it wasn’t so much the nakedness as it was the manic shrieking that got him in trouble.)

Most people, though, did not have Archimedes, with or without clothing, on their side.

Over time, people got smarter and smarter about spotting counterfeits, though it’s still such a popular way of making money that the US treasury has gone to absolutely incredible lengths to make money less easy to counterfeit. This, it turns out, is way easier when you’re making money with paper into which you can impress watermarks, hidden portraits, security strips, and secret signs of the New World Order. ( Shh! Don’t tell ANYONE. They have ears everywhere! )

Money was a real problem. Copper, silver, and especially gold, are pretty heavy to carry around, a fact which both camels and horses vigorously protested. It did no good whatsoever to explain to them that it was lighter than sacks and sacks of grain, because, let’s face it, they’re ungulates … that means extra stomachs, not brains.

Because counterfeiting was so common, even if you could persuade your camel or horse to carry you to the far end of the trade route, the guy you were dealing with might not accept it. That’s apart from the fact that, if your ship sank during the journey, even if you didn’t drown, you were screwed because no form of coinage ever produced would float. (Actually there are coins in equatorial Africa made of wood – then again, EVERYTHING in equatorial Africa that isn’t made of dirt or flesh, is made of wood, so it’s hard to maintain a standard rate of exchange.)

Apart from counterfeiters, the biggest threat to commerce was thieves … traders would set out with gold enough to buy what they needed for trade, and they’d get robbed on the way. At sea, they got robbed by ship-captains (this was called passage), or pirates (this was called booty), or Storms (this was called sinking). On land they were no safer:  they’d be robbed by the Caravan Drivers (this was called protection), the lords of whatever countries they passed-through (this was called a toll), the lords of the lands where they traded (this was called a tariff ), the Manager of the Market they traded in (this was called a booth– or stall-fee), and finally the customer (this was called bargaining ).  At any point along the way, it was almost refreshing to be robbed by actual robbers (this was called loot) – because at least they made no pretension to honesty!

It was almost enough to make you want to do without pepper.

Mostly I’ve been talking about western history, but, despite never being taught about it in 17 years of formal schooling in the US, I’ve been informed that China also has history. Lots of it, as it turns out. As it happens, along with gun-powder, pasta, the rudder, block writing, and sex toys, the Chinese also invented banknotes.

During the Han Dynasty, in 118 BC, some inscrutable Chinese type got the idea that if he left his money safe at home, and carried something declaring how much dough he had in the bank, he could trade with that, and the poor schmucks at the far end would just have to visit the bank to get their dough. Why they would be willing to do that, given the likelihood of them getting robbed on their travels, is unknown. Later, in the 7th century, official banknotes began to be issued, and were widely enough in circulation that the merchants just decided “what the hell” and started using them.  At least they were lighter and easier to hide than coins.

A similar innovation to the banknote began to be used in Europe during the Crusades. Prior to stealing the Grail Documents and black-mailing the Pope with their knowledge of Jesus’ secret marriage to Mary Magdalene, and hidden descendants (look, I saw it in a movie, ok? Ron Howard would not lie to me!) the Knights Templar constructed a series of forts guarding the northern routes that crusaders could take to get to where they were supposed to kill people.  A merchant headed for the Holy Land could stop in at his convenient local Templar Preceptory, pay a certain amount of gold to the Templars, who would issue him a note for that amount minus a nice cut … when he at last arrived in the Holy Land (if he arrived, rather than drowning, or dying of wounds or pestilence), he’d stop in at the local Templar fortress, hand them the note, and get his gold back … maybe minus another nice cut. If he didn’t make it, and lots didn’t, the templars got to keep the gold, unless someone rummaged the body and found the note. This is the beginning of International Banking in Europe – which is important because none of them knew jack about China.

Like all Bankers, the Templars got really freaking rich, really freaking fast!

They had forts, castles, and preceptories (a combination of temple, barracks, and training center) in every country in Christendom. They had money enough to loan it to governments, and pretty soon had their financial claws into virtually every royal family in Europe.  They had huge numbers of trained soldiers – often more than were possessed by the governments where their forts were located.  And they were jerks. Especially to King Phillip the Fair of France, who wasn’t, and who owed them a ton of money.

And then they lost the Holy Land to the Sultan Saladin, in a war that they largely started, which pretty much cost them all their backing in Europe. Rumors – likely started by various well-heeled cheapskates who owed them money – began to circulate about their secret initiation rites, and just what the hell did they do in all those forts and preceptories? Black magic, Idolatry, Paganism, and Sexual Perversions began to be whispered about – none of which was abated by the extreme secrecy with which the Templars surrounded themselves and their rites. Their arrogance and insistence that they were above the laws of the countries in which they dwelt didn’t help one bit, either.

In 1307 Philip saw his chance. He issued secret orders which were carried out simultaneously all over France, arresting every single Templar within his realm. While he was at it, he rounded up the Jews, too, because he owed them tons of money, as well, and there was little point in getting out from under his debt to the Templars, if he was just going to be bankrupted by the Jews.

For the Templars there was the inevitable torturing, and questioning where no matter what you said you were screwed, and the Right to Keep Your Trap Shut had not yet been invented, and then there was the traditional burning at the stake, accompanied by marshmallows.

No one knows what happened to all their money.

The Jews, for once, got off lighter, and were merely expelled from the Kingdom. Most of them went to Spain where they were soon joined by Jews from all over the rest of Europe – just in time for the Spanish Inquisition, with the inevitable torturing, and questioning where no matter what you said you were screwed, and the Right to Keep Your Trap Shut had not yet been invented, and then there was the traditional burning at the stake, accompanied by marshmallows.

There is a certain comforting predictability to human behavior.

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~ by dourscot on February 18, 2016.

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