23 [Recall This Buck I]: Chris Desan on Making Money (EF, JP)

This is the first of several RTB episodes about the history of money. We are ranging from the earliest forms of labor IOUs to the modern world of bitcoin and electronically distributed value. Our idea is that forms matter, and matter in ways that those who profit from those forms often strive to keep hidden. Today, we begin by focusing on the rise of capitalism, the Bank of England, and how an explosion of liquidity changed everything.

Chris Desan

We are lucky to do so with Christine Desan of Harvard Law School, who recently published Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2014).  She is also managing editor of  JustMoney.org, a website that explores money as a critical site of governance. Desan’s research explores money as a legal and political project. Her approach opens economic orthodoxy to question by widening the focus on money as an instrument, to examine the institutions and agreements through which resources are mobilized and tracked, by means of money. In doing so, she shows that particular forms of money, and the markets within which they circulate, are neither natural or inevitable.


Clay tablet (ca. 3100-2900 B.C.)
, believed from the southern Mesopotamian city of Uruk, likely reporting on the grain (barley) distribution of a large temple

Christine Desan, “Making Money

BerkShares (aka “Berkshire Bucks”)

Ursula Le Guin The Earthsea Novels (money hard to come by, but kinda cute)

Samuel Delany, the Neveryon series (money part of the evils of naming, slavery, labor appropriation)

Jane Austen “Pride and Prejudice

Richard Rhodes, “Energy

John Plotz, “Is Realism Failing?” (on liberal guilt and patrimonial fiction)

William Cobbett, “Rural Rides” (1830; London as wen)

E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” (notional “just price” of bread)

Peter Brown, “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

Chris Vanden Bossche, “Reform Acts

Sanditon” on PBS (and the original unfinished Austen novel)

Still from “Sanditon”

Margot Finn, “Character of Credit

Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the 21st Century

L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900)

Leo Tolstoy “The Forged Coupon” (orig.1904)

Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Bottle Imp” (1891)

Frank Norris, “The Octopus” (1901)

D. W. Griffith, “A Corner in Wheat” (1909)

You can listen to the episode here:

Read the Transcript here:

The next Recall This Buck conversation will be with Peter Brown author of Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.


The railroad monopolies depicted as octopus (or kraken?):admittedly less relevant to our topic than the image of wheat as both cash and killer in Frank Norris’s The Octopus.

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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