Follow the Money: National Currency and Local Networks in Revolutionary France

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 3:10 PM
Chicago Ballroom H (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Rebecca L. Spang, Indiana University
The creation of the assignat (paper currency) during the French Revolution remains one of the most famous historical episodes of monetary innovation. Promoted as “land in a form that can circulate,” the assignats in theory were the perfect answer to France’s widespread money shortage. Elaborate anti-counterfeiting measures, however, meant  the assignats were issued initially only in very large denominations, such that they clogged more payment circuits than they opened. In response, private enterprises and municipal instituions alike produced their own paper notes, the so-called billets de confiance or billets patriotiques (patriotic or trust notes). Backed, in ideal cases, with assignats kept in the town’s or companies coffers, the billets were potentially good for any purchase but not necessarily so for any. For whereas the assignats were a national money, the circulation of which was legally enforced, the billets belonged to a different category: they were “voluntary money,” good only in the eyes of those who accepted them.

Based on materials from departmental and municipal archives, as well as legislative debates and travelers’ descriptions, this paper looks at the first different and then competing networks within which these two kinds of notes traveled. It argues that their shared status as “paper money” had little effect on how they were used and understood.

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