Amelia’s Magazine | Bright Lights from the Dark Ages

Black’s Club in Soho isn’t the fortress of hostile posh/cool superiority the words ‘private members’ summon up – that’s a prejudice entirely based on my watching London-based police drama, no great (or terrible) personal experience. So, last Wednesday, sent skittling down the stairs (the front door has a friendly notice with instructions to that effect) to the quiet bar, then looking uncertain until I can ask someone about the Idler launch gathering, I’m in all quite reassured by the haphazard layout and sofas.

Here for the launch of the Idler magazine, which is to take the form of a discussion led by Andrew Simm of the trendily lower-case acronymic ‘nef’ (the New Economics Forum), I wander into a crush of journalistic conversation and gentle lute music : the Princes in the Tower are here to liven up any lull.

Illustrations by Krishna Malla

The gathering is all about throwing a few ideas in the air, taking inspiration from medieval ways of doing things, and breathing in the Idle way of doing things – taking the time that the crush of city living can easily squeeze out. Up top are guilds, co-operation, the idea of a just price (setting, say, a loaf of bread, at a certain immovable price), and explorations of interest, the basic stories we tell about money, and usury.

There is a generally very rosy medievalism, which can be traced back to John Ruskin and William Morris, big names of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century. Morris’s hero in ‘News from Nowhere’ wakes up to a future world of friendly anarchism, floaty dresses and carefully home-made everything before being plunged back into the ’stinking vapour bath of discontented humanity’ as he realises he’s too rough for this future state of content. Perhaps this discussion will ground us in a slightly more hopeful reality.

Andrew Simm takes us back to the era that built the cathedrals and frowned on overwork – at least in the guild system, to spend too long working was seen as a way to put everyone else at an unfair disadvantage. Pat Connaughty whistle-stops a tour through everything guild-like in history. Peter Kropotkin (best beard in a strong 19th century field), known as the Anarchist Prince and hero of Oscar Wilde, wrote ‘Mutual Aid’, seeing much more solidarity than competition throughout human history, looking back to Rome where artisans were allowed to get together to bury people – the start of professional association – and to the Shreni Indian craft movement. In 1567, Queen Betty’s Law took power from the guilds, seizing land from the master craftsmen. This forbade trade associations and saw the rebirth of friendly societies, which eventually saw the building society and co-operative movements and the founding of labour exchanges.


David Boyle speculated on a Victorian curriculum-writing conspiracy – anyone remember doing 1066 over and again at school, never quite reaching back into the not-so-dark ages (and quite ignoring that most of the world wasn’t at all directly affected by the collapse of the Roman Empire, and so hadn’t even a nominal dark age) – nor getting on much in time to the twelth and thirteenth centuries when the people were pretty much as tall (and so, presumably, well-nourished) as we are today, when the universities got going, and the local economy was apparently quite thriving.

One idea worth hanging on to was that of ‘black money’ – tin coins circulated from the town or cathedral, which were only valid locally. You had to hand them in to be reminted every five years or so, and were given back proportionally less each time. Excellent encouragement to get them off your hands quickly, and this money moving about plenty was a great motivator for those local economies.


Ann Pettifor, director of Advocacy International and occasional writer for the Guardian, spoke briefly about her own experience with debt and ideas of usury. So the basic story people tell about money is this. I plant some tomato seeds, grow some tomatoes, eat some and take the rest to market. The money I get is a result of this production. This is quite an old-fashioned way of looking at it all : the old-style usurer has a commodity of money – a pile of gold in his lordly cellar, that a peasant can come along and ask for, to fund some tomato-seed-buying, to be paid back with (usurous) interest.

The ‘bank money’ story is the one that the directors of national banks will tell you. The bank will enter a number in a ledger – the amount loaned to buy tomato seeds – and this money comes into existence at that point. Money is then the stimulus for economic activity, not the result of it. The director of the United States Federal Reserve apparently recently said, when asked by an innocent journalist where the money for his multi-billion dollar stimulus was coming from, that he just entered a number in a computer. Ann says that this is great – greater government spending will eventually pay for itself. This is almost endlessly debatable, but worth having in mind.

The whole story of usury is a fascinating one – and long to trace with any decent detail, so I’ll spare you it (mostly) for now. Suffice to say that the Old Testament says you should lend money to your brothers without expecting any gain, but it’s basically ok to make money off strangers. Then Jesus comes along and says all men are brothers in the eyes of God, shifting the balance. Next big change is John Calvin in the seventeenth century, with his ideas of the ‘elite’ – an interpretation that apparently makes it ok to lend to absolutely anyone at a profit. Lewis Hyde has a great anthropological look at the whole thing in a chapter in his book, ‘The Gift’, if I’ve whet your appetite much.

Coming home, I felt nicely treated to a smorgasbord of intellectual fare, as well as the best goats cheese and sundried tomato quiche I’ve seen in a while – I steered a little clearer of the authentic ‘medieval’ turnips. Perhaps finally unsatisfying, though – so much seemed either intriguing one-issue policy or merely historical round-up, there was little real addressing of the way to get to agrarian harmony or utopian co-operation from this world we find at our feet.

Categories ,economics, ,guilds, ,medieval, ,monks, ,usury

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