In pre-industrial economies, textiles share many of the characteristics that are essential to a good currency. They are durable, portable, and shareable. Screws can be manufactured in standard sizes and of uniform quality. The amount is limited because fabric takes a long time to make and it flows out of the money supply when it is put into daily use, avoiding inflation.
We tend to think of money as something set by the central authorities, and sometimes the fabric currency was just that. (In The Fabric of Civilization, I discuss how China’s Tang Dynasty, where there is a lack of coins, silk studs as legal Means of payment defined.) But that doesn’t have to be the case. In other parts of the world, textile money emerged from commercial use, supported but not legally created.
The Icelandic story of Audun takes place in the mid-11th century and begins in early summer when a Norwegian trading name called Thorir arrives on the island’s northwestern Westfjord peninsula. The Icelanders lived in a land inhospitable for forests or agriculture and were dependent on imports of wood and grain. They paid for these goods in the same currency they used on site: a woolen wool called vaðmál (or wadmal). Thorir was able to sell his goods in Iceland and return with a ship loaded with textiles. But there was a problem. Customers didn’t have enough cash – vaðmál – on hand.
“If the Norwegian was to be paid for their flour and wood, it was unlikely that the Icelandic buyer would have woven enough fabric by summer at the latest,” explains William Ian Miller, legal historian and Icelandic saga scholar. “The dealer had to wait until you literally had made your money to pay him, and it was not uncommon for the dealer to have to stay the long winter to receive his payment.” In the meantime, the grain could go bad.
Fortunately for Thorin, the Icelandic hero of the story, Audun, identifies creditworthy customers. If Thorin gives them grain now, he can reliably expect the cloth to set sail in time in late summer. As a reward for his credit report, Audun receives passage on the ship and sets the events of the story in motion.
Iceland’s Vaðmál was not just a commodity. Woven to certain standards, it was a legally recognized medium of exchange and storage of value, the primary form of money during the Commonwealth of Iceland (930–1262 AD). As a unit of account, the third function of money, a piece of vaðmál, two cubits wide and six cubits long (roughly one yard by three yards), according to anthropological archaeologist Michèle Hayeur Smith, “was ubiquitous as a measure and medium of exchange in Icelandic legal texts, sales reports, Church inventories and farm registers until the 17th century. “(This picture from an Icelandic manuscript shows the measurement of a yard of Vaðmál.)
The archaeological evidence supports the written records. Hayeur Smith microscopically examined more than 1,300 archaeological textile fragments and found clear indications that cloth turns into money. The material from the Viking Age before 1050 contains many different weave structures and very different thread counts. Medieval fragments, on the other hand, are much more uniform – predominantly the dense bodies, which are recognized as legal money. Analysis, she writes, reveals “such a degree of standardization and ubiquity that one can only conclude that fabric has really become a unit of measurement, a sort of” legal fabric currency “that is manufactured and circulated among households of all ranks across the island is brought. ” In the Middle Ages, Icelanders “wove plenty of money.”
In West Africa, too, at least in the 11th century, merchants used textiles to create the currency they needed to trade. With many West African fabrics, narrow strips are sewn together to form a larger textile that is worn as a single piece. (Kente fabric is an example.) Unlike brightly colored textiles for clothing, a strip intended as currency would remain undyed and would be wound into a tight, flat spool when jumping off the loom. Traders could roll such coils on the floor, fling them on either side of a pack animal, or carry them flat on their heads with other goods added on top. Because web widths varied from place to place and a market attracted more than one type, traders set a standard exchange rate. A certain length of strip, usually that of a woman’s wrap, would be the primary unit of currency, with a full cloth forming a larger denomination.
Although African currency cloths functioned primarily as money, there was a consumer market among the poor and deserters in the north who had no cotton. When I went north, one more unit bought fabric; When I went south it bought less. Dealers have adjusted their travel expenses accordingly. “For example, a merchant from Upper Volta who went to Timbuctu to buy salt with cloth made in his homeland would use cloth to pay for his way on the northern voyage,” writes historian Marion Johnson, “but on the return trip he would do it. ” Better to use salt, which increases in value as it moves south, even if he had to sell it first for local fabric money.
The same was true of silver and gold, which flowed from America, where it bought less, to Europe and Asia, where it bought more. Fabric money was actually more self-regulating and less prone to shortages or inflation than metal currencies. If its value increased, the weavers would earn more. If it became less valuable, consumers would take more. The result was a fairly constant value over time, which was determined by the price of the substance as a commodity.
Money is a self sustaining social convention, a sign we trust will be valuable for future exchanges. When buyers and sellers, courts and tax authorities accept textiles as payment, they are money.