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Rebecca Spang

February 10, 2016

Europeans created the euro in hopes that a common currency would lift the economic fortunes of the continent and strengthen European identity. But things don’t always go as planned — witness the Greek debt crisis and the controversy over demands for financial austerity in Greece.

They could have taken a warning from events in France over 200 years ago: “Stuff” happens.

In her recent book “Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution,” IU Bloomington historian Rebecca Spang describes how revolutionaries put their faith in a new currency and financial system only to exacerbate divisions in society that sent the revolution spinning out of control.

“Nobody starts the French Revolution thinking, ‘I want to disrupt economic networks,’” Spang says. “It’s the last thing the republicans want to do. They don’t anticipate the effect the political, cultural, and social upheaval of the 1790s will have on those day-to-day relations.”

Spang is a professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies at IU Bloomington. She teaches a course on “Money and History.”

“Stuff and Money,” published in 2015, has garnered positive reviews. “Spang, author of a highly original 2000 book on French history entitled ‘The Invention of the Restaurant,’ has done it again,” reviewer Tony Barber wrote in the Financial Times. Harvard historian Patrice Higonnet, writing in The Times Literary Supplement called it “a quite brilliant, assertive book,” and Arthur Goldhammer, translator of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century,” also called it “brilliant,” adding in an extensive review in Bookforum that “what (Spang) proposes is nothing less than a new conceptualization of the revolution.”

The story that Spang tells focuses not on abstract ideals but on physical money, specifically the assignats, a paper currency issued by France’s National Assembly. And while commentators have often pointed to the episode as an example of the dangers of paper money, Spang draws different lessons.

The assignats were created to solve the problem of debt accumulated by the French monarchy, debt that led to oppressive taxation and political unrest. Leaders of the Revolution decided to repay the debt by nationalizing the vast land holdings of the Catholic Church and issuing paper currency, backed by the value of the land, for use in commerce.

Proponents said the assignats were better than mere money; they were “land in a form that circulates.” And the revolutionaries were committed to repaying the national debt, even though it had been produced by the monarchy in support of foreign wars and other unpopular actions.

“They really are thinking this is an intermediate step to get the land redistributed, to pay off the debt,” Spang says. “They’re trying to be honorable. They’re trying to make the debt go away.”

But, as she writes, “stuff happened.” The currency was poorly controlled and easily counterfeited. It was issued only in large denominations, no good for the day-to-day cash transactions of the poor. Even worse, much of the population saw the seizure of church lands as sacrilege.

“The effort to solve the debt problem founders initially not because they issue paper,” Spang says, “but because they create a national currency that half the country doesn’t believe in.”

The result was the first episode of modern hyper-inflation, involving shortages of cash and shortages of food and other goods and producing serious deprivation for ordinary French people.

Key insights that Spang gained in writing the book involve the nature of money.

There is a common idea that money evolved through history from the concrete to the abstract — from items used in barter to precious metals to government-issued bills to credit cards. In fact, she said, money has always been both concrete and abstract, and it has the value that people agree to give it.

“A lump of gold is useful, but people weren’t going to eat it or build something with it,” she says. “Societies agreed among themselves — largely at bayonet point — to use it as money.”

Another point: Money has always been different for the rich and the poor. At the time of the French Revolution, wealthy people and merchants did business primarily on credit, which was a form of paper transaction. But the poor couldn’t afford credit and used copper coins for daily purchases. Today, wealth changes hands via digital transactions; anyone without credit is excluded from much of economic life.

“For example, go try to buy a plane ticket with cash,” Spang says. “I don’t think it can be done.”

It’s not every day that a scholarly book is published with the word “stuff” in the title, but Spang settled on the title early in her research and stayed with it. Initially she expected to focus on the symbolic meaning to the French Revolution of material culture and stuff such as the colored ribbons that citizens wore as a sign of support for the revolution.

But during the research and writing the meaning evolved. It came to include the unexpected, as in the contemporary vernacular phrase “stuff happens.” At the same time it came to suggest the final immateriality of the characters, actions, and ideals of even such a compelling drama as the French Revolution — what Shakespeare suggested when he wrote, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

This article, written by Steve Hinnefeld, first appeared in the Inside IU Bloomington e-newsletter.