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I recently took part in  a podcast (also accessible through i-tunes) for the National Gallery in London in conjunction with their forthcoming exhibition ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance’.  Specifically, I was asked to comment on the way in which money is depicted in two of the items that will be in the exhibition – Jan Gossaert’s famous painting variously decribed as portrait of a banker or a merchant, and Marinus van Reymerswaele’s ‘Two Tax Gatherers’ .


Jan Gossart's 'Portrait of a Man (Jan Jacobz. Snoeck?) c.1530

In practice, neither description is quite accurate.  The Gossaert sitter’s identity has been carefully traced and is reckoned to be Jan Snoeck, a successful and aspiring local government official who, at the time of his portrait probably had responsibility for collecting certain local charges.  Not quite a tax-collector, but not far from it.  He may also have been a merchant, but I doubt he was a banker: by the 1530s most European bankers were using double-entry bookkeeping and that is not what he’s writing in his journal.

Marinus van Reymerswaele's 'Two Tax Gatherers' c. 1540

Reymerswaele’s subject are without doubt tax collectors, but more accurately (probably) a tax farmer (the older man writing in the ledger) and his enforcer (the scary grimacing one).  Reymerswaele produced several versions of this image which found favour among an audience who clearly loathed tax farmers – and with good reason.  Before the advent of the modern bureaucratic state, tax farmers would bid to the relevant authorities for the right to collect particular taxes.  A contract would be signed specifying the amount the successful bidder would collect and submit.  Because anything above that specified amount was pure profit, tax farmers had a strong incentive to collect as much from their targets as possible.  Throughout Europe tax farmers acquired a reputation for greed, brutality and ruthlessness.

The two paintings approach the issue of their subjects’ professions very differently – not least because one is a commissioned portrait, the other a grotesque caricature – but it is the contrast in the way that the coins in each are represented that particularly caught my eye.  In the Reymerswaele the pile of coins looks impressive until you look close up and find that they are cracked, clipped and split.  These are coins that have done the rounds and are worn thin through use.  Gossaert’s coins, by contrast are perfect, they are whole and heavy and they gleam satisfyingly.  Although both piles of cash appear in almost exactly the same place physically on the paintings, they could hardly be more different.

This interests me because of the ways in which coins were used throughout much of the middle ages in Europe.  As Italian economic historian Carlo M Cipolla pointed out many years ago, medieval Europe effectively had (at least) two montary systems running in parallel at any given time or place.  Even though a particular coinage system might have had a relatively fixed set of ratios between different coins (e.g. the commonly used LSD system inherited from Rome – 1 x libri (pound) = 20 x soldi (shillings) = 240 denari (pennies), in practice these ratios fluctuated widely as differential weights and finenesses between coins affected their relative values.  If, for example, the silver content of pennies was reduced (as it regularly was) through debasement, then their value relative to the others would fall accordingly.  In some instances one libri could be equivalent to several thousand denari.

One consequence of this was that different socio-economic classes used very different monies and were vulnerable to different processes of value change.  The sorts of coins in Gossaert’s portrait are of a size and apparent fineness to suggest that these are the coins of the merchant class – currency only suitable for use in significant transactions.  Reymerswaele’s coins, by contrast are, in every sense, poor money.  Not only are they poor quality, but these are the coins that would have been used in small-scale, everyday transactions.  This, of course, reinforces the message about the unpleasant characters in the painting – they are taxing the poor.

This is of more than art-historical/historical significance.  On the day when Barclays Bank is announcing a profit of £6.o7bn and its chief executive looks likely to pocket an £8million bonus, we seem to have returned to a situation of the dual currency.  There is a clear division, not in type but in scale (though beyond a certain scale there may be a qualitative difference in the nature of money), between the money used by ordinary people and the sorts of numbers used by (and paid to) the new mercantile class – the so-called HNWIs and the ultra-HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals).  To get a taste of just how very different a world these people inhabit, the annual Cap Gemini ‘Wealth Reports’ make instructive reading….