Front Page Titles (by Subject) ANNEX:: A Note on French Currency, Monetary Values, and Weights and Measures 100 - Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship
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ANNEX:: A Note on French Currency, Monetary Values, and Weights and Measures 100 - Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship 
Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship, translated by Shelagh Eltis, with an Introduction to His Life and Contribution to Economics by Shelagh Eltis and Walter Eltis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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A Note on French Currency, Monetary Values, and Weights and Measures100
French Currency and Monetary Values
Condillac most often refers to livres: francs were synonymous with livres in his time. There were 20 sols or sous to the livre, and each sou was made up of 12 deniers.
Condillac also refers to écus, coins stamped with a shield covered with fleur-de-lys. Their denomination was generally of 3 livres (the écu blanc or louis d’argent introduced in 1641), or 6 livres (an écu d’armes introduced in 1727). Condillac refers to occasions when the face value of the écu blanc (the number of livres and sous it represented) was varied from month to month.
Condillac’s account of the development of coinage refers to coins made from gold, silver and copper. When the franc was introduced in 1360 it was a gold coin worth 20 sols. The first silver francs were coined in the reign of Henri III (1574–89), while silver sous were introduced in the reign of Philippe Auguste (1180–1223).
Several provinces had their own coinage with different values. The principal versions were the livre tournois of the Tours region and the livre parisis of the Paris region. Both of these were made up of 20 silver sous, but there were 12 copper denier to the sou tournois and 15 identically valued denier to the heavier sou parisis, so the sou parisis and the livre parisis were worth more. Their separate use was terminated by edict in 1667.
From the mid-seventeenth century, legal contracts were based on the livre tournois, with its 20 sous to the livre and 12 denier to the sou, as a money of account, while silver coins were legally accepted by weight rather than by face value, which was frequently altered. The article “Livre” in Pal-grave’s Dictionary of Political Economy remarks on “the complete distinction between money of account and the money in actual circulation” (Lodge, “Livre,” 617) in the France of the Ancien Régime.
The monarchy determined the weight of silver required to settle a debt in livres tournois through decrees which determined the number of livres to a silver marc of 244. 75 grammes (8 troy ounces). A piece of silver of precisely that weight had been lodged in Paris in ancient times, and exact copies were subsequently lodged in the other mints. Thus in 1715, the year after Condillac’s birth, it was decreed that the silver marc would be worth 40 livres in place of 27, devaluing the livre from 3. 375 to a troy ounce of silver to 5 livres to the ounce. In 1718 an edict for which John Law was responsible devalued the livre further from 5 to 7. 5 to an ounce of silver and in 1720 to 10 livres to the ounce in February and to 15 in July. After the fall of Law the value of the livre in fine silver was gradually raised until it reached 6. 39 livres to the ounce (51 livres 2 sous and 3 deniers to the marc) in 1726, and it remained at that value until the Revolution (Labrousse et al., Histoire économique, chs. 3 and 4). Thus between 1715 and 1726 the livre was devalued from 5 to an ounce of silver to 6. 39 (with a fall to 15 to the ounce during Law’s monetary experiments). The damage to commerce and to economic activity in general from disruptions to the value of the currency such as these are the subject of Chapter 9 in the Second Part of Commerce and Government (272–76 below).
From 1726 until the Revolution silver remained stable at 6. 39 livres to the ounce. Debts for which there were legal contracts made out in livres tournois could be met by weighing silver coins of any denomination, estimating the fine silver they contained and discharging a debt of 1000 livres with about 156 ounces of fine silver. Smaller day-to-day transactions would in contrast be settled with currently minted coin with face values which remained stable after 1726.
There was a parallel gold currency, and the standard on which this was based was the gold marc, also of 8 troy ounces. The principal gold coin was the louis d’or, named after the sovereign and introduced in 1641 under Louis XIII. The state determined how many louis would be coined from 8 ounces of gold of 11 / 12 fineness (22 carats when fine gold has 24), and the number of livre tournois each louis would represent. Thus in 1715 it was decreed that 8 ounces of gold would be minted into 30 louis, each to make payments of 15. 5 livres. An ounce of gold which was minted into 3.75 louis therefore sufficed to make payments of 58.13 livres. In the currency reforms of 1726 which survived until 1785, 3.75 louis were coined from an ounce of gold, and each louis had a face value of 24 livres, so an ounce of gold coins made payments of 90 livres against 58.13 in 1715. Hence between 1715 and 1726, there was devaluation of the livre tournois in relation to both gold and silver, after which its value was maintained in relation to both metals. In 1785 gold was slightly revalued, with the result that an ounce of gold coins made payments of 96 livres in place of 90, and at the same time commanded equivalently more silver because the silver value of the livre remained unaltered.
In the years before 1785, silver had a higher value in relation to gold inside France than in the world at large with the result that the currency which circulated in France was predominantly silver, while despite all prohibitions there was a tendency for gold to be exported. It has been suggested that the 1785 revaluation of gold reversed this tendency, and in the following years, about two-thirds of the currency minted in France was gold, while only one-third was silver. Gold circulated predominantly in the North and East and silver in the regions closer to Spain from which it mainly entered France (Dermigny, “La France”).
A comparison of French with British monetary values is complex as conditions were very different in the two countries, but a few inferences can be drawn. Writing of the France of 1787, Arthur Young estimated that 1,800,000 livres tournois had a similar purchasing power to 78,750 pounds sterling (Young, Travels, 1:52). On that basis, the purchasing power commanded by 23 livres in France will have been close to that of a pound sterling in Britain. Since the gold louis commanded a value of 24 livres in 1785, its purchasing power on the basis suggested by Young will have been near to that of the 21-shilling gold guinea, and it has been shown that the gold content of these French and English coins was quite close after adjustment for the lower proportion of gold and higher proportion of base alloy in the French louis than in the British guinea (Law, “Louis d’or”). As the 24-livre Frenchlouis was equivalent to four 6-livre écus (Sir James Steuart [An Inquiry, Book 3, ch. 7] refers to these as “great crowns”), the late eighteenth century écu corresponded, within a few pence, to the 5-shilling British crown.
An alternative modern comparison produces a similar order of magnitude of the comparative purchasing power of the French and British currencies. Mathias and O’Brien (“Taxation”) publish data on the average price of corn in England and France in the 1780s when one pound sterling purchased the same quantity of corn in England as 20 to 22 livres in France.
French Weights and Measures
The muid, to which Condillac refers, was an ancient measure of volume. The number of boisseaux to a muid depended on what was being measured. The muid of salt, for example, contained 192 boisseaux whereas the muid of oats contained 288 boisseaux. The muid of Paris was made up of 12 setiers, a measure frequently referred to by Condillac to describe quantities of grain, each of 12 boisseaux.
There were 2,304 litrons to the muid of Paris, and a litron was an ancient measure of capacity which amounted to 36 cubic inches (the modern litre has 61 cubic inches). The setier varied regionally; the setier of Paris, also known as the grain setier, was equivalent to 12 boisseaux. Muids of 12 setiers and 144 boisseaux were equivalent to 1,373 litres in modern decimal measures. The English bushel, a larger quantity than the French boisseau, also varied regionally in the eighteenth century, though less than the boisseau. Arthur Young remarked that, “in France the in finite perplexity of the measures exceeds all comprehension” (Travels, 1:315).
The arpent, a land measure, was also subject to regional variation and could be anywhere between 20 and 50 ares, where the are is now measured as 100 square metres. For comparison, the English acre is 4047 square metres (4840 square yards), so there were approximately 40 ares to the acre.
[100. ] A variety of detailed articles in Larousse (1866–79), which quote extensively from the Encyclopédie and other sources, provide a general source of information on the history of French currency and weights and measures.