Historian Rebecca Spang Discusses Money and the French Revolution

Becton Fellowship Program

By Karen Guzman

While money creation is usually seen as a matter of economic policy, it can also reflect the politics, design, and manufacturing choices of its age, according to Rebecca L. Spang, a visiting fellow at the Yale School of Management’s International Center for Finance and a visiting professor of history.

Speaking at Yale SOM on February 7, Spang discussed one of the most famous instances of monetary innovation—the French Revolution’s issuing of paper assignats.

A professor of history at Indiana University, Spang is the author of two acclaimed books on politics, culture, and consumption in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, including Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution and The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture.

Spang spoke as part of the Becton Fellowship Program, which brings practitioners from private and public institutions to share their professional insights with faculty and students at Yale SOM. William Goetzmann, the Edwin J. Beinecke Professor of Finance and Management Studies and director of the International Center for Finance, introduced Spang.

Spang introduced her talk as an exploration of the “relationship between politics and the material form of money,” and she traced the events that led to the creation of a single national currency in France following the revolution.

She described the way that the currency changed as the nation moved from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy to a republic. France introduced the assignat during the French Revolution as a way to cover debts and inject needed liquidity into the economy.

The assignats were backed, at least in theory, by property  the government confiscated from the Catholic Church at the start of the Revolution. “So, for its proponents, the assignat was really land in a form that could circulate,” Spang said.

But fear of counterfeits, a general distrust of credit after the revolution, and Catholic opposition to the seizure of the property all contributed to weaken the currency.

Illustrating the many factors that can impact the production of currency, Spang invited students to think about money in terms of design and culture as well as policies and economics.

About the Event

Money creation is usually understood as a matter of economic policy, but it also involves political choices and physical manufacture. In this talk, Rebecca Spang will examine one of the most famous instances of monetary innovation—the French Revolution’s issuing of paper assignats—and the social, cultural, and political dynamics of which it was a part. Of all revolutions, monetary ones may be the most difficult to pull off successfully.

This event is open to the Yale community. Registration is required.

The Becton Fellowship Program was established at the Yale School of Management in 1980 by Becton, Dickinson & Co., a leading global medical instruments supplier, in honor of Henry P. Becton ’37 B.S., company chairman (1961-1987), to bring practitioners from private and public institutions to share their professional insights with faculty and students.

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Speakers

Rebecca Spang

Rebecca Spang

Visiting Fellow & Visiting Professor of History

Rebecca Spang is the author of two prize-winning books on politics, culture, and consumption in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Her The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard University Press) asks...

Rebecca Spang is the author of two prize-winning books on politics, culture, and consumption in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Her The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard University Press) asks how going out to eat became an enjoyable leisure activity, while Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution (also published by Harvard) explores the interaction of political crisis and financial upheaval in the 1790s and beyond. She has held visiting appointments at the University of Tübingen and the University of Minnesota, was a Fellow of the Michigan Society of Fellows, and was previously Reader in European History, University College London.