Historical Expertise

Enlisting Copernicus in Your Own Monetary Revolution

In “Nicolas Copernicus Was Far More Than A Scientific Icon” Jonathan Decker enlists Copernicus in support of his own economic/political cause: a return to a gold standard. Decker’s Op-Ed at is a gushing review of a recent edition and translation of Copernicus’s Essay on Money.[1]

Between 1517 and 1526 Copernicus wrote three different versions of a treatise on reforming Prussian coinage. Leszek Zygner at Nicolaus Copernicus University offers an introduction to these treatises and Copernicus’s views on economics.[2] Conveniently, all three versions of Copernicus’s treatise are available along with short introductions and translations: Meditata (1517); Modus cudendi monetam (1519–1522); Monete cudende ratio (1526).[3]

Copernicus wrote his treatises in the context of monetary chaos: inflation, depreciated coinage, and a minting free-for-all—the Polish crown, Royal Prussia, Prussia of the Teutonic Order, as well as many cities had the right to mint coinage. In Monete cudende ratio Copernicus reflects on the accepted value of coinage (the value of the metal plus the expense of minting), the importance of centralized minting (Copernicus argues for two mints), and the difficulties in reforming coinage (how debased coinage needed to be removed as soon as better coinage was introduced).[4]

Decker’s invocation of Copernicus, however, has nothing to do with understanding history. Rather, he and Benko (with whom he collaborates) seek to establish an intellectual pedigree for their ideas about a return to a gold standard. Decker, quoting Benko, hopes:

‘the gold standard has unrivaled intellectual pedigree’ and, with Copernicus’s contribution to monetary policy now translated and readily available, ‘the elegance of the provenance of the gold standard hereby is restored to its deserved level.’

Alas, whatever monetary and political problems Copernicus might have been addressing in Monete cudende ratio, whatever he might have meant in writing it, he and his work have been co-opted in today’s politico-economic argument about monetary policy. Once again history is just fodder for today’s battles. And so it goes.

  1. Laissez-Faire Books sells an epub edition for $9, which edition includes various introductions by gold standard proponents.  ↩

  2. Ralph J. Benko, one of the editors of the Laissez-Faire Books edition and contributor to The Gold Standard Now, borrows portions of Leszek Zygner’s post: cf. Benko’s Copernicus: The Debasement of Money and the Fall of a State and Benko’s earlier post.
    UPDATE (2013-12-17): Initially I did not see the links to the Leszek Zygner’s original post. Both are easily missed because they not clearly marked either by placement or style (one appears to be a title of an image, the other is the last word of a sentence). Unfortunately, lack of attention to usability prompted me to suggest that Benko did not give credit to his sources. I now think that unhelpful design decisions confuse and mislead readers. Such design decisions could be innocent—poorly considered choices—or could be deceitful—attempts to disguise sources or dissuade readers from clicking through to a different site. Whatever the case, a little transparency and consistency (links appear differently across the site) would be helpful for readers. I cannot know. I am not accusing Benko of malfeasance.  ↩

  3. In “Money and Value in the Sixteenth Century: The Monete cudende ratio of Nicholas Copernicus” (behind JSTOR’s paywall) Timothy J. Reiss and Roger H. Hinderliter analyze how Copernicus’s ideas about money and its value varied from Nicole Oresme’s.  ↩

  4. Copernicus is often cited as a precursor to Gresham’s Law.  ↩