“Throughout the greater part of the immense region which includes Europe to the West and stretches to Further India in the East, cattle were the chief form of wealth, and, as is seen in Africa, where cattle form the standard of value, varieties of primitive money are undeveloped. .... Cattle, however satisfactory as wealth, as a standard of value, or even as a medium of exchange in the larger affairs of life, cannot properly be called money; and need must often have been felt for some more easily transportable and divisible form.” (Quiggin 1949: 187–188).In many societies, cattle or oxen, then, appear to have been an important form of wealth, but also fundamentally important first as ceremonial or non-commercial money in social customs like marriage and blood money, and they also often had a religious character.
“The inclusion of Europe in the cattle-currency-complex has been noted above (p. 187). Ridgeway showed that in the regions of Asia, Europe and Africa, where the system of weight standards which has given birth to all the systems of modern Europe had its origin, the cow was universally the chief object of barter (1892, p. 387).
Cattle were the standard of wealth and unit of value; they had a sacred character and were offered to the gods as well as presented to potentates; they were exchanged for slaves and extorted as tribute. The ‘bride-price’ of a woman and the wergeld of a man were calculated in cattle.
Evidence of the cattle standard can be found in the Rig Veda of India and the Zend Avesta of Persia (as seen above), in the Brehon Laws of Ireland and the Ancient Laws of Wales. We have seen it actively at work in Eastern Asia and in Eastern Africa, and though it has vanished from more progressive Europe, traces are still obvious. There is the familiar literary evidence in the equation of cattle and money, pecus and pecunia. Ulfilas translates pecunia by the Gothic faihu, cattle, whence our word ‘fee’, which meant cattle, wealth or money in King Alfred’s day. Gothic skatts, meaning cattle, tribute or coin, becomes the O.E. coin sceat, or the ‘scat’, still known as a tax in the North.
Ridgeway notes (1892, p. 4) how accounts were kept in cows a generation or so ago in the Caucasus, as they were also in Scotland; in Hungary the prospective bridegroom's conventional opening is ‘Pray tell me if you have a cow to sell?’ (Kovalensky, 1891, p. 27) and ‘bride-price’ is still paid in cattle in Albania (Hasluck, 1933).
Where a cattle standard exists, this is adequate, and discourages the growth of primitive currencies, as has been already seen. It is noteworthy that the largest and most varied collections of primitive money come from cattle-less areas.‘A traveller once asked a patriarch [in Mongolia] owner of several thousand horses why he did not sell some every year. He replied, “Why sell what I delight in? I do not need money. If I had any I would shut it up in a box where no one would see it. But when my horses run over the plain everyone sees them and knows that they are mine and is reminded that I am rich” (Bureau, 1888, p. 71).Cattle cannot, however, provide all the requisites for money. They set the standard of value, they are less often units of exchange, and never sufficiently portable or divisible.” (Quiggin 1949: 277).
In African societies, for example, cattle and other goods were used for bride-price and fines (Quiggin 1949: 96, 99–100, 102) and were used in an abstract standard of value, but were not, generally speaking, an actual general medium of exchange:
“North, East and South Africa have been for so long the home of cattle-keeping peoples that cattle, whether in the form of camels, sheep, goats or cows, but chiefly cows, are the standard of value. The larger animals are rarely and reluctantly sold, but everything is calculated on a cattle basis. They constitute real wealth, and are parted with only in important transactions such as ‘bride-price’, or under compulsion, as for fines and compensations.” (Quiggin 1949: 92–93).Such was more or less the situation in ancient Greece in the Dark (or Geometric) Age from c. 1200–800 BC and the early Archaic period (800–480 BC).
The Greeks appear to have had a rudimentary cattle or ox unit of account in these centuries, but the actual means of payment were in kind and tended to be many other types of goods, not just cattle (Peacock 2011: 49–54; Peacock 2013: 81).
In other words, the situation in early Greece was very similar to that in certain tribal African societies: cattle were used to some limited extent as an abstract standard of value, but not an actual general medium of exchange.
This if we define money as a commodity that is generally used as
(1) a common medium of exchange, andthen one cannot really speak of cattle as full-bodied money in ancient Greece, nor in other societies. How, then, can the orthodox Mengerian theory of the origin of money explain it?
(2) a unit of account, and
(3) store of purchasing power.
Even if the origin of such cattle standards of value lay in cattle as the most important barter good, there are still problems with the orthodox barter spot trade theory of the origin of money.
If, for example, cattle had arisen in the Mengerian fashion, then oxen would surely have been used as full-bodied money as the most saleable commodity in real and widespread barter spot trades, but must then, for some reason, have later ceased to have this role in many societies.
Secondly, cattle are of rather high value in an agrarian society and cannot be used for small transactions that are often the basis of trade. Cattle are not physically divisible into smaller units (and even conceptually this presents difficulties).
In many societies, cattle remain an abstract standard of value to some degree, but not a general medium of exchange, and their actual exchange is confined to social events of importance like bride-price, dowry, compensations such as wergeld, ceremonial gifts, or fines. They were often also important as sacrificial animals, as in Greece (Peacock 2013: 89–92).
The high value of cattle as an important source of wealth and also as a prestige good seems more fitted for exchanges in certain social customs, where indeed that exchange was largely maintained, rather than in general commercial life.
And, above all, why did cattle not emerge as a general commercial medium of exchange in such societies? Indeed, why did the cattle standard seem to discourage “the growth of primitive currencies”? (Quiggin 1949: 277).
All of this presents difficulties for the Mengerian theory of the origin of money as applied to cattle.
Peacock, Mark S. 2011. “The Political Economy of Homeric Society and the Origins of Money,” Contributions to Political Economy 30: 47–65
Peacock, Mark S. 2013. Introducing Money. Routledge, London.
Quiggin, A. H. 1949. A Survey of Primitive Money: The Beginnings of Currency. Methuen, London.