In for a penny, in for a pound

It comes to my notice that silver bullion, after trading a bit lower for several months, has just rallied above $32 per troy ounce (London fix), or £20 per ounce in sterling. This figure has a sad historical significance.

In the Middle Ages, the values of English coins were legally defined in terms of Tower weight. This system of measures was nearly identical to the modern troy units: the ounce and pound were the same, but the size of the grain, and the number of grains per ounce, were different. (Tower grains are sometimes called ‘wheat grains’, and troy grains are called ‘barleycorns’, to reflect this difference.) The same units, with one annoying variation, were used to denominate and to weigh silver coin.

The pound sterling — £1 — originally equalled one Tower pound of sterling silver; it was divided into 20 shillings of 12 pence each, making 240 pence to the pound. Just to make things difficult (for what would English measures be, if they were rational?) the Tower pound was divided into 12 ounces of 20 pennyweight each. Therefore one penny contained exactly one pennyweight of sterling silver, but a shilling was only three-fifths of an ounce.

Let us ignore the difference between sterling silver (92.5% silver by weight) and fine silver (99.9%). Pure silver is too soft to use in coinage or much of anything else. Alloying it with 7.5% copper made it hard enough to withstand daily wear and tear, and also provided a small profit to pay the expenses of minting. We can consider a mediaeval English penny, including the cost of coining it, of effectively equal value to a pennyweight of pure silver. It is, as they say (in this case literally), ‘close enough for government’.

Today, as I have said, the price of silver crossed above £20 per troy ounce, or £1 per pennyweight. A so-called pound sterling today buys you as much silver as went into a single penny in the Middle Ages. It then follows that the pound has been devalued by a factor of 240 to 1, compared with its original valuation. And it also follows — and this is the sad historical significance — that the old saying, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ has become a tautology — for a pound and a penny are now the same. (I do not speak of the decimalized ‘New Penny’, which is not a coin but a joke.) ‘Dollars to doughnuts’ is also beginning to express an equality, rather than long odds in the dollar’s favour. We shall have to invent some new idioms. And for that we can thank the rascally debasers of silver coin, and the mad printers of fiat money — that is, all our politicians for the last 500 years. I hope they would at least say, ‘You’re welcome.’

Procol Harum and G. K. C.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, ‘Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?’ he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, ‘Why, there is that bookcase… and the coals in the coal-scuttle… and pianos… and policemen.’ The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

My Muse is actually an imp, or perhaps a pooka, and cannot read a passage such as this without taking it as a challenge. I shall accordingly give my reason for preferring civilization, in the form of an example; and I hope to show that the example I give would be utterly impossible except in a state of civilization, and indeed, inconceivable in any civilization but our own. Mr. Chesterton would doubtless be glad to hear that my example does at least include a piano. [Read more…]

P. J. O’Rourke on the writing process

Writing is a slow and a difficult process mentally. How you physically render the words onto a screen or a page doesn’t help you. I’ll give you this example. When words had to be carved into stone, with a chisel, you got the Ten Commandments. When the quill pen had been invented and you had to chase a goose around the yard and sharpen the pen and boil some ink and so on, you got Shakespeare. When the fountain pen came along, you got Henry James. When the typewriter came along, you got Jack Kerouac. And now that we have the computer, we have Facebook. Are you seeing a trend here?

—P. J. O’Rourke, ‘Very Little That Gets Blogged Is Of Very Much Worth

G. K. C. on tolerance

But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance. The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it. But we are always saying to a Mormon or a Moslem — ‘Never mind about your religion, come to my arms.’ To which he naturally replies — ‘But I do mind about my religion, and I advise you to mind your eye.’
. . . . .
Historians seem to have completely forgotten the two facts — first, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be as well to discover which ideas.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘Mormonism

Gondor, Byzantium, and feudalism

A reader on LiveJournal, who goes by the name of ‘dirigibletrance’, asks:

How exactly is Byzantine politics different from feudalism, other than taking place earlier and not in Western Europe? How are the politics we see of Gondor outside of the bounds of what we know as feudalism, both the narrow and broader definitions?

As it happens, Mr. or Ms. Trance is in a certain amount of luck: Byzantium and Tolkien are two of the subjects I have studied in some detail. However, I shall approach the matter in my own way, which means answering a lot of questions that were not asked, but that may, when answered, give meaningful context to the answer that was asked for.

To begin with, Tolkien at various points made both explicit and implicit comparisons of Gondor with Byzantium. The terms ‘North-kingdom’ and ‘South-kingdom’ for Arnor and Gondor are deliberate echoes of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire. In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien no. 131), Tolkien writes:

In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium. [Read more…]

History, language, and the Higher Blarney

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


Those what cannot remedy the past can pretend to repeal it.

—Howland Owl

The second text is from Doyle and Sternecky’s revival of Pogo, which met a worse fate than it deserved. Howland attributed it to ‘Santa Ana’, but it was his own (or his authors’) genius that distorted the quotation into a sort of Freudian slip of the Zeitgeist worthy of P. G. Wodehouse. On the one hand you have the serious philosopher of history, weary and worldly-wise, bluntly restating the obvious law for the thousandth tedious time; on the other, the half-baked Postmodernist, illiterate but pretentious, vaguely remembering some better man’s scripture that he may be able to cite to his purpose.

I have been too long in the company of the second kind of people. I mean the kind who mistake wishful thinking for valid reasoning. If you point out the difference between these things they call you heartless, and if you prove them wrong about the facts they call you an intellectual bully. ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,’ they smugly say; and if they are a little more learned, according to their dim and dubious lights, they add that you are merely making a transparent patriarchalist attempt to oppress alternative modalities of enlightenment by determining the parameters of discourse. [Read more…]