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LJ Idol IX—30. Critical Hit — Home Game (~1500 words)

BBC Sherlock,
s01x01, A Study in Pink

I read all the time, and my mind plays games with some of the books' details. Sometimes it ignores things we do not yet know, sometimes it requires we look something up at once, and yet other times, it gets hung up on details without yet needing to research them. This creates what I call "fishing hooks" that allow those details to be dragged from memory at a minute's notice when another book or randomly learned information clarifies the questions hanging on the "hooks". The illumination happens in a flash and takes longer to explain than to experience, simpler but not unlike Sherlock's epiphanies in the BBC series of the same title.

For example, in Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, the main characters rescue Ayrton, an ex-criminal marooned on a Pacific Island for misdeeds he committed in Australia in cahoots with a band of Norfolk chaingang escapees.

I read this story many times, and always I wondered what Norfolk prisoners were doing in Australia, for was not Norfolk an English county and Australia itself, a giant ex-penal colony? And then one ordinary day at a post office, I found among the mailing destinations "Australia, its outer territories and the Norfolk Island". An on Norfolk Island, according to the Web, there was once a colony for the worst criminals in all Australia.

Another time, in a course of old French law we were studying the Napoleonic Codex of 1804 and the Declaration of Human Rights of 1789, both of which the current French law system is still based on. I asked the lecturer then how the right "to resist oppression" consecrated by the latter could coexist with all the queer, immutable, thoughtless (from the modern point of view) laws contained in the former. My answer was that Law was regarded as almost sacred then, the best a community of people could put forth on Earth, only a step below divine law. And the notion of "unjust law" did not exist until after WWII and the quite legal atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.

Then and there, this attitude explained so much about some of the XIX century French literature and outlook on life I could not and still cannot stomach. A well-known representative of this way of thinking is Guy de Maupassant. In his novellas, a single mistake made early in life hangs over the wretch's head until they are dead and buried.

The near divinity of the Law also shines a sad and still terrifying but less disturbing light on Victor Hugo's Javert's frenetic, unbending and merciless devotion to that kind of justice, as well as the unbelievable breathtaking progressiveness of Les Misérables as a whole.


Every so often as well, enlightenment does not happen in a flash, but rather new bits and pieces of knowledge keep teasing one of the hooks until one hit too many tears it free and demands that all that hangs off it be sorted out at once.

The other day, I was labouring through the original of Les Misérables, and came across the scene where Hugo counts the revenue of the Bishop of Digne, the one who sets Jean Valjean on his difficult path to being a good man. The bishop's sister's annual pension, writes Hugo, was of 500 livres while the man only left himself 1000 francs of all the money afforded to him by his station, giving the rest to charity. And so he himself, his sister and their old servant Mme Magloire had but "fifteen hundred livres" par annum.

"So is a livre the same as a franc?" I asked myself for perhaps the hundredth time and went to study the old French money system. And then I studied the old English money system which turned out to be astoundingly similar to the French one. And then I finished my bender with the old Russian money system, because various currencies and the cost of living are a long-standing low-burning interest of mine, hence the hook.

Here are some curious facts.

(1) After the Norman invasion, England inherited the so-called duo-decimal French money system introduced by Charles the Great in the VIII century, where 1 pound equaled 20 shillings or 240 pence, as 1 livre equaled 20 sous or 240 deniers.

To make matters worse for the French, many of their kings tended to invent their own coins, declaring some of the old ones obsolete and reminting them, yet leaving others be. Indeed, in 1719, there coexisted a whopping 31 types of gold, silver and silver–copper coins on the French territory (imagine dimes, quarters, three-pennies, farthings, crowns and much more being in use all at once).

The English seemed content with a prolific yet limited number of coins such a farthings (quarter pence), halfpennies, two-pennies, three-pennies, six-pence (half shillings), shillings (twelve pence), florins (two shillings), half-crowns (2 shillings 6 pence), crowns (5 shillings or 1/4 pound), half-sovereigns (10 shillings or 1/2 pound), sovereigns (gold pound coins), guineas (1 pound 1 shilling or 21 shilling coins) and several others besides.

Yet the large variety of money was not as hopelessly confusing as it may seem from the list above. The strongly present stratification of society and barely there upward mobility also led to stratification of money, gold and large silver being mostly used by the nobles, silver and copper, the middle class, and copper and small silver, the poor, limiting the number of coins each had to contend with.

Indeed, in England, gentlemen paid smiths and carpenteres in sovereigns but their fellow gentlemen artists and musicians in guineas (coins originally made from gold found in Guinea).

In direct opposition to the French and the English complexity, the only coin originally minted after the early decimalization of the Russian rouble was single kopeikas, apparently named after St George and his spear (kop'e) pictured on one of the coin's faces, and only mid XVII century marked the appearance of smaller value coins, 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 of kopeika which took people a while to get used to.

However, minting their own gold money was apparently tough for the XVII century Russians, so they took foreign coins instead (the Bohemian Joahimsthalers being a prime example) and stamped Russian values on top of them, making the resulting "Efimoks" even harder to read.

(2) Before the advent of the decimal system, both Russia and France suffered under the assault of moneys minted in different regions of the then-divided countries as well as the influx of foreign currencies.

The early coins were also relatively easy to counterfeit (the Russian ones being stamped on a special thick silver wire), shave precious metal off their the sides, or simply break in part to ease smaller transactions. These difficulties played a certain role in the unification and simplification efforts of the three governments.

(3) The Russian Tsardom was the first (of the three) to change to decimal counting. Since 1534, our rouble consists of 100 kopeikas, silver, then copper and for a short time paper money. France followed in 1795, dividing their francs (the same indeed as livres of old) into 100 centimes. Astoundingly, England was the last to join the club, having done so in living memory: the pound sterling was divided into 100 "new" pennies in 1971.

As for the cost of living, although the number of coppers constituting a pound or a livre was as large as 240, the relative prices were so low that in XIII century England a hired labourer made 1.5 pence per day, in XIV century France several deniers paid for a week's worth of labour and finally in mid-XV-century Russia your could buy an ax for 7 kopeikas, while in early XVIII century, Peter the Great paid a stipend of 15 kopeikas per day to the best students of his Navigation school, and that was more than the day pay of many good workmen.

This, and the lack of divisibility of the smallest coins led to most goods being sold not by unit at a certain price like today, but by amount you could purchase with single coin. The remnants of this system survive until now, and in Russia, at least, you sometimes hear customers order "apples for 100 roubles, please", and not "1 kilo of apples for 75 roubles per kilo".

I love these moments of illumination and frantic researches of what appear to be insignificant details for they make me see new and unexpected facets of not only my favourite novels, but of the world.


1. English site. And an all around interesting place besides.
2. French list of old French coins.
3. French Wikipedia article on the old money system.
4. Fascinating French research into their old money system.
5. Russian site.
6. November 2014 issue of the Russian periodical Science and Life.

Also, thank you mezzogiorno for being interested in the discovery process and supplying interesting facts.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2014 10:13 pm (UTC)
Insignificant or not, there are often signs that whatever you are doing is what you should be doing.

I only received the issue of Science and Life I have mentioned today, after having researched the majority of the facts presented in this entry separately over the weekend.

As always, ConCrit is welcome.

I also would like to apologize for the delay in answering comments to last week's entry which I intend to do momentarily.

Edited at 2014-12-08 10:42 pm (UTC)
Dec. 8th, 2014 10:34 pm (UTC)
I love this sort of thing, I was pleased you were interested as well. I knew some of this, but some was brand new, thank you!
Dec. 8th, 2014 10:40 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome.

You may also look into the community referenced in today's Idol Green Room,little_details that helps authors research all manner of miscellania. It is so fascinating that I joined at once.

Edited at 2014-12-08 10:41 pm (UTC)
Dec. 17th, 2014 04:42 am (UTC)
This is really fascinating.
Dec. 17th, 2014 07:33 pm (UTC)
I am glad you think so as well :)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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