An Apocryphal Tale


Centuries ago, there were a smaller number of people living on this island. If we had been living then, we would have been part of the working economy, that functioned like this, in the possible words of an ancestor:

When we managed to get enough sticks and stones together, we found an unused piece of land and built ourselves a house. There was enough room around it to grow potatoes. More than enough for us to eat and plenty to barter with our neighbours.

Some of them had cows, some goats, some chickens, and of course, horses. Those all need grazing, so those neighbours couldn't spare any land for potatoes, and anyway, why do what we were doing successfully: no, they bartered with us. That worked fine and by friendly agreement we all worked out a value system of so many eggs for so many potatoes, and so on.

Over the years our little island community thrived and like other families, in ours we felt that we could get ourselves a few small luxuries. One came about in a strange way. A traveller came through one year and as usual looked for odd jobs to do in exchange for a bed and food. He tried us, but we didn't have anything for him so then he tried the various neighbours wiithout any luck. Finally he dug into his pack and pulled out a couple of strange fruits to exchange that he said he had picked up from a ship unloading in a nearby harbour. The chicken neighbour said he would try one to see if he was interested, and bit into it like an apple. He promptly spat it out and stumped off in disgust! When everyone had gone their ways, I picked it up and found that there was a sweet juice trickling out of the bite. I squeezed it all out and liked that taste and as we fancied a new way of getting the necessary vitamins than just eating lots of the fruit and vegetables we were used to, I planted the remains on a couple of pots (with different soils in each) to see what might happen. The traveller had told us that they were called 'oranges' and came from a warmer and drier climate, so for the colder months I kept the pots inside, but where they could get enough light and warmth.

In the spring of the next year I put the pots outside in a sheltered and sunny spot, and soon enough up came some nice green shoots. Suffice it to say that in a couple of years I had some good little trees and they did bear fruit, They attracted a lot of interest and once I had worked out that it was only the inside that was eatable, or drinkable if squeezed, other people wanted some - so we had a new possibility for barter. Of course there were the usual local layabouts who thought they were entitled to steal anything they fancied and didn't want to work for! As the little trees were easily moved in their pots, I thought we had better get a dog to guard them. We found a nice young one, and then had to grow more potatoes to exchange for scrag ends of meat to feed her!

As the community grew, others like us had to go further afield to get other things we needed - tools for example. But as the years went by it became more complicated to work out barters to suit everyone. Sometimes it became necessary to arrange multiple transactions through several neighbours to get the result we wanted! A bag of potatoes to get some eggs we didn't need so as to get some cheese that we did! Then someone had an idea!

How about, she said, we agree on what various things were worth in terms of potatoes for eggs, or eggs for oranges as an example. Then write these down and use the writings as a proof that a barter value had been agreed and instead of carrying the goods around from place to place, just hand over the writings? We could even make several writings for one big barter so that anyone who did not need the whole weight (of potatoes for example) could just come to me for the small amount they actually wanted.

We tried her idea for a while, and it grew quite popular and spread outside our own community. But it started to get rather complicated as there were so many possibities of value for all the different barter combinations. So a few years later, she had another idea. This was much simpler as she suggested that the writings did not need to refer to actual barters, but just to a notion of what a barter would be worth. Obviously one potato was not equal to one egg. So maybe a small bag of potatoes could be called 'one notion' and six eggs would be 'one notion'. Similar equivalent 'notions' could be worked out for chickens, meat, oranges and even a whole horse! She even came up with a name for a 'notion' - an
equivalent universal resource object! Well we knew what she meant, but it soon became shortened to EURO. Our local smith made up some metal tokens with numbers stamped on them for different values of notions, or Euros, so that we didn't need to carry around too many for bigger barters.

The idea worked locally straightaway, and the smith kept a small number of each batch for himself so as to compensate him for the metal and labour.

Sometimes amongst special friends one would have had an extra early harvest, or lots of chicks for example. They then had the potential of more Euros than they needed. But the surplus could not be used if others had a poor or late harvest and so little stock of Euros. The woman who had the idea in the first place now came up with another idea - how about if she took the surplus and made a warehouse to store early harvests until needed and a place where the extra chicks could grow until needed? It would even provide occasional work for people who lost out with difficult seasons.

Well to cut a long story short, she also worked out that if peoples' income was delayed for those sort of reasons, they might be able to use the loan of a few Euros until they got their own. Of course that would also be a form of work, so had to be paid for. In the end, as well as the warehouse, she built a strong building into the bank behind her house with good locks on the door and kept an account of who put Euros into it and who took them out. She also calculated the amounts to be deducted when someone wanted the loan of some for a while. Thus she became known as 'the bank woman'.

Over the years her idea spread all over the island and travellers took the idea to other places. It also suited them to get those other places to use Euros as they could carry them more easily than they could bags of potatotoes, or struggling chickens!

(Of course the layabouts, who seem always to be with us, tried to get their hands on other peoples' Euros, preferably by stealing, or even by 'borrowing' without any intention of ever giving them back! Usually a few hours in the stocks persuaded them to adopt better ways!)

I could have found this story amongst some ancestral papers and updated the language to modern times. I didn't, but the bank woman's ideas are still with us, in a much more elaborate form, although the original purpose is still the same - to make transactions with, and outside of, the neighbours easier without having to carry bags of potatoes around with you! Unfortunately the idea is abused and the 'notions' are treated as if they had an actual meaning apart from the use they were originally designed for!

One thing remains much the same; nowadays we don't use the word 'layabouts' in the context of 'notion' transactions, even though there are many more of them all trying to get their hands on the modern day Euro - now we use such words as, politicians, lawyers, fat cats, stock brokers, exchange/currency speculators and similar conmen and gamblers. Associated words and phrases are, credit crunch, bad day on the stock market, financial derivatives, future trading and all the other ways of trying to live at others expense!


Tony Batchelor, Vormark on Fyn, copyright 2008, with apologies to genuine workers!

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