Nicole Oresme (1320 – 1382)


Nicole Oresme is a scholastic from the 14th century. He is not quite the theologian and philosopher that Aquinas was, but he may be considered the greatest economist of the Middle Ages. He is credited with writing one of the first treatises on economics, which turns out also to be the first treatise on money. Oresme was born near the city of Caen in Normandy. From about 1341, he resided at the University of Paris. He left the university in 1362 to serve Charles V for whom he translated the works of Aristotle from Latin into French.

De origine, natura, jure et mutationibus monetarum (The Treatise on the Origin, Nature, Law and Alternations of Money).  It is unclear when Oresme wrote his treatise, but it seems he wrote the original latin text and a french translation (Traictié de la premiere invention des monnoies) before leaving the University of Paris.

Oresme’s treatise treats money as belonging to the public. He argues in the text that the sovereign has no right to alter the value or weight of coin. The Treatise opens with the following passage:

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Some men hold that any king or prince may, of his own authority, by right or prerogative, freely alter the money current in his realm, regulate it as he will, and take whatever gain or profit may result: but other men are of the contrary opinion. I have therefore determined to write down in this treatise what seems to me from a philosophical and Aristotelian point of view, essentially proper to be said, beginning in the origin of money. I make no rash assertions, but submit everything to the judgement of my seniors. Perhaps my words will rouse them finally to settle the truth of this matter, so that the experts may all be of one mind, and come to a conclusion which shall be profitable both to princes and subjects and indeed to the state as a whole.

The treatise that follows consists of 26 chapters in which Oresme discusses the origins of money; the material used for currency; the authority, ownership, and who is responsible for making and paying for the production of money; and various changes to the value of money (changes to form, ratio, name, weight, material and compound). The second half of the treatise argues that profiting off of alterations to money is unjust, unnatural, and ultimately to the disadvantage of everyone in the state including the sovereign. He argued that doing so increased nominal prices and resulted in precious metals flowing out of the economy into other economies where the metals carried more weight. An English translation of Oresme’s treatise can be found online here (the quote and photo of coins above are from this source).