Until 1789, the best-made and most carefully designed official objects coming from the sophisticated capital of Europe's largest kingdom were not French coins, long struck by hand at Paris' medieval royal mint. They were instead the millions of royal medals and official tokens called jetons, mostly in silver and all with royal effigies on front, produced at a state-of-the-art factory known as the Monnaie des Médailles, built in 1552 on the western tip of the Ile de la Cité and moved across the Seine to the Louvre in 1609. After 1663, their designs and inscriptions were minutely supervised by France's Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, which survives today.
Composed by a retired social historian of pre-Revolutionary French science and seasoned collector of French jetons (x–xi), this physically beautiful book, produced with exquisite attention to detail (including a red satin bookmark), curiously resembles the elegant objects the history of which, numismatically distinct from those of medals or coins, it recounts (21–27). Its author justifies it as a much-needed bridge between modern history and numismatics, two well-organized disciplines with completely different audiences. This history begins with aids for “manual arithmetic” in medieval counting-houses, reaches its peak between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth century, and ends abruptly with the abolition of aristocratic privilege in 1789 (27–34, 201–202, 49–53). State-made French coins and medals are still being produced, but official jetons have never revived.
McClellan's investigation, which rests on an impressive mastery of the abundant numismatic literature about jetons in French—supplemented by a few vital archival sources (for example, 191–192, nn. 152–154; 202, nn. 5–6)—emphasizes two important peculiarities about official French jetons. They never reached the rustics who comprised the overwhelming majority of French people or even such major French institutions as Parlements or universities (71, 208). Geographically, Bourbon France was unusual but not unique in Europe, since thousands of patriotically themed jetons also circulated in the early modern Low Countries, where their sociocultural history “remains to be written” (45–46).
Within these parameters, McClellan's “pointillist” approach successfully illuminates the mentality of upper-level old-regime French society through “using jetons as microdots” (19). Three chapters analyze the consumers of more than 13,000 different known types of French jetons that were made for a surprisingly wide range of government institutions and private organizations (73). They are followed by two exceptionally rich final chapters about the rigidly centralized royal institutions that controlled their appearance and their manufacture.
McClellan's numerous illustrations of jetons suggest that the language of their inscriptions may deserve more attention than he provides (154–155, esp. nn. 36–39). For example, Latin's “classical” prestige explains why the Anno Domini dates found on most French jetons are sometimes in Roman numerals (for example, 111, 117, 198, 238), whereas unusual contexts help to explain some of the jetons that are bilingual. French appears only on the reverse of one jeton for the Académie Française, an ongoing state institution that perpetually revises French vocabulary (98), but on the front only when the “Philadelphia Circle” of West Indian slaveholders acknowledged their colonial overlord (their own Latin motto on the reverse) (122). Overall, McClellan's enterprise offers remarkable material for a still-unwritten history of Western snobbery, where such non-French notables as Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson appear in unexpected contexts (121–122, 154).