While today, the weekly wage or the monthly salary goes straight into a bank account, accessible by magic plastic cards and machines on the street – the early modern individual was given stacks of coins. The price these coins amounted to was deemed just enough for that person to live on. If, however, the wage was not satisfactory – or if the individual was just quite greedy – illegal methods were undertaken in order to make this one stack of coins worth more than their face value. That is, of course, they did not get caught.
Before the late seventeenth century, coins were ‘hammer-struck’. This meant that during the minting process, the blank coin was not completely circular, while the design was – resulting in quite misshapen pieces.
These misshapen specie would be quite vulnerable to the practice of clipping – using shears or other instruments to remove the edges of the coin. The result would be a smaller (and often lighter) coin, and what look like fingernails; the clippings. These clippings would be collected then melted down and either sold as bullion to any bidding buyer, or (more likely) used as a raw ingredient in the counterfeiting process.
As the seventeenth century wore on, the state of the silver coinage worsened – due to a shortage in the precious metal due to an international conflict, and widespread clipping. The state of the silver coinage was in such bad condition, that the decision was taken in 1696 to undertake the huge task of collecting all the silver in the kingdom, melting it down, and coining them again. This time, using new methods to produce evenly shaped coins, in the hope that clipping would cease. In 1816, a further currency reform was enacted. In between these two re-coinages, over 1000 people were brought in front of the Old Bailey court in London for crimes against the coinage – which deemed the 1696 experiment a failure.
Clipping was the most common offence among the crimes against coinage. It was easy to do, all that was needed was a coin and some sharp shears. Among the trials, we can find examples of women clipping silver in the home while sitting down, and letting the clippings fall onto an apron between the knees. We see examples of children clipping, probably coerced by the parents. If clipping was so widespread, there must have been more reasons to do it other than just gaining the metal for the counterfeiting process. It was practised among the plebeian population – an easy crime to commit, an easy way of making coins worth little, into so much more.