Medieval coinage: fantasy vs. reality

I’ve been writing these posts days (sometimes weeks) in advance. Whenever this one may be posted, it was written on 7/7, at a time when the Greek economy is making all the headlines. The talk of money is in the air, so I can’t help but think of it. And when I think of something, I want to write about it, so here you go. (Also, I’m a coin collector, so this fits into not one, but two of my hobbies.)

We all know that fantasy has a tendency to stay stuck in medieval Europe, particularly England. That time (and place) is pretty much the default setting for fantasy literature and gaming. But it’s not the real Middle Ages, only a facsimile, an idealized, romantic notion of that time. World-builders can do better than that; nowadays, they’re all but expected to. However, money is still one place where even the best games and books can trip up.

The Idea

Money is taken as a given in modern society. Whether we’re holding little discs of metal, folded bits of paper, stiff plastic, or bits and our imagination, we use money all the time. For a lot of people, it’s hard to imagine life without it. Thus, since writers write what they know, fantasy worlds almost always have a monetary system, and it’s usually far closer to ours today than those of the Middle Ages.

Money, as an idea, goes back thousands of years. For example, any coin show worth the name will have Roman specimens for sale at reasonable prices. (I bought one for my cousin as a Christmas present in 2004. It cost \$20, and it was just about the cheapest thing I got.) Since those ancient days, it’s been made pretty much constantly. The barbarian hordes of the Dark Ages minted their own coins, even after they had all but demolished the western half of the Roman Empire. Everywhere you look, there’s money. Maybe not always metal and paper, but something will have value. (In parts of America, they were using things like cocoa beans around this time.)

So there’s nothing wrong with a fantasy world having money, simply on the basis that everyone’s doing it, and they always have been. The problem lies in how that money economy is represented, especially in the time period and location we’re talking about here: Europe in the High Middle Ages.

Buy, Sell, or Trade

Not everyone had money then. Not everyone needed it. For a lot of things, you could get away with barter, especially if you were a member of the lower classes (like most people were). You also had the option of payment “in kind”, which was almost the same thing, except that it was a one-way street: you pay your taxes in grain, or cows, or whatever. In a feudal society with heavy serfdom, this works, since the peasantry wouldn’t be buying much, anyway. For games, though, this has its drawbacks, as players want loot, and they almost always want it in cold, hard cash. (Banished, however, is notable for getting away with a lack of money, since it’s a city-building game emphasizing resource management.)

Players want money. Readers expect it. So what’s a writer to do? Well, if you want medieval money, you need to know what money was like in those times. So the rest of the post can serve as a primer to the currency of the Middle Ages.

A Note on Units

For measuring precious metals such as gold and silver, the traditional “Customary” system uses a few units that may seem odd to non-Americans used to the metric system. (In fact, they can be confusing for Americans, too.)

Specifically, precious metals are measured using troy units. The smallest unit is the grain, which was originally based on the weight of a grain of barley; in metric terms, it’s about 64.8 mg. The troy ounce is 480 grains (~= 31.1 g), and the troy pound is 12 ounces = 5760 grains ~= 373.2 g. (Note that this is not the same as the “regular” avoirdupois pound, where 1 pound = 16 ounces ~= 454 g.) We’ll see these units later on, but I’ll try to add in metric equivalents.

Silver: Economic Workhorse

The most common coins in the Middle Ages were made of silver, sometimes nearly pure, but usually alloyed with base metals. Most countries at the time used a system based on the old Roman coinage, where a pound of silver (hence pound sterling) was divided into 240 parts, each making a penny. (The specific amount of weight varied based on the pound used, as different places had different standard weights, but the nominal value is obviously 24 grains, or ~ 1.56 g.) Between the penny and the pound was the shilling, worth 12 pence or 1/20 of a pound, although no actual shilling coin was minted in Britain until around 1500, well after the High Middle Ages.

These are the English names for these specific coins, but other locales in Europe used their own variations. France had the livre (the French word for “pound”), the sou (1/20 of a livre), and the denier (1/12 of a sou). In Italy, it was the lira, soldo, and denari. The states of the Holy Roman Empire had pfunds, schillings, and pfennigs. All of these are translations or descendants of the Roman libra, solidus, and denarius, the forebears of the system.

Pennies, whatever name they go by, were the main currency (when currency was used) for everyone outside the nobility, but they were tiny. The baseline for fantasy RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons (or simply D&D), has its generic “silver piece” coin defined as 50 to the pound, or about 9.4 g. Real pennies were far smaller, rarely heavier than 1.5 g, and often less than one gram. (Not only that, but they often became debased as time went on, meaning you got less and less actual silver content. It was the medieval equivalent to inflation.) Clearly, D&D is way off.

There were other silver coins in use at the time, though, and many of these were bigger. In England, for instance, we have the groat, equal to 4 pence and weighing 4.67 g in 1351. This larger coin was a model going around Europe at the time, also appearing as the French gros, Italian grosso, and German groschen. Most of the time it was valued as four pennies, like in England, but some places had it as six (Genoa), twelve (France and some of Italy), or twenty (Venice). Some places also had a half-groat (2 pence in England) to split the difference between the two main silver coins.

For larger “purchases”, you didn’t necessarily have to have a bag full of coins. Silver bars were still commonly used for trade in the medieval period, and the closest thing to a standard unit for them was the mark, equal to half a pound = 8 ounces ~= 186.6 g. (In D&D terms, this would be around 30 silver pieces.)

Gold: Ooh, Shiny!

Gold, of course, has been valuable forever, and for good reason. Gold coins are some of the oldest in existence, dating back millennia. Focusing on our medieval period, we can see that gold is still valuable, still in use here. Early in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t quite as visible, a bit like \$100 (or €100, I think?) bills today. Later on, though, as wages went up and fineness came down, gold coins became more popular.

The gold standard (see what I did there?) of coinage in medieval Europe was the florin. Obviously, it originally came from Florence, but it was soon copied all over the continent. Florence’s version was as pure as they could make it, and it weighed in around 3.5 g, with a value equal to 1 pound (lira) of silver. Venice followed with the ducat, France with the ècu, and so on. England, after an aborted attempt at mimicking the Continent, made its “noble”, equal to 1/3 of a pound sterling (80 pence) and weighing almost 9 g. (This was very close, in fact, to a D&D gold piece.)

Spain, too, went its own way, taking the maravedi from Arabic coinage. It started out roughly the same as a florin (albeit a century earlier), but greed and inflation took their toll. By 1300, the maravedi no longer had any gold in it. Debasement had turned it into a silver coin. Fifty years later, it wasn’t even that, relegated to a unit of account until the colonization of the New World brought a greater need for Spanish small change.

Copper: Of Little Worth

Copper pieces are a staple of fantasy, especially “low” fantasy more interested in the peasantry than the gentry. But that’s a bit of an anachronism. Copper coinage wasn’t widely used in the High Middle Ages. There simply wasn’t much need, as nobody really wanted to buy anything worth so little that copper would be useful. Later in the period, though, copper coins did become popular, starting as heavily-debased silver “white money”, then becoming the even worse “black money”, before finally removing the precious metal altogether.

It’s really in the later 14th century that copper money gets its start. Usually, it comes about as prices fall and cities grow. Urbanites need more small change than rural farmers, as they tend to deal in smaller quantities. In Italy, where urbanism was at its strongest, copper comes into its own, but the whole thing was a mess of different denominations from different cities.

In general, by 1400 a lot of pennies were on their way to becoming full copper, but they were still technically considered silver coins. England, that favorite of fantasy, was the exception: official copper pieces weren’t minted at all until well after the Middle Ages. Instead, tokens of lead were made to trade in smaller amounts.

For roleplayers, copper pieces are all but useless, almost a joke. But fantasy writers might need small change to put in the pockets of their poor. Well, as long as they’re in a city.

Platinum: Not Even There

D&D defines a platinum piece as 10 gold pieces (or 100, if you’re playing 4th Edition). But there’s a big problem: platinum effectively didn’t exist in the Middle Ages, at least not in Europe. There is evidence of its use among natives in South America, but it wasn’t actually used by Europeans until the 18th century. So, if you’re going for realism, you won’t have platinum coins at all. Of course, fantasy dwarves might use it, and magic may make it easier to find, but that’s a topic for a different day.

Paper: Folding Money

Paper money quite obviously requires paper, which didn’t get big in Europe until the end of the High Middle Ages. Bills of sale existed, though, and these eventually evolved into checks, then to paper money.

A serious paper currency requires a printing press, which, strictly speaking, puts it just outside the Middle Ages. But older methods of printing (woodblocks, for example) could work, too. It wouldn’t be anything like today’s paper economy, but there’s nothing stopping it. It’s just not entirely historical. Obviously, fantasy doesn’t have to worry about that; magic might be able to replace the press. (One of my favorite book series, Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and the Coin, actually uses the invention of paper money as a plot point.)

The Buck Stops Here

Cultures in Middle Ages Europe, broadly speaking, did have a monetary system. It’s not much like our own, but it’s equally distinct from the faux-medieval ideas shown in fantasy literature and gaming. Players of RPGs might not like the complexity of the real thing, but authors surely do. But even they are guilty of anachronism. Even the notion of decimal currency (100 cents to the dollar, pennies to the pound, etc.) was unfamiliar seven centuries ago. Standard weights existed, but each country (in some cases, each city) had its own standard. I doubt anyone would want to play out the process of getting your foreign loot exchanged into local coin, but it wouldn’t be nearly as out of place as knights carrying platinum pieces.

Okay, I’ve gone on far longer than I first anticipated. Time to stop.

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