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blog History for Fantasy Writers: Bank on It

Discussion in 'Research' started by Black Dragon, Apr 26, 2020.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    skip.knox submitted a new blog post:

    History for Fantasy Writers: Bank on It
    by E.L. Skip Knox


    Banks appear in a number of fantasy stories. George Martin’s Iron Bank is probably the best known, but banks and banking families can be found all around the fantasy landscape, especially in modern works. For writers considering including banks and bankers in their own stories, knowing something of the history can help add detail and color.

    Money Changers

    Europe in the High Middle Ages, say around 1100, had a bewildering variety of coinage (see my article on medieval money), a crazy cobweb of overlapping public authority, and an unreliable network of roads. Banking arose in response to the need of merchants to conduct large-scale business at a distance in that environment.

    As you might guess, with so many different coins, knowing how to convert from one currency to another was a fairly technical business. That business was handled by a money changer. In Florence and other north Italian towns, the money changers set up shop at markets and near merchant establishments—any place where there was plenty of commercial traffic. The benches they sat on are called banca in Italian. That's where we get the term bank.

    Money changers knew more than just how to convert currencies. They had scales and could...
    Continue reading the Original Blog Post.
    Insolent Lad likes this.
  2. Skip I always enjoy the subjects of your articles! This one (and backtracking to your money article) is timely for me as it's a part of my current WIP I am working out in the latest edits.

    Two quick questions: In looking over images of old coins, some of which have been clipped, how consistent were the early coins when they were new? In other words, did they have the even, solid edges of current coins or were they a little uneven from coin to coin in minting?

    Also, did early banks have any form of bank notes or coins that were made/minted solely to represent large sums of money for transfer (like the famous 100,000 bank bills of US currency?) which would have no value to anyone outside of the bank system?

    Thank you for your work and research!
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    For a social historian I know a distressing amount about economics, and yet not nearly enough by half. But here goes.

    The coin thing is easy. Value was by weight. At least by the 14thc (probably before), coins were struck by stamps, sometimes driven by hand sometimes by water or wind--the stamp being a great heavy thing that the external power raised, then was dropped. The coin might go out that way or might get edges trimmed. I'm pretty sure all were weighed prior to shipping. As you might imagine, the temptation to fraud was strong, as was the temptation on the part of the lord to put in baser metals, or put in a few less grains of silver per coin. Counterfeiting was a capital crime.

    Another temptation was clipping, which was exactly as it sounds. You'd clip off a narrow band, little enough so the coin would still pass without being weighed. Do that enough, had you had quite a nice pile that could be melted down for the pure silver within. Pretty much the definition of easy money!

    The smooth edges of modern coins are fairly recent. 19thc? I don't do modern history. <g> But one reason for it was to discourage clipping.

    As for bank notes, that goes in two directions. First, there was a thing called money of account, which has a long history and was independent from banking itself. It was a way to represent large amounts of money for large transactions. It goes at least back to Romans keeping accounts of their enormous state expenditures for grain, etc. One unit was the pound, which is libra in Latin, which is why the British pound has that L symbol. In French it's livre and in Italian and elsewhere it's lira. We get the word from German, Pfund. I'm pretty sure there are no pound coins before modern times, and mostly it was paper money. But in the Middle Ages it was a money of account. The other was the mark, which unit occurs regularly in the historical record.

    There was also something called a bill of exchange, which I think is still used or was until the advent of electronic transactions. Maybe still is. The details of this are a bit complicated. Simplified, it's a letter by which a merchant in one town authorizes a representative in another town to make a payment on his behalf. These bills came to have a value in their own right and were bought and sold, usually by banks. You can read Professor Munro's lecture notes on the topic here The Medieval Bill of Exchange
    I've sometimes thought there might be a fantasy analog to this--magicians authorizing the use of certain artifacts without having to travel there in person. My vision of fantasy can tend toward the mundane. <g>

  4. Eleanor Konik

    Eleanor Konik Dreamer

    I don't know a ton about early <em>banking </em>outside of Europe, but readers of this article may be interested in the idea that early <em>currency </em>was probably invented by the Phoenicians sometime around 1350 BCE. Phoenicia is geographically the Levant and they were heavily involved in the metals trade and centrally located.
    skip.knox likes this.
  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I have money changers coming into play as the characters reach more civilized trade-based cities, and that will be good fun in the future. The next book should contain guilds and money-lenders/banks which should be good fun involving two things Mr. Knox has covered.

    The interesting thing to me with coins, is that they always tended to have greater value than bullion, although this would depend on a variety of variables.

    Good stuff as always
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