History for Fantasy Writers: Money

Medieval money can be divided into two distinctly different types: the kind that existed and the kind that didn’t.

Real money was currency, specifically coins of various qualities and weights. The other kind was called “money of account.” This was purely an accounting unit, used for large-scale transactions and never turned into a physical object. When you read about a silver mark in the Middle Ages, do not picture a coin. No such coin existed before modern times.

Currency

By far the most common coin throughout the Middle Ages was the silver penny, known in Latin as the denarius. The word was preserved in the Romance languages as the denier in French, the dinero in Spanish, denari in Italian, and denar in Hungarian. The Germanic languages had their own term: pfennige in German, penningen in Dutch, and pence or penny in English. The coin was typically quite small. Now that you know the term and the coin, you understand why pence in English is abbreviated with a lower-case d, as in: £5 3s 5d. The “s” is for shillings.

silver penny
8th Century silver penny

In the 13th century a larger coin came into existence, known in English as a groat (groschen, gros, gros tournois). The word simply means big and the coin was colloquially known as the “big penny.” It was typically worth four pennies.

All this was silver. No gold coins were struck in the West since the fall of the Roman Empire. Gold coins were in circulation, of course, but the West simply made use of existing coins as well as new coins from Byzantium (the bezant) or Islam. Silver was sufficient, along with money of account for large transactions.

Bezant
Bezant, Constantine IX

The first gold coins were struck in Florence in 1252 and were called florins. Gold coins had also been occasionally struck as commemorative pieces for big events, but this was the first that was intended as currency. By our period, there were three types of coins: gold, silver, and debased coin also called “billon”.

florin
Gold florin

The English gold coin was the noble, whose value was fixed at 1/3 of a pound and which was first struck by Henry VII in the 1480s. The French gold coin was the franc. In the Rhineland it was a gulden. In Venice it was the ducat. In general, the florin was the most widely used standard. It was gradually superseded in the 15th century by the ducat (first issued in 1284).

Debasement and Cutting

Silver coins were steadily debased all through our period, in some cases to the point where they had only 1/96th of their 13thc silver content. Copper was mixed into the coin to such an extent that this debased coinage was known as “black money” (another term you may see is “billon”). Only the English penny stayed fine silver. Groschen generally fared better. Where there was more silver than copper, it was known as “white money”. For example, the groschen of the Rhineland were called “white pennies” (Weisspfennigen).

Money was also debased through the process of clipping. As you might guess from the images you’ve seen so far, it was possible with some coins to trim away the edges. Do this with enough coins and you have enough silver to turn a nice profit while still passing the original coins at their original value. This was strictly illegal and getting caught meant mutilation or even execution. This is also why coins came to have burrs around the edge, making clipping more obvious.

Money of Account

Money of account began appearing as early as the 8th century, but was in wide use only by the 12th century. The basic units were completely unrelated to coinage, but again an old Roman coin formed the historical basis. This was the solidus, which we find as soldo and sou and shilling (12 pennies = 1 shilling). The other money of account was the pound, which in Latin is libra which is why the English pound symbol is £. The libra appears in Italy as the lira and in France as the livre. Again, German had a different word, the Pfund (which also means pound). A third money of account was the mark, which was a bit more valuable, coming in at 160 English pennies (13s 4d), but the rate differed from one location to another.

As I mentioned, money of account was used only for accounting purposes. Since it had a larger value, it was easier to do the bookkeeping. If there arose a need to convert this into actual currency, one could turn to a moneychanger or to that new-fangled creation, a bank.

What Was Money Worth?

This question gets asked all the time. How much was a groschen worth? A shilling? There’s no consistent answer across time and space. You might just as well ask how many sheep it costs to buy a horse. It would depend on buyer and seller and the circumstances. Prices were generally pretty fluid in the Middle Ages.

Not that people didn’t try. Kings and dukes and such-like were forever issuing decrees that stated a royal franc must contain this many grains of gold and be of this weight, worth this many deniers. You can readily find tables giving ratios. In practice, it came down to what the moneychanger would give you, and that depended heavily on where you were (it was easier to bend the law in Auvergne, say, than in Paris) and even who you were.

For the Fantasy Writer

All this comes down to a comforting conclusion for the author: you can pretty much make up whatever you please. Just don’t make the price of a horse the same as the price of a mug of ale. Unless it’s really special ale.

An author might consider making a bit of use of clipping. It was done all the time. No need to make a big deal of it, but if you have a band of ne’er-do-wells, someone in the group ought to be able to shave off a bit of profit. *ahem*  If you want to go further, counterfeiting is a possibility, though it was extremely risky and required equipment.

A good place for a robbery would be a mint. Better than a bank, really. The target would not so much be actual coins as grabbing the raw silver. Has anyone knocked over a mint in a fantasy novel?

Another opportunity lies in the variety of currency. Your hick hero has a few coins and is baffled to find no one in the big city will take them. He has to hunt up a moneychanger, and finds himself poorer than he realized. Or he’s taken advantage of, and a new character comes to his defense, forming a friendship.

And a final possibility. What about magical coins? Maybe your world has actual currency specific to magicians. Or a wizard uses magic to conjure up coins that look real, until he leaves town. What would be the safeguards against such fraud? Forget fireballs and demon conjuring. Just let me spin up coins whenever I want them!

E.L. Skip Knox is the creator of the fantasy world called Altearth, a place where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell.

I am a retired medieval historian who is now engaged in deconstructing the Middle Ages into a fantasy setting. I've been writing my entire life, from poetry to science fiction to history and now to fantasy. I've been married since 1969 and have three grown children and two grandchildren.

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
pmmg
Member

Very nice article Skip. Currency is one of those things I just cant seem to settle on in my own story. The number if times I have done google searches on currency to find information like this is significant. I am sure I will come back to this on many times.

Dark Squiggle
Member

Love the article. Thanks Skip.

skip.knox

By far the most common coin throughout the Middle Ages was the silver penny, known in Latin as the denarius. The word was preserved in the Romance languages as the denier in French, the dinero in Spanish, denari in Italian, and denar in Hungarian

I think the Dinar is older and more widely traded than that. I think it was a coin stamped by the Roman Empire, but maybe before, as during the time of the Talmud, ~2000 yrs. ago, it was in regular circulation in Babylon (outside of Roman control), Persia, Jerusalem and other places.
The Talmud also discusses that coins with pictures of kings and emperors who were dead or out of favor were worth less, and that the more worn a coin was, the less it was worth. Was this still true in Medieval Europe?

Malik
Member

Great stuff, Skip.

The New Magic (coming in September) centers around a revolution striving to simultaneously secure the realm’s biggest silver mine, the mint, and a vault of uncirculated coins in the bowels of a castle, all of which would force the crown to capitulate with little actual combat. A few scenes detail the coin striking operation. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Sheilawisz
Member

Hello Skip!

Thank you for yet another excellent article about Medieval life. I always learn new things thanks to you, and your style is very clear and educational. You explain everything without complications, and on top of that your sense of humor adds a very nice touch!

I did not know that the burrs around the edges of coins were invented as a defense against clipping. It's also great to know that Kings and other figures in power always tried to create standards for the coins, and yet the prices of things continued to be very fluid in those times. I love to confirm that silver was the most common component of coins, and that as Fantasy writers we are correct to have it as part of our worlds.

I have a considerable number of pure silver coins, as part of my personal savings.

A good way to know if silver coins are pure silver for real or not, is to make them collide against each other. Pure silver creates a very distinctive and unique sound when that happens, so I guess that this type of test could be described in a Fantasy novel set in a Medieval-like world.

All of my Fantasy worlds use metal coins as their currency, with silver as the most important component.

My Aylar worlds are especially fond of metal-based economic systems. Bronze coins are the most common type, and even though gold coins exist as well the most valuable metal for Aylars is silver. They are very skillful in determining whether a coin is pure gold or pure silver or not, based on sound tests and how the coin weight feels in the hand, not to mention that they also employ various chemical tests.

I have a suggestion for a future article of yours:

What were Medieval toys like? What would wealthy children play with, in contrast with those of lower classes? Medieval childhood in general is not well-known to many of us, so exploring that subject could result in a very interesting article.

Demesnedenoir
Member

Debasing is a good short-term plan, but certainly one a smart ruler isn't going to use too often lest the reputation of their currency suffer.

Another interesting point is that minted coins (with a solid reputation) carry a premium over the value of the base metal. So, a pound in silver coins could well be worth 1.25 pounds of silver bullion. Premiums varied, of course, and it's been years since I studied this much, but good fun to think on when developing an economy.

Nicholas Rossis
Guest

I can’t tell you how much I loved this post. Being a fantasy author who’s married to an economist will do that to you, I guess 🙂

Insolent Lad
Member

When we speak of debased currency, we can also include adding lead (whether done by counterfeiters or governments), which can give the coins a reddish tinge over time. I have that in my notes for an upcoming book…that I will get to…someday.

Chemistken
Guest

Very nice explanation of money. Thanks!

Demesnedenoir
Member

And don’t forget how all that dragon’s gold can disrupt the econmy of a country or two, heh heh. We used to have lots of fun with this sort of stuff when running gaming campaigns.

Shaved coins do make a reference in my book 2, you’ll be happy to know, heh heh.

This site uses XenWord.