by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the June 2006, A.S. XLI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
In the course of reading history one inevitably encounters amounts of money. These are usually denoted in various denominations, which are always in the form of coin. The issue of how much value a given coin represents is a difficult one, and I will not go into it here. Instead I will give a rundown, of the most commonly mentioned, of these various coins and their history.
For the bulk of the Middle Ages the accounting system was based on the £ s d (pound, shilling, pence) scheme. This was inherited from the Romans. Thus all coins were nominally a multiple or fraction of these basic units. But not all coins were equal. Thus frequently contracts would specify value in terms of coins from a given region. But as this was an accounting exercise, many of these were virtual coins. This is one of the reasons why determining the value of something in the period is so difficult.
The weights of pure precious metal given for the coins are approximate and given in Troy ounces (For comparison a common nickel weights .15 oz). There are three primary reasons why weights are approximate. The first is that the quality control of the many mints making coins was poor. Second, it was common practice to shave or ‘clip" metal from coins and melt it down for bullion. And thirdly, when kings were in desperate need of money would debase their coins and use less then the nominal amount of precious metal in making coins. Gold was generally valued at roughly worth 12 times that of silver.
Abbreviations used: Lat.-Latin, It.-Italian, Fr.-French, En.-English, Du.-Dutch, Gr.-German, Sp.-Spanish
Penny, Sterling-En. (Lat.-denarius, sterlingus, It.-denaro, esterlino, Fr.-denier, esterlin, Du.-penning, Gr.-pfennig, Sp.-dinero, esterlin): The penny was a .04 oz silver coin that was the basis of all everyday purchasing not done by barter. It traces its origins to the Roman denarius. It was called denarius because it was originally worth ten asses, an aes being a bronze coin that was the original basis for the Roman money system. The origins of the name penny is less clear. The best guess is that it derives from the Indo-European word *pand which meant pledge. The second word in the above list comes from the nickname that English pennies picked up. After the Norman conquest, the English kings did a better then average job of maintaining the value of the penny, and thus became an international standard. A key feature of these pennies was a star on the reverse side. Sterling means little star in Old English.
Shilling-En. (Lat.-solidus, It.-soldo, Fr.-sou, Du.-schelling, Gr.-schilling, Sp.-sueldo): For most of the period, the shilling was largely an accounting unit and set at 12 pennies. It has it origins in the Roman solidus which was a gold coin, but gold disappeared from the European economy so did the coin. In 1504 Henry VII had silver shillings minted, but these were not well received and quickly dropped.
Pound, Sovereign-En. (Lat.-libra, It.-lira, Fr.-livre, franc, Du.-pond, Gr.-pfund, Sp.-libra): The pound was also largely an accounting unit set at 20s. This was true even during Roman times. From time to time gold coins of this value were minted. The franc was a .12 oz gold coin minted around 1360 to pay for the ransom of King Jean le Bon. The name comes from the inscription Francorum Rex on the coin. The first lira was a .2 oz silver coin minted in Venice in 1472. The Sovereign was an .5 oz gold coin first minted in 1489.
Angel-En.: The Angel was .16 oz gold coin first minted in 1465 in response to the draining of gold from England. Its value was set at 6s 8d. It was known as an angle from the winged St. Michael on the obverse side of the coin.
Besant-Byzantine: Besant is the Frankish name for the coin the Byzantines called hyperpyri, which is the Greek word for pure. This was a restoration of the gold solidus done at the end of the 11th century to make up for the debasement that occurred in the first half of the century. It was a .14 oz coin.
Crown-En. (It.-scudo, Fr.-ecu, Du.-kroon, Gr.-krone, Sp.-escudo): The word ecu is French for shield which was the prominent symbol on the obverse side of this coin. Over the last third of the period, there were several coins of this name, both of silver and gold. The English Crown, a 1.8 oz gold coin, was introduced in 1526 and valued at 5s. They first appeared in 1337 as a .11 oz gold coin.
Dinar-Islamic: The Dinar was a .14 oz gold coin that was first produced around 696. The word dinar is a corruption of the word denarius. It was roughly equivalent the Byzantine gold solidus.
Dollar-En. (It.-tallero, Fr.-daldre, Du.-daalder, Gr.-thaler, Sp.-dollaro): The dollar was a silver coin first known as a joachimsthaler, meaning ‘of Joachim’s valley’, later shortened to thaler. The silver from which this coin was minted came from a mine, in Bohemia, so prolific that it swamped all other similar coins in the region, and thus all large silver coins in Central Europe became known as thalers. They first appeared in 1519 and weighed 1 oz. Those who dealt with Spain’s overseas colonies applied the name to the peso.
Doubloon-Sp.:The official name for this Spanish .1 oz gold coin was excelente. It got the name doubloon from the dual portraits of Ferdinand and Isabella on the obverse side, which remained long after their deaths. Its value was roughly two ducats or 16s. Its was supplanted by the escudo.
Ducat-Fr. (Lat.-Du.catus, It.-Du.cato, Du.-Du.kaat, Gr.-Du.kat, Sp.-Du.cado): The original ducats were silver coins minted by various Italian duchies, the name being derived from duchy. The important ducat was the .1 oz gold coin minted by Venice starting in 1284. (Venice styled itself a duchy.) It was valued at one lira.
Farthing-En.: The Farthing, a quarter of a penny, was struck as a silver coin in 1279, it was largely an accounting unit and satisfied by cutting pennies.
Florin-Fr. (Lat.-florinus, It.-fiorino, En.-guilder, Du.-gulden, Gr.-gulden): The original florin was a silver coin minted by Florence around 1220. But the more important florin was the .1 oz gold coin minted by Florence in 1252. It was the first successful European gold coin since the Roman Empire. The name comes not from Florence, but from the lily, flore in Italian, that was its central design. It had a nominal value of one lira. This design was widely copied, and during the 14th century any gold coin was known as a florin.
Groat-En. (Lat.-Gr.ossus, It.-Gr.osso, Fr.-Gr.os, Du.-Gr.oot, Gr.-Gr.oschen, Sp.-croat): The Groat was a 2.8 oz silver coin. The Italian grosso was set at 24d, French gros was valued at 12d, while the English groat was set at 4d. The grosso was first minted by Venice shortly after the Fourth crusade caused the collapse of the Byzantine currency. The French and English versions were first coined around 1270. The name means great, so called because the only other common coin was the much smaller denier.
Mark-Gr.: During the period, the mark was unit of weight equal to 8 oz. But it also served as an accounting unit. In 1507 the city of Lubeck did issued a coin called the mark.
Noble-En.:A 3.8 ox gold coin was England’s first successful gold coin. It was introduces after the failure of its gold florin in 1344. Its value was set at 6s 8d.
Peso-Sp.: The peso was created in Ferdinand and Isabella’s monetary reform of 1497. It was an eight real .9 oz silver coin. It is better known as pieces of eight. Its nomial value was 4s.
Pistole-Sp.: This Spanish .2 oz gold coin was first minted in 1566 and had the value double of that of the escudo, or about 20s, and became the coin of choice for international transactions. The name is sort of a pun. The Spanish coin was smaller then its French equivalent, like a pistol is a smaller arquebus.
Real-Sp.: Reals were originally any silver coin produced by any of the kings of Spain, real being derived from the Spanish word for royal. After 1369 they standardized to a .1 oz silver coin. They were roughly equivalent to a groat, and valued at 12d.
Dunkling, Leslie, and Adrain Room. The Guinness Book of Money. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Porteous, John. Coins in History. New York: G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1969.
Sutherland, C.H.V.. English Coinage, 600-1900. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1973.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.