Medieval Money & Coins

In 9000 BC, a man who raises sheep for his livelihood realizes he is running low on greens and fruit, so he heads to the market place with a couple of lambs and trades them for what he needs. This is called the barter system and is how people purchased what they needed; anything from animals to bread could be exchanged. Although this was most common among travelers or strangers as societies often just shared what they had or grew. In 1200 BC, the money system becomes slightly more sophisticated with the use of Cowrie or Cowry shells, although there was still an overlap of bartering going on. Around 1000 BC the first base metal coins come on the scene and set the tone for money exchange into the future.

Although coins were in use in various more primitive areas of the world, other forms of payment were still being used in other areas. For instance with the Native Americans of North America, many of whose tribes still used trade and something called Wampum. This was their form of exchange at the time, which were strings of weaved beads made from clamshells. By 1637, they were even accepted as legal tender by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Eventually the Colonies of the Americas took on a printed currency, but it became worthless without the gold or silver needed to back it.

Any type of money exchange had to have some power like silver or gold to back it. In some areas, there were times when salt, jewels, or even spices were considered very valuable; all of these could have easily backed up any note. A note being a sort of promise towards the valuable thing you really wanted. The US Dollar was backed by gold on and off until 1963 when the Gold Standard was abolished, at which point it bacame a fiat currency, one that is not directly backed by any physical amount of gold or other precious metals.

The money is accessed by writing checks, which are promissory notes for payment. People also use credit cards, which are interest bearing loans and debit cards, which take funds directly from one's bank account. Exchange has become the very core of societies, allowing different countries to interact financially, each valuing the other's currency through a central system that establishes value.

Middle Ages Social Classes

Feudalism was the way of the middle ages; it was an absolute structure that allowed the upper nobility classes to maintain control over lower classes. Kings were at the top, then lords, and then peasants at the bottom, but religious leaders also had great influence in area kingdoms. Kingdoms were vast and this allowed these systems to thrive, as kings were able to work deals with Barons and others under them to keep people under control. Kings felt they ruled because God granted their family the right to do so. They often gave those below them portions of land called manors or fiefs. In return, the barons promised undying support to the king by governing the land given to them or by maintaining an army by paying "shield money."

The baron's family held the land throughout generations and each generation thus became vassals of the king. They then maintained their own fiefs using the peasants of the area to work and maintain it. This gave them great power and as lords of the area, they maintained control of the lower classes. Thus, the king maintained control over all of the people by maintaining the hierarchy of the land. The only possible change would come if the church leaders made it so; the church was the only universal European force that governed. In fact, the archbishop of Canterbury was the Chancellor of England in 1381 as well.

Peasants had very hard lives, some were free and some indentured servants. Their lives were made up of hard work and simple family life; they made up the majority of the people in the middle ages and if free, paid their lord for the use of any land. Others directly worked for the lord on the land in exchange for living there. Because there was so much of it, peasants were allowed to farm the surrounding land to make enough money and food to live. Often these areas were made into smaller manorial courts or halimotes. There were strict bylaws that governed such village and there were consequences for breaking those laws. The lord held great power over the peasants, called serfs, they were treated much like slaves, they were not allowed to marry without permission and could be taxed, charged for services, forced to work in mills, or other areas at the king's or steward's command. Even if a farm were sold, the people were sold right along with it as part of the land.

Medieval Wealth

Land was not the only way wealth was acknowledged in medieval times. Although kings maintained their status due to the land they owned and the taxes earned from such land, there were other ways in which one could make money. Market places were local and weekly affairs where goods were traded or bartered for. Peasants sold their goods to help them survive, while kings and lords found ways to profit on their trade.

Christianity was also the main religion of the times and the church became very wealthy due to that fact. The people had to have money to give to the church for their sins, as was stated by the leaders of the church. Earning this extra money was accomplished in a bigger way by trade fairs. These fairs were large venues that lasted up to two weeks at a time. The king and/or fief owner would grant permission for the fair to go on and then tax the people for the right to do so. Sellers basically rented their space in order to sell their goods. The fairs were messy affairs since they were held outdoors in any kind of weather, but they were also loud and festive areas that attracted entertainers who played for coins. But the atmosphere was fun and people enjoyed it. The renaissance festivals of today are based off of these trade fairs.

Medieval Money & Coins

Money was earned by those living in both the city and the country alike, made up of farmers, ranchers, day laborers, artisans, porters, retailers and venders, but there were also the unemployed. Citizens were in general very poor, although there were those who made a pretty good living. Medieval money was currency in the form of coins that came in varying qualities and weights. The other currency used was that of a promise, which was used in large-scale transactions.

The most common coin throughout the middle ages was the small silver penny (pfennig) or denarius. During that period, there was also the pound, which was 20 schillings and a schilling, which was 12 pence. The 13th-century introduced a larger silver penny, known as a groat, which means big. It was worth four of the smaller pennies. All coins were silver until 1252, when gold coins were made in Florence, called florins. The use of silver was soon cut down to very small amounts in coins and replaced with copper, called debasement. Money was changing and so were its systems of use. This would continue until finally a kind of banking was introduced.

  • Economics a study paper: Money and Coinage in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe.
  • Money & Trade The era of the silver pfennig during the Middle Ages, includes images of coins of different areas.
  • Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank a straightforward database access to five sets of data on European currency exchange and commodities prices from the 13th through the 18th centuries.
  • Early English Currency site speaks of English currency, Roman Numerals for Dates and Currency, and Tally Sticks.
  • Medieval Silver and Gold also includes silver in the dark ages, the Russian silver trade, money and the silver crisis of 1465.
  • Money and Coins in Wales Medieval to modern times.
  • Renaissance Coins images and an article about the French coins of the middle ages.
  • English Royals site has images of actual coins, coin names and explanations.
  • Medieval India Coinage includes a map of India along with coin images and information on areas used.
  • National Bank of Belgium Sterling as a medieval commercial currency – Money and merchants
  • Mynt The history of the Swedish Monetary System

Other Middle Ages Resources

Coins from the middle ages were mostly light and had un-rounded edges, kings and barons made them in order to pay their armies and to pay for imported items. Values ranged by what metal was used. The most valuable would have been made from gold or silver, followed by copper. Occasionally, a king would travel outside his realm, it was important that he have coins of value for the area he traveled to in order to purchase exotic or needed items. Coins were not generally carried by those outside of the city, such as knights or peasants unless they was going to one of the great trade fairs mentioned above.

  • Medieval Trade shows maps of medieval trade routes.
  • Nursery Rhyme & History the rhyme: Sing a Song of Sixpence. What does "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" mean?
  • Medieval Gender Femininity during medieval times - Women's employment in medieval times.
  • Medieval Ages: Definitions a multiple choice test on the Middle Ages, with answer key.
  • Copper  mining was important in the medieval ages. This is the story of mining in the middle ages, which includes the uses of copper and how silver was usually nearby.
  • History World the history of the manorial system.
  • Renaissance Connection the value of the arts during the Renaissance, how art was used as money and how artist's made a living.
  • Medieval Economy a history for kids site that covers how the economy ran in the Middle Ages.
  • Courtly Love a medieval view of love and how money played a part.
  • The Jew as Money Lender the personal family history of a Jewish moneylender in medieval times.
  • A Medieval Mystery a cartoon from the middle ages, found in the payment records of taxes.

Coins came in different weights, but they also had different designs, each area creating its own. The Byzantine's had gold, silver and copper coins as well, but the gold nomisma was most important because it was the standard of exchange in the Mediterranean. The Byzantine Empire had a mint in Constantinople that was very important as well, but there were also provincial mints. Islam did not use coins during this period, but the Muslims adopted them after they conquered the Byzantines.

Western Europe used a number of coins from many different authorities due to Feudalism, so there is no standard in shape, weight, and size, but after trading increased, that standardized. This made trade easier from one region to another. For traders who used the waterways, trade was more prevalent than coin, but if the metals were good enough, they could be used. Disease outbreaks like the Bubonic Plague did disrupt sea trade at times though and made it difficult for that way of life to thrive. 

As economic activity was growing there became a need for money exchange and conversion of coins. That is when a new job came into existence, that of the moneychangers. They soon were holding and transferring big sums of money and giving loans to merchants. As more and more people asked for it, services increased. It wasn't long before common banking activities were being practiced such as, investing, loans, credit and transfer functions, and deposits. Loans were risky due to finance wars and loans to European monarchs, this sometimes led to bank failures due to non repayment of loans, but the banking systems had been set and have not died to this very day.

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