What were medieval coins really like?

Whether they're piled beneath a dragon, scattered around the floor of a dank dungeon, or slapped down on the bar in a tavern, piles of coins are a mainstay of fantasy settings (including Aetaltis!) But what were medieval coins really like?

13th century coins discovered by the Hyndburn and Ribble Valley Metal Detecting Club.

Whether they're piled beneath a dragon, scattered on the floor of a dank dungeon, or slapped down on the bar in a tavern, piles of coins are a mainstay of medieval fantasy settings. That said, the weight, size, and metal used to make these coins is often a point of contention. Plus, there is the old game table debate about whether people really used coins in medieval Europe or if they just bartered. Good news! Today we get to the bottom of these enduring questions! *

What Metals Were Medieval Coins Made From?

The majority of medieval coins in Europe were struck in silver. Copper coins were rare, and if they existed at all they were either the product of a distant land (the Arabian Fals) or a holdover from a bygone era (the Roman As). After silver, the most likely metal in which to strike a coin was gold. Silver, however, remained the most common metal used for coins.

In medieval England, the most common coin was the silver penny. If you plan to do some of your own research after this, the symbol used to represent a penny is d. So if something is listed as 4d in a medieval record, that means 4 pennies.

The penny was not only the most commonly traded medieval English coin, it was also the smallest denomination of coin they minted. If you needed to pay for something that cost less than a penny, you'd just chop it up. Want to buy something that costs a half penny? No problem! CHOP! Here's your change!

Other Popular Fantasy Coin Metals

What about all those other cool metals used for fantasy coins? Here is a quick rundown of them and how they were used in medieval European coinage.

  • Electrum: Ah yes, the much maligned electrum. I have often heard players cry out in anguish when I've awarded them treasure in EP. Electrum is an alloy of gold and silver, hence its position on the old coin chart between GP and SP. Electrum was used by some ancient cultures, but you were unlikely to find an electrum coin in medieval Europe.
  • Orichalcum: We aren't entirely sure what orichalcum was, but it does get mentioned in ancient historical records. The best guess is that it's probably a kind of brass, possibly made from copper, zinc, and tin. Again, this is a metal more likely to be used in ancient coins than medieval ones. And no, it definitely wasn't magical.
  • Platinum: Bad news, folks. As far as we can tell, no one even knew what platinum was in ancient and medieval Europe. Pre-columbian civilizations made use of it, but it's not something you'd ever see a medieval coin made from.

You examine the remains of the man. His clothes are brightly colored and of a fashion you've never seen before. You pull the coin purse from his belt and pour the contents into your open palm. The little coins are strange, not only in their markings which include text written in characters you do not recognize, but they are struck from copper rather than silver or gold.

How Big Were Medieval Coins?

In older editions of Dungeons & Dragons each coin weighed 1/10th of a pound. Later editions changed this to fifty coins to the pound. Either way, this makes for huge coins.**

In reality, medieval English pennies were about the size of a modern American dime and weighed slightly less. To give you some perspective, check out the photos to the right and at the beginning of the article. These are 13th century coin finds from the Hyndburn and Ribble Valley Metal Detecting Club (who kindly allowed me to use their photos in this article. Thanks!) You can see they aren't the pirate gold style coin we often see in fantasy art. 

To get an sense of how much space these coins took up, a popular fundraiser today is to fill a 16 oz water bottle with dimes. It's estimated that if you do this, you'll end up with around 1000 dimes.

This means that you could easily fit 1000 English pennies in a medium sized draw string pouch, and it would weigh a little less than a bag of sugar (about 4 lbs.)

This also means that, using the treasure tables for 5E, if you gathered up all the coins in a typical red dragon's lair it would probably weigh less than 300 pounds. Yeah, you're definitely going to want to throw in some bulky art objects to fill that treasure room out.

Clipping Coins

Allow me a quick digression on a cool coin related topic! Coins were often debased by individuals and governments seeking to skim a bit of extra cash from their coins. By clipping (or shaving) the edges of coins, you could build up a decent pile of silver or gold shavings. Now, before you go getting any ideas, clipping coins was serious offense. If you got caught, there was a good chance you'd be sentenced to death.3 Still, there was money to be made doing this, and in some cases coin clipping was a well-organized criminal enterprise.

Another method criminals used to get a little more bang for their buck was sweating. To sweat coins, place a bunch of coins in a leather bag and then shake them. As the coins rub together, you'll scrape off a fine layer metal dust that the you can collect when you're finished. This method simulated the normal wear of coins in a pocket, making it much more difficult for the local law to spot.

Adventure Idea: The magistrate of the Lower River District in Selenthea believes there is a coin clipping ring operating down by the docks. The debasement of the currency is becoming such a problem that it threatens the city's economy. He tasks the heroes with hunting down the perpetrators and putting an end to this villainy!

Did Common People Use Money?

Another thing you'll sometimes hear people say is that medieval commoners didn't use coins. The argument is that coins were really just used by the nobility, and that commoners would just barter for goods and services. If you're in the barter camp, I've got some bad news for you—the historical evidence doesn't back this up.

Coins were used at all levels of medieval English society for everything from daily purchases to paying rent to buying off the time you were supposed to put in working for the manor. Not only do we have plenty of historical references describing these transactions, the sheer volume of coins in circulation suggests widespread use. Some researchers believe that there were as many as 150 million silver pennies in circulation in England by the year 1279.5 With roughly 4.4 million people living in England at that time,6 this means there were enough coins out there for every person on the isle to have 35 coins. With that many coins floating around, it's a safe bet that paying with coins was a common occurrence.

Of course barter was still an important part of the economy. In some cases goods or services were exchanged for other goods and services, as in the case of a woman who agreed to pay a dyer for his services with a basket of wheat7, and the payment owed to a miller or baker for grinding or baking your grain was often a portion of the output rather than coin. Even so, coins were a vital part of the medieval English economy.

Using This In Your Game

With all this new information, I bet you're thinking about ways to torment your players make your game more realistic and fun! Here are a few ideas!

  • Try eliminating copper pieces and use full, half, and quarter SP instead.
  • Switch to realistic coin weights. A simple (if not completely accurate) way to do this is to use 200 coins per pound.
  • Fill a treasure hoard with clipped coins! Won't the players be surprised when they try to use them to pay their taxes?
  • Add flavor by describing coins made from metals other than gold and silver as ancient or exotic artifacts.
  • Check out our 5E rules for counterfieting and clipping coins in our post about coins in Aetaltis.

 

So there you go! Now everyone can stop arguing!

We hope you've enjoyed this latest medieval research blog post! If you have questions or comments, let us know in the comments below!

And if you'd like to see more of our research, check out our article on the Cost of Medieval Stuff!

 

Footnotes

* Aetaltis, and most of the traditional fantasy settings, are steeped in the culture of medieval Europe. Because of that, this article deals almost exclusively with European coinage in general, and England in particular. In addition, I've focused on the late 13th century, the period most fantasy fans would recognize as throughly 'medieval'.
** It's worth noting that in early editions, coins were a measure of general bulkiness as well as weight. This likely drove the decision on the weight of coins as much as (or more than) anything else.

References

1 The Early Dated Coins of Europe, 1234-1500 by Robert A. Levinson
2 http://www.historyhouse.co.uk/articles/coin_clipping.html
3 The Encyclopedia of Money by Larry Allen
4 Image Credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a voluntary programme run by the United Kingdom government to record the increasing numbers of small finds of archaeological interest found by members of the public. The scheme started in 1997 and now covers most of England and Wales. Finds are published at https://finds.org.uk
5 Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe, Issue 1993 by Peter Spufford
6 English Medieval Population: Reconciling Time Series and Cross Sectional Evidence. by S. Broadberry

7 Life in a Medieval Village by Frances Gies & Joseph Gies

Images of 13th century coins shared by permission of the Hyndburn and Ribble Valley Metal Detecting Club who hold copyright to those images..

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