It used to be all about the barter system. I’ll give you these loaves of bread for that bottle of wine, or I’ll give you three healthy sheep in exchange for your mighty ox, and things like that. But as villages and cities grew during the Middle Ages, currency—in the form of coins of varying shapes, sizes, weights and metal—came into play. From an artisan selling crafts to a fisherman peddling his catch, people at all levels in society began to earn—and owe—money.
5 Medieval Prices
We all can remember the days when gas was less than a dollar a gallon. Now think way, way back to what things cost in the Middle Ages. To understand these prices, you should know that a pence is a penny, a schilling is 12 pence and a pound is 20 schillings. A good ale would cost about one and a half pence, and a cheap wine would run you about 8 pence. An ox would cost 13 schillings (156 pence), while a cow would go for about 10 schillings (120 pence). If you wanted to learn how to fence, your tuition would also be about 10 schillings per month, while a university education cost 2 to 3 pounds per year, or 240 to 720 pence. A knight’s mail would cost 100 schillings and a cheap peasant’s sword would go for sixpence.
4 Paying for Sins
Perhaps your first encounter with medieval money came from the cartoon version of “Robin Hood” where Friar Tuck collected coins from poor villagers. That depiction is somewhat accurate; during the Middle Ages Christianity was becoming widespread. The clergy collected money from congregation members—no matter how poor they were—for the purpose for ridding them of their sins. The amount due was about 10 percent of their earnings, a practice called a tithe. People, at the time, felt that the more they gave the church, the better their afterlife would be.
3 Earning Your Keep
Most of our money today goes toward living expenses and maintaining our homes, whether we own or rent. In medieval times, this was no different. According to NPR’s “Planet Money,” kings granted patches of land, called manors or fiefs, to barons or lords. The lords lived in castles, and serfs and peasants lived and worked on the surrounding land. In turn, for the land and protection, they were charged rent and taxes. Physical money didn’t usually exchange hands for these costs; instead, serfs paid up by doing chores, working the land, serving as a craftsman, or joining the army.
2 Gold Coins
Until 1252, all coins produced were silver. The most famous coin of the Middle Ages, however, was a gold coin minted in Italy—the florin. The florin is thought to have been the currency used to pay Michelangelo for his statue of David. Production on the florin is said to have been possible because of the Crusades, which promoted trade and brought a lot of gold into Florence, enough so that it was able to mint its own currency. On one side of the coin was the lily, the city’s symbol. On the other side was a casting of St. John the Baptist.
1 Silver Coins
The first widely used currency was in the form of a coin; paper bills were not introduced until much later in history. In some cases, usually for large transactions, “currency of promise” was used. The first metal coins were introduced in about 1000 B.C., and in the 13th century, the most commonly used coin was the penny or pence, or denarius in Latin. Pennies in Medieval times were silver. The groat—a large, thick sliver coin—was often referred to as “the big penny.” This coin, introduced by King Edward I, was actually worth four pennies, or fourpence.