Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shillings and Pounds Were Not Coins

An academic might say that shillings and pounds in the Middle Ages were "moneys-of-account", but it's easy to lose sight of what this really means. What it indicates is this: Shillings and pounds were not coins; they were not paper banknotes; they weren't anything physical that you could hold in your hand or carry around whatsoever. They were purely abstract counting units.

Here's an analogy from the current day -- we frequently speak of a "Grand" and know that this indicates a value of one thousand dollars. "This computer cost two grand"; "You could buy that used car for ten grand"; "We spent thirty grand on the wedding". (Or perhaps you prefer a "G" or a "K" or a "dime". ) But of course, there is no "grand" physical money, like a coin or a banknote. We know that it's a counting concept, separate and distinct from the legal notes that we carry around with us. In principle, you could walk into a dealership and pay for a car in cash, and you'd fork over a wad of one hundred $100 bills (or something). You can even write in your ledger something like "10K" and conveniently record the transaction. *

So the same is true with shillings and pounds in a medieval context. When Charlemagne first established the 1:20:240 money system (denier/sou/livre, or penny/shilling/pound; around 800 A.D.), only the smallest "deniers" were actually minted (each 1/240th of a pound weight of silver metal); no other coins existed. Accounting books were kept, recording prices and purchases in shillings/pounds, but they weren't coins that you could carry around with you and hand over to a merchant. And so it was throughout the entire Middle Ages; although a wide variety of silver and gold coins came into use, they weren't so large as to be worth an entire shilling or pound.

For example, the first coin I can find that was worth "one pound value" is the English Gold Sovereign, first minted in 1489 (which I'll point out counts as being after the end of the Middle Ages). And even this was meant as bullion only (it had no numerical value stamped on it). As one site on gold coins says: "The First One Pound Coin: The gold sovereign came into existence in 1489 under King Henry VII... The pound sterling had been a unit of account for centuries, as had the mark. Now for the first time a coin denomination was issued with a value of one pound sterling." Or here (University of London Institute of Historical Research): "Values in the treasure were calculated in pounds, shillings and pence... although there were no coins equal to pounds and shillings and would not be until Henry VII's reign." Or this (Gies, Life in a Medieval City, p. 99): "The livre (pound) and sou (shilling), though used to count with throughout Europe, do not yet actually exist as coins."

So, in summary -- "Moneys-of-account" actually means "Counting units of value that did not physically exist in any form". Nobody anywhere ever minted a gold coin worth 240 of their smallest coins, until almost the 16th century (and therefore it would be ahistorical, and present many problems, if we presented such a system in D&D). Can you find any examples to the contrary?

(I've mentioned this in passing in prior money blogs, but wanted to highlight it on its own here.)

* The U.S. government did print $1,000 bills at one time, but they were discontinued in 1945, and have not been legal tender for several decades.

13 comments:

  1. This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing your info on this topic!

    In the last D&D game I ran I ditched all the cp/sp/gp at chargen, let everyone choose 5 starting items from a list, and one item was "pouch with 20 silver coins". Everything else in the adventure was a silver coin, or a valuable item (eg. gold candlestick etc)

    After reading this I think I might make this standard. :)

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  2. Again, great post. I think I might go with Stuart's idea, as well....

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  3. Clearly I need to abandon all the pound coins in my campaign in favor of gold marks.

    Just kidding.

    I really like Stuart's idea of putting a bag o' coins on the list of starting items you can pick from. That easily eliminates a step in the chargen process. I'm all for streamlining chargen.

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  4. This is just one more reason why I tend to run my fantasy games in a broadly Arabian nights setting rather than a European medieval one. I find that my players tend to start from a more common baseline of assumptions and then its up to us jointly to decide what else the world is, without it all defaulting to a kind of flavourless pseudo-"modernity."

    Also, drams and dinars! And at least some people traveling clear across the known world and bringing back stories.

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  5. Here's the list of starting items I had for our game. I also changed "Standard Rations" to "Cheese". :)

    I saw someone used "silver pennies" and I think anything where you name the coins is a nice way to start establishing the setting through character creation.

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  6. Does Alexis know about this?

    http://tao-dnd.blogspot.com/

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  7. I blew the 1:20:200 (240) ratio of copper/silver/gold on the first night of the campaign. Said it was 1:10:100. No one seems to care.

    Word verification costsc - apt

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  8. I was at the Penn Museum at University of Pennsylvania a couple of weekends ago, and they have a display with lots of different ancient coins, in excellent condition. A number of them are electrum, which I'd never seen specimens of before.

    They also have a few 'billon' coins, which are an alloy of silver and copper or bronze.

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  9. It seems to me that the sort of accounting that players do on their character sheets is analogous to the use of historical units of account. So in my silver-standard game I deal with large numbers of silver coins as pounds sterling, with 100 coins to a lb. This interfaces well with a lb-based encumbrance system, and with treasure generation in 1000s of coins (I just divide by 1000 and read the result as lbs). So I'm fudging the difference between tower pounds and avoirdupois pounds, and decimalized and predecimalized pounds sterling, but...I'm ok with that.

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  10. Ten silver pieces = £1 (ie, 1lb of silver). Forget about specific coins completely and just deal in weight. How many D&D characters care about amounts less than 10sp anyway?

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  11. Well... (re: Alexander and Nagora) those would probably be issues more on-topic for the other money blogs I had in the past. You probably already know what I actually do in my games.

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  12. An interesting fact to mention, is that the lack of copper coins made everyday dealings a bit cumbersome. A silver piece would buy you around eight to ten pints of ale, so most items of this low value was dealt with either bye exchange of goods or bye trust (i.e. recordkeeping).

    Source: Lectures with prof. Richard Holt, Uni. of Tromsø.

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  13. CM: I guess that would make sense. Of course, what you really mean is that a real-world penny would buy about 8 pints (1 gallon of ale). (Agreed?) And my argument is always that that has the same status as the D&D copper piece.

    What D&D means by a "silver piece" has to be larger than that, like a sterling silver Groat (4 pence). As per prior money blogs.

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