Money money money money


I asked people on G+ what they would like to hear about, and Thea asked:

I’d like to know about money in the medieval period. I was just pondering that I don’t remember if money stopped happening completely after the Roman empire fell, or if it was still used in some places, or what.

Good question!

Now, I cannot speak to all Europe, or even really to all Britain, but here is a little bit of what I know. So, in Britain, yeah, the Roman province of Britannia goes, for one reason or another, all to hell, and coinage does seem to stop being used for a relatively brief period. There are some coins around during the early Anglo-Saxon period, but we’re not sure they’re being used as coins — that is, they’re either old Roman coins or Frankish coins like this one:

Photo from Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Photo from Portable Antiquities Scheme.


That’s a Roman coin from the 470s for comparison — you can see that there are some similarities, but also some new elements.

Anyway, so these Frankish coins are being passed around, and they’re gold and they’re cool and they’re valuable, but they’re probably not actually currency as we would understand it.

It’s hard to know when coins start being actual coins, or what people were doing in the absence. Bartering, probably, and/or having what’s called a bullion economy, where you trade in precious metals by weight. You get that later on, for sure, in the Viking age, where finds often contain “hacksilver,” silver objects chopped up into convenient small chunks. One well-known example is the Cuerdale Hoard, now in the British Museum.



There’s quite a lot of coins in there, too, from many different sources, but again we don’t think that these were circulating in the Viking world as currency, not early on anyway, just as conveniently-sized units of silver.

But in France, as we saw, you get coinage relatively early on, and in Italy and Spain people are minting coins after the Roman model, although not anywhere like as many of them or as regularly, but it doesn’t completely disappear. And in England by the Viking age you  have a relatively developed coinage.

(Viking coinage in Britain is super interesting, by the way, but that could be another time.)

So, yeah, coinage more or less disappears for a couple of hundred years on the fringes of the Empire, and then elsewhere it struggles on in kind of a partial fashion, probably existing alongside a barter-heavy economy or an economy where precious metals are traded by weight. Exactly how much coinage is used for everyday transactions is one of those questions; my very rough amateur’s understanding is that we used to think it was next to never but now we think it was a little more than we used to think.

Two quick related fun things:

One: these coins are teeny tiny. Like, we tend to think when we think of medieval coins that they’re big gold circles, like gold doubloons in a pirate movie, but they’re not.

viking treasure coin

Here are some Viking-age coins, so you can see that they’re really small and really thin; they bend easily. You wouldn’t keep them in your pocket with the keys, I wouldn’t think. And if you go to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, as you should, you can see the Cambridge Hoard, a set of much later medieval silver and gold coins, and see how thin they are: the gold coins are almost foil-like.



I have no idea what my second point was going to be. Never mind.

So, anyway, I hope that’s an answer to the question! I am not a numismatist, so that’s just kind of a rough outline and there are probably a lot of over-generalisations and common errors in it, but I think it’s mostly right?


Money money money money

2 thoughts on “Money money money money

  1. Thanks James! That was interesting. I’m surprised that people in most places still made coins, reasonably contiguously. I guess I was thinking that people make coins, as opposed to just having hunks of metal, because the minting provides them with a sense of authenticity, and without strong central governments, who can vouch for the coins? I guess the governments post-Rome were in better shape than I pictured. I mean, why bother minting coins if they’re just going to be weighed for their value each time, right?

    1. Yeah — and I think this brings up the question of how much they were in circulation. After all, minting coins is one way of reinforcing that you are a proper king, so if your royal legitimacy is uncertain, maybe you want to do that as a matter of urgency. But how much does this affect the day-to-day commercial transactions of people outside the immediate reach of the crown, I dunno.

      Probably the law called on people to pay fines and taxes in coins, so there’s that. That’s definitely true in England, and I expect it’s true elsewhere.

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