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Money in the Middle Ages

January 12, 2012

Author: Simon Newman

Taken from: The Finer Times - Money in the Middle Ages

People of ancient times used to exchange products for trades and this system was known as the barter system. There are evidences of barter system since 9000 BC. However, as the trade and business began to increase, ancient people started using Cowrie and Cowry Shells as a means of exchange. Yet, barter system still was prevalent. The first metal coins were founded around 1000 BC and since then, people started acknowledging and enjoying the comforts of coins and currency.

While coins had gained a special place in the market, people still used the ancient method of barter system for simple exchanges. During the medieval period too, people used barter system for various chores while coins were also used as money in the Middle Ages.

Social Classes of Middle Ages and their Economic Conditions

During the medieval period of Europe, feudalism gained its roots as the major political, judicial and economic system. This political system offered immense powers in the hands of the members of nobility which included the kings, the barons, the lords, the vassals and the peasants or serfs at the bottom. In addition, there were religious leaders who were playing the important role of bringing unity among the masses of Europe through their religious movements. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a number of vast kingdoms started to develop in Europe.

The kings believed that God granted them and their families, the right to rule over others. With the help of the clergy, they easily controlled other lords who were forced to take oath of fealty and loyalty towards the king to maintain their economic positions. Kings offered land to barons who were known as manors or fiefs. The barons or lords of these manors enjoyed full privileges over these lands and they taxed peasants and serfs who were using these lands. They also took rents from serfs to allow them to live in their manors.

However, these taxes and rents were not necessarily paid in form of coins or other currency. Serfs of peasants could pay the taxes or rents either by working in the manor for various chores and by managing the land or they could also pay the taxes and rents by joining the troops of barons. In addition, serfs could also pay their taxes and rents by offering clothes, food and other necessities for the soldiers in the troops of baron.

Similarly, barons were also required to pay homage and taxes for the king. Often they used to provide troops and soldiers for the king at the time of need. Seldom had they used to offer cash for the king. Thus, coins or money in the middle ages was not very important for the political exchanges.

Similarly, peasants preferred to pay their taxes and rents by offering a part of their agriculture products to the barons. These agricultural products were often used by barons either to fulfill the requirements of their troops or to support the troops of their immediate superior. Thus, while there were forms of money and coins during the medieval ages, people still used exchanges of goods for paying their taxes and rents.

Forms of Medieval Wealth

During the medieval times, the kings maintained their power and reign due to the ownership of land of their kingdoms. They used to collect taxes from lords, barons, the clergy and the peasants through the economic means of feudal system.

However, land was not the only form of precious wealth during the medieval period. There were local markets and these markets used to serve people weekly. People used to trade and barter various goods in these markets while some people also used money for buying the products of their need. Peasants, serfs and craftsmen used to sell their products to earn a living while the lords and kings earned taxes through these market trades.

Money was also used to take part in Church activities. With the increasing importance of Christianity as a mass religion, common men were almost forced to join the church of their villages or towns. The clergy used to ask money from people and people had to pay money to get rid of their sins.

Money in the Middle Ages

As explained above, there was a need for people to earn money so that they could pay the Church for their sins and money was also used occasionally to offer taxes and rents. Money was earned by those who used to live in city and villages alike. Farmers, ranchers, artisans, day laborers, retailers and all others used money to exchange their products and services. However, citizens in general were very poor and oppressed. On the other hand, the members of nobility, kings, lords, barons, vassals and yeomen still had privileges to have a leisure life style.

Money in the Middle Ages was used as currency in the form of metal coins. These coins came in varying qualities and weights. In addition, people also used the currency of promise (or fiat currency) which was often used in large-scale transactions. For general transactions, coins were predominantly used. Small silver coins or penny (also known as pfennig or denarius) were the most commonly used coins. Rich people of medieval period also used the pounds, schillings and pence. A schilling was used to be equal to 12 pence, while 20 schillings made a pound.

During the 13th century, large amount of bigger silver coins (pennies) were introduced which were known as groats. A groat was around four times bigger than a small ordinary penny. Until 1252, all coins were produced of silver. However, in the year 1252, gold coins were also introduced in Florence. These gold coins of Florence were called as florins. Soon after that, people restricted using silver coins and they adopted for copper coins. This period was termed for the debasement of currency from silver to copper. Money was regularly changing and so was the usage of money.