by Francis Turner
“There are two fundamental causes of madness amongst students: sexual frustration and the study of coinage.”
Professor Karl Helleiner, quoting what is purportedly an old Austrian proverb
In 1632 Europe was filled with coins of varying values, issued by governments of varying degrees of trustworthiness. To make it worse each system had different ratios of the numbers of coins of one denomination that made up the next. About the only sure thing was that no one used a decimal system. For a modern reader all this is compounded by the changes in the relative costs of different things. Together it means that it is very hard to work out how much Grantville things should be sold for downtime and how much uptimers should expect to pay for things made by downtimers. This article is an attempt to shine some light on the issue but I would be the first to admit it does little more than outline the problem.
Money in the 17th century was primarily based on silver coins with gold used for larger transactions and smaller coins minted from copper, brass or tin. One of the reasons why there was considerable inflation in the 16th century was the vast influx of gold and silver from the Spanish looting of the new world. To add to this the rough ratio of gold:silver by weight gradually changed. In the medieval period the ratio was approximately 12:1 (i.e one unit of gold was worth 12 units of silver) but thanks to the vast discoveries of Latin American silver this ratio increased so that by the time Sir Isaac Newton was in charge of the Royal Mint in 1717 it was over 15:1. Needless to say this caused significant dislocation as cunning traders were able to take advantage of the mismatch in pricing but fortunately for 17th century Europeans the majority of this dislocation had occurred during the previous century and the ratio of ~15:1 was more or less fixed. However the disruptions to trade of the 30 years war meant that in different places the relative abundance of gold and silver as well as copper and other metals often varied thus altering the price and in some cases the value of the coins used. There were times when older coins especially were melted down to retrieve their metal as the metal was more valuable than the face value of the coin.
To step back a bit: in medieval Europe the standard silver penny was defined as being 1/240th of a pound of silver (by weight) and the soldus/shilling/sou was the weight of 12 pennies. This ratio was first applied by Charlemagne and was common across much of early 2nd millennium Europe. In England the familiar 1:12:240 ratio was made official by Henry II in 1158 who also defined the weight and purity of the penny and it lasted until 1971. Initially most realms only minted pennies or very small multiples of a penny (such as the English groat worth 4 pennies) however due to inflation, debasement of the coinage and so on the pound weight, penny based currencies gradually added additional coins and in different realms their values changed even though the ratios usually remained constant. This meant that an Englishman used to Shillings and Pence (20 Shillings to a pound, 12 pence to a shilling) would find it easy when he traveled to other places with the same ratios such as France (20 sou to a livre, 12 denier to a sou) or Italy (1 Lire = 20 Soldi or 240 Denari) but not so easy elsewhere. Although the pound (livre, lire etc.) and shilling(soldus,sou) were defined and used as a unit of account, for a long while there were no shilling or pound coins. However this did not stop kings, princes and other rulers issuing coins with names like “crown” or “angel”, which had a value of some number of pennies or shillings (or their equivalent) but generally a different number in different places. These coins added to the confusion since they would be referred to in casual usage (“I lost 3 crowns at cards last night”), but would not be used in bills or accounts which stuck with three columns: L (pounds/livre/lire), s(shillings,sous,soldi) and d(pence, denari). Another unit of account which, in medieval times, was rarely if ever a coin was the mark. Unfortunately despite the general agreement about the theoretical weight of the penny, the number pennies to a mark varied being 144 in some parts of Germany, 160 in Britain and either 192 or 384 in Scandinavia.
Money of Account
Because of the gradual debasement and change of the actual coins used for every day transactions accounting was frequently done using some nominal coin. These nominal coins typically had known properties (e.g. 240×1.555g of sterling silver (92.5% pure) or 3.55g of 24 carat gold). As and when a ruler kindly debased his coinage by 20% merchants simply ignored the change in their internal accounts and just required 20% more from those paying in the new coin (and to other merchants at least they would also pay out 20% more). Most money of account was based on a silver measure – in French influenced Europe typically the livre de gros tournois: 970.56 grams of pure silver or 1012.76g of 23/24 pure silver – though some used a gold measure such as the Venetian ducat or the 1337 French écu à la chaise. In some cases (e.g. the Venetian Ducat) the reference coin remained current as well, in other cases (such as the gros tournois) it didn’t. Money of Account was most often used in places where currency was frequently debased and/or where it changed radically as one ruler conquered another, more stable countries such as England typically did not use it. England and English merchants generally used the accounting measure we use today based on the actual coin (pound, dollar, penny) although during the wars of the roses and the early Tudor period this was not the case. In much of Germany the unit of account was based on either the gold Rhenish florin or the silver Reichsthaler which was generally considered to be worth 1.5 Rhenish florins.
In addition to the mish mash of national currencies, there were two international currencies, a gold one and a silver one with a fairly well defined rate of exchange between them. These were struck to a generally consistent weight by numerous states and coins from different states were thus generally interchangeable. The gold coin was the Venetian ducat, introduced in 1284, contained just over 3.5 grams of gold and was the first international coin. It was so successful that it was minted under different names by many European nations. In northern Europe it was called the Guilder or Gulden and it had a variety of other names such as the Florentine or Rhenish Florin, the Forint (Hungary) or the Scudo (Milan). The silver one was the Thaler (tallero, dollar, daler etc.) which was (supposed to be) a fixed weight of silver and was the equivalent in value to two of the golden ducats. The name thaler (from thal, “valley”) originally came from the coins minted from the silver from a rich mine at Joachimsthal (St. Joachim’s Valley, Czech: Jáchymov) in Bohemia, then part of the Habsburg Empire. It was also the equivalent of the Spanish peso (“heavy”), also known as the piece of eight because it was worth 8 reales, which was a silver coin minted by Spain since 1497.
The 2 gulden to a thaler rule was usually correct but both the gulden and the thaler of the time suffered from clipping and debasement so actual physical coins had to be weighed and ones with an unusual design would need to be assayed to check for lack of debasement. The amount of pure silver in a thaler was approximately an ounce (28 grams) but varied between 25 and 30 grams. For example the Swedish Riksdaler was 25.5 grams, whereas pesos nominally contained 27 grams. If it were that simple we could relax, but to make things worse countries also introduced thaler-like coins (some of which were called an something thaler) of varying weights. For example the Dutch had various daalders including the Rijksdaalder (Rix dollar) and the Leeuwendaalder (Lion dollar). The Lion dollar had 27.7g of silver was the equivalent of 40 stuiver/2 guilders, whereas the Rix dollar was 25% bigger (50 stuiver or 2.5 guilders). However since the lion dollar was the equivalent of the peso etc etc it was thus was more popular than the rix dollar or the other ones.
A Country by Country Survey
One of the more complicated tasks is to convert from one currency to another. Apart from England and France most places preferred to work with the guilder/florin/ducat and the thaler/daalder/dollar and the aforementioned fixed ratio between the two. Thus anything quoted in reals, pesos, ducats, florins, guilders or thalers is going to be easy to convert. Unfortunately while the ducat/thaler rule was good for cross border trade most states also had an internal currency that they frequently debased against these international standards. For example although Venice was a model of fiscal probity, a number of other Italian states were not hence the difference in the value of the Lira as stated in terms of a Ducat. This survey starts with the simpler countries and then goes on to the nightmare ones. German coinage of the era is described by one source as a “bottomless pit”, thus, despite Germany being of great interest to the 163x reader or writer, it has been left to the last.
England (also Ireland and Scotland)
Although England did not directly use either guilders or thalers England’s shilling was stable in the 1630s since parliament refused King Charles’ efforts to debase the currency. In 1630 the conversion rate between English Shillings and Dutch Guilders was 2:1 that is to say one guilder was 2 shillings and hence one lion dollar was 4 shillings and one rix dollar worth 5 shillings or a crown. This means that for larger sums an English pound is worth 5 thalers or 10 guilders which makes for easy conversion. Astoundingly this ratio remained pretty much constant from the last currency revision of 1601 until the wheels fell off the gold standard in the twentieth century despite the fact that the thaler (dollar) changed from being a European reference currency to the currency of the United States of America. Irish coins were worth about 75% of their English equivalent (i.e. 1 Irish shilling was worth an English 9d). Scotland, despite the modern reputation of its inhabitants as canny businesspeople, had a severely debased currency which got worse and worse over time. The first indigenous currency in Scotland was the silver penny, coined by David I. In theory each pound weight of silver yielded 240 pennies (that is, 1 pound equaled 20 shillings, and 1 shilling equaled 12 pennies). However, the crown coined 252 pennies to the pound to make a profit. From the fourteenth century until the end of the sixteenth century debasement of the coinage resulted in the further divergence of the Scottish and English currencies. In the reign of James III (1460-1488) the pound sterling was worth 4 pounds Scots. In 1560, 5 pounds Scots equaled 1 pound sterling. From the time James VI of Scotland assumed the English throne until 1707 the exchange rate between the Scottish and English pound was fixed at 12:1, that is to say £1(English)=£12(Scots) or 1 Scottish shilling was equal to one English penny.
The English used the term mark to refer to two thirds of a pound (i.e. 160d or 13s 4d). There was no mark coin but some things were priced in marks, just as today some things are still priced in guineas. Common coins were the angel (10s) the crown (5s) in gold; the half crown (2s 6d), the shilling, the groat (4d) and the penny in silver; and the copper farthing (1/4d). There was also the golden unite (20s) and the silver sixpence, threepence, the ha’penny and half-groat or tuppence.
The Low Countries
The low countries suffered from being effectively split between the Spanish controlled part and the independant part however both used the same currency elements and because both were important trading powers they did not usually debase their currency, although some Dutch provinces did produce some very odd low-weight daalders. The currency was based on the guilder (i.e. ducat) with 20 stuivers to a guilder and 16 pennings to a stuiver. As mentioned above there were two important daalders – the Rijksdaalder (Rix dollar) worth 50 stuiver or 2.5 guilders and the Leeuwendaalder (Lion dollar) worth 40 stuiver or 2 guilders. Other coins included the groot (1/2 stuiver) duit (1/8 stuiver), the dubbeltje (2 stuiver), the kwartje (5 stuivers) schelling (6 stuivers), the 3-guilder coin and the monster Gouden dukaat worth 15 guilders.
Spain had a completely different currency system; consisting of maravedis, reals and pesos. There were 34 maravedis to a real and 8 reals to a peso. Fortunately the peso was equivalent to the thaler and thus it was easy to convert other values. A real was worth 6 English pence or 5 Dutch stuivers. Spain had suffered sufficient inflation that previously valuable coins such as the maravedi or the blanca were now essentially worthless. The real was divided into quarters (a coin called a quartillo) and the smallest coin was 2 maravedi (a 17th of a real). Other coins included escudos (=2 peso) and dubloons(=16 peso).
The Italian states had the standard Ducat (Venice) or Florin (Florence) as well as a system similar to the English and French one of 1 Lire = 20 Soldi, 60 Quattrini or 240 Denari. The problem was relating the Lira to the Ducat as a Lira was frequently debased (and hence so were soldi and denari) and thus a rather indeterminate thing. Typically in the 1630s there were about 6-7 lire to a Ducat or Florin. In Venice there was a fixed exchange of 6L 4s to a ducat but this only applied to Venetian lire.
Sweden had the solid riksdaler as well as marks, öre, örtugar and penningar, with 1 mark = 8 öre = 24 örtugar = 192 penningar (usually). Although the Riksdaler remained constant (at 2 guilders or 1 peso) it was only used for external trade and the conversion between it and the more normal copper marks and öre used for internal trade varied after 1620. In 1604 a riksdaler was 4 marks (4 mark = 32 öre), but it steadily increased in value afer 1620. In 1632 I estimate that a riksdaler was worth about 2 copper dalar (i.e. 8 marks or 64 öre). To add to the confusion in the past in different parts of Sweden the ratio between marks and penningar varied: in Götaland a mark was worth 384 penningar, double the usual 192. This was supposed to be outdated but there is some evidence that the 384 ratio was still used by some people.
Polish controlled areas, that is to say Poland, Lithuania and parts of Prussia, used the zloty as follows: 1 zloty = 30 grosz = 90 Szelags = 540 Denars. Nominally the grosz was the same as the Bohemian groschen (24 to a thaler) and thus a Zloty should be the equivalent of the Dutch Rix Dollar. I do not believe it really was the same in the 1630s as Poland was as busy as its neighbours in debasing its currency, in fact there is evidence that there were 3 zloty to a thaler in the 1630s. It is unclear whether this thaler was the standard 2 guilder one, the 2½ guilder one or the german Reichstaler which was worth 1½ guilders.
The French currency was both impure being generally made of “billon”, an alloy of copper and silver, and highly inflationary. France had Livres, Sous and (theoretically) Deniers although the smallest coin was the copper gros (4 denier) and also had the Ecu worth 3 livres. A French livre was worth approximately the same as a guilder in the early 1630s but the actual amount decreased steadily over time. English sources report that in 1625 a quarter écu (3/4 livre) was worth 1s 7½d implying that 1 livre was 2 Shillings and 2 Pence but in 1645 1 Livre bought just 1 Shilling and 6½ Pence and in 1653 1 Livre was equal to 1 Shilling and 3 Pence.
Traditionally Denmark had marks, skillings and penninge with 16 skillings to a mark and 12 penninge to a skilling. This made the mark the same as the Svealand swedish mark (192 penningar = 1 mark). Danish coins were notorious for their lack of silver, and steadily decreased in value compared to their German neighbours during the 16th century. Given that the German coins were also getting worse this was quite a feat. However a decree of May 4, 1625 brought to an end an unsettled period in Danish monetary history and fixed the ratio of the rigsdaler to the mark and skilling: 1 rigsdalar was to equal 6 marks or 96 skillings. A Rigsdaler was the same as a Dutch lion dollar, that is to say 2 guilders.
Danish coins included the Rigsdaler or 6 mark coin, the crown (4 marks), the mark coin and coins for 1,2,4 and 8 skillings
The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman empire also used the Ducat for trade as well as local coins called the Akche, the Para and the Kurush. One Kurush or Piastre was the equivalent of 40 Para or 120 Akche but as with many other currencies value of these to a fixed currency such as the Ducat varied. There ware 200 Akche to a Ducat in 1584 (a few years earlier there had been 60) and it is not clear whether this had changed by 1630.
Germany and Bohemia
As noted above, German currency has been described as a bottomless pit by one of my sources. In Germany and nearby countries there were multiple currencies such as 60 kreuzer to the Gulden, 4 denar(pfennig/penny) to a Kreuzer 12 to a Groschen and 16 to a Batzen or 1 Gulden = 4 Mark = 24 Albus = 48 Schilling = 288 Heller depending on where you were. Not only were there a large number of coins the reformation wars had encouraged every mint to debase its currency thus coins were of widely varying quality. Because there were so many currencies that there is no hope of giving a conversion to any native unit of currency (Albus, Batzen, Mark, Groschen…) in most cases. In Bohemia the Thaler was the equivalent of 24 groschen and each groschen was (theoretically) 12 pfennigs however the 30 years war severely impacted the relationships since some coins were copper and others silver and silver became rather scarce. The Bohemian (Prague) groschen however generally seem to have been reliable since the rulers of Bohemia had access to the Joachim valley and thus the same silver mine that gave its name to the thaler. From the 1620s Ferdinand II issued the ducat, thaler, half, quarter, groschen (3 kreuzer), kreuzer, half kreuzer, and quarter kreuzers. Much of Germany used the Reichsthaler as a nominal unit of account to deal with the variations in coinage. A German Reichsthaler was 1½ guilders or three-quarters of a peso. Many German mints also produced “Reichsthalers” but the thalers produced frequently varied in weight and hence value.
Country Currency Value in Guilders
Holland 1 Guilder = 20 Stuiver = 320 Penning N/A
1 Leeuwendaalder = 2 Guilder
1 Rijksdaalder = 2.5 Guilder
Venice 1 Ducat = 6L4s 1 Ducat = 1 Guilder
1 Lire = 20 Soldi, 60 Quattrini or 240 Denari
Italy As with Venice but the Lire/Ducat rate varied 1 Ducat = 1 Guilder
Spain 34 Maravedi = 1 Real, 8 Real = 1 Peso 1 Peso = 2 Guilders
France 1/3rd Ecu = 1 Livre = 20 sous = 240 Denier 1 Livre ~= 1 Guilder
England 1 pound = 20 Shillings = 240 pence 2 Shillings = 1 Guilder
Scotland As England 24 Scots Shillings = 1 Guilder
Denmark 1 rigsdalar = 6 marks = 96 skillings 1 Rigsdaler = 2 Guilders
Sweden 1 mark = 8 öre = 24 örtugar = 192 penningar 1 Riksdaler = 2 Guilders
1 riksdaler =~8 marks (variable)
Poland 1 zloty = 30 grosz = 90 Szelags = 540 Denars 1 Zloty = 2/3 Guilder (?)
Turkey One Kurush/Piastre = 40 Para = 120 Akche 200 Akche = 1 Guilder (in 1584)
Bohemia 1 thaler = 24 groschen = 72 kreuzer = 288 pfennig 1 Thaler = 2 Guilders
Germany 1 gulden = 4 mark = 24 albus = 48 schilling = 288 heller 1 Gulden = 1 Guilder
Also 1 groschen = 3 kreuzer = 24 pfennig = 48 heller
many other coins. Unit of account the Reichsthaler 1 Reichsthaler = 1½ Guilders
The cost of living
Now that we know what a thalar or a ducat is worth in terms of other currencies how much did people need to live on? And how does it compare to prices today? A general guide is that in the early 17th century 1 English pence was roughly the equivalent of one English pound 400 years later. This means that 1 guilder is worth about £24 or US$36. This is only approximate and it is important to note that in the 17th century manufactured goods were much more expensive in relative terms than they are today. Due to the lack of mechanization clothing was expensive because it was such a labour intensive task. On the other hand taxation was more on imports, exports and farm production (tithes) than on general income. A lot of people could escape taxation altogether which means that their wages go further than you might expect.
Given the complexity of German currencies I am unsure how to relate such wages as I have found but it seems unlikely that they would differ too much from the clearly documented English wages of the period. A good English daily wage was 1s/day, assuming 50 weeks at 6 days a week that works out at 300s or £15/year. An unskilled labourer could expect less (perhaps 8d/day) and of course a highly skilled craftsman could expect more. However it is also worth noting that many wages for craftsmen were actually based on production (i.e. piecework) so the more you produced the more you got. One other point to note is that in many cases labourers were paid in kind, agreements to provide 1 suit of clothes/year or to supply food and lodging were by no means uncommon. The important thing to remember is that very few people had significant disposable income. For non-farmers purchasing food (and fuel both to cook and to keep warm) could easily be 4d a day or sometimes more. If you compare this with the wage rate this means that a 17th century worker could spend between a quarter and half of his daily wage on food. Adding in requirements to buy clothing and to pay rent and the amount left over for discretionary spending be it a friendly drink at the inn, to gamble with or to save up to buy a book, was under 10% of his wage.
Trade and debts between neighbours were quite often settled by barter, this included rents which could be a proportion of the harvest crop. This was a holdover of the feudal tithing regime but it was used because, despite the influx of South American silver, coins were still comparatively rare. Agricultural rents, when they were paid in coin to an absentee landlord, were of the order of a guilder/acre/year, less for pasture and more for arable land and often much more for prime meadows or orchards.
Google was invaluable during the cration of this document. However I found a lot of mutually incompatible documents so google on its own will lead to problems. The following seem to be correct and were mined for most of the above:
http://www.portsdown.demon.co.uk/coin.htm and http://www.portsdown.demon.co.uk/mark.htm
http://www.anythinganywhere.com/info/a2z.htm and especially http://www.anythinganywhere.com/info/a2z/azgermany.htm