...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Monday, September 23, 2013

Silver and Gold (and I’m not talking Christmas!)

I’m talking money. Medieval money, to be specific. When I wrote my first published novel, Loyalty’s Web, I had few resources to help me understand the monetary system of Western Europe in the 12th Century. The internet wasn’t widely available when I wrote my first draft. I thought it made perfect sense that the upper classes, like royalty, would have coffers and coffers filled with gold coins, so I put gold coins into my draft and didn’t look back. Loyalty’s Web was first published in 2007 (years after that draft was actually written) and no one ever called me on the gold coins in the story.

This year, I have been focused on a rewrite of an even older story of mine called The Lady and the Minstrel. In a new scene that I wrote for the book, I wanted to contrast an English gold coin with a French gold coin in the early 13th Century. This time I had easy access to internet research, so on the internet I hopped. And what, to my dismay, did I discover? Gold production took a nose dive along with the fall of the Roman Empire! While gold continued to be used in small amounts like jewelry, illuminated manuscripts, and even embroidery thread for the rich, when it came to money, silver ruled the day during the Early and High Middle Ages. (Roughly the 8th-13th Centuries.)

(Oops! No! Very, very rare! And a later century)

The first significant gold mine in medieval Western Europe wasn’t established until around 1320 in Slovakia. And it took the discovery of additional gold deposits to begin mining enough gold to mint coins in any kind of sizeable numbers.

The first thing I did on learning this was to go through The Lady and the Minstrel and change all my gold coins to silver ones. I also received the publishing rights back to Loyalty’s Web this summer and am planning to republish it soon. But not before I do a find/replace search to change all the gold coins in that story to silver ones, too!

(Yes! This is more like it.)

So when you write your medieval novel, don’t make my mistake. Give your characters silver coins from the beginning and keep the gold for fripperies like jewelry and embroidery threads!

Here are some helpful websites to learn more about coins in the Middle Ages:

Oh, and if you’re wondering, like one of my characters did, what one of King John of England’s coins looked like vs. one of King Philip II’s of France, check out these two websites:

King John’s coins: The FitzWilliam Museum: King John, 1199 - 1216. Silver penny, Winchester mint

(Here’s another version of a coin for Philip II: http://home.eckerd.edu/~oberhot/froy.htm#Philip2)

And if you’re interested, here’s a website to see coins from the various Plantagenet kings up through the Wars of the Roses. You’ll notice that they’re all silver.


Vijaya Schartz said...

Interesting post. I'm writing a story set at the origins of Forez in France, where the Romans extracted gold. Even in the 11th century, barons and bishops coveted that gold. But the money, of course, was silver.

Some say silver was more precious than gold in the early middle ages, but maybe it was just too rare to use as money, since most mines were closed, or yielded too little from lack of Roman engineering.

Joyce DiPastena said...

Thanks for visiting my site, Vijaya! Sounds like you are writing a fascinating book, too. I'll have to check it out when it's finished. :-)

Carol Hoggart said...

Great post, Joyce! It's so easy to make unfounded assumptions about the Middle Ages, isn't it? I too have found understanding medieval money tricky. I recently discovered a wonderful list of currencies used across late medieval Europe in the pilgrimage itinerary of William Wye.

Joyce DiPastena said...

Carol, thank you for telling me about William Wye's itinerary! I'll look that up. Thanks for the tip!