Coinage systems: western European models

This is a follow up to my earlier post on historical coinage in general (and how it differed from the tons-of-gold decimal system in the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks). Here, I offer some usable currency systems; they are based on historical models, though mostly somewhat simplified.

I have chosen realms and periods where the coinage was made of precious metal, fairly pure. Historically, most authorities went through periods when the precious metal content of the coinage was reduced. As a result, prices increased and a later government needed to restore the coinage (or, in more developed economies, to transition to representative money or fiat money) to stabilise the economy. But I leave it up to you whether to feature such episodes in your settings.

Silver penny

This is based on English currency from the 8th to 15th centuries, but also resembles several other western European currencies of the middle ages.

The main unit is the silver penny. Three hundred pennies weigh one modern pound. A penny might buy a day’s labour in the high middle ages, or you might pay fourpence late in the period.

The one-penny coin is the most common and may be the only denomination minted. For smaller amounts you can cut a penny in half or in quarters; this is sometimes done by the issuing moneyer, and the penny may be stamped with a symmetrical cross design to make this easier. For larger amounts you simply use multiple pennies.

You can say there are larger silver coins in multiples of the penny (such as 2 pence and 4 pence), and/or smaller coins in fractions of it (such as half and quarter), but in play it will be easiest just to track how many pence worth of silver that a character has. The coin denominations don’t affect the total value or weight.

You can also add gold coinage to the system. It would be simple but not very historical to have a gold coin the same weight as the penny and worth 10 pence, or a large gold coin weighing 30 to the pound and worth 100 pence.

If you are up for a non-decimal system, the historical units of account are the shilling (12 pence), the mark (160 pence or 13 shillings and fourpence) and the pound (240 pence or 20 shillings). Gold coins might then be a shilling weighing about the same as the penny (actually issued only briefly in the early middle ages, perhaps because such a small gold coin was fiddly and vulnerable to loss and wear) and/or a noble worth 80 pence (conveniently 2 nobles to the mark and 3 nobles to the pound value) and about 50 to the pound weight.

If you wish to use DnD rulebook prices simply convert them all to sp and then treat 1sp as 1 penny. Very cheap items will need to be bought in multiples until the price reaches (or rounds up to) a quarter, half or whole penny. Luxuries for the wealthy who aren’t counting their pennies might be marked up to the next shilling, noble, mark or pound.

Sovereign-shilling-penny

Researching this post, I was slightly surprised to discover that my own country did not adopt the familiar copper penny until the 19th century. So this is actually pretty modern, but may feel right for a gunpowder-age, piratical or steampunk setting.

The units of account are the pound, shilling and penny, with 12 pence equalling 1 shilling and 240 pence or 20 shillings equalling 1 pound. Prices are higher in this system than in the medieval system, with a daily labourer’s wage about a shilling or two.

The pound coin is called a sovereign (which I shall use for the money unit from here to avoid confusion with the weight), and is of gold, weighing about 50 to the pound (nearer 57 historically but let’s use a round number). Private banks and the national bank also issue paper money, in amounts over one sovereign.

Everyday transactions are often in silver. The silver shilling (12 pence and 1/20 sovereign) weighs 80 to the pound. Other silver denominations may include 3 pence, 4 pence (groat), 6 pence (‘tanner’), 24 pence (florin), 30 pence (half crown), 48 pence (double florin) and 60 pence (crown). The coin weights are proportional to value so in play you can just keep track of the value of silver coinage carried and not worry too much about denominations.

Small change is in copper or bronze. The penny varied in weight but was always quite big—24 to the pound for a time, which works out at 10 pounds of bronze for a sovereign’s worth of currency. There are also half-penny and quarter-penny (farthing) coins in the same metal and of corresponding weights.

You might have small change issued by local private sources rather than by the royal mint.

Solidus-follis

This is based on currencies of the Byzantine empire, the eastern Mediterranean survival of the Roman empire, which faded in power during the middle ages. You could use it if you want a slightly exotic feel compared to a western-Europe-style silver currency, and/or for a region where gold is relatively plentiful.

In this simplified version, the principal coin is the gold solidus, weighing about 100 to the pound (there were alternative names for similar coins under different coinage reforms, including the nomisma, histamenon and hyperpyron; in the west the coin was known as the bezant, for its origin).

Small change is provided by the bronze follis, of which 150 are worth 1 solidus and weigh 1 pound. At times smaller bronze coins were issued and in theory the smallest unit in the system is the nummus worth 1/40 follis and 1/6000 solidus, but at this size for the follis the smallest practical coin is probably the semi-follis.

Some emperors issued silver coins such as the miliaresion, which you may include weighing about the same as the follis and valued at 12 to the solidus. (If you want a gold-silver-bronze currency with simple ratios between all the coins you might adjust the follis to be worth 1/144 of a solidus so that it can be 1/12 of a miliaresion.)

The Byzantines were also fond of mixing metals. If you want to include an electrum coin (about ¼ gold and ¾ silver), you could have it weighing about as much as the solidus but with 1/3 the value. They also at times used billon, which is in general an alloy with a small amount of precious metal, but in Byzantine coinage tends to mean bronze with a silver coating. Coins in either of these metals could present a puzzle for those unfamiliar with them, because both more or less resemble silver (electrum at these proportions having only a pale yellow tinge and billon looking like silver on the surface but lacking weight for its size) but have different values.

Aureus-denarius-sestertius-as

This currency is based on that of Imperial Rome in its heyday.

The main unit of account, and a coin for small everyday purchases, is the sestertius, which at this time is a large coin of a gold-coloured type of brass called orichalcum. For a round number let us say it comes at 20 to the pound (it was actually larger still). There is also a half-sestertius in the same metal called the dupondius.

Very small change is in copper, including the as (40 to the pound like the dupondius, but worth only ¼ sestertius) and rarely the semis (half an as) and the quadrans (quarter-as).

Most business is conducted in silver, principally the denarius, worth 4 sestertii and weighing about 100 to the pound (another round number; in reality the weight declined to over 130 to the pound). There was also the half-denarius called the quinarius.

The prestige coin is the aureus, a gold issue worth 100 sestertii and weighing about 50 to the pound (again this is a round number and in history the weight started at about 57 to the pound and declined as the demand for coin outstripped the supply of gold). You also get a half-aureus.

Do you find these coin system models useful? Have you got something like this in your game? Let us know in the comments.

Coins and currency

This post offers some advice on coins and currency in fantasy game or fiction settings. It responds to the way coins are described in Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) rulebooks, with specific reference to the popular and influential current fifth edition of the game (5e), but I aim to give enough information and references that you can use this for other systems.

DnD is very keen on tons of precious metal. Literally—it is possible to randomly generate a hoard of up to 120,000 coins on the top treasure table in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), which would weigh 2,400 pounds or over one ton. But historically, there wasn’t usually quite so much shiny stuff floating around. If you want to run a game more flavoured like medieval Europe or other historical settings, I have a few suggestions.

Named currencies and coins

It is fine that DnD rulebooks call money things like ‘gold piece’ and ‘silver piece’ and there were some historical coins named for their metal, such as the Roman aureus and the German guilder. But, as the rulebook points out, a name that is more obviously in-world than just the English words for the coin type is a first step in giving your setting’s currency more flavour.

Original currency names were often based on weight (pound, lira, as, talent, stater, drachm, shekel) and sometimes on numbers (denarius, sestertius, farthing). These names could outlast or outspread the language that gave them their meaning, so those using dinars as currency might not hear the meaning ‘ten’ from the sound of the name. Other coins were named for the designs they bore, like the ecu (shield), the crown or the angel. Some were named for their place of origin, such as the florin, the title of their issuer, such as the ducat or real, or for a whole range of other reasons.

Smaller coins

DnD coins are all one-third of an ounce, 50 to the pound, or about 9 grams each. This is pretty heavy by the standards of medieval coins. The original Roman silver denarius was initially of 4.5g, but its main medieval descendants were 240 to the pound and the pound in that system was lighter than the modern general-purpose pound weight, so an English penny was officially about 1.5g of silver (in practice often somewhat lighter and/or of less pure silver). The 14th-century gold noble of King Edward III of England was originally 9g of gold, but was reduced in weight after just a couple of years of production and declined to about 7g in the following century. The Roman gold aureus of Julius Caesar weighed about 8g but was reissued at lower weights by successive emperors and the late Roman and Byzantine solidus stabilised at about 4.5g; its late medieval successors the Florentine florin and the Venetian ducat were of about 3.5g.

There were some larger coins: the Athenian silver tetradrachm of the 6th to 1st centuries BCE was about 17.2g and circulated widely, though it was a multiple of the base drachm unit of 4.3g. (And it was ancient rather than medieval.)

If economies were using lower-value metals like copper or copper alloys as metal-value currency, these might be considerably bigger. In the early days of the Roman republic, bronze pieces were cast with weights between 6.9g and 3.3kg. More advanced economies, using token cash for small transactions, used smaller coins of copper or other base metals for small change.

So I suggest that medieval-esque currency in fantasy settings should use smaller coins and especially smaller silver coins.

Higher purchasing power of precious metal

According to the 5e Player’s Handbook (PHB) 1 gold piece (9g of gold) or 10 silver pieces (90g of silver) is a skilled but not exceptional artisan’s daily wage, and 2 silver pieces (18g of silver) is a labourer’s daily wage. However, in the late 14th century in England you could hire a carpenter or mason for sixpence (9g of silver) a day and a labourer for 3½ pence (5.25g). And it was less before the Black Death when there was a much greater supply of labour: farm-workers’ wages rose from a halfpenny a day early in the 12th century to a penny by the end, and still only 1½ pence by 1300. (offline sources: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer, and Making a Living in the Middle Ages, Christopher Dyer.)

Also according to the PHB that wage, 2 silver pieces a day, supports a ‘squalid’ lifestyle for one person. Nothing left to feed a family and no room for days without work. Whereas in reality a labourer would often be supporting a wife and children (who would earn lower wages if any) and day-labourers would not get paid work every day. That is, as well as buying the employer relatively little labour, DnD silver buys the labourer less still to live on.

So I suggest that a medieval-style currency should be worth more, weight for weight, than the official DnD pieces. An easy way of doing this would be to reduce coin weight while maintaining the rulebook prices in number of coins, but I hope to do more work on prices, so watch this space.

Silver standard

This isn’t true in all historical periods or regions but, in most of Europe for most of the middle ages, silver, rather than gold, was the main form of currency. King Pepin the Short of Francia in the 8th century established the silver denier as an influential standard for the rest of the middle ages, acting as a model for the English penny, German pfennigs, Scandinavian pennings, Italian dinari, the Spanish dinero and the Portuguese dinheiro, among others. (The Carolingian denier itself was modelled on the Roman denarius.) Units based on the weight of silver were the denominations even for very large amounts: for example, the ransom of King Richard I of England in 1193 was set at 150,000 marks (about 35 metric tons) of silver, or 24 million silver pennies—two to three year’s income for the English crown.

Gold was more plentiful in the east: the Byzantine solidus was that empire’s primary unit; the common small denominations were of bronze, and silver was minted only intermittently to fill the gap. The solidus was later imitated further west by cities such as Venice and Florence that wanted to support their high-value and international trading and banking—these coins circulated internationally among the elite. I think they did use silver for more everyday transactions though.

In northern Europe gold coins were also issued later in the era (leaving aside some transient failed coinages, the French écu came into circulation at the end of the 13th century, and the English noble in the middle of the 14th). I think they operated as prestige currency and enabled very rich people to carry plenty of cash without weighing themselves down, but they did not replace silver as the backbone of the monetary system. The gold coins were from time to time either altered in weight while retaining their value in silver or altered in value with reference to the silver standard. Gold did not become the basis for English currency value at least until the issue of the gold guinea in the 17th century.

So, if you want a western or northern European flavour, I suggest that you could convert price lists in your game to a silver currency, and have silver coins be the most common form of cash for all but the richest people. Silver coins would exist in greater numbers, and would make up treasure hoards and cash deposits put together from many small amounts (or intended for dispersal in small amounts, like a pay chest). Gold would be used mainly by (very) rich people, and for large sums cashed in one go by someone with access to a money-changer, bank or similar.

No platinum

Platinum has rarely been used for coins, and was not used in legitimate currency anywhere before the 19th century. (It was so cheap in colonial Latin America that it was used to fake silver coins though.) It was in fact entirely unknown in medieval Europe; its early occurrences are in South America and a little in ancient Egyptian artifacts. In both cases it is found alloyed with gold: in Egypt possibly as an impurity unidentified at the time; in the Americas as a deliberate alloy. Neither society made platinum money.

I’m aware that platinum has a function in DnD of allowing large high-level treasure hoards to be portable. But if you increase the purchasing power by weight of gold, you’re a long way to achieving that anyway.

Paper money

DnD rulebooks rarely if ever mention paper money, and you might think it too modern to feature in a fantasy game. I haven’t space here to go into the detail, but forms of paper money have been known since ancient times in civilisations like China and Rome, and it was also known in medieval Europe from the 10th century. It wasn’t quite government or central bank currency notes as we know them today, but there existed both paper, cloth or leather tokens or notes that would be redeemed for coinage by banks, and some more secure letters of credit that could be paid either to a specific individual or to any bearer if they also produced corroborating credentials to a bank partnering with the issuer.

Non-decimal denominations

Until the 18th century, and longer in most of the world, currencies were not structured primarily around powers of 10. Powers of 2, and multiples of both 2 and 3 like 6, 12, etc. were more common.

I realise that decimal currency is far easier to use since we count in base 10 and so non-decimal currency needs us to learn almost another counting system. So I won’t hold it against you if you keep your setting’s currency decimal. But if you want real historical feel you might consult your players about other systems. I’ve got a few examples in my next post.

Also note that gold was in medieval Europe typically worth a bit more than 10 times its weight in silver—usually the ratio was between there and 15:1.

Historically, there were attempts to price gold coins at the tempting 10:1 ratio, but it resulted in the coins often being melted down and converted into bullion worth more than their face value. In an invented setting you can tweak metal values to your convenience so you might use a stable 10:1 value by weight ratio. Or you could have a higher value-by-weight ratio and larger gold coins, with the principal gold denomination worth 20, 50 or 100 of the silver one.

In my next post, I offer a few usable coinage systems based on historical models from western Europe. I may later add some from other areas of the world.

Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts on these subjects, or about the flavoursome systems of coinage in your games.