Inventing the Penny: Charlemagne’s Lost Effort at a Standard Currency

Andrea CefaloAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The second book in The Fairytale Keeper series–The Countess’s Captive-debuted earlier this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.

Charlemagne and the Silver Penny


Charlemagne simplified the currency of Medieval Europe in the ninth century.

For certain, easing the trade of goods and services is the truest purpose of standard currency. When Charlemagne declared that 240 pennies should be minted from a pound of silver, he eased the trade of goods and services throughout the Holy Roman Empire. For the next 400 years, the penny was made from real silver just as Charlemagne had ordered. Therefore, it had a standard value. The penny might have been called different things in different areas—the  French denier, the German pfennig, the Spanish dinero, the Italian denari—but each coin had  the same silver content, and the same value.

Because of Charlemagne’s efforts, an English wool merchant could sell his wool to a weaver in Flanders who could sell his woven wool to a dyer in Cologne who could sell his died fabric to a merchant in Venice who could sell his wares to a fashionable noblewomen with ease. None of them would have to worry about the value of the coins they traded. It’s similar to what the Euro does for Europe today.

Diluting the Penny

English Penny from the twelfth century featuring King John.

This English penny from the twelfth century features King John.

Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries kings, noblemen, minters, and counterfeiters diluted the penny with some dire consequences and disastrous results.

During the reign of English King Henry I, the percentage of silver in coins plummeted. As punishment for minting low-quality coins, each mint master had his right hand cut off on Christmas day in 1124 at the Assize of Winchester. The threat of mutilation wasn’t enough to keep moneyers’ honest, and the improvement in coin purity was only temporary.

Reducing the silver content in coins was not a practice exclusive to England. In fact, records suggest it was worse in other parts of the Holy Roman Empire, especially the German lands.  According to Medieval Denominations, by 1100 the standard German pfennig had twenty-five percent less silver than it did in the days of Charlemagne—dropping its value to three-quarters of an English penny.

Medieval Pfennig

This thirteenth-century German pfennig minted in Cologne bears the likeness of the archbishop, not the king.

By 1299, the problems presented by diluted coins were so prevalent that England forbid their import. Maurice Powicke states in his book, The Thirteenth Century, that King Henry III  tried to rid England  of “the false and debase…coins which had been brought into England and Ireland from German and Rheinish ports.”

As I survey the twelfth and thirteenth-century German coins at Fitz Museum, I can see that the minting of Rheinish coins was not nearly as regulated as it was in England. In the German lands, many dukes, lords, counts, bishops, archbishops, as well as the emperor, had minting rights.  Germans—whether counterfeiters, dishonest minters, or greedy noblemen, I can’t be sure—blended baser metals, such as copper, into the coins.  People called the debased currency black money.  In some cases, coins had less than one percent of the silver than they should have.  Not surprising, merchants from across Europe preferred coins with a high silver content, such as the groschen.

Clipping and Shrinking the Penny

Edward I

Edward I blamed Jews for clipping coins.

Besides decreasing the silver content of coins, minters devalued their coins through the process of clipping. Despite the threat of mutilation and execution, clippers trimmed the edges of the coins, collected the fragments, and made a profit, all while passing off the coins as having the same value as unclipped coins.  In 1277, Edward I hanged Jewish merchants for clipping coins.

As well as clipping and reducing the silver content in coins, minters also reduced the mass. When King Stephen I depleted the treasury in 1140, he ordered the penny’s weight to be reduced so he could pay his military expenses in wars against his niece, Matilda.  English barons also began issuing their own coins. Large amounts of counterfeit and low-quality coins drastically reduced the value of the penny. During the time of Charlemagne, a shilling was worth twenty pennies. During Stephen’s reign, the shilling’s value dropped to twelve pennies, nearly decreasing the currency value by half.

Just as a bad king can debase a currency, a good king can improve it.  In 1182,  Henry II, demanded silver content in pennies be high and consistent. One hundred thirty years later, during the reign of Henry III, the first recorded public assessment of a coin’s purity was performed. It was called Trial of the Pyx and is still performed in Great Britain to this day.

Diversity in Coins


Gold coins, like the noble, made an appearance in the 13th and 14th centuries and quickly spread through Europe.

As political and economic systems became more complex, so did the coinage. During the high middle ages, the diversity in coins skyrocketed. Because the coins varied in silver content and size, they aren’t as easily comparable as the penny, pfennig, and denier of the ninth century. Trying to compare the values is a daunting task that I tried, but probably won’t continue. I can imagine what a burden this must have been for merchants and those in charge of accounts.


“Banks and Money.” Currency and Banking in the Late Middle Ages. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

Brooke, Christopher Nugent Lawrence. Europe in the Central Middle Ages: 962-1154. Harlow: Longman, 2000. Print.

“Medieval Coin Denominations of Europe.” Medieval Coin Denominations of Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

“Medieval Sourcebook: William of Malmesbury: Counterfeit Money in the Time of King Stephen, 1140.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.

“The Fitzwilliam Museum : Coins and Medals Home.” The Fitzwilliam Museum News. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.