Category Archives: Medieval Money

Stretching a Medieval Penny: The Somewhat Empty Purse of a Medieval Shoemaker

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Medieval re-enactor acting as a cobbler.

All novelist struggle with crafting believable characters. For historical fiction writers, I think the challenge is even greater. We walk a tight rope with believability on one side and intrigue and relatability on the other. Needless to say, it was after a great deal of research that I created Ansel Schumacher. The breadwinner in my novel, The Fairytale Keeper, Ansel is a shoemaker living in 13th century Cologne. To develop a better understanding of what his family’s economic situation would have been like, I created the chart below.

There are a few things worth noting before reading the table. First, if our shoemaker didn’t sell shoes, he didn’t make money. Luckily, Cologne was a city 40,000 strong and its relic of The Three Magi drew thousands of pilgrims each year. During tough economic times, a cobbler could spend less on food and drink—foregoing expenses like spices and proteins.  But there were a few expenses he couldn’t escape: rent, taxes, and tithes. Based on my research, the average shoemaker[1] living in the middle 13th century made 44 pennies each month. Here’s what his monthly budget might have looked like.

Monthly Bill Amount Description
Rent[2] 9 pennies A typical craftsman house would have had a workshop, solar, and two bedchambers.
Food[3] 15 pennies
  • 4 1/2 pennies on grains to make pottage, oatcakes, and ale
  • 4 pennies on bread.
  • 4 pennies on small amounts of either salted herring, eggs, offal, other cheap meat, cheese, milk, or almond milk
  • 1 penny on spice blends
  • 2 pennies on produce, pickled produce, dried nuts, fresh fruit, or fresh herbs
Ale[4] 3 ½  pennies 4 cups a day per person in 4 person family.
Tithes 4 ½  pennies Ten percent of a person’s income went to tithes.
Taxes[5] 4 ½ pennies Tax rates fluctuated, but on average ten percent of a person’s wages went to taxes.
Household Expenses[6] Varied based on need.
Savings 7 ½ pennies  (unless there are household expenses)

A 13th century shoemaker would have bought food for his faimly at a market, like the one in this artist rendering.

[1] Hodges’ List of Prices does not list the wages of a shoemaker. I make the assumption that a shoemaker probably made the same amount as a weaver, which Hodges does list. In the year 1407, a weaver made 5 pennies per day. According to another part of Hodges’ list a thatcher living in the middle 13th century made 44% of what a thatcher living in 1407 would have made. Assuming that this rate of inflation applied to everyone’s pay, I have adjusted my imaginary shoemaker’s income and the prices of the items he buys accordingly.

[2] Hodges’ List of Prices lists the rent of a craftsman’s home in the 14th  century to be 20 schillings per year in London. I’ve adjusted this according to the wages of the middle thirteenth century in which a craftsman made 44% the wages.

[3] This is a ball park figure in the most extreme sense of the phrase. First of all, this budget assumes our shoemaker lived in a city and was not able to grow a small garden of his own. Therefore, he had to buy everything at the market. Someone living on this kind of income would have relied on pottages and breads most likely. He might have had money for a little meat now and then, when meat was allowed. Nearly half the year–when one accounts for Lent, Advent, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays—people living in the Middle Ages were not allowed to eat meat. Only fish was permitted during these times. Ian Mortimer says the price of fish was high, but Hodges’ list states the purchase price for 5-10 salt herrings at 1 penny. Salted herring was probably the cheapest form of fish and people grew quite sick of it, especially by the end of Lent. Also worth noting, many foods were available seasonably.

[4] In The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer states that four gallons of ale fetched a penny in the 14th century. I think it’s safe to assume that someone living in the thirteenth century could purchase it or brew it (as women were expected to do) for about half of that. Assuming that each person in a four person household drank an average of 4 cups of ale each day, the family would go through roughly a gallon a day. Surely when times were bad, cobblers drank less, relied on their wives home-brewed ale, or in dire times collected water in cisterns. They may have also spent more money on better ale or wine during times of celebration and wealth.

[5] Like today, taxes could be levied on income, goods, or property.

[6] Household expenses could be anything from household goods, clothing, grooming, and healthcare. I imagine most woman came with the goods needed to keep a peasant household. Even peasant women came with a dowry of some sort by the thirteenth century. Hodges’ List shows peasant dowries of between 15 and 57 schillings in the 14th century. Adjusted for the 13th century, this would have been 6 and 25 schillings, roughly 2 to 7 months of a cobbler’s pay. Little wonder women were praised for birthing sons. I think this also is evidence that people living in the High Middle Ages were savers and not spenders. That being said, children would come with expenses of their own. A cobbler might have to pay for them a fee for them to be able to start an apprenticeship or their clothing and shoes would get worn. Certainly during hard times, people in the Middle Ages would have kept raged shoes a little longer in order to make sure they had enough money for food.

Sources:
Hodges, Kenneth. “List of Prices of Medieval Items.” Hodges. List of Prices of Items in Medieval England. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2014.
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Touchstone, 2014. Print.
Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969. Print.
Powicke, F. M. The Thirteenth Century: 1216-1307. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
Photo of Medieval Shoemaker: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/archeon/3448099214/
 

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like:

Penny, Pfennig, and Denier: Comparing the Coins of Medieval Europe

Halfpennies, Farthings, and Nobles: A Guide to England’s Medieval Coins

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

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Venetian Ducat

Penny, Pfennig, and Denier: Comparing the Coins of Medieval Europe

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 next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut later this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.
 
 

Medieval coins

By the High Middle Ages political and economic systems in Europe became more complex, so too did the coins. For example, in part twelve of Ken Elks’ book, Coinage of Great Britain: Celtic to Decimalization, his charts show eighteen changes in Scottish coinage alone in a one hundred year period.

Historical fiction writers like myself try to paint the most accurate portrait of history that we can. I wanted to better understand the money of Medieval Germany so that I could better understand what my characters could earn and spend. The chart below serves to simplify a very complex system.  I created it for myself, but I thought it might be of interest to others, so I am publishing it. Below the chart, I’ve listed a few facts worth considering before examining the table.

Coin Name Value First Use Description
English Medieval PennyEnglish: Penny

french denierFrench: Denier

pfennigGerman: Pfennig

Italian DenariItalian: Denari

1/240th pound of silver Late 700s
  • In 790, Charlemagne declared that 240 pennies should be minted from a pound of silver.
  • Smaller denominations of pennies were minted during the High Middle Ages like the English farthing and halfpenny.
groatEnglish: Groat

grostournaisFrench: Gross Tournois

groschenGerman: Groschen

Italian GrossoItalian: Grosso

  • 4 English pennies or…
  • 6 German pfennigs
1200s
  • A variety of coins fall into the groat category.
  • The word gross means big in German.
  • The term indicates that it was a big penny.
  • Counterfeit and devalued pennies made the groat a more popular coin among merchants.
English: Schilling

French: Sous

German:  Skilling

Italian: Soldi

  • 12 pennies or…
  • 3 groats or…
  • 1/10th mark or…
  • 1/20th pound
700s
  • During most of the Middle Ages, the schilling was a unit of account. People didn’t carry schillings in their purses.
  • The Florentines were the first to mint testones, a coin valued at a shilling, in the late 1400s.
  • The French and English were quick to follow suit, minting their own testoons.
  • The testoon became the shilling after Henry VIII’s reign.
Edward_III_nobleEnglish: Noble

Ecu d'or CoinFrench:  Ecu d’or

German GuldenGerman: Guilder/Gulden

FlorinFlorentine: Florin

Venetian DucatVenetian: Ducat

  • 80 pennies or…
  • 6 schillings and 8 pennies or…
  • 1/3 of a pound
  • Late 1200s in Italy
  • More widely used across Europe in 1300s
  • Many areas minted quarter and half denominations of these coins. Some of the smaller denominations were minted in silver.
  • The English minted half nobles and quarter nobles.
English: Mark

French: ?

German: Mark

Italy: ?

  • 120 pennies or…
  • 1/2 of a pound
700s
  • During most of the Middle Ages, the mark was a unit of account and most nations didn’t mint them.
English: Pound

French: Livre

German: Pfund?

Italian: Lira

  • 240 pennies or…
  • 60 groats or…
  • 20 schillings or…
  • 6 Half Nobles or…
  • 3 Nobles or…
  • 2 Marks
700s
  • During most of the Middle Ages, the pound was a unit of account and most nations didn’t mint them.
  • By the end of the Middle Ages the French were minting Francs.

Medieval minting shopThings to Consider:

  1. Coin values varied between nations. It’s similar to comparing an American dollar with the English pound or Euro. Each has a different value. The value of money in the Middle Ages was directly correlated with the coin’s size and silver or gold content, not the nation’s economic power.
    1. In general, German coins were of lower quality and value than English coins. The German lands consisted of duchies, counties, imperial cities, archbishoprics, and bishoprics. The Hohenstaufens doled out minting rights and didn’t regulate them. Therefore, many areas minted coins of varying quality. By the thirteenth century, six German pfennigs equaled four English pennies.
    2. During much of the early Middle Ages, the French kings were weak, and the kingdom itself was fairly small. While they minted purer coins than the Germans, the appearance varied widely. The mints of Tours in Touraine were considered the most stable.

By the end of the Middle Ages—much like the Scots—the French kings were constantly changing the coins and their value. Therefore, it is easier to classify the French coins into categories like types of pennies, types of big pennies (groats), and types of gold coins.

  1. As time passed and trade expanded into all classes, there was need for coins of larger and smaller denominations. The average pay for a day’s wages during the High Middle Ages was a penny. Let’s compare that to today where the average pay is about 100 dollars.

Imagine having to pay for everything with 100 dollar bills, except imagine that the 100 dollar bill was a coin. What if something costs 25 dollars? Then you have to chop the coin into fourths. It’s not very convenient. Here’s where it gets more complex: not every area minted the same denominations.  However, most of them had a silver penny, a groat, and by the fourteenth century, a gold coin.

  1. Minters and noblemen got greedy or they went through difficult economic times and would devalue their own currency to keep the excess silver and gold. I discuss this more in a previous article: Inventing the Penny: Charlemagne’s Lost Effort at a Standard Currency.

Whether you’re a historical fiction writer or budding medievalist, I hope you found this chart of value. If you find any errors in my research, please comment.

Sources:
“Banks and Money.” Currency and Banking in the Late Middle Ages. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.http://europeanhistory.boisestate.edu/latemiddleages/econ/banking.shtml
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.http://www.medievalcoinage.com/denominations/
“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.http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/coins/
“Testoon.” ø. Coin and Bullion Pages, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.