In the first two posts on fantasy money, I explored the purposes of money and some ideas on how old money might have come into being. In this post, I’d like to consider monetary denominations. For this purpose, I’m going to use the old English coinage system as an example as well as refer to other systems at the end.
The first thing one must understand is that the old English system was tri-metallic. At its apex it had gold, below that, silver, and for small denominations copper/bronze. Only the first two were precious metals.
The other thing to understand about the “£ s d” system was that it incorporated a huge range of currencies within it. This reflected the use of precious metals in its composition. The value of the metal dictated the value of the coin.
At the base was the penny. This gave the “d” in the system. There were 12 pennies to a shilling. Since there were 20 shillings (a silver coin) to a pound (the gold coin), that meant there were 240 pennies to a pound. There are some really nice benefits to this arrangement. A base 12 allows division by 12, 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1. A base 10 system (decimal) as is current in most countries only allows 10, 5, 2, and 1. This a base 12 provides more flexibility, though counting up isn’t one of them. So with a base 12 coin, we can have bigger units that represent multiples of the penny, as we can of course with the current decimal system. And that is what we find. There was a tuppence piece (2 pennies), a threepenny piece and a sixpenny piece. This made carrying change around a lot easier. One can convert a sixpenny into two threepenny pieces or one threepenny piece and three pennies. Note the sixpenny piece was a silver coin—indicating the crossover that takes place between base and precious metals at some unit of value, whereas the threepenny was a base coin. The sixpence could—and was—equally thought of as a half-shilling.
The same flexibility extends to the shilling (which gave the “s” in the system). The unit here is doubled up into a two shilling piece, called a florin. It was the same currency unit as became popular across Europe minted by the Florentines to facilitate trade. The next logical unit is a five shilling piece, which is a crown. This is in effect a quarter pound so could have been either gold or silver. It was silver. Then—interestingly enough—there was a half-crown and because of the 20 to the pound system, this meant this had a value of two shillings and six pence. Note that this gave 8 half-crowns to the pound. These are the “pieces of eight” so beloved of pirates. These coins were, in fact, as far as the currency was concerned, another import. The half-crown was a Spanish dollar (also called thaler) and the base later for the U.S. dollar. This partly explains its importance to pirates—most preyed on Spanish shipping and settlements. In the English old money system, this dollar coin could be constructed by using two already existing silver coins, the florin with a silver sixpenny piece. It suggests that in early England and elsewhere foreign coins of a given precious weight circulated alongside locally produced coins of the same or similar specie value.
Note, just to confuse matters (as if the monetary system wasn’t confusing enough!), the gold pound (the “£” sign) came in more than one weight. By the time it got regularised, there was the pound sterling (of a given weight) worth 20 shillings and the guinea, worth 21 shillings, with a slightly larger gold content. Some transactions were effected in pound sterling, others in guineas.
How much did old English money buy? Well obviously the value of particular denominations today is different to what it was. If we are interested in medieval times (and this is for England) then the following website is a useful resource to obtain an idea of how far money went:
What it shows is how prices varied very considerably. This was due to the primitive and costly production systems involved and for which we have a great deal of difficulty understanding given the way production techniques have so radically changed.
A peasant’s tunic cost 36 pence, a linen shirt 8 pence. At the other end of the scale, a top of the range gown 2,400 pence. A more normal fashionable item would still set back the buyer 63 pence. Given that an unskilled labourer earned 2-3 pence per day, buying a tunic would set them back over a week’s wages. At the other end, a skilled mason could earn double what an unskilled labourer earned and an armourer 16 pence per day.
Now to look at another monetary system, that of Biblical times, for comparison. There were many systems of course and they have similarities and differences. But there was a need for different value coins and a logical relationship between them. The most valuable coin was the talent, which was 34.2 kilograms of gold. This was divided by 60 to create the mina, which was 570 grams of gold. The shekel was one-fiftieth of a mina at 11.4 grams. That meant that 3000 shekels made up one talent.
There was a smaller coin to the shekel—which seems like the importation of a different weight base gold coin 9as with pieces of eight)—called the pim, which was 7.8 grams of gold. This was 2/3rds of a shekel. Note the pim was similar to other Middle Eastern coins like the daric, a Persian gold coin, which was 8.4 grams of gold. This probably meant the shekel and the daric could be used somewhat interchangeably—as with the florin and Spanish dollar in the English system.
Then there was the bekah which is a half-shekel coin and weighted 5.7 grams. Finally, the gerah was 1/10th of a bekah, which meant—interestingly enough—that you needed 20 of these coins to make a shekel.
China started, interestingly enough, from a different perspective with copper coins and made a rapid transition to paper money. They don’t seem to have adopted the Western idea of creating coins of different denominations at first. By the Qing dynasty, however, they operated a bimetallic system with silver for the higher denominations based on weight and coins of different denominations.
In writing historically correct fiction, one needs to know what coins might be used for what purchases and sales. If one is creating a fantasy world, it is useful to consider what kind of economic development it has reached and use an appropriate match between any fantasy money and its purchasing power for verisimilitude.
P.S. After writing the above, I discovered there was at one point in the 19th Century a quarter penny. The reason I discovered this was that the current U.K. penny is worth less in purchasing power than this fractional coin. Such is inflation! And a lesson to writers who set stories in the past.