Since I mentioned the bizarre monetary unit of a ‘mark’ last week, I thought it was probably time to try to understand fourteenth-century money. Even within my lifetime, some of which took place pre-decimalisation, odd monetary units have been used. In the 60s, my first piano, an upright which even then was more than fifty years old and had spent most of its life in pubs, cost my parents 7 guineas. What, you might ask, is a guinea? It was one pound and one shilling and it was replaced by the pound as the main unit of currency in 1816. The concept continued to be used, mainly for luxury goods, for another hundred and fifty years. It was a good way of making things sound less expensive than they were, because you really weren’t paying attention to the shillings. The term fell out of use after decimalisation in 1971.
Up until the 1340s most of the money used in England was low-denomination silver coins. In the 1340s high-denomination gold coins were introduced. These new coins were mostly used by merchants for making large sales/purchases and for international exchange.
The main units, as they were until 1971, were pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d). There were 12 pence (12d) in a shilling and 20 shillings (20s) in a pound. This is not as complicated as it sounds, provided you know the 12x table, which we all learned very early in the pre-decimal days.
The ‘s’ which denotes a shilling is not an abbreviation of shilling, but of solidus. The ‘d’ for pence comes from denarius and the ‘£’ from libra ponda. The first two were the names of Roman coins given to early English coins. The last was a weight.
Originally a shilling was a twentieth of a pound weight. Later it was the name given to the silver coin which was a twentieth of a pound in value. A pound was how much 20 silver shillings or 240 silver pennies weighed. There was no coin that was worth a pound, but it was used for accounting purposes.
Pennies were not the smallest denomination in the fourteenth century. If you were a skilled labourer earning 4d a day you needed smaller units if you were buying something, or your money would disappear very quickly. A penny was divided into two halfpennies. These were first issued in 1279 and went out of circulation in 1969. Post-decimalisation there was also a halfpenny, but it only lasted from 1971 to 1984. The halfpennies of my childhood were quite large, but the post-decimal ones were smaller than my little fingernail (or seemed to be) and were more or less worthless as soon as they were introduced, even though they were, technically, worth more than the old halfpennies, there now being only 200 of them to the pound rather than 480.
In the fourteenth century the halfpenny was also divided in two, into farthings. Ferding was an Old English word meaning quarter. The farthing was also introduced in 1279 and went out of circulation in 1960.
Before 1279 farthings and halfpennies were silver pennies cut into halves and quarters. Since this was rarely done accurately, nobody could really be sure that what they thought was a farthing was really a quarter of the weight of a silver penny. The problem wasn’t entirely resolved when halfpennies and farthings were minted in their own right.
On and off during the fourteenth century the groat was available. It was also first minted in 1279 and was worth 4d. It was not popular because its weight did not match its value. In was reissued more successfully in 1351 along with a half-groat (2d).
One of the gold coins that Edward III introduced in 1344 was the noble. It was worth a third of a pound (6s 8d), or half a mark and fell out of use in the 1460s.
The mark came from Denmark with the Vikings. It was not a coin, but a unit for accounting, like the pound. It was originally made up of 8 ore, each of which was worth 20d, which comes to 13s 4d, or two-thirds of a pound.
The gold florin was introduced in 1344. It was based on a coin produced in Florence which could be used internationally. Unfortunately the weight of the coin was less than its value (6s), so did not gain the acceptance necessary for it to be used abroad. It was withdrawn before the end of 1344.
The question about what the exchange rate would be between fourteenth-century England and twenty-first-century Britain can’t really be answered. The things that people did with money then had a different value. Even if you equate the skilled labourer’s 4d a day with the wages of his twenty-first-century equivalent, you still have no means of comparison. The way in which the fourteenth-century labourer used his money was different. He didn’t have a mortgage, nor did he go on holiday. He didn’t have a car, but he might have had a horse. He rarely had to pay tax, but there were tolls and fees for almost everything he wanted to do. There is no way of saying that his shillings and pennies would be worth so many pounds today.
Edward III by W. Mark Ormrod
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon with Ann Williams