I wrote in last week’s post that the male protagonist in a novel that I’m plotting at the moment has valued his ransom at £175. Being English, Geoffrey and his brother have calculated their worth in pounds sterling, but they’re in France and ransoms there would be paid in French gold coins. Geoffrey’s captor would make his calculation in livres tournois, the currency used in France. The coins were made of gold, silver or a silver-copper alloy, depending on the value of the coin.
The silver coins were the most important for most people, as they were used to pay taxes, wages and rents. The silver-copper alloy coins were used for everyday expenses, such as shopping. Ransoms, though, were usually paid in gold.
One livre tournois was worth much less than one pound sterling. There were six livres tournois to one pound sterling, so Geoffrey’s ransom as he has calculated it would be 1,050 livres tournois.
Then as now, however, the exchange rate wasn’t the only element of the transaction.
Once Geoffrey’s ransom is agreed with his captor, he has a problem. Although he has enough wealth to pay the ransom he has calculated, he doesn’t have enough gold. There might be some gold coins in the booty he’s taken, but most of the coins will be silver. The rest of his booty might be valuable (or not so valuable) objects that he has taken in raids and he might be able to persuade his captor to take some of these in lieu of coins. If he’s unlucky, his captor will expect him to hand over 1,050 gold coins.
Geoffrey’s next problem is that there aren’t that many gold coins in circulation. Most people have never even seen a gold coin, let alone owned one, so he has to find someone who has gold coins … lots of them. There’s a chance that some of his friends or relatives will sell him gold coins, especially if they’ve managed to get ransoms from the French prisoners they captured during the battle, but they’re unlikely to have all that he needs. Florentine bankers are a good source of gold coins, but they will charge him a fee to change the coins and it won’t be a small one. He will need to sell some of his possessions and get in touch with a representative of a Florentine bank.
Once Geoffrey has sold anything that he needs to sell to ensure that he has the necessary coins, something that might take some time, he now has to get them to Florence and the bank in Florence has to get the gold coins to him. In theory. In practice it was far too dangerous to transport large sums of money that far. Fortunately, banking in the fourteenth century was far more sophisticated than that and bills of exchange were often used instead of physical money.
I’ve written about Geoffrey having coins and precious objects, but, of course, he doesn’t have them with him. They are, he hopes, safely in Bordeaux with his brother. Whilst some captors would allow their prisoners to leave their captivity in order to raise their ransoms, there’s a risk that some of them will simply go home as soon as they’re released. Geoffrey, though, doesn’t need to leave the castle where he’s being held. All he needs to do, is to send a messenger to his brother, who shouldn’t be too far away.
Geoffrey assumes that his brother has also survived the battle and has returned with the English army to Bordeaux, so we will too. The brother is the one who will contact their family and friends to try and exchange silver coins for gold coins. He will also sell anything he needs to get more silver coins. Eventually he will deposit the coins with a representative of the bank he or Geoffrey has chosen in Bordeaux and the banker will send a bill of exchange to a representative near to where Geoffrey is being held. This representative will then pay the gold coins to Geoffrey’s captor, assuming that they have sufficient gold coins in that part of France. As it was for so many, it’s beginning to look as if Geoffrey’s captivity will be a lengthy one.
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl