Roleplaying Resources

Historical Coinage

2/8/01 From bradds@concentric.net (Bradd W. Szonye):

Historically, most coins were made of silver until the very late middle ages and early renaissance. Gold coins were more common in Italy and the Byzantine empire, but trying to maintain currency in two different metals (gold and silver) was a frequent cause of economic trouble, because of the fluctuation of relative values. Following is some information on historic coins and values that you may be able to use in your game. I'll focus mainly on 13th century Europe, for two reasons: the feudal system was in full swing, and coinage was still fairly uniform throughout Europe, which matches your typical D&D campaign.

First, I'll discuss values. Often, there was no particular coin associated with a value; the only universal coin appears to be the penny (and its non-English equivalents). Each denomination was based on some fraction of the value of a pound of silver.

[Note: the weight of a “pound” has varied considerably over the years. Nowadays, a pound weighs 7,000 grains, but we still weigh precious metals in Troy pounds, which weigh only 5,760 grains, divided into twelve Troy ounces. Around the 13th century, England used the Tower pound instead, which was an even lighter 5,400 grains. A Tower ounce is a little more than a US ounce, and a Troy ounce is a little heavier still. Here's what happened. Charlemagne defined the “pennyweight” as 24 grains, 240 pennies to the pound. That's the same as Troy weight. In the 12th century or so, the value of silver went up, and England changed the pennyweight to 22.5 grains: that's Tower weight. A couple centuries later, they switched back to 24-grain pennyweights, but by that time a penny no longer weighed a pennyweight. Either system is fine for RPG use.]

Anyway, currency throughout most of Europe was based on the Roman and Carolingian standard, which specified the pound, mark, shilling, and penny as the basic units of currency.

  • A pound is a pound of silver: 240 pence.
  • A mark is two-thirds of a pound of silver: 160 pence.
  • A shilling is a twentieth of a pound of silver: 12 pence.
  • A penny is 1/240 of a pound (a pennyweight).

Don't forget that that's a Tower or Troy pound; a pound of silver weighs 3/4 to 5/6 of a modern pound.

Those are the English names; here are some others:

English German French Italian Latin
pound pfund livre lire libra
shilling schilling sou (sol) soldi solidus
penny pfennig dernier denari denarius
half-penny halbpfennig obolos ? obulus

Most of the different denominations only existed in accountants' ledgers; the mark in particular never had a coin to represent it in England. Pennies are by far the most common coin; half-pennies and farthings (1/4 pennies) also existed, often by cutting pennies in halves and quarters. In England, the largest coin minted throughout most of the middle ages was the groat, worth 4 pence and about the size of a US quarter.

As noted above, a silver penny weighed 22.5 grains, or about 300 pennies to the (modern) pound. In England, pennies were made of fine (92%) silver and were a little smaller than a US penny. In Italy, they were made of debased (about 33%) silver, and a little larger than a US penny. Larger coins, if they existed, would be made of fine silver to keep them at a reasonable size.

A groat would be about the size of a US nickel, and a shilling, if it had actually existed in coin form, would be about the size of a US “silver” dollar coin (the old Eisenhower dollars, not the new Sacajawea dollars). In truth, no coin that size existed until the 16th century in England, and by that time silver was worth less, so the dollar-sized coin, called a “crown,” was worth 5 shillings.

Gold coins were very rare, except for the Byzantine bezant and the Italian florin. The florin weighed about 72 grains, about the size of a US nickel. It was valued at 29 soldi (shillings).

In general, a peasant or unskilled laborer earned about a penny a day plus room and “board” (usually harvested by the peasant himself), a skilled laborer or craftsman made about a shilling a day, and a master tradesman could earn about a pound a day. Here's what a penny could buy:

  • a chicken
  • about 3 dozen eggs
  • 3 gallons of beer
  • 1/2 gallon of wine
  • a night's stay at a “decent” inn

Even as the value of money changed over time, each of those things were worth a little more than a peasant's daily wage. The Player's Handbook also lists each of them as costing about a silver piece; thus, I'll set a penny equal to 1 sp.

Here are some English coins and values, their D&D equivalents, approximate weights (in coins per pound), and a similarly-sized US coin:

Amount Pennies D&D Metal Weight US coin
farthing 1/4 penny 2 1/2 cp silver 1200/lb
half-penny 1/2 penny 5 cp silver 600/lb
penny 1 penny 1 sp silver 300/lb penny*
groat 4 pence 4 sp silver 75/lb quarter
shilling 12 pence 1 gp silver 25/lb dollar
mark 160 pence 1 1/3 pp
pound 240 pence 2 pp

[*] slightly smaller than a penny

Note that the shilling (gp) is worth 12 pence (sp), not 10. You can deal with this one of two ways: change the value of the “gold piece” from 10 silver pieces to 12, or change the weight of the shilling from 12 pennyweight to 10. I actually recommend keeping 1 shilling = 12 pence, but some players don't like this. If you do, treat any D&D value in gold pieces as “shillings” and any values in silver pieces as “pence.” Thus, if a price is listed as 10 gp, it costs 10 shilling or 120 pence; if the price is 96 sp, it costs 8 shilling or 96 pence.

The mark was never a coin, and there were no pound coins until the 16th century or so, but I've listed them on the table for conversion purposes. Actually, there were no shilling coins either, but I've listed a hypothetical coin of about the right size.

Here are some Italian coins:

Amount Pennies D&D Metal Weight US coin
denari 1 denari 1 sp silver 100/lb penny*
soldi 12 denari 1 gp silver 25/lb dollar
lire 240 denari 2 pp
florin 360 denari 3 pp gold 100/lb nickel

[*] slightly larger than a penny

Again, the soldi (shilling) is a fictitious coin, but if it existed it would be about the size of a silver dollar.

Fast forward a few centuries, and European coinage has changed radically (although it still has the same 1 pound = 20 shilling = 240 pence relationships). Inflation and dishonesty has made coins much less valuable; in about 300 years, a shilling has fallen to about the value of a penny. Coins steadly grow smaller (or less pure). Inflation hits some areas harder than others; Italy in particular has trouble caused by the different values of gold and silver. (In the 13th century, a florin is worth 29 soldi; in the 16th, it's worth closer to 75 soldi. Since wages are set in gold but paid in silver, that means that people are effectively earning less than half of what they were 300 years before.) The French sou, once the equal of an English shilling, is worth only about half a penny in the late middle ages.

Also, pennies eventually grow so small, even when made of debased silver, that they are no longer convenient. Most areas either stop using pennies (like France, where the sou is the smallest practical coin) or start minting them from copper instead of silver (like England, where a penny was still “worth something”). The standards for prices are still about the same (a bottle of wine is still a day's pay for a peasant), but the coins are worth much less. This leads to a proliferation of coins; England introduces shillings (by now only about the size of a quarter) crowns (the first actual dollar-sized coin), worth 5 shillings, and gold sovereigns (worth a pound). If you want to play in this era, here are some reasonable English coins:

Amount Pennies D&D Metal US coin
half-penny 1/2 penny 1/2 cp copper nickel
penny 1 penny 1 cp copper quarter
groat 4 pence 4 cp silver penny
shilling 12 pence 1 sp silver quarter
crown 60 pence 5 sp silver dollar
half-sov. 120 pence 1 gp gold nickel
sovereign 240 pence 2 gp gold quarter

I haven't researched this era as thoroughly, so the coin sizes may be a bit off, and I haven't figured out the weights at all (although you can probably make a good guess based on the older coin sizes and weights). Those of you running a late-middle-ages campaign may prefer these coins, because they use the same metals as D&D coins, are about the same size, and the whole “1 shilling = 12 pence” problem is shifted into the copper-piece range where it's less likely to give your players a headache.

I'll be using the older weights and sizes in my own game. Unfortunately, my players have already begun to rebel at the shillings, pounds, and pence, but I'm sure they'll come around sooner or later. *evil grin*

Let me know if you have information to add or corrections where I've made stupid mistakes!


2/14/01 From bjm10@cornell.edu (Bryan J. Maloney)
bradds@concentric.net (Bradd W. Szonye) wrote in
<slrn98j0ei.cem.bradds@zany.cup.hp.com>: 
Thanks for the clarification. For some reason, I was under the
impression that coinage of different European areas was still roughly
the same value in the 13th century.

By the last two decades of the 13th century, a florin of Florence was worth about 2-3 shillings of England, depending on the year. This fluctuating value remained fairly constant at least until the end of the 15th century. A ducat of Venice was worth 3.5-4 shillings of England during the 15th century. This is according to Spufford's database.

Speaking of which, I've heard the florin described as a pound coin, but
also that it weighed about 72 grains (a little less than 5 grams), at
least in the 13th century. My calculations show that an English pound at
the same time would require about 7 times that much gold: 35 grams. (A

Well, if one takes your calculations and looks at the actual historical exchange values, you'll see that your calculations weren't too far off the mark. It looks like the florin may have improved a bit by the end of the 13th century from your calculation, but not a great deal. A “pound” stopped being a constant international value long before your period of interest.

Do you know of any good resources for finding common exchange rates in
1344 (just before the Black Death)? I'm strongly considering making

That early? Afraid not.

Coin Usage

From: Ben Buckner <tarchon@imap2.asu.edu>
Subject: Re: COINS
Date: Fri, 11 Aug 2000 14:25:17 -0500

Matko Barisic wrote:


bob blanchard wrote in message 91Gk5.461$Hu4.178460@news.uswest.net


3rd ED coins are 1/3 of a ounce (50 to the pound).
Coins are the exact size if the ilistation in page 146,

page 96

This might or might not be a really long-running extension of a thread based
on a question I once asked about the physical properties and dimensions of
coins to be used in medieval-like D&D campaigns, and if it is, I want to
appologise to people for the rudness of never again having looked at the
thread - I am notorious for really only getting acquainted with the way my
newsreader programmes work so the whole thing is still a mess in which I can
seldom find what I am looking for.
If it's not, I'd like to ask people to give me their ideas about what coins
they use in their campaigns (if they concern themselves with such indepth
things), or what kind of coins were used historically?

I would (and sometimes do) make up coins specifically for each state. You can tell a lot about a country by its coins. Countries with particular religious orientations will show it on their coins, using symbols and devices peculiar to that religion. Rulers or members of rulers' families will comonly appear. If the ruler desires to establish his heir in the minds of the people, coins are a good way to do that. If crown-prince Apgar is on the Fritchland silver penny, it's pretty clear to everyone that he and not his usurping cousin Smedley is the legitimate heir to the throne.

The Romans were especially adept at using coins for propaganda, so you can get a lot of ideas from their issues. Constantine during his pagan days issued coins with his patron Sun God on the reverse. After he sold out (:-)) to the Christians, the pagan gods went away. Instead, we see for example depictions of the vision that converted him or scenes involving the chi-rho symbol. A very popular coin of the Constantinian dynasty shows a scene of a Roman soldier slaying a barbarian (and the ethnic identity of the barbarian depended on where the coin was minted) with the legend “fel. temp. reparatio,” “the good times are back.” Constantine's early rival Maxentius used traditional Roman themes in his coins to appeal to his Old Roman constituency against Constantine's Greek cosmopolitanism, which threatened Rome's position as the heart of the empire. Military emperors who depended strongly on the backing of the army were very prone to issue coins with military themes and slogans like “Loyalty of the soliders”, “Glory of the army,” and reminders of the emperor's military prowess: “Conqueror of the Parthians” “The Victory of our Emperor” and so on.

For some other ideas, Medieval Islamic coins are unusual in that they hardly ever depict human figures (for religious reasons) and so are usually covered with inscriptions. Medieval Chinese coins typically have a hole in the middle so you can string thing together. Like the islamic coins, they almost never have portraits. Chinese bronze coins also were cast on “trees”, so that as you needed change, you would pluck the coin off of the tree, or you could just use the whole tree for large transactions. Some Chinese “coins” were also shaped like minature versions of everyday objects. Norsemen would sometimes make change by just hacking off a bit of the coin (known as hacksilver).

Another thing about medieval coins that isn't appreciated so much in RPGs, I think, is the rarity of gold coins in circulation. Gold hardly ever circulated. People buried it under the floor and left it for years. Silver was a little more common, but the vast bulk of circulating coinage in well established money systems would be bronze, brass, copper, and billon (copper-silver). In places where the government was weak though (countries with a Chaotic bent perhaps), base coinage would tend to be seen as valueless and silver would tend to be the bulk of whatever currency was circulating. Highly inflationary economies with a functional gonvernment would tend to have a glut of base coinage and debasement of silver coinage.

If you want to see real medieval coins, look on eBay under the Medieval Coin auctions. Tons of free images, and you could even buy a few as props if you were really into it. :-) If nothing else, they should give you an idea as to how different medieval-technology coins look from modern ones.

Ben Buckner

Refining Gold and Silver

From: azothath <azothath@my-deja.com>
Subject: [Suplmnt] Refining Gold and Silver
Date: Tue, 25 Jul 2000 15:09:23 GMT

Okay - in this thread we can discuss methods of refining precious metals in a game environment or historical context.

I'm aware that during the spanish invasion of the americas that gold refinement produced palladium and platinum, which were thought to be rather worthless metals (particularly palladium) adulterating the gold. Logs of silver and gold were produced on the return voyage. The logs were cut with a large steel knife and stamped with the king's seal for purity and sold at the docks and from the king's treasury.

Also there are seveal known facts about acids and the solubilities of metals(metallic salts) from the alchemists.

As for historical methods of refinement (pre 1800s) I'm not sure of these.

In game, well, magic would be the fastest form of refinement depending upon your game setting.