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Money in the Carolingian Times

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From the Roman bimetallism to the Carolingian monometallism

During the Merovingian era, a great anarchy is reigning in terms of a monetary system. The king has not the means anymore to be applied to have his kingly monopole of the mint respected. Numerous, local, mint workshops are mintig money, function of the local needs. Any important people, in the Frankish dominions is minting, from the kings and the mayors of the palace, to the bishops and abbots, and to the Greats. The value of one coin is related to the real weight in gold or in silver it's containing. Bronze or copper coins, which thus have no value (as they had one when, under the Roman empire, when the State was bringing its warrant to theirs) are used for the local-level commercial exchanges. The minting of gold or silver coins is declining and even disappear during extended periods of time, as these coins -gold, above all- are used for the large-scale trade only! When the sovereign is back to being barely more able to some more control over the mint, they just are minting 'triens' only, which are worth the third of a gold 'solidus', or 'sou', in French. They are very small gold coins, containing 1.3 gram of gold only which are used for the low-level commercial circuits. Then, further, when bishop St Eloi, a goldsmith and treasurer for king Dagobert I, about 625 A.D., is taking back to the minting of silver coins, as the new coin is called a 'denarius', or 'denier' in French. The denarius is weighing, on an average, some 1.3 gr, like the golden coins. This brings to that, in 650 and 710, a bimetallism gold-silver is established, which is mostly serving a local form of trade relations. Gold, eventually, progressively then disappeared from the West as, if the West is buying a lot of goods to the East, and paying in gold, the East buy about nothing in the West, leading to a disrupted balance of exchanges. More, when, in the 8th century A.D., the large-scale trade routes are interrupted through the Arabic invasions, one passes in the West to a trade limited to the local level, or to some refocused trade routes, on one hand, and to the silver monometallism, on the other hand. The gold solidus just is becoming an accounting unit only as the coins keep being dinarii, weighing barely more than one gram. The accounting solidus, with a weight defined at 4.45 grams lost from its value relatively to that new preeminence of the silver coins, and is worth, now 40 denarii. 240 denarii are carved into one pound of silver, which has a weight of 326.3 grams. A pound of silver thus, is worth 6 sous and 240 deniers, this establishing a 1 to 12 ratio between gold and silver. This 1:12 ratio is amusingly just the one which had been defined by the Roman emperor Augustus. In the East the gold-silver ratio is at 1:14 as gold is more prized there

Then come the first Carolingians! As they are rebuilding their royal rule, they are strictly limiting, as far as money is concerned, the number of minting workshops and, with the council of Ver, in 755, Pippin the Short takes monetary lawful measures. 1 pound now establishes at 22 accounting solidi, which are worth, in turn, 264 denarii, bringing the accounting sou to 12 deniers. From then on, there won't be more that 18 monetary workshops in the kingdom, 12 of them kingly ones, the other 6 being belonging to some churches. The king of Franks is now the sole to have the right to mint! At the time, there is no gold money anymore and they don't even are seeing in circulation the old golden triens which had been printed until in about 599 A.D. That state of things was to last until the late 13th century, in France, or 1250 in Italy!

The Evolution Under Charlemagne and After

Charlemagne keep the endeavour that minting remains a royal -then imperial- monopole but too to make that there are in circulation a sufficient quantity of (silver) coins to match the state of the trade. At that purpose thus, Charlemagne is increasing the minting of silver deniers. 30 mint workshops now are at work between the Frankish and the Lombardic kingdoms (with the sole churches of Reims and Laon, with the abbeys of St. Firmin of Amiens, St. Martin of Tours, Ste. Croix of Poitiers and St. Peter of Trier which have the right to mint with the king's effigy). That worry is found back in 805 A.D. when, through the capitulary of Thionville, the emperor makes of the minting workshop in the palace of Aachen the sole legal but, at the same time, he lets at work the workshops of other palaces, like Thionville or Francfurt, for example and too minting places which are allowing to match with the needs of some large-scale trade, like in Arles, Lyons, Paris, Rouen, Quentovic, Duurstede and Trier. By a worry of prestige, or, in Italy, to check the minting made by the duchy of Benevent, the Frankish rulers may mint some Lombard, gold triens (with Italy largely having still the Byzantine and Arabic gold coins circulating) as, by the end of the reign of Charlemagne, a golden, 4-gram coin is minted in Duurstede at the effect of impressing the merchants of the North Sea and the Baltic. The Carolingian deniers are, at that era, considered fine silver (1,000 thousandths) even if practically their title lies better around 920 thousandths, which is the best the techniques of fondery of the time can afford. The practice of accounting, in the Carolingian times is such that they still don't hold to a fiduciary trust of sort into the coins themselves! Thus, as the accounting solidus, or sou is worth, theoretically 12 deniers, one doesn't stop at that theory but, instead, as, as far as the large-scale trade, or the royal treasury or of the large domains, are concerned, an important sum of money is delivered, or is accumulating, under the form of silver deniers, one eventually melt them down into ingots. That is to say that one mostly trust the weight of metal such or such sum of money is worth of. The monetary form of the coins thus looks like transient only and is likely relied on when less important trade is concerned, like in the local level markets of goods, for example. It's likely under the form of silver, one-pound, ingots that the large monetary reserves are kept

Charlemagne, in 790 A.D. then after the imperial coronation in the year 800, did take a still ill-explained measure. He did increase the weight of the denier. Apparently in the same spirit than a reform of the units of measure which had been deviced in 779, he has the weight of the silver pound modified from its old value of 326.3 grams, or 12 ounces to a new one of 489.505 grams (or 18 ounces). As one still is making 264 deniers from a silver pound, the weight of the denier which, until then, was of an average of 1.17 gram (with a theoretical value of 1.23 grams, that theory never obtained during the carving for cause of the carving techniques of the time) is now passing to an average of 1.62 grams (for a theoretical value of 1.85 grams). Two additional dozens of royal mint workshops are opened in the same move, and the inscriptions and effigies printed on the coins are uniformized at the benefit of exaltating the kingship. Due to the pratice of melting down the coins into ingots, like seen before for the large-scale trades and large revenus of domains, that reform of the weight of one pound of silver -and then, after 800, with the theoretical weight of the denier increased again up to 1.9 grams- is bringing an important augmentation of those most important revenues which are paid in coins, which are in turn melted into ingots! As the value of the accounting solidus is staying the same, the servants of the royal fiscal services, or royal road duties or the amount of the judicial fees, along with the revenues of the domains either of the king, the clerics or the Greats, did just asked that the nominal sums dues at the time be paid in deniers of the new mint, with a larger weight of silver that is! Those new coins, once melted, eventually will represent a larger weight of metal, and bring to the State and the varied owners of domains a 25 percent more in revenues! As far as the merchants were concerned, on the other hand, that reform likely brought a risk of having the trade to slow as the weight in metal a merchant might have, once minted back into coins, could not, with the renewed value, in weight, of the coins, allow him for the same amount -at a same said price- of goods. For the more usual, low-level exchanges, in the local markets, for example, the reform passed unnoticed as one could pay either with the ancient, less ponderous coins, or the heavier, new ones (one didn't melt the coins for such small quantities). It might thus that that monetary reform have been mostly the feat of the royal treasure, or even the result of some demand from the Greats. About 790 A.D., and further much in after 800, the dates at which the reforms were taken, the era of the Carolingian conquests is over, and with that, the booties they allowed for. As the expenses -often prestige ones- for the king and the Greats likely staid of a high level those had their revenues decreasing, now. The weight reform of the silver pound and denier likely was the first large monetary manipulation in the history of Europe! In the sense of that explanation, let's note too that, despite the efforts of the rulers to control and centralize the minting, local workshops kept working, along the Empire, allowing for lay, or cleric owners, to mint coins for the usage of the local markets. Those mint, by loss of silver, could take on the change of the pound's weight as, above all, Charlemagne had given the order to let circulate those deniers, provided they had the good weight, and title of metal. And additional, albeit lesser however, explanation may reside into that, at that time, the progress into mining in the East and the Arab Caliphate had allowed for more silver to be extracted. In order to maintain the 1:14 ratio to gold, they just increased the weight of their silver dirhams. As, in the Carolingian Empire, when one had coins of a foreign origin circulating, one just melted them like a source of metal for the deniers. With more such Arabic coins in the circuits, with, further, a possible increase at that time, for cause of more continental, agricultural goods exported, of their silver coins minted in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and in Frisia and eventually ending like deniers, one had the risk of having some inflation, with more silver available, hence more coins, but for less goods. The reform of the weight of the silver pound thus might have been taken too to counteract! At last, it's important to note that Charlemagne never took the circulating, less-weighted deniers, from the trade to have them replaced entirely with the new coins and that, thus, he just let a form of self-regulation to establish itself. A money, further, which looked like being in control, on the other hand, was not at risk of fleeing out of the country, into the East moslty, where it could have been more prized. It is possible that, generally, another factor of the reform be the impact of the trade routes, those of Austrasia and the renewed one at the marches of the Empire. Those would have need a larger quantity of coins, function of their conjonctural fluctuations (even if, in that case, the number of coins would have account more than the total weight of them, in metal). Whatever the case, Louis the Pious, about 825 A.D. increased the weight of the silver pound once more, as he brought the number of coins carvable in 1 pound to 240 only. An opposite tendency existed under Charles the Bald, at a time when the partition of Lotharingia had been made between the Francia occidentalis and the Francia orientalis and likely brought a number of large domains to be distributed among the emperor and his vassals. By the end of the 9th century, the equivalence 1 pound is 20 sous and 240 deniers got stabilized definitively. The question, finally, might well be too limited to the one of the trade circuits. It's important that there is a sufficient number of coins available on the markets so that the trade be able to work, but not beyond the match to avoid any risk of inflation. An increase in the weight of the denier, by 790, would have been the sign that the trade volumes were increasing, as the number of deniers would have augmented to much with the entry and melting of the Arabic, Anglo-Saxon, and Frisian coins. The reform, in that case, would have been to counter that move

A last consideration may be that the denier, at the time of the reform, was progressively becoming itself an accounting unit only, as smaller silver coins had appeared, like, for example, the obole. In that case, one would find back, at a lower level, the logics described for the revenues and fees of the king and the owners of large domains. That time, the logics would apply to the vassals of those and the revenues of their smaller domains. Thus, as soon as the beginning of the 9th century, a logic might be in place already, which had just to await for a benefitial conjoncture to express itself. That logic would be that of the potential, two-level centrifugal forces which eventually destroyed the Empire during the 10th century. The one of the Greats, who were the owners of a large number of domains and, finally the rulers of whole regions, and the one of their petty vassals which, later, turned independent from them. The move eventually turned into the lowest level of a feudal disintegration, by 1,000 A.D., down to the seigneuries. This, on another hand, is well showing how the theoretical stances and a rebuilt authorit kept always remaining a fragile endeavour, as far as the European synthesis is concerned, as opposed to the profound moves of the rurality and the local magnates. Did the history of Europe, from the fall of Rome, up to the Industrial Revolution, was ever else than the fight between such a tendency to the most profound of the decline and the feudalism and the re-establisment of the sense of the rule of law and the common interest?

The 1 pound/20 sous/240 deniers system became later a mere accounting one, which as to last a thousand years as, beginning as early than 800 A.D., he had been adopted in all the kingdoms of Europe which were not part of the Carolingian empire

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 12/28/2010. contact us at
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