A (Really Rough) Guide to some of the Problems of Medieval Money and Historical Fiction
There is a wealth (Ha!) of information out there about the history of money, coins, and currency. However, that doesn’t make it easy or simple to get to grips with a value system not only vastly different from our own, but also so distant and misted with time.
It becomes even more difficult when looking for specifics. For example, even a simple question such as: in late 1100s, when my book, Outlaw, is set, how much would one pound be worth?
Well… first of all, there was no such thing as a pound coin. A pound (like a mark) was an accounting measure only. The coin itself didn’t exist, so one pound was just another way of saying: twenty shillings.
But that doesn’t help much.
If we try to look for the modern equivalent we have to first go back to the contemporary sources. However, we only have so many accounting records left from the medieval period, so we cannot pick and choose the dates we wish to examine. Also, many of the textual remains are decayed and difficult to read, dates may not be accurate and items and invoices that are in the records list items and skills that are no longer valued in the same way. Even then, access to these records is limited and so a heavy reliance is placed on those few records already transcribed and published. This means that translating value to our modern-day understanding becomes hugely difficult.
Let’s take an example: In 1300 a labourer (Let’s call him John) earned £2 a year.
If we were to translate that to the minimum wage (and assume a 37 hour week for 52 weeks) we might argue that John earned the equivalent of £15,796.04. Making a medieval £1 worth £7,898.02 today.
Let’s see if the maths works by putting today’s equivalent next to the medieval accounting measure:
1 pound (20 shillings) = £7,898.02
1 Gold noble (6 shillings and 8 pence) = £2632.60
1 Gold quarter-noble (1 shilling and 8 pence) = £658.10
1 Shilling (12 pennies) = £394.901
1 Silver groat (4 pence) = £131.60
1 Silver Penny (4 farthings) = £32.90
1 Farthing = £8.20
Okay, looking good, right?
Well, only if you are willing to believe that a dozen eggs in 1300 cost £32.90. Talk about a Golden Goose!
Accuracy in historical fiction is important. Up to a point.
This may be controversial to many people, especially fellow historians and archaeologists, but like with any dramatic setting, history is merely the backdrop to the story. The story is king and the historical accuracy is there to aid the drama, raise the tension, perhaps create conflict, but always to aid the story and not the other way around.
Some may argue that in biography, surely, accuracy is fundamental. Again I would simply say: up to a point: There are very few people who would even be capable of reading my medieval novel if my, largely bilingual, characters spoke in the (historically accurate) medieval French and middle-English of the Saxons and Normans – even a few ‘thee”s and ‘thou”s have put some people off and they are still used in some parts of rural England! (Although I am considering dropping even them from the book)
So, where to draw the line?
In Robyn Hood, money is central. There is no escaping money and its impact in a story immersed in stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Poverty and wealth are inescapable fabrics of the drama. It is not something that can be quickly glossed over.
However, not many readers would appreciate a detailed breakdown of the pound, shilling, and pence system of old money and that would be before I even got to the chapter on nine centuries of inflation!
There is a wonderful tool available from the National Archives which converts modern-day pounds, shillings, and pence into what it would be worth in 1270. It can never be completely accurate, and even if it were the results are nearly a hundred years out of date for my characters, and the tool fails to include coinage such as the groat (possibly one of my favourite words) and the Golden noble (neither of which were introduced into British coinage until 1279).
But, even so, how does this make my chart look now:
1 pound (20 shillings) = £729.83
1 mark (13 shillings and 4 pence) = £486.50
1 Gold noble (6 shillings and 8 pence) = £243
1 Gold quarter-noble (1 shilling and 8 pence) = £132.50
1 Shilling (12 pennies) = £36.50
1 Silver groat (4 pence) = £12
1 Silver Penny (4 farthings) = £3
1 Farthing = 75p
This now makes a dozen eggs from 1270 worth £3, which is exactly the same price as a dozen large free-range eggs in my local Tesco as of today. So as far as I am concerned, I’m pretty happy with these estimates even if the coinage system I’m now using is from 80 years after my story takes place!
QUICK SIDE NOTE: At the time my story was set, 1190/91, there was only one coin. Just one. The silver penny. If you wanted half a penny, you chopped it in half – literally making half a penny. You wanted a farthing? Chop it in half again. Can you imagine handing a £20 note over to a cashier, watching them rip it in half, and then hand you back your change?
So, out of curiosity… Let’s go back to John, the medieval labourer.
Once we have put his £2 annual earnings through the time-travelling currency converter what do we come up with?
Remember, that is ANNUAL income. He earns less than £1.5k a year. Even if we take off Sundays and Medieval Saint’s days – poor old John is on less than £6 a day. Little wonder they lived in hovels!
This is all good fun, and far from scientific! But if you want to know more about how I used this research in the story, you can keep reading, with a couple of spoilers:
In Chapter Two, The Baron’s Correspondence, Robyn’s mother, Constance is faced with an unexpected demand for the princely sum of two-hundred and fifty silver pieces.
I decided to use the silver groat as a basis for this (not just because I love the word!) which would not have been available at the time of the reign of Richard I but is still a really good standard to use. Using my chart above, this means that the Loxley family were facing a sudden tax bill of £3,000.
Robyn is not from a poor family. Her father is a Baron and in 1370 one Baron’s annual income was £200, which is around £100,000 in today’s money. Although this sounds like a good amount of wealth, much of Robert of Loxley’s money has been tied up in the King’s Crusade. Constance of Loxley does not have £3,000 to pull out of nowhere.
But the Nottingham Fayre Tournament provides the answer, a two-hundred silver piece prize, worth £2,400, and an entry fee of just one silver coin, or £12 [the runner up prizes are worth £120 each, not bad especially if your a labourer on less than 1.5k!]. £600 will be far easier for the wealthy family to find, and it seems like all will be well for Robyn!
Incidentally, the mutton and vegetable pie she bought at the fayre cost the equivalent of £2.25, and considering some of the festival food I’ve witnessed, Robyn snatched herself a bargain!
If you are also wondering how much Maud promised Prince John, it was 1,000 silver groats, and therefore worth around £12,000. Easy money for a noble at any other time – but after spending all they had on buying positions of authority, the new Sheriff and his wife are looking a bit hard up!
PRIDE. AMBITION. BLOOD.
Will she flee from danger? Or fulfil her destiny, stand up to injustice, and become the fabled outlaw of legend: Robyn Hood?
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