Coinage in the summer country

So, when writing RIHASI, I had to do something I hadn’t ever done before: define coinage for the summer country.

I’m including a note about this in the back of the book, because a certain type of reader is certain to whip out a calculator and start figuring out how much gold coins weigh and just how much one person likely to be able to carry and so forth.

Other readers are going to ask, “So, how much could you actually buy with that? If you had that much money, would that be a nice thing for you or would you be, like, a millionaire, or what?”

I needed to be able to answer both types of questions and handle both weight and value in a reasonably plausible way in the story. So I looked stuff up about gold coins, not a topic I had previously paid a lot of attention to. Silver and other metals too. Then I got out a calculator and did some sums, and here is the result. This is kind of based on historically plausible coinage, but I wasn’t a massive perfectionist about it.


In the real world, I discovered, two standard weights for gold coins are 1/10 oz and 1/4 oz. I decided those weights would do for Lau coinage, so those are the weights of “light” and “heavy” gold coins. That means that fifty light gold coins weighs about 5 oz, or a thousand light gold weighs only 6.25 lbs – not a difficult weight at all.

Whew! I said to myself, because I do have people carry large sums around, and it looks like that’s no problem.

But how about larger sums? Of, possibly, heavy gold? How much would, say, 10,000 heavy gold coins weigh? Rapid arithmetic indicates that this much gold would weigh a tinch more than 156 lbs. That’s a bit more than 70 kg if you think in kg. This is a lot of weight; it’s a lot more than I could pick up, far less carry. But it’s not an incredibly difficult weight if you have a few friends. This is the sort of calculation I did for RIHASI.

I think there were surely historical periods where coinage was not standardized, but to simplify my life, I standardized it for the summer country. This is all kind of roughly based on historical standard values, but the Lau tend to sort things into eights and multiples of eights, so I used that here and got this:

4 copper to 1 bronze, 16 bronze to 1 light silver, so 64 copper to one light silver.

4 light silver to 1 heavy silver, so 254 copper or 64 bronze to one heavy silver.

8 heavy silver coins to 1 light gold, so 2048 copper or 512 bronze to one light gold. This is apparently roughly consistent with real values in real history — lots and lots of copper to one gold. Which does make sense, sure. Again, I wasn’t trying to be exactly in line with any particular historical values, just to get in plausibly in the right ballpark. Then, for gold, we have:

2.5 light gold to 1 heavy gold.

Light silver and light gold are thinner coins that are scored to allow them to be broken in halves and quarters.

I have referred several times to clipped coppers. I think it’s obvious what this means, but I thought about it a bit more while designing coinage. I’m not sure this comes up in RIHASI, but I decided that clipping coins is an illegal practice, but not uncommon. Punishment for clipping copper coins is not especially harsh, so there are a lot of clipped copper coins in circulation and, as long as they don’t appear to have been too badly clipped, they are accepted at the lowest level of commerce, such as buying a mug of thin ale. Clipping bronze is dealt with more harshly if the person is caught doing it, and of course clipping silver and gold is punished much more harshly. Some merchants and tradesmen, and all moneychangers, moneylenders, and banks, will weigh coins and issue newly minted, unclipped coins to replace those they weigh. They will then send clipped coins to a mint to be melted and re-cast at the proper weight, for which they receive a specified fee per weight of metal sent to the mint. I think all that sounds reasonable.

Also, the Lau use bangles and other jewelry as basically unofficial coinage for women. So I worked that out too. I think this is basically plausible, but if anybody out there happens to know how much normal bangles weigh and this seems off, let me know.

1 copper bangle = 2 copper coins

1 bronze bangle = 2 bronze coins

1 silver bangle = 4 light silver coins

1 gold bangle = 4 light gold coins

Now, after working all that out, how much will coins actually buy? The below is based on the plausible historical buying power of the Byzantine nomisma, which I am taking as a very rough guide to the value of a light gold coin.

3 light gold = a donkey

15 light gold = a decent horse

This means one light gold = something in the neighborhood of $400 to $500 today, in US dollars. Remember that horses are common and not that special. A reasonably decent horse of no particular breeding can be purchased for something close to that. Naturally if you want a nice Andalusian, you’ll be paying a lot more for that horse. But this is an estimate for a normal, decent horse.

Cloth, on the other hand, is much more valuable when you have to make it all by hand.

¼ light gold = 2 heavy silver = around 500 copper = one blanket

½ light gold = one cloak

2 light gold = one good coat, the kind with all the buttons and some fancy embroidery; or one silk robe, the kind we see people wearing in Avaras.

How about labor? How much are coins worth in terms of how long it takes to earn them? That’s really important, obviously. Here’s what I’ve got:

1 day’s unskilled labor = 8 bronze or 32 copper or 1/2 a light silver

30 days semiskilled labor = 4 heavy silver or about half a light gold

10 days skilled labor = 1 light gold

1 year of skilled labor = about 36 to 40 light gold

1 year of really skilled or valuable labor = about 80 light gold.

And this is roughly how I estimated value during RIHASI, where coin gets flung around with considerable abandon at times. If any of you know a lot about this topic, how does it seem to you? For everyone else, I trust it seems halfway reasonable. If you’re interested, this was an article that I found helpful for working out the values.

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8 thoughts on “Coinage in the summer country”

  1. If you want to check the values for silver, there is a lovely article showing prices in silver for a great many things during the Late Bronze Age in a variety of ancient Middle Eastern cultures:
    Christopher Monroe, “Sunk Costs at Late Bronze Age Uluburun.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 357 (2010): 19-33.
    I also appreciate the pun in the title, as much of Monroe’s data comes from the amazing Uluburun shipwreck.

  2. My dad collected coins, and I know you can tell so much about a civilization by its coinage. Regime change, mercantile interests, theology- it’s all there. They don’t have to be valuable to be interesting- I have some old nickels from the WWII era made of copper, silver and manganese, bc they needed nickel for the war effort. I’m sad that I haven’t put in the effort myself, but I do have a ton of books on Ancient Roman and Greek coins, art in coinage, architecture in coinage, etc, if you ever want to know more.

  3. “a certain type of reader is certain to whip out a calculator” – oh, it’s a blog post for me!!

    I don’t know much about coins, but I would absolutely start asking all these questions given a protagonist who thinks about money, and all these answers sound plausible to me.

    I have some child sized silver and gold bangles, and I think some of my wedding bangles are gold. If you’re interested, I’ll try to dig them out and weigh them tomorrow.

  4. There’s a book I no longer own that went into great detail about coinage (In Europe in the Middle Ages & Renaisance) but it may be useful: Gold & Spices by Favier.

    And poking at A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry ( blog of a historian who blogs about suchthings, and how games and movies (usually) get it wrong has resources for world builders, and a fair number of hits this morning when I searched “coinage”.

    From what I remember of reading these and things like them in the past your stuff here sounds plausible.

    oh, and that book about Issac Newton and the Counterfieter went into making the coins, and how one country have one set of values for silver where France had a different value really caused problems, leading to Newton doing probably the first time & motion studies while running the Mint. It’s just really interesting.

  5. The practice of milling the edges of coins to prevent clipping was invented by — Sir Isaac Newton.

    Probably took that long for it to be technically feasible.

  6. Mary Catelli, I really don’t know why I didn’t realize that was the point of milling the edges of coins. That’s obvious now that you say that.

    Elaine, I am feeling like an idiot because I have Gold and Spices RIGHT THERE ON MY TBR SHELVES. It did not occur to me that I should go look at it until you mentioned it.

  7. Obviously you can get a wide variety of sizes to jewelry, but having forged a half-ounce silver into a ring and one ounce into a bracelet fairly recently, .2 and .4 oz bangles seem thin but reasonable – I have some of the sort of very thin Indian bracelets that you see worn by the handful, and those are definitely lighter than the ring I made.

  8. It turns out Kate had some gold bangles and weighed them for me, so I wound up having really thin gold bangles worth four light gold coins, and thicker ones worth eight light gold coins. And I’m sure that at least some gold bangles in the real world are actually close to those weights, so it’s good to be sure!

    It’s really neat that you forged your own bangles!

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