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If a medieval society had no access to gold, what other minerals or gems could take its place in the making of coins? In my research I found gold was used as coin because:

  • It is durable (does not corrode)
  • It is beautiful (desirable)
  • It is not too rare (not generating scarcity)
  • It is not too common (causing inflation)

What other materials could replace gold coins? Jade coins? Quartz coins? Bonus points if they are easy to extract.

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    $\begingroup$ Silver was actually the metal most used for coinage. Somewhat more abundant, most of the important qualities for gold. Gold was rare enough that it didn't circulate. With silver, it was quite often debased, with many complaining at various times and in various countries that there was more lead in the coin than silver. Copper (also as brass and bronze) were often used as well. Gem stones are rare enough to make gold look common, can't be easily made into a standard weight, and require far too much work to cut into the sparkly things people might want. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    May 18 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Easy to extract" and "coins" have issues being used together, since it is then too easy to counterfeit money for just about anyone. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    May 18 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ You could just Viking it and have a ‘hacksilver’ currency, where there’s no official coinage, just shiny metals with certain values based on certain people. Essentially, bartering. $\endgroup$ May 18 at 23:58
  • $\begingroup$ The whole point of a currency is to be scarce and not easy to extract. Gold and silver was used precisely because it has those qualities. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    May 19 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ One of the first coins we humans used were sea shells. $\endgroup$
    – David S
    May 19 at 18:30

10 Answers 10

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Iron.

Iron has been used as a medium of exchange in many cultures. Depicted: iron Chinese coin from 10th century.

iron coin

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tieqian

It makes sense. Iron can be expensive to extract and refine in terms of labor and fuel. As opposed to gold or silver which have no immediate application for a farmer or laborer, iron has intrinsic value in that it can be made into tools and knives.

Iron is durable. Iron has more propensity to corrosion than gold. Things can be done to reduce this risk like grease the coins.

I propose in your story that the iron coins be called "Rusties". Or maybe "Greasies". You can have a character who has a rustie with one edge filed into a little blade; they keep it in the sole of their shoe.

Other benefit of iron coin: not done to my knowledge in European medieval D&D Tolkieny Game of Thrones type fiction, so a little bit novel.

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    $\begingroup$ traditionally iron was used as a currency by making knives out of it, or at least knife shapes because that was a fairly predictable value. turning iron into a coin would reduce its value since it is a pain to reuse. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 18 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ Iron cash coins were uncommon, most were bronze. With copper or iron, intrinsic value per coin was very small. To replace a silver coin with bronze, you would already need giant weight $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    May 18 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ FYI: Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser had the iron rik as the lowest denomination coin in his fantasy world, IIRC. $\endgroup$ May 19 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ Note: some societies like the Spartans used iron coins BECAUSE it rusts. Their society was culturally against the hoarding of wealth, so the tendency of iron to rust helped create deflation, and discouraged hoarding. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 19 at 15:54
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Far more coins were made from silver than from gold.

Silver is:

  • Much more common in the Earth's crust.
  • Harder (more durable) than gold (when both are pure).
  • Sometimes found in native form (less commonly than gold, however).
  • Nearly as ductile and malleable as gold.
  • Very corrosion resistant (until the society starts burning significant amounts of coal, introducing sulfur into the atmosphere to cause tarnish).
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In the past societies have used a variety of materials as coins, including sea shells and glass beads. You can likewise use any material you fancy.

As long as it is recognized as precious and valuable, it can be used as coin. At the end a coin is just an abstraction from barter based exchange: "I get X from you and I give you Y in exchange, agreeing that the value of X and Y is the same".

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  • $\begingroup$ I understand whatever we accept as having value is the currency, even something like paper. I heard about sea shells used as currency but didn't think that would hold up in a bigger long distance trade. I do like the idea of glass beads tho. $\endgroup$
    – TurtleTail
    May 18 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @TurtleTail Europeans bought ivory and slaves in exchange of glass beads $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 18 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ @TurtleTail Historically, wampum was used in the North Amercian northeast as a means of exchange. Seashells plus a value-add from the work involved in making them into beads. And, conveniently, able to be strung on a thread for larger "denominations". $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    May 19 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ The last sentence is wrong. Value of X is greater, from my perspective, than value of Y, and from your perspective the opposite is true. $\endgroup$
    – Bartors
    May 19 at 7:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Bartors - I would say the utility value of X is greater than Y for me (and vice versa). But the monetary value is the same, or we wouldn't be able to have a set price. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    May 23 at 17:48
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Somewhat impractical, but the Island of Yap, in Micronesia, used have Rai Stones. Some of the large money stones were 2.4 m (8 ft) in diameter.

More conventionally however, shell money has been used throughout the world: Asia, Oceania and the Middle East.

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I say stop thinking in terms of the value of the metal and start thinking in terms of how hard it is to counterfeit

It's absolutely true that gold, due to its rarity and natural beauty, was considered precious and, therefore, valuable. That would make it easy to set a value (four chickens to the ounce!). The limited number of gold mines made it useful for controlling inflation (not just anybody could get to the raw material) and its usefulness for purposes not money (e.g., jewelry) gave it a feeling of presence. In other words, people wanted it.

But the coinage of the day was crude and reasonably easy to counterfeit so long as you had the base metal. Worse, because the metal itself was valuable, people would chop of the coin to get more out of it. You've likely heard of these:

  • "Pieces of eight" is a term that comes from subdividing a coin into eight pie-shaped pieces. Thus, a shilling coin becomes eight one-eighth shilling coins. As a quick lookup example, the original Half Crown coin in England was equal to two shillings and sixpence or (ta-da!) one-eighth of a pound. You can thank the fact that people who wanted one instead of eight chickens came up with a quick solution to the problem.

  • "I got clipped!" is an old term for getting robbed. The phrase comes from the act of "clipping" bits of precious metal off the outer rim of the coin. Clip enough bits off and you eventually have enough for a new coin. Do it carefully and no one is the wiser. (Coins were also "shaved." Basically people filed or clipped the edges, which is why modern coins so often have that curious file-like texture... so people can see when they've been, um... modified.)

The important point I'm making with those two bullets is that counterfeiting that old coinage wasn't too terribly hard.

And that's the point: what's valuable is something difficult to counterfeit

You could make coins out of wood if it was whomping hard to counterfeit. But let's not take it that far. Let me suggest...

Steel

The medieval period could work with steel. It's so common and durable that weapons and armor (to a degree) were available to the most elevated royal and to the most humble pauper. It has one drawback that gold doesn't have: it rusts... but how long must a coin last, really? (And from the perspective of the royal minting the coins, does he/she really care? Money wearing out isn't necessarily a bad thing....)

What makes steel useful as coinage to you (and your suspension-of-disbelief) is that your royal has figured out how to stamp coins with remarkably precise and detailed designs. In other words, it's not the metal that's valuable, or even the coin, it's the technology that creates the coin that's valuable. It's something your average person (or even your average baron) wouldn't have available to them. And if you temper the steel (which you must do to make a good sword in the first place!) then it's very tough and difficult to modify (clip/cut).

Having said that, let's mention a word about medieval economies

Why was King John forced to sign the Magna Carta? There were many reasons, and among them were taxes. It's funny to think that a king would have to tax anybody. He could just mint all the coins he needed, right?

Well... yes... and no.

  • It doesn't take long for a king to realize that minting too many coins results in inflation. (At least you'd think it wouldn't take long to realize that... humanity hasn't quite learned that lesson yet....)

  • It also doesn't take long for a king to realize that really wealthy nobility means very well funded competition — and we can't have that! So draining your nobles of just enough funds to keep them from buying an army and inviting you to retire to a small plot of land behind the local church is desirable.

  • Finally, a great many people learned a very long time ago that money (or, more specifically, the process of trade and exchange) is a convenient way to control people. That's a PhD treatise all by itself.

So, as you think about taking your kingdom off its version of the gold standard, remember that your pocket full of change represents thousands of years of experience in economics and security that actually has nothing at all to do with metal.

So, Steel. Any blacksmith can make the slug — but only you have the tech to make the coin.

P.S....

On the other hand, if what you're looking for is that certain geek factor, that bit of oooooh with just a touch of je nais se quois, then everything everybody's telling you is irrelevant because what you're looking for is a justified aesthetic and not an actual worlbuilding rule.

In that case, your coins made out of gems idea is pretty good because gem cutting is a non-trivial technology. Although the "coins" would need to remain somewhat small (my gut tells me dime sized or smaller) because even diamond is brittle.

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  • $\begingroup$ How long must a coin last? Centuries. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    May 19 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark That's short-sighted. How long did the coins minted a year before the UK adopted decimal coinage need to last? One year. Coins are useful because they last, but very few governments (if any) have lasted continuously and unbroken for centuries and none expect coins to last for centuries. The U.S. Mint expects coins to last only 30 years. So, with respect, not so. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 19 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ In the medieval period being discussed in this question, coins were commodity money, not fiat money, and did not lose value just because the issuing government vanished. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    May 19 at 2:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark (a) So? The OP is building a fictional world, not writing a documentary. (b) Commodity money vs. fiat money only means that the value of the money was based on a standard commensurate with the material used to make the money. The OP is asking for an alternative to that condition, suggesting commodity-vs-fiat is irrelevant. Please remember, real Life cannot be an overriding limitation on any question unless specifically requested. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 19 at 6:45
  • $\begingroup$ I'd take this answer and run with it. Maybe tweaking or expanding slightly. Any cheap, sturdy metal with intricate design's would work. Add enamel for flavour. armstreet.com/news/enamel-in-the-middle-ages $\endgroup$ May 19 at 10:37
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Paper Money

In an era where paper is scarce and expensive, and skilled calligraphers and printers are too, it's not as silly as it sounds. The Chinese did it in medieval times.

It's scarce, portable, acceptable/beautiful (potentially), recognisable, durable (sort of), stable in value (hopefully), and divisible (sort of).

It has all the usual problems of paper money; it can be debased easily by printing larger denominations, but if some disciplined kings or priests keep it going for a generation or two, it'll become self perpetuating.

Stainless

Maybe if there's a local iron mine contaminated with nickel and chromium, your guys have discovered stainless steel, which could actually work nicely. Shiny! Non rusting!

Otherwise

What everyone else has said. Silver, copper, bronze, steel, glass.

Semi precious stones like jade or lapis lazuli (pretty) can work but they can't be repaired or reissued. If there are small, high quality deposits all over the place, it makes it much more practical.

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An excellent question. Keep in mind, money is defined as 'the easiest tradeable commodity in an economic system.' Six thousand years ago, there was no currency--people traded cattle and food for more cattle and food, or perhaps some tools.

What's nice about using gold or silver as currency is because once you say that X ounces of gold is worth this much, it is fairly easy to check the weight. It also makes it more difficult to counterfeit it.

Silver would probably be the next best thing after gold. You don't want it to be something like quartz because all you have to do is go dig around in your backyard and say, 'Oh look! This is a cow's-worth of quartz! I'm rich!" No--you want it more rare. Of course, you could substitute gold with a myriad of precious gems--whatever is relatively rare, tradeable, and valuable.

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    $\begingroup$ Most historical civilizations considered gold a next best thing to silver, not the other way around. Most gold coins were simply too valuable to be used for anything other than large scale exchanges with a single gold coin often representing an entire month's income. In contrast, silver is more common, and could be used for more day-to-day transactions like buying just enough food to feed your family, paying taxes, or paying a worker their daily salary. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 19 at 16:06
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Q: If a medieval society had no access to gold, what other minerals or gems could take its place in the making of coins? What other materials could replace gold coins? Jade coins? Quartz coins? Bonus points if they are easy to extract.

Short answer: ca 18x the weight in silver coins would do, to replace a gold coin

When you wanted to pay the amount of this coin you go to the coin trader..

He weighs the coin using his reference weights to be 3.3 grams, the knows this coin is a Guilder of Philippe the Beautiful of Flanders, worth 20 silver stuivers and weighing in about 3 grams each. So 3.3 grams of gold is worth 60 grams of silver, about 18x its weight. That ratio changed with colonization, where cheap South-American silver became available in Europe.

Longer answer: difficult.. gold has a perfect value/weight ratio

BUT.. suppose you'd need to buy a house in Amsterdam in 1500. The house would cost you e.g. 4600 gold-guilders, that is some 15 kg of gold, which can be carried. With the silver solution you would have to transport more than 270 kg of silver stuivers ! So gold was handy for large sums.

Thing is, "gold" is a quite flexible substance touching a sweet spot with genus Homo. We love gold. It looks nice darkish shiny yellow, it weights in hand, so you know it is really gold.. and it feels warm.. a medieval coin trader could feel the difference without even looking at the coin. This one's "no good". Gold is the standard, everything below it was counted to yield one gold coin.

Coins are coined: the new material needs to be stamped

Suppose you'd replace gold and not use silver. Your new material will be distributed in standard weight and stamped: it should be reproduced in reasonable quantities (thousands) and it will show the king's portrait, or a heraldic symbol, a text referring to the issuer, and some connecting religious symbol, like a holy text, or a cross. Don't underestimate the importance of a standard ! All German Goldguldens had the same weight and looked the same you could spend it anywhere along the river.

Jade, ivory and gemstone are about the only materials that were available in medieval times and could be engraved easily. These materials were costly imports.. maybe as expensive as gold.. but how to aquire enough of it, in large quantities, without handing over Europe to the Chinese, or the Malinese ?

There's precious objects to replace gold, but will they last for long? Do they keep value?

Funny 17th century example

https://www.sarahraven.com/articles/the-history-of-the-tulip

You could buy a house in Amsterdam in 1639 when you sold ONE precious tulip.

Diamond

A completely anonymous "coin" would be diamonds. Diamonds was the precursor of crypto-currency. You can always sell diamonds and get a price per weight unit. You'd get a very small diamond as replacement for a gold coin, I wonder if medieval coin scales were advanced enough to measure grains of diamond.

"New material easy to extract"

Glass would be a candidate.. or even paper ! No bonus for me. Yes, it would come in handy, when the new material would be less rare, or easy to obtain. That is what we do with modern, paper money. That is because we trust the banks. In medieval times, you had banks, but these were only for the rich and privileged elite, to finance their wars. In medieval times, people traveled around. You need face value money. The French introduced the first paper money, the assignates to finance the war, but in 1791, "medieval times" had long passed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Just acknowledging that you beat me to suggest paper money. I missed your comment before I wrote mine. $\endgroup$ May 19 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ Never mind @SeanOConnor.. money without intrinsic value is not going to work in medieval times. The above is in fact 75% "frame challenge", it won't be easy at all to replace gold for coins in times of feudal rule. People won't lend money voluntarily to their feudal lords. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    May 19 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ The Chinese pulled it off. It's only 50% frame challenge. $\endgroup$ May 19 at 18:40
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Why not look to history?

Early medieval societies used to practice barter.

For more monetary based solutions copper, bronze, iron and silver will do just fine.

And coins made of gold were, contrary to popular believe, quite rare as gold is quite expensive and only the upper echelon of society had enough wealth to have any use of such currency.

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Interestingly enough, while in medieval times, Aluminum would be more valuable than Gold. This is because the process to extract Aluminum was not invented, and thus it was actually rarer than Gold in its pure form.

Thus, if you wanted to avoid common metals like Silver, Copper, Platinum, etc., Aluminum is an interesting choice for a unique but historically viable touch.

It is said that before aluminum extraction from Bauxite was invented, the French king's most important guests ate on Aluminum plates, and lesser ones ate on Gold plates.

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