Dark Ages: Commerce

   The economics of a genuine medieval or dark ages setting don’t bear much resemblance to either current economics or to the huge-heaps-of-gold-under-dragons systems found in most fantasy games. While prices varied wildly from place to place, and from year to year, throughout the centuries known as The Dark Ages, games pretty much require a price list of some kind. This one was loosely based on what few lists of prices and values survive, patched in with assumptions and a few fantasy approximations. Secondarily – and with no apology for this deviation from historical fact – the Roman Empire’s coins operate on a simple decimal system. It makes things so much easier on everyone playing.

   If you want to use this system of currency, I’d recommend going with the Talents system, found in The Practical Enchanter (available in a shareware edition or in a print edition) rather than with the usual d20 magical item system. That way their abilities won’t depend on their level of wealth.



   Currency Ratios vary a good deal and, thanks to the variations in weight and purity, bear only a distant relationship to the ratios that apply to raw metal. The “standard” ratios are 1 GP = 100 SP = 1000 CP = 10,000 “Bits”. While there are tales of gem studded platinum coins (Faerie Dragons, worth anything from 10 to 20 GP depending on local exchange rates), such coins are objects of wonder. Silver Pieces are minted at about fifty to the pound, Gold at about 16 to the pound, and Copper at about 40. The usual metal-value ratio is around thirty to one for silver and gold, but raw copper has relatively little value. As a note, coinage is rare – most transactions are made via bartering. Coinage is not “small change”. As a (very) rough approximation, the silver piece is worth about a hundred dollars. A gold piece is worth about 10,000 $. Paper money is non-existent, although some merchants use letters of credit.

   Types Of Coins include; Pounds (Lb. A sizable gold coin worth 50 SP), Marks (8 Oz, round-cornered, silver bars, worth 25 SP), Aur (A squarish silver coin, worth 3 SP), Sestertium (The roman silver piece, and a basic standard for much of the known world. Stamped with the face of some emperor and worth one SP), Libra (The roman GP, again a standard), Denari (The roman CP, and ditto the notes above), Pennies (A largish copper coin worth ~2 CP. Half-, two-, three-, and six-, penny coins are also in circulation), Shillings (Midsized silver coins worth 2.5 SP, a weeks wage for a laborer. Also marks the point at which theft is no longer considered petty crime – and may result in the death penalty), and Ertogs (Smaller but purer then the Denari, these oblong coins are also worth 1 SP. Oddly, they’re often used as the base for carving religious medallions and such). Bits are not really coins, rather they’re segments cut from them. It has become a specific term for the fragments of copper coins that serve as change. Golden Marks and Golden Aur are rare, but these (moderate and small) gold coins are worth as much as their silver equivalents.

   Major Coinage Systems: The Roman Empire regularly minted the Denari, Sestertium, and Libra (Although the Denari were often minted in bronze instead of copper – which is fine but makes them hard to break into bits). Roman coins are still commonly circulated since – with the general scarcity of metal and the small size of most kingdoms – “current” minting tends to be small-scale and local. Most feudal lordlings mint pennies, shillings, and pounds (240:20:1). Marks, Aur, and Ertogs originate among the Goths. “Dragons” are marvels. There is no known method of refining platinum available in Europe.

   A Couple Of Coppers Will Buy: A meal and a place in the common room for the night, a good meal for one (or a simple meal for four), a bottle of local wine, a few arrows or bolts, a small tent, a javelin or spear, the services of a scribe to write or read a letter, a full keg of beer, a jousting lance, the services of a child / servant for a day (errands and such), a few hours with a prostitute, or a splendid hot bath.

   One SP Will Buy: 20 dozen eggs, 12 lbs of cheese, 20 pigeons, 4 hens, a bushel of wheat (20 bushels will feed a family for a year), a coarse-wooled sheep (or a goat), a trained working dog, a dedication of a normal religious service, the services of a skilled craftsman for a day, 2 weeks supplies, a luxurious day and night at a good inn (with a private room and meals), a grand feast (for one), a dagger, a two-wheeled cart, or even a shield with an emblem painted on it. (Note that the “services” listing presumes temporary hirelings. Full-time employees cost about half as much, but have to be paid even when you don’t need them).

   Living Expenses: Knightly Lifestyle (This includes good food, drink, and clothing, as well as the support of a servant and a squire; 2 Lbs/Year. With estate and a stable; 4 Lbs/Year. With family; 6 Lbs/Year). Merchant Lifestyle (Includes a slave / servant, decent food and drink, and decent clothing; 1 Lb/Year. With family and / or apprentices 2 Lb/Year). Tradesman’s Lifestyle (Basic food and drink, simple clothing, 25 SP/Year, with family 1 Lb/Year). Peasant Lifestyle (Edge of starvation and shit for everything else; 10 SP/Year, 20 with family). These prices assume that you’re staying in one place – traveling about can increase costs considerably. The usual apprenticeship fee is 2-5 SP – but this can vary drastically. Apprenticing your son to a goldsmith may cost you a good deal more then 5 SP!

   Specific, immediate, prices vary with haggling and local conditions – but here are some basics:

   Livestock: Warhorse (Fully trained, with tack and leather barding; 4-8 Lb), Riding Horse (1-5 Lb, normal tack costs 1-3 SP, and is usually included), Pack Animal (Pony, pack horse, mule, nag, donkey, cart horse. 10- 25 SP), Cow (Or bull; 6 SP), Ox (Draft trained; 8 SP), Pig; 2 SP, Fine-Wooled Sheep; 2 SP, Hawk (Young; 2 SP. Trained; 10 SP), Slave (4-20 SP, depending. Very young children go with their mothers). Especially exotic or fine specimens command considerably higher prices.

   Mixed Goods: Traveling Gear (Basically includes; tent, blankets, stakes, cook kit, cold / rainy weather gear, rope, and so on. 5 SP per person), War Gear (This includes travel gear, for a knight and squire, 2 Lb) – and professional kits (GMO, usually 2-20 SP).

   Equipage: Harp (25-250+ SP), Wagon (2 SP, up to 5 SP for a caravan), Lute; 6 SP, Pavilion; 1 Lb, Leather Suit; 2 SP, Courbouilli; 10 SP, Chainmail Suit 150 SP, Plate Armor; 5 Lb (and up), Swords (10-20 SP dependent on type), Axe (Also includes; flails, hammers, and other such lesser instruments of destruction, 5-15 SP), Bows (Longbows are anachronistic, but what the hell. Short Bow; 2 SP, Longbow; 40 SP, Crossbow 20-40 SP), Barding (Chain with plates, 2 Lb), and Clothing (Peasant/Slave outfit; 1 SP (at the most), Tradesman’s Outfit; 2-5 SP. Merchants outfit; 10 SP, Knightly Outfit; 25 SP (Up to 1 Lb if trying to stay in fashion), and Nobles Outfit; 1 Lb (Up to 5 Lb for extravagances and fashion).

   Jewelry: Is available at all prices. Even peasant women will usually own some cheap copper-and-enamel.

   Mercenaries (Per Month): 50 Foot soldiers; 10 Lb, 10 Sergeants; 10 Lb, 10 Knights (Usually younger sons who badly need money, 20 Lb), 100 Laborers; 1 Lb.

   Ransoms: Peasant; 5 CP, Free Servant; 2 SP, Noble Squire; 5 Lb, Poor Knight; 10 Lb, Sworn Knight; 15 Lb, Great Knight; 120 Lb, Baron; 500 Lb, Count; 1000 Lb, and Duke; 1500 Lb. Petty kings and such are entirely GMO. Ransoms made many a poor lord (or man-at-arms, or even a crowd of peasants) rich. Non-nobles ransoms (if any were demanded) were (supposedly) paid by their lords – while nobles could be ransomed by taxing the peasantry (this often took a while) or by their lord. In theory, the lord was responsible for those captured while they were acting in his service. Men-at-arms are ransomed as servants.

   Major Purchases: Peasants Home; 1 SP, Manor Hall; 2 Lb, “Small” Stone Tower; 10 Lb, Modest Chapel; 8 Lb, Fine Church; 50 Lb, Modest Village (Provides an income of 1 Lb/Year, 25 Lb), Motte and Bailey; 25 Lb – 65 Lb if reinforced, Small/ Medium/Large Castle(s) 80/100/150 Lb (Staffing and yearly maintenance run around 10%), buying a fief from a liege; 10 Lb (Village) or 50 Lb (A manor that provides an income of 6 Lb/Year), a Fishing Boat; 20 SP, Trading Ship (5-15 Lb dependent on size), and a War Ship; 20 Lb. Patents of nobility and knighthoods are available in some areas, although the practice is very disreputable. Prices in such cases are entirely GMO.

    Life Is Cheap : In many ways, this brutal fact was the defining characteristic of the dark ages. Even if you were lucky enough to survive infancy and childhood (about 40% of the children did not reach the age of 10 years) death could come at any point through accident, disease, a minor wound that became infected, or simple injuries. The population was higher then was needed to exploit the land their techniques could handle. There were too many people competing for too little. Fathers paid high “apprenticeship fees”, buying their children the “right” to be virtual slaves for years in the hope of gaining admittance to lucrative closed professions. “Justice” was brutal. Wages were low. Food was scarce. Children starved in the street. Even the younger sons of the nobility often acted as mercenaries, since they inherited little to support themselves with. Few could afford any kind of an education. Unwanted, bastard, or excess (E.G.; Too many heirs) kids were disposed of in a wide variety of ways. If they were really lucky, they were simply sold or (for the nobility) dumped into the church. In Byzantium, it was common for noble families to have a younger son castrated so he could get a good government job, and exert influence to aid his brothers. Slaves were cheap – and “rights” were nonexistent. For that matter, the taxes (whether in the form of cash or in the form of service) were also high.

   Unless you made it to adulthood in a decent social class, the dark ages sucked.

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