In which our intrepid hero explores the minutiae of the mediaeval specie economy.

I’ve spent the last couple of days perusing the excellent Dungeonomicon and K’s other substantial (and erudite) revisions of D&D 3.5.

I do, however, have particular issues with the Economicon. First, we’ll look at how precious metals were used historically.

In the Middle Ages, gold saw very limited practical use, outside of acting as a conspicuous sign of status. Dentists, physicians and glaziers used gold in their work, but empires are neither built of good teeth, nor coloured glass.

Silver was used in mirrors and musical instruments, and—as with gold—in medicine and glazing. More notably, however, it found its way into many household items (with which I will deal shortly).

Of the three traditional coinage metals, copper is by far the most useful. It was, of course, used in important alloys such as bronze and brass. It also saw use in piping (although clay, lead and stone, being much cheaper, saw far more extensive use), its malleability and heat conductivity made it ideal for cookware and laundry coppers, and it could be made into roofing and doorknobs and all sorts of things; again, it was also used in glazing.

In later days, it was hammered onto ships’ hulls to protect them from barnacles, and used to plate the insides of powder magazines (unlike iron, there was little risk of a spark igniting the powder).

Being relatively simple to mine, refine and process into marketable goods made copper one of the most useful metals in history. Iron, on the other hand, required specialised knowledge to work (although not nearly as much as, say, aluminium), something which Mao discovered much later, during the Great Leap Forward.

This paucity of expertise in metallurgy (a factor compounded by poor literacy, worse communication and, later, by guild monopoly) and economies of scale led to a market in which weapon- and armour-grade steels were idiotically expensive. It’s not that far-fetched that a suit of full plate might be valued as the equivalent of 15,000 man-days of peasant labour.

(Note: K incorrectly states that unskilled labour reaps a silver piece a week—they actually earn a silver piece a day. See the DMG, p105, or the PHB, p112.)

Masterwork pieces (beaten together in a master smith’s workshop, from exotic alloys such as wootz, or from forge-welded composites and/or laminates) would, understandably, be even more expensive.

(Equipment prices, as K states, really are too high. I particularly agree with K in that the standard 300gp masterwork surcharge is unrealistic; I don’t think it’s too unreasonable to charge double or triple for masterwork goods, and leave it at that.)

Next, let’s look at what people in the Middle Ages (and early Renaissance) did with their wealth.

The first noticeable sign of wealth is likely to be in the form of higher-quality consumption, rather than higher-quantity. A family might supplement its diet with meat and wine, wear newer and more expensive clothing, and move into a newer, larger house. They might also pay physicians for healing (rather than relying on the village crazy woman, with her elixirs and pomanders of weeds), buy better tools and better-bred beasts of burden. They might even replace their wooden teeth with gold.

As such, though, they don’t consume much more, just better, and many of these higher-quality consumables will probably have to be imported.

Next, luxury goods might come into the picture. Often, these can’t simply be paid for in kind, as demand in small settlements simply can’t support specialised artisans. A portable means of exchange—specie—is required to pay for goods that must travel some distance.

Which is not to say that wealthy families hoarded stacks of gleaming coin. For the same reason that you might own a $1200 television, but not keep $1200 cash in your home, sometimes such wealth is too portable and acts as a lure for thieves. Often their savings were in a slightly less liquid and portable, but nonetheless manageable form.

The “family silver” was a great example of this. Not only was silver tableware functional, it also acted as a status symbol, had aesthetic value and served as a convertible reserve of family wealth. In times of trouble, a platter or some cutlery could be melted down and traded.

It’s important to note that the family silver, whilst often chased and filigreed, was almost never bejewelled. It made little sense to expend large quantities of wealth adding value to readily-convertible assets, when the expectation was that some day, it might have to be rendered down for specie.

In later days, moneylenders would provide secure storage for such items, in return for the right to melt them down for use as operating capital. Of course, to sweeten the pot, they would usually pay their investors interest; they were early precursors to today’s trading banks.

It was only when a family could be reasonably confident of their continued, long-term, liquid wealth that they sank their precious metals into truly permanent luxuries, such as jewellery, chalices with big gems, bauble-encrusted regalia, durable artworks and manor houses. These sorts of items generally belonged to the top socioeconomic tier—or were stolen.

Speaking of theft, feudal ownership usually extended to salvage, so that pile of gold coins your PCs found in the Moathouse Ruins probably belongs, by law, to somebody else. If they’re feeling particularly nice, the local overlord might allow the PCs to keep it for their troubles, in return for a cut of the loot.

(On the other hand, the PCs might console themselves with their contribution to medical science: fiat experimentum in corpore vili.)

Interestingly enough, I can’t find anything in either the DMG, nor in the PHB, to support K’s assertions of the purity of coins in D&D. Historically, coins were often heavily debased—by the time of its abolition, the Roman denarius had gone from a pure coin to one consisting of just 2% silver.

Anyway, back to K’s assertion that monetary infrangibility constrains GDP. Note that K states:

Things don’t have prices or costs—all transactions are conducted in barter and a common medium of exchange is heavy lumps of precious metal.

K is correct in that most (but certainly not “all”) transactions were conducted as barter; however, for these transactions, “heavy lumps of precious metal” were simply not required—by definition. In these transactions, gold-, silver- or copper-piece values serve as a measure of exchange, but not as a medium.

Put simply, unskilled labour might be worth a silver piece a day—but that exchange is almost never conducted using actual silver pieces. Even taxes and rents have historically been paid in labour, and tithes paid in kind.

Coins were convenient when the portability and liquidity of wealth were issues—which they weren’t for the bottom 80-85% of the populace. Not only were they poor, but they also had extremely limited mobility; however, this meant that they could largely rely on credit and local reputation to get by in the marketplace.

Now, I’m not going to contest K’s claim regarding infrangibility and its effects on demand; after all, Friedman was a bright guy, and knew more about economics than I ever will. However, the obvious point here is that the vast majority of people simply had no use for coins, and would therefore be largely unaccounted for by monetarism.

An argument could be made that these people, by being excluded from the specie economy, have little market impact. However, economics is the study of the interaction of resources, not money—and these guys provide the bulk of labour. Being that labour comprises their largest contribution to the economy, Marxian theory may provide a better model for the teeming masses.

From there, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to K’s utopian “Logistics & Dragons” Communism, no doubt with its own kolkhoznik serfs and Soviet-style oligarchy.

Which all seems very mediaeval to me…