- Museum of the National Bank of Belgium - https://www.nbbmuseum.be/en -

Sterling as a medieval commercial currency

In the history of the world, only a few coinages have developed into international commercial currencies. In order to be accepted outside the territory where it was issued, a coin had to satisfy a number of conditions relating to its weight, alloy and value, and had to be familiar to many. From the end of the 12th century, the English sterling penny amply fulfilled these conditions; throughout north-western Europe it enjoyed a reputation as a strong and reliable currency, in contrast to the silver pennies of the continent, which had gradually lost much of their value. In the Southern Netherlands in particular, first in Flanders and subsequently in Brabant and Hainaut, too, merchants were keen to use this currency. The Museum’s permanent display includes some sterling coins.

Sterling of Robrecht van Bethune (1305-1322)

Sterling of Robrecht van Bethune (1305-1322) On the face, the crowned head of the count is displayed looking to the left; the wording on the back (MONETA ALOSTEN) tells us that the coin was minted in Aalst.

By late Roman times, domestic wool was already being used to produce textiles (“cloth”) in the Low Countries. The marshes along the coast, which had not yet been enclosed by dikes, provided grazing for large flocks of sheep which yielded sufficient wool to satisfy domestic demand. In the 12th century a fundamental change occurred. Production was transferred from the countryside to the fast-growing cities (Ypres, Ghent, Bruges, and later also Brussels and Antwerp), and weavers began using English wool as their raw material instead of home-produced wool. The result was a high quality, luxury product intended for export. Sheep reared on the type of grass produced by the very damp English pastureland with its poor soil yielded a particularly fine and springy woollen fleece. For that reason, demand for English wool was virtually inelastic: neither home-produced wool nor the wool occasionally imported from Spain offered a real alternative.

English wool was now being imported into the Low Countries in unprecedented quantities, in sacks or as fleeces still attached to the skin. Flemish and Brabant merchants and weavers were very active in this trade. They went to England in person, to the grounds of the sometimes remote Cistercian abbeys where the sheep were predominantly reared. On the local wool markets they often paid in advance for future deliveries, so that they also already had a stake in the actual production of the wool. Flemish vessels shipped the wool from London and other ports such as Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Dover, Sandwich and Boston.

wolhandel

The continental merchants went to England in person to buy wool. Notice the sheep in the background and the gestures of the merchants; once the deal has been concluded with a handshake or slap, the buyer opens his purse to pay either the full amount or an advance.

The Southern Netherlands merchants needed English coins to buy their wool; they became good customers of the English coin workshops, where they exchanged the lightweight pennies from the Netherlands or bars of silver for English sterling. Thus, the accounting records of the London Mint list the names of merchants from Ypres and Brussels, side by side with the names of English customers. On their return from England, they did not always take their surplus English money for melting down into local pennies again, but sometimes preferred to set the foreign currency aside ready for their next trip. It is therefore not surprising that the 13th century coin treasure discovered in 1908 during the demolition of a cellar wall in the house at no. 32 Rue d’assaut in Brussels contained no less than 80,927 English sterling coins.

Gradually, the rulers and merchants on the Continent came to realise that they could make considerable savings by minting sterling coins themselves in their own country, rather than buying them from English coin workshops. From around 1270, coins worth one or two sterling pennies were therefore minted in the Low Countries, alongside the ordinary lightweight pennies. The sterling copies had the same weight and alloy as the foreign originals. The images on the face of the coins varied greatly: some depicted a crowned head, just like the English coins, while others displayed a totally distinctive image. In contrast, the reverse of virtually all the coins depicted the cross with three bullets between the arms, copied from the English model. From about the mid 14th century, owing to the rising demand for high value currency, the sterling penny became less important, giving way to the silver groat – worth three sterlings – and gold coins.

Marianne Danneel
Museum coordinator

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