Fantasy role-playing game money systems and currencies are typically based on real-world historical values and statistics, usually from the “Medieval” era, also known as the Middle Ages, as opposed to the earlier classical civilization of the “Age of Antiquity” (the height of the Greeks and Romans) and the latter “Modern Age”, though some games borrow from pre- and post-Medieval periods for their fantasy currency systems.
The Middle Ages span from about 476 to 1500 AD, and are broken down as follows:
Before 476 AD Classic Antiquity (Pre-Medieval) 476 – 1000 AD Early Middle Ages / Dark Ages / Late Antiquity 1000 – 1300 AD High Middle Ages 1300 – 1500 AD Late Middle Ages After 1500 AD Renaissance / Early Modern (Post-Medieval)
Casually, the Middle Ages are said to have begun with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th Century, and ended with the rise of nation-states, European overseas expansion and the division and Reformation of Christianity in the early 16th Century.This work will use the Late Middle Ages, about 1450-1550, as a general baseline for all values and measurements.
One day’s work tended to be the average measure of “basic payment” for most “common” roles in any ancient time, be it civilian or military, but since there were far more serfs and peasants than anything else, we’ll use the common peasant and all of his related values as our baseline for wages and money. It should be noted this is an urban peasant or one who survives mainly on general labor and day-work, rather than a farmer, freeman or otherwise.
PEASANTS: FREEMEN AND SERFS
About 90% of the people of the Middle Ages would be considered peasants:
Freemen – fully independent individuals who worked only for themselves and owned or rented land from a Lord. Some Freeman even rose from humble beginnings and became gentry/nobles in their own rights.
Serfs – essentially indentured servants (but not slaves).Usually because of a large debt, they agreed to this indentured servitude until they could get themselves out of debt (few ever succeeded). Serfs were given a plot of land and some basic supplies by a Lord and they would work and maintain the Lord’s property (land, animals, fences, etc) and pay taxes, in exchange for security and minimal wages.
Slaves – Technically a sub-class of peasant that was treated more like property; although some slavery existed in the Early Middle Ages, the practice was slowly dying out even then and was rare or unknown by the Late Middle Ages.
Most medieval peasants, Freeman and Serf alike, worked approximately the same number of hours as a modern day hourly minimum-wage employee in 2009, about 2,000 hours a year, out of the 4,370 hours available, assuming a total availability of 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. This could be averaged out to 40 hours per week, at more or less 6 hours per day, 7 days per week. Exceptions to this average are certain, and 10 and 12 hour days were not unheard of, though part of the reason the workday was so long was because there was usually plenty of breaks for meals and naps.
Because most work was season-dependent, most peasants did not always work day-in and day-out year-round, but rather their schedule depended on the type of work they did. Peasants usually made all of their annual wage off of one or two major harvests or other seasonal yields, leaving them with more “free time” than one might think – this accounts for their seemingly “lax” work schedules.
WAGES AND PAYMENT
Since peasants generally self-governed their own work schedules, their wages were figured per day (though they were rarely paid daily), week or month, and almost never by the hour, and a minimum amount of work, or quota, was usually required for a peasant to earn his complete wage. To a great extent, the same was true for Freemen who worked for themselves, as there was no point in dragging their feet, as it was THEIR fences that needed mending, animals that needed herding, crops that needed harvesting, etc.
In general, unskilled laborers, peasants without some sort of professional or artistic ability, who simply worked the land, made about 3d per day, and 1s per week, about 4s per month – 5s or 1 crown (1/4L) if they were really industrious. Those who served in the military in basic service in peacetime usually made 4p to 1s per day (this also applies to ship’s crews etc.), and usually didn’t even see battle, though the more likely the combat and the closer to the action and the more seasoned the soldier, the more he would earn.
REQUIREMENTS OF A SERF
The serf, who was not permitted to leave his Lord’s land, typically was required to work his Lord’s land 1-2 days a week, fixing fences, harvesting crops and anything else that needed done, before tending to his own farming and livelihood. The Serf typically also owed 1/3 of his crops to the Lord.
TYPES OF PAYMENT / CURRENCY
The “coin of the realm” was, for peasants, rarely a coin, at least not much of one, with trade and barter being much more common – trading work for animals or food, etc. But for those occasions when there was a trading of ka-ching!…
Pound – based on the now-very-nonstandard Tower Pound (350 grams) of sterling silver (in most ancient times and cultures, including the Middle Ages, silver, not gold, was the standard currency base). There was originally, no coin or other physical item (other than an actual Tower pound of silver) called a “Pound” – it was simply a convenient hypothetical unit of bulk currency, useful for accounting and record-keeping. Coins that were worth a Pound, however, such as Angels or Sovereigns, existed, but were fairly uncommon.
Crown – Common only among nobles and royalty, Crowns, some of which were silver but may also have been composed of gold, represented about five silver shillings, or one-quarter of a pound.
Shilling – when the above Pound of silver was carved up to create individual coins (silver shillings, one of which is thought to have represented the value of one cow in Kent or a sheep elsewhere), you got about 20s to the Pound, so the division was more one of weight and substance than intentional assignation. Although some medieval weights were figured differently, we can generally say that a silver shilling weighed just a little less than 19 grams – fairly large, probably unwieldly coins.
Groat – Representing and likely physically composed of about four pence worth or silver
Pence – Following the Age of Antiquity’s Greek and Roman and other currency systems’ divisions for smaller units of currency, each shilling could be broken down, literally, into 12 silver pence (pennies), which were much smaller and thinner than the shillings – a shilling was worth 12 pence because you would get 12 pence if you carved up one silver shilling – again, this is more a measurement of weight than of intentional monetary value, with each penny weighing just slightly under 1.6 grams.
Ha’Penny – Valued at 1/2 of one pence, the Ha’Penny, like the Farthing below, was never common but did see use from time to time.
Farthing – Infrequently used, the Farthing was the further subdivision of the penny, with four Farthings equaling one penny. Rather than an official coin, the Farthing was usually an actual silver penny, cut into four equal pieces – not very practical to carry around but it let you work in increments smaller than one penny. This is about the most miniscule subdivision of currency ever needed and a lot of people tend to forego using such a small unit of currency.
So we see that 1 pound = 4 crowns = 20 shillings = 240 pence
According to a good number of articles and resources on the internet, it would seem to me that a typical peasant who made about three silver pennies per day would be like a modern professional – with people who made 1 penny being like a “wage slave”, burger-flipper/store clerk, etc. Since it is the lowest common denominator, I will focus on this 1p/day menial labor rule.
This would make that single penny his day’s wages, and for us in modern times, typical day wages are about $48.00 USD if you go with approximately $6.00/hour minimum wage, which may or may not be adjusted for taxes, etc.
$48.00 per day is probably about as low as you go without getting into part-time and waiters/waitresses whose wages are non-standard, and most minimum wage actually now being closer to $7.00+ per hour.
So as you can see, if you base your criteria solely on daily wage, 1 pence = $48.00 if you want to keep it really simple. I have seen other more professional and thorough research which indicates most peasants were lucky to make half a silver a day (about 5 pence) but for the sake of argument and a nice even number, I think the poorest of most of the *free* peasants probably made about a penny a day, some more.
Going on the above assumption that an entry-level unskilled laborer made a penny a day, we have a fantasy/medieval penny basically being worth a modern (2009) USD total of about $48.00, even say $50.00 to even it off.
It takes 12 pence to make a shilling, so ($50 x 12 = $524.00) one shilling would be worth $524.00 USD. This means an unskilled laborer peasant would likely earn still less than a shilling for two weeks of work.
A farthing, being simply a penny cut into fourths, would have been worth about $12.50. This seems a bit much, so let us stop here with this amount, and return to our basic assumption and change the average daily wage from one penny to one shilling.
Let us, in this 1s/day rule, include not just the coin itself for the work, but potentially room and board (food, clothing, amenities), which could obviously not have been the case for the once penny wage, as a full belly and a roof overhead would be worth far more than one shiny penny. So let’s take the full combination of the “liquid” payment as well as the abstracts and call it 1 silver shilling per day payment for an unskilled laborer.
Let us now instead make the silver shilling worth $48.00 USD.
A penny (a 12th of a silver shilling) would have been worth about ($48 / 12 = 4) $4.00 USD, which would also nicely emulate the farthing, making each farthing worth $1.00 USD.
Going up to the pound or crown, the 20 silver shillings that make up a pound would equate to (20×48=960) $960.00 USD, which you could, without too much trouble, round down to $950 or up to an even $1,000.00 USD.
Obviously, farthings would be your dollar bill, and nearly everything of significance in any historical or roleplaying game economy, especially lesser items, costs at least that much, while pence are next up as more or less the $4.00/$5.00 bill, and are pretty common too.
Lastly, suppose in between these extremes is the person who made 3 pence per day? We would divide our initial figurings by 3 ($48/3=16) to get a modern-day equivalent worth of $16.00 per penny.
This would make Farthings worth ($16/4=4) $4.00 USD each, shillings worth ($16×20=320) $320.00, crowns worth $1,600 and one tower pound sterling $6,400 each.
So which is correct for your purposes? Really, it will depend on what you determine as the baseline for your own situation, whether you use a low, medium or high average wage and pay scale, and whether or not you figure in intangibles – as in most other things in life, essentially, your mileage may vary.