Finance is usually distinguished from the ‘real economy’ to isolate those parts of an economic system that are most directly engaged in production or consumption. However, this shouldn’t suggest that a financial system cannot reveal anything new about the ‘real economy’ not already measured. The condition of a monetary system can be indicative of an area’s broader economic reality. For periods remote enough in the past that economic data is scarce, one of the most valuable economic indicators is the coinage. This is true for France just after the High Middle Ages, when a king, Philip IV, dealt with temporary fiscal challenges in an era before sovereign borrowing by debasing the coinage.
Medieval French Money
Around the year 800, the Emperor Charlemagne introduced a new monetary standard to France based on a single coin, the silver denier. Centuries later, the principal coin in France during the High Middle Ages (1000-1250) remained the denier. However, there was no centralized authority minting coins for all of France. Rather, counts and other local rulers issued their own coins, a system that reflected the decentralized structure of virtually all European monarchies at the time.
Even in the mid-13th century, at the end of the High Middle Ages, in France and elsewhere in Europe, most coins were issued in small denominations with large coins a rarity barely in existence anywhere. This made large transactions and hoards of money quite massive in terms of number of coins. For example, while in Paris in 1260, King Henry III of England received £1,000 from his treasury back in England. It was delivered entirely in pennies which took three days to accumulate. Officials aggregating the requisite number of coins, 240,000 in all, were paid nine shillings, eight pence in overtime wages for their mammoth effort.
This monetary structure began to change under the reign of Louis IX in France, who was canonized a saint after his death. The king was a contemporary of Henry III, and perhaps his monetary reforms were in some way inspired by the travails of his vassal, Henry III, in transferring funds to France. In any case, Saint Louis introduced a new coin, the gros tournois, also called the tornesel, in 1266. This was a large coin, worth twelve deniers, inspired by other large denomination coins recently introduced in Italy. The 4.2-gram silver coin was produced at Tours, from which the name ‘tournois’ derived.
So deprived of large coins was the continent that use of the gros tournois, and its imitations, spread all over Europe. Records show that the court of King Edward I of England made use of the gros tournois, especially in paying the expenses of diplomatic missions in the late 1280s. An imitation of the coin was also produced by Floris V of Holland. Part of the appeal was its design. The coin featured a ring of twelve lilies around the edge of the reverse side, denoting its value of twelve deniers. But more importantly, this design made it more obvious if someone had scraped off metal from the edge of the coin, a common criminal practice. The gros tournois continued to be minted under the reign of Louis IX’s successor Philip III.
Philip IV succeeded Philip III in 1285; his contentious rule would be marked by his government’s financial troubles. Among the causes of the strain was a war underway against the English king, Edward I, who then also controlled the region of Gascony in today’s southwestern France. Causing further trouble for Philip, the English made allies in French-controlled Flanders and the fighting lasted from 1294 to 1305. The war was expensive for both sides and in the end, it was all for naught; the peace treaty after the war merely returned the state of France to the status quo ante bellum.
In funding the war, Philip IV was guided by Etienne Barbette, who served as a finance minister to the King and as head of the state mint during much of his rule. Taxes funded part of the war’s cost but so too did seigniorage, the profit derived from producing currency. Philip and Barbette suspended production of the gros tournois in 1295 and began to produce coins that had less metal content than their official value would demand.
The result of these periodic devaluations of the coinage meant that by 1302, denier coins contained just a third as much silver as they had before Philip IV’s reign began. Debased silver coins should have been darker in color, a result of containing less silver, but a chemical process was employed to make them look as though they had a higher silver content. For these manipulations, Philip IV was the ‘Counterfeiter King’.
Even at the start of the 14th century, the French king’s financial troubles continued. In 1301, Pope Boniface VIII prohibited Philip IV from taxing clergy. Boniface had tried this before but Edward I of England had protested as well, prompting the Pope to back down. This attempt would be no more successful in the end though. The French king was learning how to use force to resolve the fiscal situation. The Pope was forced to retract his decree after agents of Philip had the Pope, who had also criticized the king’s monetary manipulations, arrested.
When a new Pope more compliant with Philip’s wishes, Clement V, took charge, the king was able to proceed with violent and extreme measures that improved his financial position. Philip IV conducted a persecution of the Knights Templar, a religious military order with deep pockets, and France’s Jews, two groups from which his government could extract plunder. Much of their respective property was seized, giving Philip a new source of funds. The situation also turned with the final end of the war. This did not come until 1305 since though fighting against England ended in 1303, the war in Flanders had continued. Nonetheless, the final peace brought reparations payments into Philip’s coffers.
Philip’s debasement mostly took place from 1295 to 1305, with production of Louis IX’s gros tournois restarting in 1305, in the last third of Philip’s rule. If Philip IV could be called the ‘Counterfeiter King’ at least it was short lived, lasting far less long than his thirty-year rule. Nonetheless, he had become infamous for his monetary and other misdeeds, even earning a mention in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante was a contemporary of Philip.
“There shall be seen the woe that on the Seine / He brings by falsifying of the coin” – Dante Alighieri, in The Divine Comedy: Paradiso: Canto XIX
France’s transition back to the old standard was itself an ordeal. In 1306, new denier coins were produced with the old silver composition and Philip required that these be used as legal tender in place of the debased coins. The public reaction was hostile. When landlords in Paris began to demand payment in the more precious coins, acting as the law had told them, the people rebelled. The King’s repudiation of his own coins prompted a rebellion and the people even raided and destroyed the home of Etienne Barbette.
Little testament survives to the exact extent and nature of the fiscal troubles faced by Philip IV of France during his wars against England and Flanders. However, the coinage offers a clue that the strain may have been severe, though in the days before sovereign borrowing was well established, even a small imbalance between state incomes and expenditures could prompt devaluations. Nonetheless, coins survive; they are among the most durable artifacts of a regime or civilization and so are critical to understanding the economic reality of a particular ancient or medieval place and time.
More from the Tontine Coffee-House
Read about Philip IV’s persecution of the Knights Templar, Europe’s monastic bankers. Also learn about the medieval coin that gave the dollar its name and the effects of a medieval coin shortage on England’s economy.
1. Brown, Elizabeth A.R. Philip IV. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Nov. 2020.
2. “Changed ‘Philip the Fair’ to ‘Philip the Counterfeiter.’” Sound Currency, vol. 5, no. 13, 1 July 1898, pp. 215–216.
3. “La Grande Nation and Its Coinage.” Money Museum – Zürich.
4. Phillips, Marcus. “The Early Use and Imitation of the Gros Tournois in the Low Countries.” Revue Belge De Numismatique Et De Sigillographie, vol. 160, 2014, pp. 95–132.
5. Sargent, Thomas John., and Velde François R. The Big Problem of Small Change. Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, 1997.