Bullion flows - Bullion famines?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by EWC3, Nov 10, 2018.

  1. EWC3

    EWC3 Active Member

    I studied this about 20 years back, and found there was no general consensus. It seems clear that the amount mined in any one year is rather trivial compared with the pre-existing stocks, but less clear is the question - if mines stop producing, how long it takes for societies in general to start to run out, and indeed, if this running out was ever in reality the cause of the so called “bullion famines”.

    Fernand Braudel (hailed as the world’s greatest historian by some) back around 1950 laid great stress on the effects of new mined silver on economies. He pushed it to absurd limits – suggesting to the reader that a return to silver coin use in India around 1540 was something to do with the finding of silver at Potosi in 1545! Actually it was reading that nonsense that set me up studying the matter. The truth was clearly that lots of hoarded silver was in India already in 1540. Sher Shah was busy conquering a new kingdom, and he had ideas about the economy very similar to Adam Smith - that trade and markets were a good thing. He captured several state treasuries and rapidly coined all the silver to put it into circulation. Probably all his coin was from hoarded silver, perhaps much of it ultimately brought from Persia and Rome centuries or millennia earlier.

    (Note that the Afghan MZ II hoard which was certainly deposited around 100 AD or later, contained lots of coins from all previous centuries back to 400 BC. Hoarding takes place in all societies, but especially in India.)

    I thought the best guy on this was Andrew Murray Watson in the 1960’s. Building on his ideas, it seemed to me the same silver was to a great extent recycled, and moved around according to the political ideas of different societies. The Arabs won a great deal of silver when they took Persia. They were keen on trade and commerce, and struck a great deal of coins from it in the 8th century, but issues became sporadic over the 9th and 10th centuries, and then stopped most places. Under Turks, Islam seem to move away from commerce back to something much more like general serfdom. They did not need the silver any more, so sent much of it to the Vikings. The Vikings were just getting into commerce big style and were very keen to get it. The Vikings transformed into Normans, and spread a commercial zeal into old Europe which anyhow had started to abandon serfdom and strike more coins.

    How much of this silver started out in Sasanid Persia and ended up in medieval Europe via Russia and the Vikings? I do not think anyone has any idea! Its the sort of suggestion that Pirenne was pushing at the start of the 20th century. And Watson in the 1960’s. But Braudellians like Peter Spufford and John Day heavily promoted the opposite idea through the 1970’s and 1980’s that most silver was new stuff from mines, and so called bullion famines came about pretty rapidly once mines stopped producing. I was one of a few heretics back then that thought they over egged that pudding.

    I noticed since 2000 an Israeli (Nathan Sussman) seemed to be turning things on their head again, arguing that there was never any real shortage of silver in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries – there was a kind of push back towards serfdom, and so the silver just got hoarded.

    Ed’s links to Wikipedia underline to me the dire straits modern popular knowledge is getting into in 2018.


    He concludes “Europe ran out of silver in the 15th century “ Well, Europe certainly stopped striking silver coins in the mid century. And his conclusion is certainly in line with Spufford and Day. But ignores the ideas of Watson and Sussman, that the silver was to a great extent hoarded, or exported under policies that discouraged commerce by ordinary folk.

    More worrying - the Wiki writer is probably correct about an African origin for most later medieval European gold. But then cites as his source a guy writing a book called “The Semiotics of Self” Aargh!!!

    So – what can I say? I maybe have my own prejudices on this matter, but am sure all the experts I found had prejudices too.

    Thanks Doug for raising it – it seems to me a vital question - but I judge nobody knows the answer to it.

    Rob T
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2018
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  3. lordmarcovan

    lordmarcovan Eclectic & odd Moderator

    Wouldn't it be amazing if every silver or gold coin in one's collection could be scanned into some magic app which would show a picture of every other earlier coin which got melted down and incorporated into it?

    Like sort of a "bullion DNA" thing.

    Impossible, of course, but fun to daydream about.
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  4. TypeCoin971793

    TypeCoin971793 Just a random nobody...

    I want to know which supernovaed stars the atoms of silver in my coin came from. :)
  5. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Wow, I almost skipped this thread since it had the word Bullion in the title but when I saw who started it, I have to check it out. I agree that this is a question that can only be answered if we make assumptions that are probably best not made but it raises the basic questions of coinage. Why did they want to strike the coins? Where did the get the metal? What happened to the coins that are no longer known to exist? I am allergic to the term bullion since it promotes the theory that any ounce of metal is just like any other ounce of metal. If a hoard of well corroded ancient silver coins were found at the bottom of a well in condition that made them identifiable but ugly as sin and worth only melt, I would hope someone would save them from the pot but I would not put any of my money toward the project. As we write here, I suspect that somewhere someone is melting some coins that mean nothing to me but still will mean less to me when they are bricks.
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  6. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Redditor Lucis Aeternae

    Interesting thread and I have pondered this question before. I wondered how much gold of the Egyptians ended up in Greek and Roman coins, since they had the gold but didn't mint any coins until the 4th century B.C. when Nectanebo had to pay his Greek mercenaries. How many earlier aurei ended up as Medieval solidi? Numerous other questions arise. Like Doug I saw bullion and thought this was a modern thread so I've just noticed it.
  7. EWC3

    EWC3 Active Member

    Yes. It looks as if hundreds of tons of silver coin were shipped from Islamic Persia into Scandinavia around the 10th century. And then, hundreds of tons of silver coin was shipped from Spain and France back into Islamic North Africa around the 13th century. Some of it must have been the same - but how much? 1%? 50%? One cannot even guess.

    I had this idea that this exchange was like a giant game of ping pong, played between continents, over centuries, silver batted backwards and forwards as their economies changed. Or even more, like two pistons, 180 degrees out of sync, the one refuelling the other. But there is no way to test it I think.
  8. EWC3

    EWC3 Active Member

    I think that gets right to the heart of the matter. In the case of Sher Shah (and Akbar) we can find the answer I think. Prior to Sher Shah, peasant farmers often paid their rents to the landlord with part of the crop itself. They got low value and Sher Shah thought it discouraged them. He wanted them to sell their surplus at markets at a good price in cash, pay their rents in cash, and keep more for themselves. An incentive to be more productive, and thus help the state itself to prosper. It does not seem to me to be an unusual idea, quite a lot like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (or for that matter maybe the “American dream”)? As far as I can tell, all the great proponents of coin issue thought like that.
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  9. Finn235

    Finn235 Well-Known Member

    A few things I have noticed, pondered, and been largely unable to find a concrete answer for.

    1) Everyone knows that the bottom dropped out on the antoninianus in the 250s. But, broaden the scope and the slack doesn't seem to have been picked up anywhere:
    - Silver essentially disappeared from Roman coins after 260; I believe it dipped to 2% for imperal coins and under 1% for Gallic coins between 268 and Aurelian's reforms in the early 270s. Sure, the Roman mints probably still consumed thousands of pounds of silver annually, but nowhere near what it had been even 15 years prior.
    - Sassanid Persia of course minted silver coins, but the coinage of Shapur I is scarce today, and after his death in 272, there was a quick succession of very rare rulers; coin production couldn't have been significant during this period or we would have more survivors today.
    - The Kushans hadn't been making silver coinage in decades
    - The Western Kshatrapas minted silver in decent amounts
    - The Satavahana empire was dead and gone; the early Guptas hadn't adopted silver yet.
    - The Huns were not yet in the picture
    - It is possible the Samarkand tiny silver coins were still being made, but probably not in significant numbers
    - China did not mint silver coinage at this time.

    So where the heck did it go? What happened to the silver that was being mined at this time?

    2) Related to the above, Diocletian fixed the broken Roman monetary system and reintroduced silver coinage as the argenteus; these were apparently never made in significant numbers, and neither were the siliquae. The economy had been fished back out of the toilet, and Rome still controlled her silver mines, so why did bronze take over? Or were the siliquae minted in large numbers, but melted down after 476 because they were available when Europe switched to the denier/penny?
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  10. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    A very interesting thread. The appearance/disappearance of silver puzzles me, ever since I was a little boy, when my grandma showed me how to pick out the silver from our pocket change - c. 1966. This is probably when I started collecting coins. I still have her hoard of silver dollars, culled from circulation when she worked at a ticket-taker in a movie theater in Wabash, Indiana c. 1959 - a surprising number of cartwheels were moving through the economy, contrary to what the sources usually state.

    Anyway, a couple days ago I fell down a Wikipedia wormhole and landed on the article for Danegeld - which gave some specific numbers in regards to silver payments from the English to the Vikings - was this re-coined Roman silver? Silver didn't circulate in Britain much after the 3rd century (I think).

    So I thought this Danegeld might be on-topic and worth sharing (more so than my grandma's silver dollars) - here are some excerpts:

    "An English payment of 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver was first made in 991 following the Viking victory at the Battle of Maldon in Essex, when Æthelred was advised by Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the aldermen of the south-western provinces to buy off the Vikings rather than continue the armed struggle. One manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said Olav Tryggvason led the Viking forces.[a][7]

    In 994 the Danes, under King Sweyn Forkbeard and Olav Tryggvason, returned and laid siege to London. They were once more bought off, and the amount of silver paid impressed the Danes with the idea that it was more profitable to extort payments from the English than to take whatever booty they could plunder.[a]
    Further payments were made in 1002, and in 1007 Æthelred bought two years peace with the Danes for 36,000 troy pounds (13,400 kg) of silver. In 1012, following the capture and murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sack of Canterbury, the Danes were bought off with another 48,000 troy pounds (17,900 kg) of silver.[a]

    In 1016 Sweyn Forkbeard's son, Canute, became King of England. After two years he felt sufficiently in control of his new kingdom to the extent of being able to pay off all but 40 ships of his invasion fleet, which were retained as a personal bodyguard, with a huge Danegeld of 72,000 troy pounds (26,900 kg) of silver collected nationally, plus a further 10,500 pounds (3,900 kg) of silver collected from London..."

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  11. EWC3

    EWC3 Active Member

    Yes, interesting. I can only throw light on part of what you wrote. Note that the huge MZ II hoard – 3 tons of mostly silver coin – was started around the 5th century BC, but contained Soter Megas coppers, so was buried in Afghanistan after about 100 BC – well into Kushan times. So it looks a lot like the Kushans had silver in their territory – they just chose to mint only gold and copper.

    Actually, its clear too that the old Mauryan PMC’s were also still in use in Kushan times – probably lots of them. Very worn coins that had circulated maybe 300 years old seem to be rather common.

    Its easy to find this sort of evidence for hoarded metal in India. Another example comes from the time Timur (Tamerlane) sacked Delhi - in 1398. Around a century earlier the Delhi Sultan Ala-ud-din Muhammed had conquered most of India, and huge amounts of hoarded silver had been captured from Hindu temples and treasuries. Ala-ud-din struck it up mostly into 11g silver tankas. A century later, Delhi had lost its power, and hardly struck any coins at all. Yet Timur was astonished at the vast quantity of Ala-ud-din tankas he found still hoarded there. The coins are common enough today, and usually show very little wear. All hoarded.

    But its not just India, or olden times. In 1776, the year Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations, 100,000 ounces of silver was newly hallmarked for plate etc in England. Yet not a single ounce of silver went through the mint. Recall also, when in 1980 Bunker Hunt tried to corner the silver market, he totally failed to estimate the amount of silver there was out there.

    These sort of things (I could list many more) all make me worry when people argue simply that silver coinage ceased so the mines must have run out. Its clearly not that simple

    Rob T
  12. EWC3

    EWC3 Active Member

    Its best to move with caution citing Wiki on these sort of topic. The sections you quote are mostly lifted from a 19th century translations of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. However someone has embellished them – writing about “Roman pounds” and “Troy pounds”. Where did the writer get that information from? In a dream maybe? Its not in any medieval source.

    Anyhow, although we cannot exactly trust ASC for the exact numbers, it obvious a lot of silver was paid over from the Anglo-Saxons to the Vikings, so yes, its important to try figure out where it all came from. It could be left by the Romans, it could be locally mined, it could have come into England through medieval trade. My guess would tend towards the latter, but that is just a guess.

    How did the kings themselves get it, from to hand it over? The only evidence I know of is the large amounts of silver they got from manipulating the silver coinage. My understanding of late Anglo-Saxon coinage came from Mark Blackburn (at his kitchen table, over a bottle of wine).

    Coinage was run on a six year cycle – it was all demonetized, called in, and restuck every 6 years. When people turned their coin in, for every 3 “old” pennies they paid in, they most probably only got two “new” ones back. (that exchange rate is a best guess – we have no records). That must have produced a lot of silver every 6 years from the Royal treasury. By medieval standards it was a big impost – most probably driven by the need to raise cash for the Danegeld.

    Rob T
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  13. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    I thought those "Roman pound" amounts were suspiciously specific, Rob. Thank you for the clarification. It is also interesting to see that demonetization scheme has been used for centuries by governments.
  14. PlanoSteve

    PlanoSteve Well-Known Member

    ...actually, doesn't this go back to the 1980's, with Mark Knopfler & MTV? :hilarious::D:rolleyes::jawdrop:
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  15. capthank

    capthank Active Member

    What criteria does the mint use when they melt coins. I see references in the Red Book that the population given is approx as many were melted.
  16. EWC3

    EWC3 Active Member

    Actualy I agree about the 1980's - but cite different evidence.

    Here are Arthur Marwick's thoughts:

    "All Quiet on the Postmodern Front? The Great War (also referred to as ‘the culture wars’), which had its origins deep in the 1960s, was, in the 80s, marked by phenomenal victories on the part of the postmodernists. They overran much of Eng Lit and established the puppet state of Cultural Studies. They walked, without even token resistance, into History and Philosophy of science, being embraced by weeping Sociologists; flamboyant hopes of conquering the high peaks and cantons of the Natural Sciences were, however, exposed as ill-conceived. Parts of the marcher lands of History fell easily, though it was here that some of the nastiest fighting took place”. (Arthur Marwick, TLS, 2001)
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  17. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Priceless repartee :D.
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  18. Theodosius

    Theodosius Unrepentant Fine Style Freak! Supporter

    So what happened to all the silver paid to the vikings? Is it still buried somewhere in England or the viking homelands? Did it get restruck as later coinage?

    This is an interesting topic. What about the flow of gold to and frow across history?

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  19. EWC3

    EWC3 Active Member

    Important question - but I cannot answer it. My guess is it mostly diffused out into the rest of Europe by trade etc. And I think that was Pirenne’s position early in the 20th century. I just had a quick look at Spufford (MAIUIME) and he seems to make a poor job of treating this. He seems to have Scandinavia having to debase its silver due to the failure on silver mines in Saxony - by 1060.

    That seems to imply that it was heavily dependant on new dug Saxon silver before 1060. Which reads rather as if the Islamic imports never existed. Has anyone else seen a different story – from Spufford or elsewhere? (Apart from the usual clutch of archaeologists who maybe think the vikings buried it all in tribute to the Earth Mother).

    Earlier I wrote of a kind of obsession with new mined silver and a disregard of matters to do with hoarding and bullion flows by leading modern academics – and this case seems to support that view.

    Watson put up a lot of evidence that while silver flowed from Europe into Islam in the high middle ages, gold was flowing in the opposite direction. They kind of swapped metals. The same sort of thing seems to happen with 18th century England, quite oddly. The great recoinage of 1696 was intended to put England on a silver standard for coinage. Yet it seems that by 1697 merchants were already preferentially importing gold and exporting silver. There seems to be a similar situation going on between Bahmanids and Vijayanagar in late medieval India. Wagoner has written some excellent stuff on that

    Rob T
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2018
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  20. EWC3

    EWC3 Active Member

    Here are a couple of papers that hit the news a bit recently, and bear on early medieval silver mining in Europe, and coinage.

    I would need to know a lot more before I was convinced by these arguments – but here they are – in case anyone wants to discuss them

    “Alpine ice-core evidence for the transformation of the European monetary system, AD 640–670"


    "Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’"


    Rob T
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