Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How Much Did Stuff Cost in the Dark Ages?

By Kim Rendfeld

People who lived in early medieval times had a good idea of what something was worth, even if they rarely used money.

A 15th century illustration of a market
What someone paid in coin or barter depended on many factors: How plentiful was the harvest? Was food scarce because the army needed it for an invasion? How much did the buyer desire the object? How skilled were the buyer and seller at bargaining?

In other words, the real cost of food, fabric, livestock, and slaves was what the buyer was willing to pay. So I’ve used a price list Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne as a starting point when my characters negotiate a purchase rather than an absolute. Still, the list gives us a glimpse into what people of different classes chose to eat, wear, and use for protection:

  • Wheat bread cost almost twice as much as oat bread. No surprise, then, that the wealthy favored wheat while peasants might consume rye, barley, or oats.
  • A cow, farm dog, and sheep cost about the same, but a bull was worth six times as much. So a pagan who killed a bull to thank a god for a victorious battle was making a true sacrifice.
  • A horse cost 20 to 30 times more than a cow and two to three times a male slave. The type of horse is unknown here. A warhorse, used only in battle, was the most expensive animal of all.
  • A sword, scabbard, and armor for a warrior cost the same as 20 sheep or more. A peasant family might have thought themselves well off if they had a mix of 16 sheep, cows, and pigs. So, commoners conscripted into the army typically opted for the less expensive spears.
  • Apparently fur was a status symbol in early medieval times, too. A sheepskin cloak was about the same price as one living sheep. A sable-lined cloak was worth 10 sheepskin garments, and marten or otter fur cost three times as much as sable. This is why the aristocrats in my novels wear fur-lined cloaks while commoners and slaves use sheepskin garments to protect themselves from the elements.
Prices are not simply what things cost. They reveal what a society values.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne Pierre Riche

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in eighth century Francia and is working on a third. The Cross and the Dragon is a story of a noblewoman contending with a jilted suitor and the premonition she will lose her husband in battle. The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is a tale of a mother who will go to great lengths to protect her children after she has lost everything else.

To read the first chapters of  Kim's published novels or learn more about her, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com. You can also like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Kim's book are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.


  1. Nice post! As always, supply and demand play a role, don't you think? Sheepskin was far easier to get hold of than sable...

    1. Supply and demand definitely played a role. Food prices depended on the harvest. Sheep were raised domestically and it took fewer skin to make a cloak that served the wearer well. Sable were hunted or trapped, and it would have taken a lot more skins to line a cloak.

  2. Love the post very interesting, but I don't think I would like to be a peasant living in that I time I think I would rather stick to being a noble instead, and speaking of nobles I have a good question for you, why didn't the nobles ever carry money, even the kings and queens never carry money even now, is there some kind of symbol as to why they don't do that I'm just curious

    1. Nobles definitely had it easier and had more options, although they were not shielded from all hardships. I've not come across anything about nobles not carrying money, so I don't know the answer to that question.

    2. Kings and queens did not carry money because they already owned everything by virtue of being the sovereign. The whole country was literally their possession. They could just take what they wanted, although in practice they often had an aide pay quietly so their subjects wouldn't hate them. Nobles did carry money, however. History is quite clear on that.

  3. Yes, good post, Kim. It is relative prices that are most informative when trying to understand and describe the past.
    As for kings/queens never carrying money, I think it had to do with dignity. The royal treasury travelled with the king, and he was usually accompanied by an almoner to give out alms. The king/noble disposed over wealth, but didn't actually handle it or count it. That was for his subordinates/employees to do.

  4. What a timely post ... I'm working on my major historical fiction novel project right now. As to the question posed by Erica, re that nobles and royals never appear to carry any coin ... I think you'll find that there was always an official at hand to cope with any payouts, but bear in mind that back in the good olde days, such people merely took what they wanted at the time (food, drink, etc) which was "gladly" handed over. As to the royals today, you might be surprised that they actually carry cash or card but still have someone who goes ahead on any occasion to clear the financial way for them if need be.

  5. What about "spices"? "The bills of the royal pantry of King Dinis of Portugal for 1278-82 show the purchase of sugar (which was then considered a spice)..Iwas so expensive that it was worth more than fifty times the price of honey!"

    Portugal subsequently started "the age of exploration" in large measure to break the stranglehold Venice held on trade to the orient which increased the European cost of spices to such an extent that they were very difficult to find among the general populace.

    Daily Life in Portugal in the Late Middle Ages, Oliveira Marques


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