Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Medieval Europe processed copious amounts of gold into religious artifacts, jewelry and of course gold coins, as evidenced by the large number of those that survive to this day.

Given that today, no European country is even remotely near the world's top producers of gold (cf. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/gold/mcs-2009-gold.pdf), where did all that gold come from? I am aware that the ancient Romans had trade networks that extended deep into Africa, giving them access to the Nubian gold mines, but how did e.g. 12th century Germans acquire enough gold to make as large an object as the Shrine of the Three Kings?

share|improve this question
Maybe Europe had gold but it was all extracted. Europe also used to have lions and vast forests. –  Ben Crowell Aug 18 '14 at 18:42
The Shrine of the Three Kings doesn't require huge amounts of gold - it's not made of gold but gilded, which can be done with rather small amounts of gold. –  Peteris Aug 19 '14 at 21:19
How do you think the 12th century Germans acquired pepper? There are no pepper trees in Europe. –  Tyler Durden Aug 19 '14 at 21:57
@TylerDurden I have no idea weather that is true or not but if it is then it would suggest that gold could be found all over if we dug deep enough. I do know that in ancient times (and even today in remote regions) gold could be found laying in streams quite often. That is usually an indication that upstream there is a vein. –  krowe Aug 20 '14 at 1:57
@Relaxed : we know there was a lot less gold in circulation. But there wasn't a big demand either. When Musa I of Mali made his pilgrimage to Mecca he brought so much gold with him that he ruined the economy of the middle east, same goes for the Spanish once they "discovered" the new world. The Spanish brought back so much gold, that it quickly lost value. On top of that it ruined Iberian craftsmanship and slowed the production of real goods, because they could be cheaply imported. In the end the uneven distribution of gold really spurred the economy in the rest of Europe. –  Matthaeus Aug 21 '14 at 11:41

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

In the Greek and Roman Era there were a number of sources in Europe tapped for gold..

These were often alluvial (alluvium is loose soil or sediment, usually around water) deposits near the mouths of rivers in Lydia, Greece, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Later more standard mines were found in the Balkans. Rome found similar river deposits in North Italy, Spain, and the Rhine and England. Later they found mines in Spain, and Dacia in the Balkans. These deposits were mostly mined out, or are too small for the current voracious need for Gold.

Gold in the Ancient World

Electrum coins were outlawed by King Croesus (560-546 B.C.) and gold or silver coins were issued. Pure metal coins were necessary to encourage trade relations with Greece, where electrum was not found native in the alluvial deposits. The Greeks would not accept electrum coins in trade. The early source of the gold for coinage was gold mined from the alluvial deposits in Lydia and Greece. Thasos was a rich land south of Thrace that had prolific gold mines and a controlling interest in mainland silver mines during the sixth century B.C. In Greece, the right to issue coins was reserved for political authorities and heads of state.

In 546 B.C. the Persians overran Lydia and adopted the use of coinage without changing the Lydian style or technology. However, they did bring a wealth of gold taken from Egypt. At their peak, they looted 40,000 pounds of gold a year from Egypt. This was mostly Ethiopian gold now melted into the Asian melting pot. The Persians also had their own gold supply. The Arabian shore of the Red Sea offered alluvial deposits so rich that the Greek historian Diodurus wrote that the alluvial mud positively glittered. Gold mines used to provide new gold to early mints were in operation at Phoenicia, Syria, Phrygia and Lampsacus. The river Oxus, known today as Amu Darya, which emptied into the Caspian Sea, was legendary to the Greeks for its alluvial gold. Meanwhile, Lampsacus, at the Dardanelles, issued electrum coinage in the fifth century B.C. and changed to gold in the fourth century B.C. to encourage trade with the Greeks.

A primary Greek deposit of alluvial gold was the river Pactolus which drained the Anatolian Highlands. Today the exact location of the river is uncertain and the gold strata are no longer being eroded. It was the gold from these sources that King Croesus used to issue the first true coinage backed by his crown. Because Greece as a whole had inadequate gold resources to support an extensive gold coinage, silver, for the first time, became the medium of exchange and the gold to silver ratio was set at 1:13. A noted exception to the silver coinage was the issue by Athens of gold coins from 407 to 404 B.C. to pay for the Peloponnesian War.

Philip I of Macedonia issued a prolific gold coinage after the conquest of northern Greece in 348 B.C. Philip II provided the Greeks with their first practical gold coinage from the gold mines at Thrace, Macedonia. So much gold became available that the ratio of gold to silver changed to 1:10. . Inflation had been introduced into civilization. Modern hindsight might well call this the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse (after Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence). Alexander the Great increased the gold coin supply from bullion taken from the Persian treasuries. Gold was again being recycled and not all coinage was produced from gold mined for coinage.


The growth of Rome began at a time when the world supply of gold was mounting to a very great volume and was widely disseminated. Like Greece, the Romans began their rise to power with very little gold in their natural resources.

The first Roman gold came from the river Po in the western Alps and from southern Piedmont. Rome was slow to acquire vast amounts of gold and even forbade burial of gold with the deceased after 450 B.C. The Second Punic War gave Rome the prize that changed its gold position. The acquisition of Spain brought stupendous amounts of gold to Rome. Gold came from the mines and alluvial deposits in the Aduar Basin, the Malaga district, the Plains of Granada and the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Gold is still found in these places today. Rome also got, from the treasuries of Syracuse, 2700 pounds of gold.

Roman conquest brought gold to the Imperial treasury from the far reaches of the Empire. Gold was recycled to produce many of the gold coins issued during the time of the Roman Empire. Roman Imperial gold coins circulated far beyond the frontiers on a vast scale, making it the first world coinage. The coins most circulated were those of Augustus. The gold for these coins was mined, and the coins minted, on a large scale, at Lugdunum in Gaul and at Calagurris in northern Spain. There has been prolific gold mining at these sites since antiquity. Caesar provided another source of gold with the conquest of Britain. The geographer Strabo wrote that gold was one of the commodities exported to Rome after Caesar’s triumph in Britain. The Romans extracted gold from mines at Wales, Devon and Cornwall.

The price of mining gold took a leap when the Romans developed hydraulic mining in the Spanish mines. Rivers were re-channeled and destroyed. Strabo wrote that this method produced more gold than the deep mines. Some of the Roman mines in Spain were 650 feet deep. Slaves in the mines never saw the light of day. The mines were worked until they collapsed on their inhabitants.

Roman Egypt issued the first coinage in that ancient land. The first systematic mining and use of gold occurred in the Nile Valley, yet the Pharaohs did not issue a coinage apart from a very few and minor issues. After the death of Alexander the Great the Ptolemies became the ruling class in the land of the Pharaohs. They promptly issued a prolific coinage of heavy gold coins.

As the influence of Rome expanded to include most of the known world, their sources of gold and their hunger for it expanded as well. Gold was taken from the Rhine River, from mines at Vercellae and from Transylvania. It was brought in trade from the Atlantic coast of central Africa, and from the sources of the Egyptians. Gold from all over the world flowed into Rome. The wealth of gold reached a point where massive statues of pure gold were displayed. The wife of Emperor Claudius, Agrippina, in A.D. 49, wore a tunic of plaited gold thread. She poisoned her husband five years later so that her son, Nero, could become emperor. Then Nero had her murdered five years later.

All this Roman gold was scattered over Europe and Asia when the barbarian invaders sacked Rome. This sacking ended the systematic accumulation of gold on a large scale in Europe until after the Dark Ages.

share|improve this answer
This is good but would be better if you could summarise it a bit; it's a long read. –  congusbongus Aug 19 '14 at 0:22
@congusbongus isn't the first line a nice summary? "In the Greek and Roman Era there were a number of sources in Europe tapped for gold.." –  Lohoris Aug 19 '14 at 11:00
I'm kinda with @congusbongus on this one. Perhaps this is just a matter of taste, but I don't like to read answers this long (MTV generation. Sorry.) If I did have a hankering for that much text I'd be perfectly capable of clicking the link myself and reading the original. A summary about 1/3 this size or so would have been about perfect. –  T.E.D. Aug 19 '14 at 14:25
This doesn't actually answer the question, it appears to be an answer to a different question. –  Samuel Russell Aug 19 '14 at 22:16
Europeans found gold in Europe, and it was recycled ever since. –  Oldcat Aug 19 '14 at 23:28

Half the Old World's gold around the medieval period came from Mali: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mali_Empire#Economy

Credit also to many many hours playing Civilisation 4 as Mansa Musa for knowing this one!

share|improve this answer
How did the gold in Mali come to Europe? –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Aug 19 '14 at 18:56
@AvnerShahar-Kashtan: largely traded through Eygpt to Venice, and a big factor in the financial might of the Venetians in trading with the rest of Europe.(schillerinstitute.org/fid_91-96/954_Gallagher_Venice_rig.html) –  Ross Tucknott Aug 20 '14 at 8:11
Cool. Could you add that to the answer itself, rather than as a supplementary comment? –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Aug 20 '14 at 14:12
And by playing paradox games ;) By the way, when Musa I of Mali made his pilgrimage to Mecca he caused an inflation crisis in egypt just by giving tips and gifts! how funny is that? A single ruler goes on holiday and floods the market of the whole middle east with so much gold that he causes its economies to collapse! –  Matthaeus Aug 21 '14 at 11:33

I'll add that the Carpathian mountains in Eastern Europe have been a very rich source of gold in the middle ages and before.

The Roman conquering of Dacia in 106 AD - modern day Romania is said to have revitalized the Roman empire economy and prolonged its life by at least 100 years (160 metric tons of pure gold and 300 metric tons of silver were brought to Rome right after the conquest in thousands of chariots. 500 tons of gold and 950 tons of silver were extracted and sent to Rome during the roman reign until 271 AD.

According to multiple historical sources most rivers in the country contained gold dust and nuggets (washed down from the mountains), which one could find casually on the river side. Those were extracted intensively during the Middle Ages and were one of the causes all empires in the region tried to conquer Romanian provinces, starting with Hungarians conquering Transylvania province (which even now holds significant gold and rare metals resources), and Turkish, Russian and Polish empires frequent attempts to conquer Moldova and Walachia provinces.

Here's an article in Romanian (you'll need Google translate) on a science site, talking about Romanian gold.

share|improve this answer

Europe during the middle ages mainly just made use of gold that was already in circulation, because, as you said, the trade with Africa was disrupted.

It didn't matter much however -economically- because the currency shifted to silver and copper in all but the byzantine empire. And both were in ample supply.

As Alex already mentioned, eastern Europe had some minor deposits, like in Slovakia, which where discovered in the high middle ages. Further deposits were discovered in Italy and in the Alps.

However i think it is worth mentioning, that precious metal trade was reactivated after Marco Polo made his journey popularizing trade with Asia again via Silk Road -> Middle East -> Venice (mostly, and other Italian Marine Republics, which were the main gold source of the Empire, France and the other European kingdoms.)

share|improve this answer

I know that there are gold mines in Russia, Germany/France/Switzerland area, so it may have come from there source

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.