After the Roman Empire's slow decline, and its withdrawal from much of northern Europe (France, Germany, Britain), gold coin use seems to have declined to the point where it would be a rare to see any. For example, in the archaeological record, huge silver hoards have been found in Britain and Scandinavia, but gold is extremely rare.

Why was this? Was there an economic or logistical reason for the decline of gold use in this period? Or were their political factors involved with trade agreements from the old empires, and the emerging powers in central and northern europe?

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    Gold is a siderophilic metal and thus almost all of it sank to the Earth's core during the Hadean Eon. Silver, as a chalcophile, remained accessible in much greater amounts in the Earth's crust. Whilst Gold has been popular due to being the least chemically reactive and most dense non-rare metal; a trend towards Silver is understandable in any long standing economy still using a specie-backed currency. Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 21:49

2 Answers 2


The silver denarius was the principal coin of the Roman Republic and Empire. The denarius remained an important Roman coin until the Roman economy began to crumble. As the Roman economy crumbled, the denarius which had proliferated the empire began to be adapted to local needs. The medieval period for almost all regional economies is marked by re-use of Roman coinage. It's legacy can be seen in that the word was preserved in most Romance languages; denier in French, the dinero in Spanish, denari in Italian, and denar in Hungarian.

The later 5th and 6th centuries are very murky in almost every way, and coinage is no exception. The once vigorous late Roman monetary system lay in tatters, with almost no new minting and very little importation of new coins. Nevertheless, it is apparent that coinage never faded away completely, and that re-use of the existing supply of coinage continued throughout the period.

It is worth noting that few gold coins were struck in the West since the fall of the Roman Empire. Gold coins were in circulation, of course, but the West simply made use of existing coins as well as new coins from Byzantium or Islamic Caliphates. There actually was a ‘gold’ phase of currency in England, which began with an increase in the rate of importation of continental gold, principally in the form of tremisses. By the middle of the 7th century the quantity of gold in these coins had declined rapidly, and by the 670s they were more or less completely silver. Existing silver seems to have been sufficient, even with debasement occurring.

The first European gold coin struck in sufficient quantities to play a significant commercial role since the seventh century was the Florin, provided by Florence in 1252. Gold coins had also been occasionally struck as commemorative pieces for big events, but this was the first that was intended as currency.

A wonderful insight into the history of the english coinage during the period you are interested in:

History of English penny (600-1066)

History of the Gold Florin

  • I'm a bit confused: this answer is quite interesting, but how does it answer this question?
    – o0'.
    Commented Mar 1, 2014 at 9:52
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    I would add a fact: Silver was always more abundant, around 15 to 1 for Silver, and cheaper. So the smaller trades usually made on Silver and other metals, if you wanted to buy just few fishes in medieval times, you didn't use a gold coin. Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 21:02
  • There wasn't enough gold available for a workable currency. Commented May 19, 2015 at 8:48
  • A good answer. However Might I suggest that Islam is not a place? You should rather rephrase it to "Umayyad Empire" (First ones who struck separate currency for Muslim World in competition with Byzantium).
    – NSNoob
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 10:19

One of the fundamental reasons why the Roman Empire fell is the shortage of precious metals. The lack of coin is not the effect of the Empire's crumbling, it is it's cause. The shortage was both of silver and gold. Under Augustus the silver denarius was pure. Nero added 5-10% alloy. Trajan raised the alloy content to 15%. Marcus Aurelius to 25%. Under Severus, around 200 A.D., half of the denarius was base metal. Sixty years later, under Gallienus, the antonianus (the new coin) had only 5% silver. Gold coins suffered a similar fate.

There are two fundamental reasons for this shortage. First is the exhaustion of the Mediterranean mines. Second is the unilateral trade with China and India, which along the centuries became sinkholes for Roman coin.

"We already find Tiberius complaining in his day that the Romans were giving away their money to foreign peoples for jewels, and under Vespasian the imports from the east amounted to no less than 100 million sesterces (22 million marks) annually. In the two centuries from Augustus to Septimius Severus, something like 4 billion marks of valuable metals could have drifted from the Roman Empire to India and East Asia."

["The Barbarian Invasions" - Hans Delbruck]

We could also derive a third one from the second, that is - the coin given to the barbarian mercenaries (as pay and later as tribute) also did not return to the Roman economy.

The continuous debasement of the currency went hand in hand with the State's incapacity to pay it's troops. The result was allowing the troops stationed on the borders to practice farming. Some emperors even allowed them to live with their wives. From the psychological military point of view, this was a catastrophe. A farmer-soldier is cannon fodder for the semi-savage, naturally war-like barbarian peoples. The result was that the emperors started hiring barbarian mercenaries, given that the Roman troops became ineffective. This was the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire, and it began in the 3rd century.

The reason why so much non-debased coin is found in Scandinavia/Britain is that the barbarians demanded imperiously pure silver/gold. The emperors had to pay them that, draining to the utmost the already scanty reserves which flowed in the civil economy. That's why you won't find pure coin on the territory of the Empire itself.

Now, to answer your question itself: When precious metals started flowing anew in Europe, it was because mines were being rediscovered, especially in Central Europe: Bohemia, Austria and Southern Germany. These mines were mainly of silver. This is the basic answer.

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    A trade imbalance of this sort compounded existing fundamental flaws in Roman governance, it didn't create them. Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 21:29
  • Can you please elaborate? Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 9:27
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    Rome was mining considerably more silver than the later European feudal states or the neighbouring Arabic caliphate. Debasement was most acute during wars or when reacting to Rome's endemic structural flaws (quantitative easing I believe is the modern euphemism); so mostly a compounding symptom of existing problems than a primary cause in itself. Denarii went from 4.5g of silver to less than 0.16g in five centuries, an average coin inflation rate of 0.7%; inline with sluggish growth of ancient societies with liquidity trapped by nobility. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 21:25
  • In practice, the M0 velocity of an agrarian slave-based society was always going to be low. So much so that the integrity of coin over short time-frames (hyperinflation/counterfeiting/etc) would have been more relevant than net amount of coinage available in a given specie. Feudal societies were so accustomed to what we would perceive as economic stagnation that modern inflation was simply beyond their capacity to handle. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 21:37

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