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I remember reading a Robin Hood story as a child where the Sheriff of Nottingham rode though Sherwood forest, as I remember foolishly going alone, and Robin Hood robbed him of 300 pounds. And I thought about the unfortunate horse that had to carry the Sherrif and his gear and also 300 pounds of coins.

Wouldn't the Sheriff probably weigh at least 150 more pounds?

How much weight could a medieval riding horse carry?

A palfrey is a type of horse that was highly valued as a riding horse in the Middle Ages. It was a lighter-weight horse, usually a smooth gaited one that could amble, suitable for riding over long distances. Palfreys were not a specific breed as horse breeds are understood today. Wikipedia:Palfrey

So the riding horses in the middle ages, as opposed to cart horses, plow horses, or war horses, would have been small, and many medieval pictures of people riding depict horses which seem very small to me. Those pictures depict very paltry palfreys.

I guess that palfreys probably usually weighed less than 1,000 pounds.

In the USA the general rule is that horses can carry up to 20 percent of their own weight. So if the sheriff and his 300 pounds of coins weighed 450 pounds, his horse would have to weigh at least 2,250 pounds. Which would make it a very big horse.

I believe that a pound was a unit of value, enough goods or coins to equal one pound of a precious metal.

A pound is any of various units of currency in some nations. The term originated in the Frankish Empire as a result of Charlemagne's currency reform ("pound" from Latin pondus, a unit of weight) and was subsequently taken to Great Britain as the value of a pound (weight) of silver.Wikipedia:Pound

Robin Hood stories are typically set in the reign of Richard I (1189-1199), a trend started by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanoe (1819) but some original medieval Robin Hood stories mention King Edward, thus placing them in about 1272-1377.

Gold is more valuable than sliver, so gold coins worth 300 pounds of silver would weigh a lot less than 300 pounds of silver coins. Where there were any gold coins minted in England during the middle ages?

The guinea (/ˈɡɪniː/ ; commonly abbreviated gn., or gns. in plural)2 was a coin, minted in Great Britain between 1663 and 1814, that contained approximately one-quarter of an ounce of gold.3 The name came from the Guinea region in West Africa, from where much of the gold used to make the coins was sourced.4 It was the first English machine-struck gold coin, originally worth one pound sterling,3 equal to twenty shillings, but rises in the price of gold relative to silver caused the value of the guinea to increase, at times to as high as thirty shillings. From 1717 to 1816, its value was officially fixed at twenty-one shillings.Wikipedia:Noble

The angel was an English gold coin introduced by Edward IV in 1465. It was patterned after the French angelot or ange, which had been issued since 1340. The name derived from its representation of the archangel Michael slaying a dragon. As it was considered a new issue of the noble, it was also called the angel-noble. Wiki:Pound

The noble was the first English gold coin produced in quantity, introduced during the second coinage (1344–46) of King Edward III. It was preceded by the gold penny and the florin, minted during the reign of King Henry III and the beginning of the reign of King Edward III; these saw little circulation. The derivatives of the noble, the half noble and quarter noble, on the other hand, were produced in quantity and were very popular.

The double florin or double leopard was an attempt in 1344 by English king Edward III to produce a gold coinage suitable for use in Europe as well as in England (see also florin or leopard and half florin or helm). It was 108 grains (6.99829 grams) of nominal pure ('fine') gold and had a value of six shillings (i.e. 72 pence).1 4

Until the reign of King Henry III of England (1216–1272), any need in England for coins worth more than one penny, at the time a silver coin, was met by the use of Byzantine or Arabic gold and silver coins which circulated among merchants and traders. However, as commerce increased, so did the need for higher value coins. In 1257, Henry instructed his goldsmith, William of Gloucester, to produce a coinage of pure gold.

The gold penny was introduced, with a value of twenty pence. The coin's obverse showed the king enthroned, in his royal attire, with a scepter in his right hand and a globus cruciger in his left, with the legend HENRICUS REX III (King Henry III). The reverse contained a long cross extending to the edge, with a flower in each quarter, and the moneyer's name in the legend, thus WILLEM ON LVND (William of London). Some examples read LVNDEN or LVNDE instead of LVND.2

The gold penny was not popular. Thomas Carte, in his A general history of England, says that the citizens of London made a representation against them on 24 November 1257, and that "the King was so willing to oblige them, that he published a proclamation, declaring that nobody was obliged to take it [the gold penny], and whoever did, might bring it to his exchange, and receive there the value at which it had been made current, one halfpenny only being deducted from each, most probably for the expense of coinages".3

Compared to its bullion weight, the coin was undervalued. By 1265, the gold in the coin was worth twenty-four pence rather than twenty, and it is believed that most of the coins were melted down for profit by individuals. Gold coins would not be minted again in England until the reign of King Edward III about seventy years later.

So for most of the period when Robin Hood stories might take place there wren't any English gold coins circulating in England. And of course foreign gold coins circulated, but they were mostly used by merchants and bankers.

I doubt that Nottingham was a big center of international trade or finance in the middle ages, and I wonder whether there would even be gold coins worth a total of 300 pounds in all of Nottinghamshire during a typical time in the middle ages.

And could the sheriff collect 300 pounds of silver coins in taxes in a single year in all of Nottinghamshire? 300 Pounds was a very large amount of money in the middle ages.

So are my suspicions correct that during most of the middle ages 300 pounds worth of money carried through Sherwood forest would be in the form of silver coins weighing a total of 300 pounds and there would be no way to lighten the load on the poor horse?

Did the modern writer of the Robin Hood story I read as a child, probably familiar with modern money values and with paper money, write about an amount of money as wildly exaggerated as the "thousand talents" wager in Ben-Hur (1959)?

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  • Looks like your links weren't formatted correctly. They were being interpreted as inline links with the [#] appended and Wikipiedia didn't like that. You already had the endnote-style links so I just removed the duplicate URLs. Feel free to roll back. – Spencer Apr 15 at 18:31
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    "I doubt that Nottingham was a big center of international trade or finance in the middle ages." Don't forget that it claims to have the oldest pub in the UK, the "Trip to Jerusalem" built in 1132. (OK, the Crusades weren't about "trade" but they were most certainly "international.") It certainly had international links after being conquered by the Vikings. Its medieval castle was considered the strongest fortress in England, and there was a French town settlement supporting the Norman occupants of the castle after 1066. It certainly wasn't a provincial backwater! – alephzero Apr 16 at 12:02
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    It was also a center of the textile industry using English wool, which was an important international commodity (there is a record of Charlemagne writing to the king of Mercia complaining about poor quality control standards in the industry!) – alephzero Apr 16 at 12:16
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    Is there any reason to believe he didn't also have a pack horse? – Arluin Apr 16 at 16:11
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    My professional historian (and equestrian ) girlfriend points out "That's what mules are made for". – MCW Apr 18 at 1:09
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In that era, 300 pounds weighs 300 pounds, but it's a different pound.

Your example of Robin Hood fixes the time period during the reign of King Richard about 1175, though we must remember this is a legend. This is just after the chaotic reign of King Stephen when the centralized minting of coins broke down. His successor, King Henry II, reintroduced the royal mint system. Rather than pure silver he began striking coins from 92.5% silver, sterling silver which is harder than pure silver, thus pound sterling.

In that era, 300 pounds weighs 300 pounds. No matter the coinage, it's 300 pounds of silver; 240 silver pence weighed and was a pound. This makes checking the value of a bag of coins very easy regardless of whether they're shaved or not, you weigh it.

However, their pound is not our pound. In King Richard's time, a pound of money would be based on the Tower, Saxon, or moneyers' pound of 12 Tower ounces. This was roughly 350 grams or roughly 75% the weight of a modern pound. The modern 16 oz pound is the London pound.

So Robin Hood's 300 12 oz pounds of coins would weigh roughly 225 modern 16 oz pounds (around 100 kg).

many medieval pictures of people riding depict horses which seem very small to me

Careful, medieval art was not concerned with accuracy. They would regularly depict any scale or perspective that fit whatever they were trying to say with the art.

As for carrying it on a medieval horse, this is dead weight hanging down with a low center of gravity, not live weight sitting high above the horse. 20% of the horse's weight is a modern humane consideration for a modern light riding horse. A medieval horse would be less differentiated and expected to carry loads as well as a rider, or the rider could walk along side while the horse carried their load.

Where there were any gold coins minted in England during the middle ages?

Yes, but gold was worth roughly 20 times more than silver. If you made a gold penny the same value as a silver penny it would be tiny and slip through gaps in your bags. To keep gold pennies a reasonable size they were worth 20 silver pennies.

See also

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    Horses in the middle ages actually really were quite small, though. 12-14 hands. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#Types_of_horse (We don't have to go by artistic records, there's plenty of archaeological evidence.) Compare to a modern Icelandic horse, which hasn't changed much over the intervening years, they are (avg) 13-14 hands and 730-840 pounds. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_horse (Of course, it's worth noting that people tended to be significantly smaller then, too. Henry VIII was considered enormous, at 6'2".) – user3067860 Apr 16 at 13:33
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    In line with your numbers, an actual penny from the era weighs 1.3 g (bullionbypost.co.uk/collectible-coins/penny/…). 1.3gx72000 (pennies in 300 lb) = 93.6 kg (206 lb). – Carlos Martin Apr 16 at 18:03
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    I'm confused -- OP basically asked: Was it necessarily silver, or could it have been gold (and thus much lighter)? Then you answer: Yes, it was silver...but wait, there were also gold coins at the time. So what's the conclusion? Are you agreeing with OP's doubt that "there would even be gold coins worth a total of 300 pounds in all of Nottinghamshire"? – nanoman Apr 16 at 20:55
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    This makes checking the value of a bag of coins very easy? Weights were not scientifically plausible untill 600 years later, even Leonardo da Vinci tried and failed to invent calibrated weights: precisa.co.uk/the-history-of-the-weighing-scales – DeltaEnfieldWaid Apr 16 at 23:28
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    @aliential My mistake with the troy pound. As for weighing money, you don't need a high precision, just repeatability. Simple balance scales have been around for millennia, as outlined in that article, as has the problem of trusting the person doing the weighing. – Schwern Apr 16 at 23:49
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(Disclaimer: I am using very, very round numbers for my estimates.)

The description of hundreds of pounds (ranging from 100 to 800) seems to come from some of the earliest surviving Robin Hood tales, printed in the early 1500s but probably based on earlier works. So the writer was probably not thinking of paper money but may have been more familiar with some slightly lighter coins--but still significantly heavy.

(Side voyage into Tudor coinage from the mid-1500s: 1 Troy pound of silver = 60 shillings. With that conversion: 100 pounds Sterling ~ 25 lbs modern weight, 300 pounds Sterling ~ 80 lbs modern weight, 800 pounds Sterling ~ 215 lbs modern weight. Any earlier than mid-1500s and it's heavier than that.)

(You haven't mentioned the volume, but using a converter: 25 lbs of silver is ~1/3 gallon, 80 lbs ~ 1 gallon, 214 lbs ~ 2.5 gallons.)

Likewise, the value of 300 pounds (money) would have been somewhere in between modern and early middle ages, but still pretty significant. Using a relative value calculator, in 1550 we have 300 pounds ~ 100,000 pounds of value or over ~3 million pounds relative income. In 1270 (earliest year available) we have 300 pounds ~ 300,000 pounds of value or ~10 million pounds relative income.

The money is (depending on version) either to buy a large plot of land with a lot of animals or to buy a pardon for killing two men (it's complicated). So the value actually seems reasonable.

This seems like the historical briefcase full of money. The numbers are on the edge of plausibility, physically, but the actions of the characters (wandering around alone/with strangers while carrying this much money) seem driven more by narrative requirements than common sense.

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The pound was a unit of account in Anglo-Saxon England, equal to 240 silver pennies and equivalent to one pound weight of silver. So, 300 pounds, was 300 pounds (136kg) in silver

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Weights were not scientifically plausible until 600 years later. (Quote from www.precisa.co.uk/the-history-of-the-weighing-scales) Even Leonardo da Vinci failed to invent a reliable weights system. If scales were 99% accurate, on the third instance of weighing after the Royal standard, the error could be as much as 3%.

Ancient pounds appear to be around 330 to 700 grams. In England it was 330g, then 375g (The Troy pound started in early renaissance, Henry VIII) and later became 453g. Weight was based on grains of wheat, 7860 grains of wheat was a pound, it was the most accurate way that anybody had figured out until 1770.

The times of Robin Hood were full of banditry and local feuds. The King was in prison in Germany for 3 years at that time for a ransom of 150.000 marks, and was otherwise absent for the crusades. The laws and weights relied on big centralized governance when corruption was notorious.

In France, a pound weighed between 380g and 500g, depending on the province.The roman pound was 330g, the Hapsburgh pfund was 560 grams, and the Scottish pound was about 700g.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxon_pou

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – MCW Apr 18 at 23:18

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