The Monetary System of the Folkunga Era / The Swedish Pence between Pestilence and Patriarchate 1254–1370
This is an economic study of the Swedish monetary system in the transition from the High Middle to the Late Middle Age, i.e. as far back as written sources from market transitions are available. Archaic compulsory institutions – such as slavery and serfdom – were still in use in Sweden in the first half of the fourteenth century; and certainly this obstructed market development in many respects.
The coins minted by the regents (1291–1370) appear to have often been valued at even less than the intrinsic value of the silver from which they were minted. In other words the seignorage for the minting regent was negative, a phenomenon that is almost impossible to explain in economic terms. That paradox is even more difficult to comprehend in light of the fact that the production of Swedish pences was considerable during the fourteenth century, and had been ongoing since the 1150s. Sweden is no exception in the European story of the Late Middle demographic and agricultural crises after a surge that had been going on at least since the year 1000. The devastation of farms in Sweden was extensive between 1350 and 1450.
The source material prior to 1370 consist of roughly 10,000 charters, on the basis of which some 2,500 market transactions have been found and recorded in a relational database. In addition, approximately 39,000 individuals were mentioned by name in the Swedish charters from the eleventh century to 1375 and 1401–1420, and these names have also been downloaded into the database. Of those personal rows a great majority are from the upper strata; 9 % are women. However, after the outbreak of the Black Death in 1350 the percentage of women went below 10 % and stabilized around 8 %. I hypothesize that the downward trend was a sign that women were hit harder than men by the frequent outbreaks of the plague.
There are clear signs of more market relations and fewer compulsory institutions between 1290 and 1370. Most of the market transactions were of two kinds: purchases of real property and loans in which the creditor’s claim was guaranteed in real property. Pawned property, as expected, had a lower value than property on the buying and selling market. Only half of those transactions are described in monetary units of value, with weighted silver being the second most frequent price tag. We find women active in those transactions from the thirteenth century, but the trend has a downward slope, especially in the role as buyer of landed property.
This is in accordance with the view that the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century were preceded by a protracted period of increasing patriarchal trends. The many and severe outbreaks of the plagues in Sweden might have aggravated those tendencies. So while there was greater freedom thanks to bigger and new kinds of markets, there were also opposing forces of misogyny creating obstacles for women’s taking advantage of that freedom.
The Swedish coins had very divergent contents of silver, and new coins generally had less intrinsic silver value than the older ones. Those factors make it more difficult to carry out price history on the period between 1290 and 1370 than on the fifteenth century, when Swedish pences were more stable. Southern Sweden was quicker to develop towards a more commercial society than the northern part of the country. Land prices in southeastern Sweden (Östergötland) seem to have fallen between 1300 and 1370. The deflation in this respect is even greater when monetary prices are converted into silver prices. In the same period, prices in the provinces around Lake Mälaren seem to have soared. In the north in the fourteenth century there was still a lot of land for reclamation and these opportunities might have attracted aristocratic investors with expectations of major profits in the future. The inflation of the land “bubble” in the north continued for two decades, even after the arrival of the Black Death. In spite of the clerical ban on usury at the time, I have been able to reconstruct a dozen rates of interests from the period 1322–1370. The average interest rate during these years was 5 %.
Data from this study has been put into an international perspective about human wealth. Swedish Medieval grain prices in silver from 1291 to 1530 were distinctly lower and more volatile than the prices in the more advanced European economies such as England. Low grain prices are a sign of an underdeveloped and not very diversified economy, and the general volatility made any craft outside the agrarian sector a lot more risky an activity in Sweden than in most other countries. In the late Medieval Age there was a clear development in trade and mining, but the economic gap relative to the outside world around did not decrease. This underlines the impression of a primitive society on the periphery of Europe and lagging behind the economic times.
One can hardly underestimate the positive role of money as a source of information and means of payment in the markets. From a classic point of view (Eli F. Heckscher), it is presumed that markets came first, money second. From an institutional point of view (C. A. E. Goodhart) money and markets are parallel. The Swedish empirical example gives us a third scenario, i.e. the existence of coins for many generations before markets of any magnitude were created.
Key words: Microeconomics, Monetary Theory, Intrinsic Silver Value, Seignorage, Unit of Account, Means of Transactions, Compulsory Institutions, Commercialization, Market Institutions, Prosopography, Women Participation in Markets, Patriarchate, Inflation and Deflation.
Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, 2006. , 326 p.
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