History of things: Money in medieval Moscow

October 17

The coins that started the numismatic collection of the Tsaritsyno State Museum Estate were discovered in 2004 in Sredny Ovchinnikovsky Pereulok. There were 9,647 coins dating back to the 16th and 17th century, which were hidden during the late reign of Tsar Mikhail Romanov. During the entire time, the coins were in a large white clay pot so their condition was not bad when they were found and are presumed to have belonged to a trader but it is unknown why he had hidden the money and never returned for it.

However, it is easy today to work out some of the financial secrets of the past. Mos.ru together with Mosgortur reveals the history of coins in Russia.

Money of the Rurik dynasty

The first coins were imported to Rus in the late 8th to early 9th century. Silver Arab coins called dirhams and brought by traders from the Middle East and Central Asia. Their value was determined by the weight of the precious metal from which the coin was made, so if a half or a quarter of a dirham was needed, it was simply cut to provide the value required. Later Russian merchants also brought silver from West Europe in the form of German denarii.

Russia began to produce coins in the 10th or 11th century, under Prince Vladimir I. Rurik princes were the ones to mint them. Coins were made from gold or silver, with the prince portrayed on one side and Jesus Christ or a cross and the prince’s emblem on the other. The first coins were minted in small quantities, mostly to praise the prince, and were called zlatniks (made from gold) or srebreniks (made from silver).

For a long time, Russia had no mint of its own. A silver ingot called hryvna was considered the main monetary unit. Soon the rouble appeared: also an ingot and later a monetary unit.

Scale coins

Russia had no coins between the 12th century and the second half of the 14th century: silver ingots were used instead. During the Tatar-Mongol rule, Russia was partly using their silver coins called deng and imitating the Horde coins. This is where the Russian word for money, ‘dengi,’ comes from.

Between 1374 and 1380, the Moscow Duchy commenced the first nominal minting of Prince Dmitry Donskoy’s coins. Other duchies also started minting their own coins: they were adorned by numerous obscure and often mysterious pictures and hard-to-read Russian inscriptions. This was partly due to the fact that the hand engraver often knocked out only a third or even less of the image. The shape of these thin coins resembled scales: they were not round, but elongated like flat pods. Over time, Russian minters managed to master the skill of putting in place a rather carefully executed elegant image a little more than a centimetre in diameter.

The production of small uneven scale coins was simple enough: first, silver was cast in a special form, then other craftsmen made a silver wire, engravers flattened it and made planchets, planters placed them under the mints, and minters made coins. From two opposite sides of it, traces could be seen where the planchet was cut off from the wire.

From polushka to rouble

Under the reign of Ivan the Terrible, three uniformed nominals of coins were minted: kopek, denga (half a kopek) and the smallest coin (quarter of a kopek), polushka. Notions like ‘rouble’ and ‘poltina’ were countable and equal to 100 and 50 minted kopeks accordingly.

A horseman wearing a crown or a hat was depicted on the kopek, with a spear pointed down (this is where the name comes from: ‘kopye’ is the Russian word for spear); with the tsar’s name and title printed on the reverse. A horseman swinging a sable above his head was pictured on denga with the tsar’s short title on the reverse. Polushka’s averse bore a bird and reverse the title.

New money was produced at state mints. There were standards: 0.68 g for kopek, 0.34 g for denga and 0.17 g for polushka. The mint in Russia was open, or free: anyone owning silver foreign coins, silverware or ingots could come to the state mint and cast the silver into money. Thus, the exact weight and pureness of the Russian kopek was ensured, because those who brought the silver knew exactly what kind of metal it was, how much it weighed and how many coins could be produced from it. So the mint craftsmen could not make coins lighter or add cheaper metals to the silver to mint more coins.

Д. Гришкин. Пресс-служба Мэра и Правительства Москвы

Crime and punishment

WARNING! This section contains information on medieval executions of forgers. We advise sensitive readers to skip it.

Money forgery was punished severely in some countries. For example, in German lands forgers were tortured to make them confess the names of their partners and then executed by lowering them into boiling oil by means of a rope. In other countries, they were hanged or their hands were chopped off. In Russia, molten lead was poured down their throats.

During the first years of Mikhail Romanov’s reign, the punishment for the criminals became less severe: they were lashed publicly, branded with “thief” on one cheek and exiled to remote places. The forgery business boomed back at the time due to the “humane” punishment. The number of forgeries and heists started to rocket, and in 1637 capital punishment was reintroduced.

However, forgers continued doing their work despite being threatened with a cruel death. Money was forged by lowering the weight of silver or adding other cheaper metals. Sometimes tin or copper was used for minting and then covered with silver. Forgeries were not only issued by artisans but also by foreign workshops, mostly Swedish and Danish.

Coins behind the cheek

For a long time the kopek remained the largest monetary unit in Russia and cost a lot because it was made of pure silver. For example, surviving documents said that during Mikhail Romanov’s reign a kopek could buy a chicken or 15 eggs, 30 kopeks could buy four puds of rye flour (about 16 kg), and a pair of boots cost 25–50 kopeks. For the poor, a kopek was quite a sum, and few dengas and polushkas were minted.

Due to their form, scale coins were uncomfortable to use and easy to lose. They were carried close to one’s cheek so that they would not be stolen.

The coin technology and the system of denominations adopted under Ivan the Terrible existed until the early 18th century, when Peter the Great, who did not like old customs and called the small wire kopek a “silver louse”, introduced European monetary standards. Coins became larger and round, they began to be minted by machines, and gold, silver and copper were used in minting.

Jean-Marc Nattier. Portrait of Peter the Great. 1717

Source: mos.ru

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