The Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization

By Alfons Dopsch | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XII CURRENCY AND MONEY ECONOMY

(1) CURRENCY

THE widely-held theory of the primitive state of German culture in pre- Carolingian times has found considerable support in the general conceptions which have prevailed concerning the currency of that period. Misled by Tacitus' well-known remark about the lack of silver and gold,1 scholars have even gone so far as to hold that the Germans, both before and after the migrations, possessed neither a coinage of their own nor indeed any form of metal reckoning,2 The facts that in the folk-laws values are computed in terms of cattle, and that in Ulfilas' well-known Gothic translation of the Bible pecunia is translated faihu seemed to confirm this view. It was thought, that the Roman coins in use among the Germans were accumulated as treasure and were not used for making payments. After the migrations and the fall of the West Roman Empire, the economically isolated German tribes were thought to have received no further appreciable external supplies of currency from which they might have been able to develop some system of currency of their own. Thus it appeared probable that the Inner German peoples, long after the foundation of their settlements, developed no system of money-valuation of the goods in which they traded and which they used.3

To-day the advance of archaeological excavation has thrown an entirely new light on the subject. Above all, the frequently quoted accounts given of the matter by Tacitus must not be taken too literally. He says himself that the Germans nearest to the Romans had a high regard for money owing to their commercial connections.4 Thus they were already using gold and silver coins at that time in trade, and not merely treasuring them for their own sake. Moreover, Tacitus declares that they preferred silver to gold coins, because the former were more suitable and convenient to handle in small trade in the cheaper commodities. Trade was, however, also carried on in more costly products. Moreover, we find in the Germania itself two passages which prove that the Germans of that time were already receiving large quantifies of money from the Romans. Speaking of their peaceful occupations, Tacitus expressly says that the rulers received from the neighbouring tribes not only presents of weapons and horses, but also money,5 and in his description of the Marcomanni and Quadi, he observes that the power of their kings depended on the support given them by Rome, and specifies money as the most effective support from this source,6 We may add the numerous accounts given by Roman authors of payments of money to German chiefs and rulers, in particular the passage in Herodianus which describes Alexander Severus's march to the Rhine in 234-5, which says that

____________________
1
Gerrnarda, c. 5.
2
See v. Inama-Sternegg, in the 2nd edit. of his WG., 1, 238 ( 1909).
3
Ibid., 243 f.
4
c. 5.
5
c. 15.
6
c. 42.

-358-

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