Central and Eastern Europe

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During the second half of the fifteenth century, the late-medieval silver famine finally came to an end with the development of many new silver mines in the Alps, in the Erzgebirge, at Schwaz in Tyrol, at Schneeberg, Annaberg, and Buchholz in Saxony, and subsequently at Joachimstal in Bohemia. The so-called central European copper-silver mining boom was the result of two technological innovations: one in mechanical engineering, which permitted much more effective drainage of deeper mining shafts; and the other in chemical engineering, the Saiger process, which, for the first time, permitted silver and copper to be separated from each other in their ore bodies.

When this mining boom peaked in the 1530s, Europe's silver supply had expanded at least fivefold. The character of the silver coinages also changed with this mining boom. During the later Middle Ages, both fiscal exigencies and periodic scarcities of silver had encouraged many European governments to engage in coinage debasements that often drastically reduced the silver contents of their coins. But from the later fifteenth century, many princes and city-states began striking much larger and much finer silver coins. The first to do so was the Habsburg Austrian Archduke Sigismond of Tyrol who, in 1486, used his silver mines at Schwaz to mint a new prototype, the Guldiner, weighing 31.9 grams, which was worth 1 golden florin (Goldgulden). These silver Guldiner, Gulden Groschen, or Talers were of the general size that the English later adopted for their silver crowns and, subsequently, the Americans for their silver dollars. When the Counts Schick, who controlled the Joachimstal silver mines in Bohemia, began striking Joachimstaler (28.7 grams) in 1519, these Talers became very popular in Europe.

After the central European mining boom began to wane, the production of Talers was sustained by the large influx of Spanish-American silver from the 1550s to the 1660s. The Italians, however, did not strike what Carlo Cipolla calls the "maxi-silver coins" until the mid-sixteenth century. In 1551, Milan, then under Spanish Habsburg domination, issued a silver scudo, later called a ducatone (about five times heavier than a testone ), modeled on the Spanish Real of Eight (real de a ocho) ; Venice followed suit in 1563, in issuing the piastre, weighing 32.896 grams (with 31.19 g fine silver), worth 6 lire 4 soldi, that is, the full value of the silver-based ducat money of account (see "Money and Coinage: Western Europe"). In 1567, Genoa struck a silver scudo, weighing 37.265 grams (35.71 g fine silver), and the next year, in June 1568, Florence struck its own scudo or piastra, weighing 32.6 grams (31.2 g fine silver).

Despite the vast increases in silver supplies from central Europe and then the Spanish Americas, and also some increase in gold supplies from Portuguese-African imports, monetary stability had not yet been obtained. International trade and warfare consumed increasing quantities of coins; coins were also the object of speculation. Many mints counterfeited the popular Taler, issuing imitations of the same size but with reduced silver contents. In accordance with Gresham's law, the imitations drove the original, full-bodied Talers out of circulation, and many of them were exported as bullion to the East. Warfare was also financed, to some degree, by coinage debasements.

If, as the companion essay shows, early modern western Europe experienced far less war-induced debasements than it had in the later Middle Ages, such was not the case in Germany and eastern Europe. The most notorious is Germany's inflationary debasement known as the Kipper- und Wipperzeit, which took place during the opening phases of the Thirty Years' War (16181648), when the emperor tried to mobilize new resources for financing his armies. To do so, he leased the imperial mints to a consortium formed by several entrepreneurs, including the Bohemian Stadtholder Liechtenstein and Colonel Albrecht von Wallenstein. The consortium debased the silver coinage by two-thirds, and reaped huge profits. When so many bad coins were received by the Imperial treasury, however, the government soon ended this experiment, imposed a recoinage, and, as in most other German territories, returned to stable money. Although the consequences of the Kipper- und Wipperzeit did not prevent later princes from engaging in debasements to finance their warsfor example, Louis XIV during the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714) and Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War (17561763)in the long run, monetary stability did come to prevail. In 1690, Brandenburg, Saxony, and Braunschweig-Lüneburg entered into a monetary union that created a homogenous Taler zone in territorially scattered Germany.

In the eighteenth century, new sources of gold from Brazil along with a revival in Mexican silver mining improved the metallic base of European coins. While Britain introduced the gold standard (from 1718; see "Money and Coinage: Western Europe"), France maintained a bimetallic system, and its Louis d'or (22 carats, with 6.189 g fine gold), first struck in 1640, became the model coin for central Europe. Moreover, banknotes and the expansion of the banking system made coins less and less required for internal European trade. The Asian trade, however, still required large shipments of precious metals, especially the Spanish reales de a ocho and Dutch ducatons, during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; later in the eighteenth century, they were replaced by silver bars minted in Asia.

See also Austria ; Banking and Credit ; Coins and Medals ; Commerce and Markets ; Habsburg Territories ; Portuguese Colonies: Brazil ; Prussia ; Saxony ; Seven Years' War (17561763) ; Spanish Succession, War of the (17011714) ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) .


See bibliography at the end of Money and Coinage: Western Europe.

Michael North

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Central and Eastern Europe

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Central and Eastern Europe