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Photo of cloth dealers in the old bazaar of Isfahan

Isfahan’s glory days are young, within the last thousand years, but a nice shaded place to set up shop is a luxury in any period! Photo of the Old Bazaar in Isfahan by Sean Manning, May 2017.

One of the big problems facing anyone studying ancient economies is that it’s very difficult to tell how much things cost at any given time. Records of market prices are sparse at the best of times and often nonexistent, and even where such records exist, they’re usually exceptional or represent only a single transaction. But sometimes historians get lucky …

– Matthew Riggsby, GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road p. 34 http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-hot-spots-the-silk-road

Gamers and novelists often want to know something which historians are not eager to answer: how much did practical things cost in the past? Historians of older periods tend to be very aware of the limits of a source which just says “five pounds of iron nails worth thus-and-such,” and admire the work of specialists in recent times who construct methodical serieses and statistics and turn them into charts with lines and inflection points. But characters in a short story or an adventure game are much more likely to buy a drink or a sword than ten bushels of barley. The writers of roleplaying games almost never have time to do the research, unless the game is set in very recent times and they can mine their collection of old Sears Catalogues and Baedekers. (Also, their customers tend to become just as attached to “a longsword costs 15 gold pieces” as they are to “magic missile always hits,” and in our decadent and decimalized age they sometimes revolt against something as simple as pounds/shillings/pence). So this week, I thought I would honour the release of Matthew Riggsby’s GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road with a list of some resources which I have found.

Bronze Age

  • Hammurabi King of Babylon, Codex Hammurabi {all kinds of services and fines … just remember that it had no legal force}
  • Jac J. Janssen. Commodity Prices From the Ramesside Period. E.J. Brill: Leiden, Netherlands, 1975. {the details of how one village of artisans managed their economic lives, with evidence from other parts of Egypt addressed afterwards}
  • Robert E. Stieglitz, Commodity Prices at Ugarit (1979) {a smaller list of prices from the Late Bronze Age}

Iron Age

  • Waldo H. Dubberstein, “Comparative Prices in Later Babylonia (625-400 B. C.),” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 56, No. 1. (January 1939), pp. 20-43 http://www.jstor.org/stable/528972 {prices for all kinds of goods and services in a land where they write on clay like civilized people}
  • W. Kendrick Pritchett, Anne Pippin. “The Attic Stelai: Part II” Hesperia, Vol. 25, No. 3 (1956) pp. 178-328 {similar to Dubberstein, but prices amongst the naked Yawanaya}
  • Emperor Diocletian, Edict of Maximum Prices {this inscription sets out maximum prices for various goods and services … just keep in mind that these are prices set by bureaucrats innocent of statistics or economics, not market prices; you can find a translation in Teney Frank’s book on economic history}

Medieval

  • Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: first edition 1989, revised 1998) {focused on England between the 13th and the 15th century}
  • Randall Storey, Technology and Military Policy in Medieval England, c. 1250-1350 (PhD Thesis, University of Reading, 2003) https://web.archive.org/web/20151207205040/http://www.randallstorey.karoo.net/thesis.html {this is where to go to get straight to the swords and gauntlets … but a book like Dyer is really helpful in understanding what you read!}
  • James E. Thorold Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England {after the long tables of prices for wheat and learned discourses about the volume of a bushel, this contains lists of prices for everyday objects with the date and place; almost any old library in the Englishspeaking world will have a paper copy}
  • Luciana Frangioni, Chiedere e Ottenere: L’approvvigionamento di prodotto di sucesso della Bottega Datini di Avignone nel XIV secolo (Florence: Opus Libri, 2002) Bookfinder link {amazing range of products with detailed descriptions and summaries… in Italian but Italian is an easy language for English speakers}

Because I am who I am, I have some advice on things which you should know before you interpret those sources. I will put that below a nice historical picture.

Painting of Starch (l’amido) from the lost fresco Tacuinum Sanitatis in the Palazzo Scaglieri, Verona, Unknown artist, Veronese school, late 14th century. Now in the Castelvecchio, Verona.

Looking at economic history requires some work understanding economies which were very different from modern commercialized, industrialized, rationalized ones. Very few people had a predictable monthly income: mostly they hoped that the harvest would be good or that they could find enough days’ work this year. Only dwellers in a few big cities could buy whatever they wanted all year round: the rest relied on travelling merchants, opportunities to visit a town or market, and sending letters to friends and relations who had access to different goods at different prices. Travellers might buy a meal and a room with cash, but they were just as likely to stay with a distant relation, beg a place in a monastery, or trade some stories for a meal and a place to sleep. Credit was usually common, but often based around personal and family relationships. Neighbours traded goods and services and kept tab in their heads, and a banker might extend credit to someone because a friend had recommended them or their uncle had connections.

Probably the best way to get a sense of some of the ways low-tech economies could work is to study a few specific ones, although this can be hard because not all books on economic history are interested in learning and communicating how early economies worked. (Before about the 14th century CE, we do not have many sources on how most people managed their finances, and in all periods sources focus on the rich and urban). Some of the books above contain things which readers may find helpful. David Graeber’s Debt also contains a scattering of examples and some very interesting footnotes, and does a good job of explaining how we know that early money was more than coins and why traditional stories about “barter economies” disagree with what anthropologists have observed.

Anyone dealing with historical prices also needs to learn something about historical money. In some places and times this is relatively simple, while in others it is mind-wrenchingly complex. Greek money was relatively stable, but Roman money was deflated again and again until silver coins were almost pure copper. Medieval England used a penny which barely changed its silver content from William to Richard III; medieval France had multiple independent pounds and went through bouts of wild inflation. Sometimes transactions in cash were common, while in other places almost all transactions were in goods, credit, or unofficial kinds of money. Many societies used a stable money of account which could be converted into various kinds of currency at the day’s rate. If you can identify that kind of money, prices in it can be helpful. For the same reason, it may be more practical to use data from a more distant society with stable money, than one which is more like your setting but had a very complicated financial system. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Diving into these sources will not make you an expert. But they will give you a sense for relative prices and incomes. The better ones will also give you a sense of what could affect prices, and the relative magnitude of different factors. Those can help with descriptions (who can afford a cup of porcelain or silver instead of clay or horn? Should the thief boast about having stolen eight bales of silk, or eight ounces? When is the price of barley low?) And for the purpose of writing a short story or keeping your players busy between ventures into the dungeon, it probably does not matter that one of your prices for nails was for a larger better-made kind, and the other was for smaller but less well made ones.

What are some of my gentle readers’ favourite sources for historical prices? I really think that there is a gap between the people who can rattle off a list of citations but never looked at them too closely, and the people who are looking for details to help them tell stories.

Further Reading: