Legal Tender in Ancient Ireland

Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien

Untitled, © by Dave Hoover

Untitled, © by David A. Cherry

Legal Tender in Ancient Irelandhe Irish monetary system was supported by two pillars. One was personal wealth. To the Irish, wealth was determined by possessions, not money. In fact, if we could transport an Iron Age Irishman into our time, he would be astonished at how wealthy all Americans are, even those whom we would consider to be below the poverty line. The reason is because, in our industrialized society, even if we cannot pay the rent or the utilities or buy food, we can still have numerous possessions, which is to say goods we own and can take with us rather than goods that are provided to us by, say, a landlord as part of a lease agreement. As such, an Irishman's wealth was determined by how many goods he owned, which included anything whether it was valuable or not, including such mundane items as clothing, linens, utensils, pots and pans, drinking vessels, etc. It also included livestock, slaves, and treasure.

The other pillar was the honor price (log enech) of the individual. Every person had an honor price determined by his or her position in society, and this price determined his or her worth. This price was independent of wealth; though rare, it was not unheard of for a person with a low honor price to have more wealth than a person with a higher honor price. Its main use was in determining the fine (dire) that had to be paid for committing a crime.

Unlike most other Iron Age societies, the Irish did not have capital or corporal punishment. Instead, criminals paid restitution in the form of a fine based on the victim's honor price. This fine could be a percentage of the honor price or in the case of more serious crimes a multiple of the price, but even with murder the criminal was not punished with death but with a fine, only in this case paid to the victim's family, clan, or tribe. And the social standing of the victim made no difference. The High King of all Ireland could kill the lowliest serf, and he would still have to pay a fine to the serf's family. The honor price also determined the amount of ransom (éiric) a warrior could receive for a captive, the bride-price (coibche) a man had to pay to a woman for the right to marry her, and the dowry (tochur) a woman could bring to a marriage.

The monetary unit used to determine the value of an honor price was the sét (plural séti). This was an abstract unit without a tangible, material form, so it had to be equated to a tangible monetary commodity that a person could pay. There were three such commodities, each a type of possession. One was treasure (crech), acquired through the collection of booty (éteal) taken as part of the spoils of war. Treasure could take a number of forms, from lowly, mundane items such as utensils and drinking vessels and dinnerware, to truly valuable items made from precious metals. The most valuable metal was pure or yellow-gold (ór). Next was the alloy of gold and copper known as red-gold (dergeor). [Another alloy of gold, this with silver, was known as white gold or pale gold (findeor), but it was exceedingly uncommon. In other cultures it was called electrum.] Next was pure silver (airget), then a metal called findruine, then bronze (umha), and finally copper (copar). Findruine is a strange metal. It is often translated as "white bronze", and so is believed by some people to be an alloy of copper with a very high tin content or a small content of silver. However, it can also be translated as "white brass", "silvered bronze", and even "white gold", indicating that we really don't know what it was. All we do know is that its worth was reckoned to be between that of gold and bronze, and generally less than silver, though perhaps not by much.

However, in order to use treasure as a payment for fines, there had to be a rate of exchange, which would established how much treasure would equal a sét. The basis for this rate was the unga (plural ungaí), which was an ounce of pure silver. The exact value of the rate differed with locale and time, but a common rate of exchange was three ungaí per sét.

Treasure, the first monetary commodityWhy silver was used and not gold is a question no one has yet been able to answer. The most likely reason was probably that before Roman traders began coming to Ireland, precious metals were used as a form of decoration, and in the ancient sagas, silver was barely mentioned at all. What you see mostly are references to gold, red-gold, and "silvered bronze". As such, it is possible that the ancient Irish were mostly unfamiliar with silver. Thus, when Roman and, later, Briton traders began showing up with silver coins, silver could have become strongly associated with commerce and financial matters, while gold and findruine remained purely decorative.

In any event, since Ireland did not have its own coinage until the eleventh century at the earliest, the unga was not a coin; in fact, it wasn't any form of pure silver. It was simply a value assigned to treasure to make it possible to make payments whose amounts were based on honor prices. So if a bride whose honor price was ten séti demanded that a suitor pay her that amount before she would marry him, all he had to do was present her with a sufficient amount of treasure worth thirty ounces of silver, rather than pay her in actual silver. A lesser amount was the scruple of silver (scepiol, plural scepiola), which was worth one-eighteenth of a sét, or one-sixth an ounce of silver.

A milk cow, the second monetary commoditySince booty was a privilege reserved for the warrior elite (though even commoners could acquire treasure under special circumstances), there needed to be another commodity that anyone could use. (Also, since even the wealthiest aristocrat had only a limited amount of treasure, they needed a secondary commodity in case they did not have sufficient treasure to pay their debts.) This was the milk cow (bó milcht), with its calf.

Irish society was somewhat schizophrenic. The commoners were farmers mostly, and raised grain, which they turned into porridge, hearth cakes, and ale. The nobility, however, were hunters, and ate meat (in addition to porridge and hearth cakes). Most of this meat, however, came not so much from game (though there was plenty of game in Ireland during the Iron Age), but from cattle and pigs and sometimes goats. Irish livestock was semi-domesticated at best, and the animals were simply allowed to graze where they would on the tribal wasteland. The commoners who worked as herdsmen pretty much confined their activities to culling the herds (aided by the nobility who hunted the livestock as readily as they did wild game) and tending the milk cows and the suckling sows.

A stud bull, a common unit of currencyAfter treasure, cattle were the most obvious sign of wealth; in fact, for most noblemen and free commoners, their cattle formed the bulk of their wealth. Those free commoners who had them usually paid their rent with them, while the nobility paid their debts from their own large herds. The nobility also tended to increase their herds by raiding other tribes and carrying away as much cattle as they could steal. The great Irish epic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge or "Cattle Raid of Cooley", is essentially the glorified tale of a cattle rustling expedition. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that a fine imposed for a crime was assessed in how much cattle the convicted criminal would have to turn over to the victim.

As with the ounce of silver, the rate of exchange of milk cows to the sét varied considerably, but a common rate of exchange was three séti per milk cow. The value of other cattle, however, was pretty much standardized. A pregnant cow (bó ionláeg) was worth two-thirds of a milk cow; a three-year old dry cow or heifer (samaisc) was worth half a milk cow; a two-year old heifer (colpthac) was worth one-third a milk cow; a yearling heifer (daírt) was worth one-quarter a milk cow; and a yearling bullock (dartaid) was worth one-eighth a milk cow. A stud bull (tarbh) varied in value depending upon numerous factors, and could be worth less than one milk cow to as much as fifty milk cows.

A bondmaid, the third monetary commodityThe final commodity, not to mention the most valuable, was unique to the nobility. While a propertied free commoner could own cattle and even a serf could be granted a few small personal possessions, only the nobility had the cumhal. This translates as "bondmaid" or "bondwoman" and refers to a female slave. (The male equivalent was the bondman — mug — but he did not count as a monetary unit.) The value of a bondmaid was generally agreed to be at least three séti, but it could be higher, sometimes very high, due to her greater worth and scarcity.

It is problematical whether bondmaids were ever used to pay fines or other debts, because you won't find any evidence of it. If that practice ever had been common, it was almost certainly discontinued during the Christian period. What you will find, however, is that the bondmaid was used as a unit of value in the Irish sagas, and even well into the Medieval period. For example, in the first chapter of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Medb and her husband Ailill are lying in bed arguing over who is beholden to whom. Medb insists that Ailill is dependent upon her maintenance and thus she is the superior partner. As part of her argument, she describes how it was she who paid the bride-price for him, and that among the items she gave him was a chariot "worth thrice seven bondmaids". You'll find similar descriptions throughout Irish literature. This would seem to indicate that even if slave women were not used as a form of currency, their value was such that they were used as a way to describe the value of other items. That chariot, for example, would be worth twenty-one cumhal, which at a rate of exchange of nine séti per cumhal is the equivalent of 189 séti, which has a value of 567 ounces of silver or 63 ounces of gold. Indeed, a princely sum.

Monetary Units

Bó Milcht / Ba Milcht — a milk cow with calf
Cumhal / Cumhala — a bondmaid (female slave)
Scepiol / Scepiola — a scruple of pure silver, equal to one-sixth of an ounce
Sét / Séti — base value of the honor price; in the Medb hErenn universe, the rate of exchange is set at three ungaí per sét
Unga / Ungaí — an ounce of pure silver

Values of Precious Metals

1 oz. yellow-gold 54 scepiola 9 ungaí 3 séti
1 oz. red-gold 18 scepiola 3 ungaí 1 sét
1 oz. silver 6 scepiola 1 unga 0.333 sét
1 oz. findruine 2 scepiola 0.333 unga 0.111 sét
1 oz. bronze 0.667 scepiol 0.111 unga 0.037 sét
1 oz. copper 0.222 scepiol 0.037 unga 0.012 sét

Conversion Table

In the Medb hErenn universe, the value for each type of precious metal is based on the value of the unga, which is the equivalent of one ounce of pure silver. The table below provides conversion information to determine the worth of one metal based on another. To convert the left column into one of the right columns, multiply by the corresponding number in the table.

  Yellow-gold Red-gold Silver Findruine Bronze Copper
Yellow-gold 1 3 9 27 81 243
Red-gold 0.333 1 3 9 27 81
Silver 0.111 0.333 1 3 9 27
Findruine 0.0370 0.111 0.333 1 3 9
Bronze 0.0124 0.0370 0.111 0.333 1 3
Copper 0.00412 0.0124 0.0370 0.111 0.333 1

Rates of Exchange

In the Medb hErenn universe, the value of various commodities is based on a rate of exchange of three séti per milk cow. The table below gives values for specific commodities in the various monetary units.

  Scepiola Ungaí Séti Ba Milcht Cumhala
Silver Scruple 1 0.167 0.0556 0.0185 0.00618
Silver Ounce 6 1 0.333 0.111 0.0370
Bullock 1-yr 6.75 1.13 0.375 0.125 0.0417
Heifer 1-yr 13.5 2.25 0.750 0.250 0.0833
Heifer 2-yr 18 3 1 0.333 0.111
Heifer 3-yr 27 4.50 1.50 0.500 0.167
Pregnant Cow 36 6 2 0.667 0.222
Milk Cow 54 9 3 1 0.333
Bondmaid 162 27 9 3 1
Stud Bull (1) 486 81 27 9 3
Chariot (2) 3402 567 189 63 21

(1) Minimum value; a particularly valuable bull could be worth a dozen or more cumhala
(2) A ceremonial conveyance decorated in precious metals; an average war chariot was worth considerably less

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