All That Glitters

So …

I got to thinking about something, which usually means trouble, and a lot of it.

(Muse:  No kidding.)

Quiet, you.  It started via a discussion with Mrs. Axe on the gold standard for American currency and the history of that.  Somewhere in the conversation, I at last said, “So what is so great about gold?”

She looked at me like I was a nutter.  “It’s … well, it’s gold.”

“Yeah, but what is it good for?”

This brilliant rejoinder was met with absolute silence and was pretty much the termination of the discussion.  But it did get me to thinking about gold, specifically, and fantasy currency, in general.  So let me start with this:  what is great about gold?  For much of human history, people have considered gold valuable and obsessed over it.  I understand that it is rare, it is malleable, doesn’t dull or corrode, and resists dissolution in acids.

So what?  It is also flimsy (unless alloyed with other metals) and possesses few real uses in a pre-modern world.  Even in our modern world, where gold is used in some electrical applications, most of what is produced is still used for jewelry or investment purposes.  When you get down to it, gold really is useless as a metal.  Anyway, this got me thinking to what makes a currency valuable and why people think about gold as valuable – and then what else they might consider valuable.

I get that many authors don’t want to sidetrack their story or get bogged down in details.  Still, I think it would be nice to see more currency of practical value.

I read an article in Dragon magazine many, many years ago, describing alternate currencies.  I will paraphrase the set-up as best as I can recall:

A culture developed in an area where salt was in very short supply, so it became the natural currency for barter.  Someone developed a harmless paste that, when mixed with salt, could be formed into 1-in cubes, which could be separated back to their components.  People began leaving one side of each block tacky and sticking eight of the blocks together to make bricks.  Soon, however, no one wanted to carry around massive amounts of salt to buy things, so banks opened where people could store their salt in exchange for “brick notes,” which could be redeemed for the eight-piece blocks of salt as needed.  Before long, the salt notes – commonly called “bricks” – themselves became accepted medium of exchange, drawing the interest of the king, who nationalized the salt banks and declared that only salt notes issued from the royal depository would carry weight in the kingdom.

To me, that is a relatively simple example of how an aternate currency might develop in a fantasy setting.  It doesn’t take a ton of set up but a little back story goes a long way – especially when there are multiple cultures involved and the characters are traveling between them.  How many complications could be compounded on a character when someone looks at them and says, “We don’t take Seaside bricks here.”?

What about a warrior culture, where valor and combat and things seized by the sword were more important than trade and mercantilism?  Would steel bars have more weight in such a kingdom – and if so, would human ingenuity have a way to substitute something easier?  What about seashells in a primitive fishing culture?  What about a post-nuclear culture that uses bottle caps?

(Muse:  Uh, that last one has been done.  coughcopyrightcough)

Yeah, yeah.  There’s a ton of possibility if you consider how your culture develops and what they might value.  Even if your world sticks to a gold standard, the royal crowns of one kingdom might have different weights, diameters, and history of debased metal than the imperial florins of another.

Just something to consider in your world building.  Little details making the difference, and all…..

(For more info, here is a thread on currency on Absolute Write and a blog post on the Writing Cafe discussing the issue.)

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