IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

Warfare, Liquidity Crises, and Coinage Debasements in Burgundian Flanders, 1384 - 1482: Monetary or Fiscal Remedies?


  • John H. Munro


Coinage debasements were a prevalent and generally very harmful feature of most economies in late-medieval western Europe, and most certainly in Burgundian Flanders (1384-1482). Flanders also experienced several economic recessions or contractions from three related sources: warfare; the so-called �bullion famines�, with liquidity crises; and the irredeemable decline of its former mainstay, the woollen textile industries. Since many of my previous publications dealt with the Flemish cloth industry, this paper focuses on the other two major economic problems, of which warfare was the most important factor. The question posed therefore is simply this: did the Burgundian dukes undertake coinage debasements principally as a monetary or as a fiscal policy? In a recent and highly praised monograph, Sargent and Velde (The Big Problem of Small Change, 2002) have contended that almost all late-medieval and early-modern coinage debasements were undertaken to remedy not just coin shortages, but especially shortages of petty or billon coins. For the Burgundian era, one may make a strong prima facie case that Flanders (and all the Burgundian Low Countries) suffered from two major �bullion famines�, or certainly from severe coinage scarcities, including very severe scarcities of petty coins: from the 1390s to about 1415, and from the early 1440s to the early 1470s. In both periods, moreover, Flanders suffered from very severe deflations. In this paper, I contend that warfare was indeed, directly and indirectly, a primary cause of those monetary scarcities, especially in reducing the income velocity of money and thus in increasing hoarding � in my view, far more important than any supposed balance of payments deficits and �bullion outflows to the East�. Nevertheless, I can find no convincing evidence that the Burgundian rulers ever undertook coinage debasements to remedy these coinage scarcities and to combat deflation (with one minor exception, in 1457, for petty coins). Instead, the thesis of this paper is that the Burgundian rulers undertook coinage debasements primarily as aggressive fiscal policies, and primarily to finance warfare. Almost all medieval princes exacted a seigniorage tax on bullion minted. They sought to maximize these revenues both by increasing this tax rate and by enticing much larger quantities of bullion into their mints: by both the techniques of debasement and by auxiliary bullionist policies. The paper seeks to show that the Flemish coinage debasements were generally successful, by satisfying three conditions: (1) that merchants delivering bullion to the mints received in return a greater number and greater face value of coins than before (and a greater value than from any competing mints); (2) that the public continued to accept debased, or more debased, coins at nominal face value, receiving them by �tale� rather than by weight and intrinsic value; and (3) that such merchants, also benefitting from asymmetric information, were able to spend their new coins before their gains were eroded by inflation. This paper demonstrates that the inflationary consequences from Flemish coinage debasements were always less than would be predicted from strictly mathematical formula for price changes � perhaps because the debasements did not counteract the prevailing forces of monetary contraction and deflation. At the same time, however, because so many principalities then pursued coinage debasements as veritable guerres mon�taires, many princes undertook coinage debasements for purely defensive reasons: to protect their domestic mints from foreign competition and their realms from influxes of foreign debased and especially counterfeit imitations: i.e., to counteract Gresham�s Law. This study concludes with a striking anomaly in Spanish monetary history: Spanish monarchs, having agreed to abjure and forgo seigniorage taxes on coinage, did not engage in any debasements, of either the gold or silver coinages, from 1497 to 1686. But they had the luxury of alternative revenues from taxes on imports of vast quantities of silver from the Spanish Americas during most of this era. The Burgundian dukes had no such alternative sources of revenue to finance their wars.

Suggested Citation

  • John H. Munro, 2009. "Warfare, Liquidity Crises, and Coinage Debasements in Burgundian Flanders, 1384 - 1482: Monetary or Fiscal Remedies?," Working Papers tecipa-355, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:tecipa-355

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    File Function: Main Text
    Download Restriction: no


    Blog mentions

    As found by, the blog aggregator for Economics research:
    1. Was coin debasement always bad?
      by JP Koning in Moneyness on 2013-10-24 02:35:00
    2. Medieval QE
      by JP Koning in Moneyness on 2013-10-16 04:05:00


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Chilosi, David & Volckart, Oliver, 2009. "Money, states and empire: financial integration cycles and institutional change in Central Europe, 1400-1520," Economic History Working Papers 27884, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
    2. Volckart, Oliver, 2018. "Technologies of money in the Middle Ages: the 'Principles of Minting'," Economic History Working Papers 87152, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
    3. Ling-Fan Li, 2015. "Information asymmetry and the speed of adjustment: debasements in the mid-sixteenth century," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 68(4), pages 1203-1225, November.

    More about this item


    debasements; gold; silver; billon; bullion; bullionist policies; mints; seigniorage; inflation; deflation; liquidity;

    JEL classification:

    • E31 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Prices, Business Fluctuations, and Cycles - - - Price Level; Inflation; Deflation
    • E41 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates - - - Demand for Money
    • E42 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates - - - Monetary Sytsems; Standards; Regimes; Government and the Monetary System
    • E51 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Monetary Policy, Central Banking, and the Supply of Money and Credit - - - Money Supply; Credit; Money Multipliers
    • E52 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Monetary Policy, Central Banking, and the Supply of Money and Credit - - - Monetary Policy
    • E62 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook - - - Fiscal Policy
    • F33 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - International Monetary Arrangements and Institutions
    • H11 - Public Economics - - Structure and Scope of Government - - - Structure and Scope of Government
    • H27 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Other Sources of Revenue
    • N13 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - Europe: Pre-1913
    • N23 - Economic History - - Financial Markets and Institutions - - - Europe: Pre-1913
    • N43 - Economic History - - Government, War, Law, International Relations, and Regulation - - - Europe: Pre-1913

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:tecipa-355. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (RePEc Maintainer). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    We have no references for this item. You can help adding them by using this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.