The Great Bullion Famine was a shortage of precious metals that struck Europe in the 15th century, with the worst years of the Famine lasting from 1457 to 1464. During the Middle Ages, gold and silver coins saw widespread use as currency in Europe, and facilitated trade with the Middle East and Asia; the shortage of these metals therefore become a problem for European economies.
Many causes for the famine have been proposed, such as the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), depopulation and poor agricultural output due to the aftermath of the Black Death (1346–1353), and an outflow of silver to the east unmatched by mining output. The Late Middle Ages particularly saw a deficit in silver rather than gold.
Numerous factors may have caused the Great Bullion Famine. In the 14th century, the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing over half of its population, and leaving many areas heavily depopulated and unable to meet previous levels of economic production. In addition, Europe had a long-running precious metal deficit in its trade with the Middle East and Asia, ever since the days of the Roman Empire. This is due to the fact that products from China and India such as spices, silks, and cotton, were very rare or completely unavailable in Europe, and thus highly valued – but Europe lacked as many goods to trade back to the east, and so relied on precious metals, which were always in demand due to their use in coinage, bullion, and luxury goods. This meant that in exchange for renewable eastern goods, Europe was trading away its non-renewable precious metals. Additionally, the price of goods was very low in Europe, making the trade deficit worse.
These factors likely led to the weakening of Europe’s silver mines. Since 1392, the minting of silver in France had slowed to a trickle, and at about the same time Sweden ceased minting silver for the next twenty years. An absence of bullion urged mints in the Rhineland to shut one after another between 1440 and 1443, as well as silver mines in present-day Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. One of the largest silver mines in Europe, located in Kutná Hora in the Kingdom of Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic), had at one point represented one third of Europe’s total silver production, but in 1370 its output began to wane, and it was later shut down by King Sigismund in 1422. Production of silver also diminished in mines at Srebrenica, Bosnia and Novo Brdo in Serbia (in a region now recognized by some as a part of Serbia). From 1440 to 1450, many other major European mints, including in England, also saw greatly reduced outputs. The English mint at Calais shut down completely in 1442, and at one point the Tower of London housed the only active mint in Northwestern Europe. At the height of the Bullion Famine, mints closed down in Flanders, Holland, Hainaut, Dordrecht and Valenciennes.
Combined with the trade deficit resulting from the eastern trade, this led to a critical scarcity of precious metals and a shortage of coins, mainly those with small denominations. Due to the bullion famine, the wage rates were affected during the 15th century.
The silver crisis
The scarcity of silver peaked in the mid-15th century throughout Europe. Silver mines started to slump in output during the 14th century, partly due to the economic toll of the Black Death, as well as an inability to access and mine silver at greater depths due to an inability to prevent the mines from flooding. This issue not only affected silver mines, but also copper mines where copper was also used as a currency in some places for lesser values. Additionally, the process of liquation had not yet been developed, and so ores containing silver, such as the silver-rich copper of Central Europe, could not be refined into usable silver.
This scarcity affected all of Europe, including the Kingdom of England, which drastically reduced the amount of new silver coin issued for circulation during the crisis. Edward I of England issued 100 tonnes of silver coin from 1278 to 1280, but Henry IV of England, who ruled during the Famine, only issued 2 tonnes of new coin from 1412 to 1414. In order to prevent deflation, measures such as debasement were taken, but ultimately the price of goods still remained so low as to cause economic hardship. The inability of silver mines to match demand led to a search for an alternative, such as gold. The availability of gold did not provide a solution for the crisis however, because gold was more highly valued than silver and was not suitable for small transactions. Eventually, the problem of the scarcity of silver would spread from Europe to the Middle East, and would affect the Far East, including the Ming Dynasty.
Venetian silver trade
The Venetian silver trade was greatly affected by the Bullion Famine. Normally, silver produced in mines in Central Europe and the Balkans flowed through Venetian ports, to be traded with merchants for Eastern goods. The Venetian export of silver to the East increased at a rate of over 20 tons per year in the 1420s. Apparently at this point, only Bosnian silver was able to make up for the scarcity of silver in Europe. In the 15th century, Venetian ships that went to Alexandria or the Black Sea ports for exchange often brought with them gold and silver coins and bullion worth approximately 100,000 ducats.
Over time, even Bosnian silver mines started to decline in production, and during the 1430s Venetian traders primarily began to trade using gold instead. People struggled in other parts of Europe at this time without the flow of silver and gold; with a shortage of currency, people were unable to perform daily transactions, and deflation drove down the price of goods, which also had the effect of impoverishing those who would produce or sell the goods. Additionally, the operating silver mines in Serbia were taken by the Turks in 1455, and they also captured the last Bosnian mine in 1460. In 1462, the Doge Cristoforo Moro minted the last silver grosso, and on 17 March 1464 they traded most of the city’s money with Syria and nothing was left behind except small coins. By this point, Constantinople had already fallen to the Ottomans as well, meaning that the Venetians were locked out of the Black Sea trade due to Turkish control over the Bosphorus Strait. At this point, the Bullion Famine peaked, which culminated in a suffocation of Venetian trade.
The gold crisis
The Great Bullion Famine did not only affect the European silver supply, but also resulted from gold mining in Europe. Christian merchants in Europe used gold as a currency, which created a demand for gold, too. Initially, Portugal was struck in 1383 when it minted its last gold coin until 1435. The production of gold in the northwestern part of Europe greatly declined from 1414 to 1454. Flanders (modern-day Belgium) was one of Europe’s major producers of gold, but in 1454, its gold mints were closed. Nearby Brabant also stopped minting gold from 1439 to 1453 due to insufficient supply. Similarly, mints in other places such as Amiens, Saint-Quentin, Tournai, and the Rhineland were also short on gold. Sooner or later, the shortage of gold compounded and caused the market price for gold to exceed legal rates, forcing the production of gold coins to cease in many places.
German and Central European silver and copper mining boom
The Bullion Famine led to the need for an alternate way of acquiring silver. In 1448, new silver mines at Schneeberg, Saxony and Schwaz, Tyrol were explored to fulfill the skyrocketing demand for silver. In 1451, a new process known as liquation was discovered which allowed the silver-rich copper of Central Europe to be separated into silver and copper, and by the late 1450s, Martin Claus of Gotha found a solution to the problem of flooding silver mines in Saxony. The old mines quickly re-opened, and new discoveries were made in the Harz Mountains (the Erzgebirge). Old silver mines including those in Kutná Hora, Freiberg, and Rammelsberg resumed full-scale operation. The boom of silver-copper mining started in the 1460s and peaked in 1540 in Central Europe.
The flow of silver was steady, and a huge amount of silver came from Italy in 1471, which grew to become the key area of silver trade. Milan in northern Italy became the major city for bullion exchange, especially silver.
The Venetians learned from the silver crisis of 1465, and they used copper coins instead of silver as currency in 1473. The well-organized precious metal trade in Venice led the Venetians to open new copper mines in the Alps and Carpathians. The idea of using copper as a currency took a long time to get used to for the Venetians and those who traded with them; even after copper-based currency started flowing into the market, the desire for silver did not end. That continued demand led to the opening of a silver mine at Joachimsthal in Bohemia in 1516, which produced 3 million ounces of silver per year at its peak in the 1530s. Silver from the Joachimsthal mine was used to make silver coins called Joachimsthaler, which later came to be called the Thaler and saw use around much of Europe for over four hundred years. This name lives on today in the dollar as well as the Slovenian tolar.
Portuguese-African gold trade
The shortage of gold during the 15th century in Europe motivated importation of gold from other continents. The Portuguese attempted to solve the gold shortage by traveling to Africa where gold was rumored to be found in abundance. This rumor likely originated from the fact that the trans-Saharan trade routes between the Songhai and North African traders had long provided Europe with gold. At one point, two thirds of Europe’s gold originated from sub-Saharan Africa.
Portuguese expansion into Africa began due to the determination of King John I to get into the gold-producing parts of West Africa. Eventually, King John’s son, Prince Henry the Navigator, would send out expeditions to further explore these opportunities to find gold. In the beginning, the Portuguese founded trading posts along the coast of West Africa instead of long-lasting settlements. Hopes arose when the Portuguese captain Antão Gonçalves found gold in Guinea, West Africa and brought it back to Lisbon in 1441. Eventually, the Portuguese would realize this gold was making its way to Morocco across the Sahara, and seek to secure this trade for themselves.
Gold was still in high demand, as the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was a huge loss for Venetian traders, whose ships were now locked out of the Black Sea trade due to Turkish control of the Bosphorus Strait. The critical deficiency of gold in Venice and in other places made the price of gold shoot up, to the point that gold was worth around 12.5 times as much as silver. However, in 1455, Sicily imported 15,000 ounces of gold from North Africa in return for wheat, and that same year, 1455 Portugal would mint cruzado [pt] coins made from African gold. Before long, the Portuguese replaced the Venetians and found a flow of gold from Africa that satisfied the demand of Europe’s economy. Since 1440, the Portuguese had imported smaller volumes of gold from Senegal and the Gambia. However, after 1471, the Portuguese-African gold trade began in earnest when the Portuguese arrived at so-called “Gold Coast” of Guinea, in present-day Ghana. By 1482, they had built a fortress at Sao Jorge da Mina to cement their hold on the coast and nearby trade. In the near future, the Portuguese were shipping as much as 25,000 ounces of gold per year back to Lisbon in a treasure fleet of 12 caravels. The Portuguese also built forts at Cape Blanco, Sierra Leone to safeguard their trading posts from competing European traders. By doing this, the Portuguese diverted the trade of gold and slaves around the Sahara desert and directly to Europe, bringing about the decline of the trans-Saharan trade routes, and the rise of Portugal as an influential trading power.
Even though a variety of English voyagers attempted to break into the African gold trade, the Portuguese preserved a majority hold on it all the way through the 16th century. The Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias would later round the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 in an attempt to establish a sea route to India, and four years later, Christopher Columbus would discover the New World, opening the door to a completely new source of precious metal imports.
Age of Discovery and the end of the Famine
The Central European silver-copper mining boom, brought about by alternate methods of manufacturing and mining silver, signaled the end of the silver crisis in Europe. In addition, Portuguese explorations of the coast of Africa initiated new and innovative routes for Europeans to acquire sub-Saharan gold. Demand for gold would later be a great motivator of exploration in the Americas during the Age of Discovery, and may have even contributed to the myth of the Seven Cities of Gold. Christopher Columbus mentioned gold in the diary documenting his first voyage 65 times. After the mid-16th century, the discovery of silver in Latin America put an end to the Great Bullion Famine for good, and Europe entered an era of rising prices known as the price revolution, and trade with the Eastern world greatly increased.
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Ofer Abarbanel is a 25 year securities lending broker and expert who has advised many Israeli regulators, among them the Israel Tax Authority, with respect to stock loans, repurchase agreements and credit derivatives. Founder TBIL.co STATX Fund.