Europe in Transformation: The 17th Century

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By the early 1600s, the rich mines of Potosí, Bolivia, had reached their highest output and began to slowly decline. In addition, inflation and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) reduced the production of smaller silver coins. As a result, copper coins became more common. The kings of Sweden took the unusual measure of authorizing the production of large copper plates for exchange. Such plate money was deposited in banks and people transacted business by using paper bills issued by the bank and backed by the plate’s monetary value. Thus, Sweden was the first European country to issue official paper money (see case 20).

In the 17th century, coins—in particular, small change—were increasingly used for everyday purchases. Traveling and trading in the many small principalities in Europe was not easy as each state used different coins that were issued on a variety of weight standards. Merchants required scales to calculate exchanges between all the different currencies.

The silver thaler and related silver coinages continued to be the mainstay of European commerce. Also widespread in this period were Spanish 8 reales (the famous “pieces of eight” of pirate lore), produced from New World silver. Coin production became increasingly mechanized, and new techniques were applied to coin production. The screw-press, which was used until the 19th century, regularized the appearance of these coins.



In the 17th century, the thaler remained the favored silver denomination in trade, and often carried designs commemorating events in the lives of cities, royalty and even private individuals.

German silver thaler (1617) depicting a tower to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Reformation in the city of Worms. The inscription reads “The name of the Lord is a tower of strength.”


German silver thaler (17th century) showing the Crucifixion, issued to commemorate the saving of Wittenberg from the plague.


German silver thaler (1629) of Glatz in Silesia with a portrait of Ferdinand III as king of Bohemia.



Oil portraits of a married couple in the hollow interior of a double thaler (1627) struck in Nuremberg.



The New World

Closely related to the thalers were the large 8 reales coins (“pieces of eight”) struck by the Spanish kings from their new found wealth in South and Central America. These coins, famous for the fineness of their silver content, circulated widely both in the New World and in Europe.

Spanish silver 8 reales (1659) of Philip IV from the Potosí mint, depicting the coat of arms of the Spanish royal family.


Spanish silver 8 reales (1657) of Philip IV from the Potosí mint, showing the Pillars of Hercules, symbolizing the exit from the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic Ocean, and a Latin slogan meaning “There is more beyond.”


Spanish “cob” silver 8 reales (1655) of Philip IV from the Mexico City mint. To facilitate shipping to Spain, silver bars were cut and made into irregularly shaped “cob” coins.



Scales and Weights

In the 17th century, gold was still the metal used for large-scale international transactions. Because of the multiplicity of denominations, merchants needed to weigh coins in order to determine the proper exchange value. Shown here is a scale of 1628 along with some of the coins types its owner would have seen while conducting his business.

Set of scales and weights produced by Guilliam de Neve in 1628.


Dutch gold rose noble (1583) of Campen depicting a king on a ship.


Flemish gold rose noble of Ghent depicting a king on a ship.


Dutch gold 1/2 cavalier (1613) of Gelderland showing a charging knight.


Dutch gold double ducat of Zeeland depicting the king and queen of Spain.


Hungarian gold ducat (1598) depicting King Rudolf II in full armor.


Dutch gold 1/2 cavalier (1616) of Overijssel showing a charging knight.


Dutch gold angel (1531-1577) of Thorn with a scene of St. Michael slaying a dragon.


French gold écu (1607) of Henry IV displaying the coat of arms of France.


Spanish gold escudo (1607) with an image of a cross.


Dutch gold goldgulden (1497) with the image of a globe surmounted by cross.



Italian Gold

In the tradition of the early Renaissance, Italian mints continued to strike impressive gold coins with beautiful portraits and religious scenes.

Italian gold 10 scudi piece (1641) of Carlo Emmanuele II, Duke of Savoy, and his regent mother Cristina.


Italian gold 10 doppia piece (1628) of Ferdinand II. Duke of Tuscany, showing John the Baptist.


Italian gold 2 doppia piece (1622-1646) of Oroardo Farnese, Duke of Parma, depicting the Virgin and child crowned by angels.


Italian gold 2 scudi piece (1690) of Pope Alexander VIII depicting sheep with garlands on an altar.



Swedish Plate Money

Due to its large size and heavy weight, copper plate money was deposited with a bank. In return, the depositor received a paper note; hence the Swedes were the first Europeans to use transferable paper money in Europe.

Copper plate (1711) with four stamps of King Carl XII (1697-1718) and central stamp indicating a value of half a Swedish silver daler.



Sieges and Siege Money

One of the most famous sieges in European history was the Siege of Vienna (1683) by the Ottoman army of Mehmet IV (1648-1687), which was halted by the Polish army of Jan III Sobieski (1674-1696).

During the course of the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) between forces loyal to Charles I and the Parliamentary forces, cities were frequently under siege and without proper money. To solve such crises, silver plate was cut up and stamped as “siege money.”

Polish silver 6 groschen (1683) with a portrait of Jan Sobieski.


Ottoman silver dinar (1648) of Sultan Mehmet IV.


English silver crown pattern by Nicolas Briot with a portrait of Charles I (1625-1649). Briot, a Frenchman, was an early proponent of machine minting.


English silver crown (1644) showing Charles I on horseback with the town of Oxford in the background.


English gold broad (1656) with a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, who rose to power in the Civil Wars.


English silver 2 shilling siege piece from Scarborough (1645) made from the end of a spoon and showing the castle gate and towers.


English silver 7 pence siege piece from Scarborough (1645) showing the castle gate and towers.


English silver 1/2 crown siege piece from Newark (1646) depicting the royal crown.



Mughal India

The 17th century was a high point for the Mughal emperors of India. Akbar (1556-1605) consolidated the subcontinent and, while himself illiterate, expended great sums of money on arts and letters. Shah Jahan (1628-1658), who erected the Taj Mahal in memory of his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal, also required enormous coinage. Mughal coinage of this period is know for its distinctive Arabic script.

Mughal silver rupee (1598) of Akbar from Delhi, India.


Mughal gold mohur (1684) of Shah Jahan from Burhanpur, India.



The End of the Age

Kings Louis XIV (1643-1715) and Peter the Great (1689-1725) set the standards for new absolute monarchies, and the resulting higher costs required new coinages in place of the thaler and its currencies.

French silver écu (1690) with a portrait of Louis XIV.


Russian silver ruble (1724) with a portrait of Peter the Great.



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