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Money of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

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On 28 April 2021, the Bank of Lithuania issued a coin dedicated to the 230th anniversary of the Constitution of 3 May and Mutual Pledge of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations. As a symbolic gesture, coins celebrating this event were also issued in Poland at the same time. This is to commemorate probably the most prominent achievement of the Commonwealth that existed for more than 200 years – the Constitution. It was the second constitution worldwide and the very first one in Europe. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest countries in Europe, which had a single ruler and mutual government institutions. Another thing that the two nations had in common was money.

Short history of the Commonwealth’s money

The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania united in 1569 and implemented certain unification reforms, which also affected their currencies. At first, Lithuanian and Polish money had different value. They were only made equal during the rule of Stephen Báthory. After the reform of 1578–1580, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s grosz was equated to Poland’s grosz. In addition to that, both Polish and Lithuanian coins were then started to be minted of equal weight and quality. However, since both countries minted them separately, the coins looked a little different. And yet, after the reform, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s coins always featured two coats of arms: the horseman of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland’s eagle. A duke’s hat that used to be depicted on top of the coat of arms was replaced by Poland’s crown.

The most-used currency in the Commonwealth was the grosz of various denominations: the póltorak, the dwojak, the trojak, the czworak, the szóstak and the ort (18 grosz). Amongst other minted coins, there were shillings, denars, thalers, gold ducats and portugalesers (10 ducat coins). However, the main currency in the Commonwealth was the zloty. Both silver and gold zloty were being minted. Basically, the Commonwealth used a threefold monetary system which was popular in Europe at that time. It consisted of the zloty, the grosz and the denar. 1 zloty was equal to 30 grosz and the latter was equal to 18 denars. Of course, their value changed over the years.

Coins were minted both in Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For a long time, Vilnius Mint operated alongside other mints in Poland (in Kraków, Malbork, Lublin, Poznań, etc.) and minted coins of various denominations. 

The Commonwealth’s economy was hit by multiple crises that resulted in chaos in the monetary system. For example, during the rule of Sigismund III Vasa (1587–1632), large quantities of old high-purity silver coins were being transported abroad, to western countries. This was done because the price of silver was significantly higher there. In exchange, a large number of low-purity coins was brought into the Commonwealth. Silver shortage resulted in a deteriorated quality of coins and mints often reduced the purity of silver on their own accord. At the beginning of the 17th century, many different coins circulated in the Commonwealth and the value of the main ones was constantly changing. Authorities were forced to stop the mintage, thus only a few mints were left to operate. 

The situation did not see much improvement during the rule of John II Casimir Vasa (1648–1668). The country was at war with the Ukrainian Cossacks, Russia and Sweden. This caused a constant shortage of money. Poor-quality coins from abroad flooded the country. The number of minted coins was constantly decreasing due to wars. In 1666, Vilnius Mint was shut down for good. From that point on, no coins were minted in the Lithuanian part of the Commonwealth.

At the end of the 17th century, during the rule of John III Sobieski (1674–1696), money depreciated even further. After his death, less and less coins were being minted. Instead, it was often done outside of the Commonwealth. The situation improved only in the mid-18th century, when the exchange rate was altered and strengthened. However, even this was not enough. At the end of the 18th century, with the partition of the Commonwealth, its monetary system collapsed as well and was replaced by new systems. 

What value did the Commonwealth’s money have?

As already mentioned, when the Commonwealth was created, an exchange rate was set, yet it was constantly changing due to crises and the unstable situation. 

Therefore, it was set that the Commonwealth’s main currency, the zloty, is equal to 30 grosz; 1 grosz – to 18 denars. 

This exchange rate remained the same almost throughout the whole existence of the Commonwealth but the exchange rate to other currencies was ever-changing. For example, at first, the exchange rate of the gold ducat to the zloty was 1 to 1.3, whereas at the beginning of the 17th century it changed a couple of times – from 1 to 2.5 (in 1616) to 1 to 9.4. 

In the mid-17th century, the ducat was equal to 6 zloty, while at the end of the century it was equated to 12 zloty. In the early 18th century, the exchange rate stood at 1 ducat to 18 zloty. Similar exchange rate remained in place up to the demise of the Commonwealth. 

The same comparison can be made between the grosz and a popular large silver coin – the thaler. In 1580, 1 thaler was equal to 35 grosz, in 1616 – to 42, in 1623 – to 80, in 1652 – to 90, in 1676 – to 180 and from 1717 to the very end of the 18th century – to as much as 240 grosz. 

Similar tendencies are also apparent when observing the exchange rates of other currencies. So how did the prices change? 

In the mid-16th century, at the time when the Commonwealth was established, a goose cost 1.5 grosz, 20 eggs cost 4 grosz, while a barrel of rye – 10 grosz. 

During the rule of Stephen Báthory, in the second half of the 17th century, a goose was already worth 2 grosz and the barrel of rye – 12 grosz. Interestingly, books were extremely expensive. A Bible could cost as much as 100 grosz. To compare, for a similar amount one could buy a cow. A riding horse was worth 120–300 grosz, whereas a guard dog – as much as 180 grosz!

With the onset of wars and crises at the beginning of the 17th century, price changes also signalled depreciation of money. An ox cost around 300 grosz in 1600, yet in 30 years its price tripled. Prices of other animals underwent similar changes. Even a pair of shoes, which cost around 50 grosz in 1600, was already worth 150 grosz in 1633. In 1600–1622, the exchange rate of the thaler and the ducat doubled, wages also increased by a similar pace but prices, as we can see, grew at even more rapid pace. 

During the 17th century, prices continued to change, yet it is difficult to say for what extent. It is known that, for example, in 1650–1660, 60 eggs cost around 25 grosz and a pound of beef – up to 5 grosz. A cow could cost up to 360 grosz. At the turn of the century, a pig cost around 14 grosz, 15 eggs – up to 10 grosz and a pair of shoes – around 60 grosz.
In the late 18th century, a riding horse already cost 80 zloty, 60 eggs – 2 zloty, a barrel of salt – 6 zloty and so on.
 

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Last updated: 2021-07-27