Fair Money in Unfair Times

Johannes Adler, Opusculum de Potestate et Vtilitate Monetarium.

Published by Jakob Köbel in Oppenheim, 1516.


When we try to understand how money worked in the past, we are confronted with a fundamental problem: the precious metal coins of earlier centuries are completely different from modern fiat money. Nevertheless, modern readers are quite familiar with some of the problems of those who depended on the money of their sovereign.

They also wondered what the holder of the privilege of minting coins was entitled to do, and what he wasn’t allowed to do. One of the men who questioned the acts of his prince was Johannes Aquila. In 1516 he published an Opusculum on the power and utility of money. The MoneyMuseum had the chance of purchasing Adler’s work for their book collection. We seize the opportunity to write something about its historical background.

Changes in the International Market

Whether it be gold, silver or platinum – in the first place, the precious metal a coin is made of is nothing but a commodity that can be traded in form of a coin or a bar in any market of the world. This was obviously also the case in the time we’re dealing with in this article, namely the first third of the 16th century.

This age was characterised by a major shortage of silver and a huge increase in the price of this important coinage metal. There were many reasons for this development. The number of people increased. And their income increased as well. Barter quickly developed into an economy dominated by money. And as if this weren’t enough, the Portuguese were suddenly in need of huge quantities of silver in order to purchase spices and luxurious goods from the Far East. In a nutshell, silver that could be used to mint coins became a scarce commodity in Europe.

The Holy Roman Empire was hit hard by the shortage of silver, even though some mining regions like Schwaz in Tyrol and Annaberg in Saxony were flourishing at the time. However, ordinary people weren’t able to get their hands on the silver as it was in the possession of major merchant families, most importantly the Augsburg families of the Fuggers, Welsers and so on. They thought internationally, carried the silver to the markets that were most profitable. They invested it in credits for the sovereigns of Europe, bought precious furs in northern Europe and valuable beeswax, which was used to illuminate churches. Silver flowed to eastern Europe, where the cattle was bred that was to be braised in German pots. In short, today’s scholars estimate that only about 20 to 30% of the mined silver remained within the Empire.

The consequence for the people: a decreasing amount of grain cost an increasing amount of silver, for which one had to work harder and harder. As a result of the deflation, the life quality of simple people decreased significantly. Today, in a similar situation, we might not be able to afford the special kind of food we would like to eat – but around 1500 this meant real hunger.

The Regional Dilemma and Its Unfair Solution

But let’s take a look at the other end of the social spectrum, at all the princes, counts, imperial knights, bishops, abbots and abbesses, and of course at the wealthy imperial cities. Back then, throughout the entire Holy Roman Empire there were more than 500 mints, where these cities had their coins produced. And their subjects were forced to use these pieces as means of payment on the local market. Anyone who had the right to mint coins faced a dilemma.

Due to the increased price of silver, the intrinsic value of coins minted according to the common weight standard and with the usual alloy exceeded their face value. In other words: the silver within the coin was worth more than what you could buy for the coin on the market. Thus, the coins had to be adapted to the situation. Those who didn’t adapt their coins, i.e. reduced the weight or altered the alloy, risked that their coins disappeared from circulation. They were hoarded or melted down.

Thus, if a prince wanted to have a working monetary system, he had to change something about the coins. But there was quite a temptation: back then, there was no working taxation system, which means that a prince earned part of his income from the difference between face value and production costs (silver + production) of his coins. The lower the silver content, the greater the profit. And money was crucial for the glory of a ruler. After all, splendour, generosity and a spectacular appearance were among the duties of a prince.

On the other hand, the prince was the major payee of the state. If he debased his coins, his income decreased because he also received poorer coins as means of payment.

To escape from this dilemma, most sovereigns decreed that payments to the treasury had to be made in gold or by using the new Guldengroschen – silver coins worth one gold gulden. And by doing this, they levied another tax on their subjects: they had to pay a high fee when exchanging their pfennigs and hellers, which they had earned from their sales at the market, for the coins accepted by the treasury.

Even though this woodcut shows a punishment of a peasant leader carried out in 1525, we can be certain that the sentences of the members of “Poor Conrad” weren’t any milder. Woodcut of 1551.

The Situation in Württemberg

Also where the author of our booklet lived, ordinary people felt that they were being treated unfairly. They had the bad luck of having an ambitious rowdy as their ruler, who put his glory at the centre of the universe and for whom economic policies were limited to the question of how he could get the cash he needed in order to fulfil his desires.

While the duke dissipated his money for the luxury that he considered suitable for his social status, craftsmen, farmers and day labourers were starving. The coins they received as payment had already lost up to a third of their silver content and thus of their value before Ulrich came to power. Now, crop failures aggravated the situation. Within a very short amount of time, the price of a bushel of grain rose to almost six times its original value.

And as if that weren’t enough, duke Ulrich decided to go to war. Then as now, that was the most expensive of all undertakings. The war was supposed to be financed by means of an additional excise on meat, wine and grain. That was too much. The subjects revolted. The movement went down in history as the “Poor Conrad”.

The rebels demanded that fundamental changes were made: among other things, they demanded the right to pay their taxes not with the coins dictated by the duke, but with those used on the market. Simple day labourers, peasants and craftsmen understood perfectly how the authorities exploited them.

The revolt ended as all peasant revolts of those times ended: with its crushing and Draconian measures. 1,700 rebels were captured, tortured and sentenced to death.

Less than two years had passed after the end of this revolt when Tübingen lawyer Johannes Adler published his book on power and utility of money, by the way, not within the territory of duke Ulrich, but in Oppenheim, a free imperial city, which was neither subject to Württemberg censorship nor Württemberg jurisdiction.

Johannes Adler, a Lawyer With His Own Opinion

Johannes Adler, his real name was Johannes Gentner, was born at some point between 1470 and 1475 near Schwäbisch Hall. Following the humanist tradition, the scholar called himself Halietus after his birthplace. Halietus is the Latin term for white-tailed eagle, which in turn was shortened to eagle (German: Adler) and Latinised as Aquila. That’s why good old Johannes Gentner occasionally confuses us with his wealth of names.

Originally enrolled in Heidelberg, Adler moved to Tübingen in 1490, where he received his Magister Artium and his doctorate both in civil and canonical law. In 1501, Adler was appointed professor there. By the way, this wasn’t his only profession, he had been accessor at the court of Württemberg since 1509, thus he was one of the officials who could observe duke Ulrich’s actions at close range.

Adler published several books, and yet the overall statement of his Opusculum on the power and utility of money published in 1516 seems to have been of particular importance to him.

The Matryoshka Doll

Matryoshka – that’s how the Russian set of wooden dolls is called that are placed one inside another. Johannes Adler took a similar approach when he did not only publish his own work on money in Oppenheim in 1516, but also republished the book of a much better known colleague called Gabriel Biel without mentioning his collaboration – this might be considered very unusual given the importance of one’s reputation at that time.

Today’s historians assume that Adler was responsible for this booklet because of the identical book titles and the fact that both volumes look quite similar.

And it’s very likely that the printer, Jakob Köbel, was also involved in the decision of publishing Adler’s work together with the book of Biel, who had already died long before. Even though Köbel was more interested in mathematics and astronomy, which is shown by the works he published, his father worked as mint official of the count palatine. That’s why Köbel also had first hand experiences about the monetary problems of his time.

We can assume that the two men joined forces. Maybe they knew each other from their time as students in Heidelberg. Or a mutual friend, the mathematics and astronomy professor Johannes Stöffler, had introduced them to one another. His friendship with Köbel is attested by a wealth of letters and that he was important to Jakob Adler is demonstrated by the fact that Adler dedicated his Opusculum on money to him as his spiritual father.

Regardless of whether Köbel, Adler or Stöffler, or maybe all of them were responsible for the reprint of Biel’s work – they used it to camouflage their own criticism by putting it into the context of the work of a scholar of an impeccable reputation. Gabriel Biel had been one of the founding fathers of the University of Tübingen. Eberhard I himself had appointed him. A book written by someone like Biel was of great importance in the academic world of southern Germany.

However, Biel hadn’t written a work on monetary theory. He had written a commentary on a commentary by William of Ockham, in which the latter had explained the theorems of a medieval theologian called Peter Lombard. However, neither Ockham nor Peter Lombard had said anything about money. They had dealt with the sacraments. And, when talking about the sacrament of penance, Biel had used the debasement of coins as an example to illustrate the circumspection needed to examine the facts of a case in order to determine which way of penance should be imposed.

Last Judgement: on the left of the picture, we can clearly recognise a profiteer by his fat purse, who will go to purgatory just like the king who abused his office. Painting by a master from Tyrol, ca. 1500.

Let me emphasise it again: Biel wrote a theological work on the sacraments. And he used the debasement of coins as an example. Adler – perhaps in collaboration with Köbel and Stöffler – turned it into a work on monetary theory by isolating the parts in which Biel talked about money, giving them new headings and pretending that it was an independent work and that those lines had not been taken out of context. There’s no remark anywhere in the book indicating that the treatise was part of a larger work!

Nicole Oresme in his study.

The Sin of Producing Debased Coins

Incidentally, Biel’s considerations about the subject of money weren’t even very original. He used the work of Nicole Oresme, who was widely known at the time for his treatise on the alterations of money. Oresme had written his book around 1358, a time in which the French king was in need of a huge amount of money in order to pay for his father’s release from English captivity. But how could he raise the money? Which method was warranted by the circumstances and which wasn’t?

Oresme’s work is important because he argued that a ruler isn’t entitled to decide on the debasement of coins, instead the welfare of the general public needs to be at the centre of attention when deciding on coin alterations.

Biel’s Tractatus is in line with the argumentation of Oresme: he thinks that trade and money are good things per se, too. According to Biel, just as there’s a fair price – determined by the need for a good, its rarity and production cost – there’s fair money if coin alterations are exclusively made for the benefit of the community.

In his opinion, there are requirements that make it fair to change a coin’s image, alloy and/or weight:

  • If the price of silver has increased
  • If the profit from altering coins is used to benefit the community
  • If the citizens give their consent to alterations
  • If debased coins circulate exclusively in the territory of this sovereign
  • If the coins to be replaced are old and worn
  • If there’s a risk of confusing legitimate coins with counterfeits

If a user debases a coin, for example by filing off silver, he is just as guilty of mortal sin as a prince who, out of greed and pride, alters the weight or alloy of coins to the detriment of the public interest. Such a person can only be absolved from his sin if he pays compensation for his theft, because that’s exactly what this alteration is.

Of course, this always implies another aspect: princes who alter coins for their own benefit will be accountable for it at the Last Judgement.

The Position of the Observer

In the light of these arguments, the statements of Johannes Adler’ Opusculum on power and utility of money bearing his name seem to be rather harmless.

He limits himself to the position of a lawyer who asks stupid questions or clarifies legal positions. In his theoretical first part, he points out that a fundamental problem of lawyers consist in the fact that the value of coins has been changing constantly since Roman times, while the terms used to describe them remained the same. And this raises the question of how a lawyer should transpose the terms of these coins bearing Roman names into everyday life of court ruling.

Adler also follows the line of thought of Oresme and Biel, and briefly states that altering the material, weight or appearance of a coin can only be justified if it is made with the consent of those affected by it. If this isn’t the case, a prince who collects a regular coin and replaces it with a debased one is committing fraud, too. He commits a mortal sin, which – if he wants to be acquitted from it – obliges him to pay compensation. And Adler goes even further: anyone who notices that a coin is debased and doesn’t denounce or prevent it, must also be punished as counterfeiter.

All this isn’t presented in a tone of indignation but in a lawyer’s dry Latin, as if these statement weren’t accusations against a prince who abuses his privilege of minting coins but rather established, legally well-founded facts.

A Glimpse Into Everyday Life

These theoretical considerations are supplemented by concrete problems from a lawyer’s everyday life: Adler identifies the fundamental problem as the fact that legal documents – contracts, wills, donations, loans – always mention huge sums of money. If a debasement occurs – whether it be for legitimate or illegitimate reasons – how do you deal with these figures? Do you use the old or the new value of the coin to calculate the actual amount of the sum?

Let’s look at a plausible example. A concludes a contract with B at a certain point in time (X). The contract obliges A to pay a certain amount of money by using a certain coin at a certain point in time (Y). The value of the mentioned coin changes between X and Y. What value is decisive?

Or another example: The abbot of Bebenhausen is the employer of the Tübingen parish vicar. The Pope himself determined the amount of money that the vicar is entitled to receive in his local currency. Now, local coins were replaced by (poorer) coins of the Duke of Württemberg. Does the vicar lose part of his salary?

And a third example: A borrows money from B. At the time of the paying out, the coin was worth much more than at the time of repayment. Who bears the loss? By the way, the same question arises regarding the repayment of a dowry in case of divorce. What should be decisive – how much the coin was worth at the time of the wedding or how much it was worth at the time of the divorce?

As legal as these questions may sound, they illustrate in a striking way that a duke’s debasement of coins wasn’t a crime without victims – there is clearly a loser when the value of money changes.

The fact that Johannes Adler certainly didn’t choose his examples naively and arbitrarily can be demonstrated by his ninth case study: he asks if the creditor may insist on payment in a certain metal or if repayment in another metal can be made against the creditor’s will. Let’s remember: the rebels of the “Poor Conrad” had complained about the very fact that the duke, who can certainly be identified as creditor, demanded that they paid their tax debts by means of old, unaltered coins.

Saying the Unsayable

In this context we mustn’t forget that Johannes Adler was not only professor at the University of Tübingen in 1516, he was also part of duke Ulrich’s civil service machinery. He couldn’t afford to criticise his sovereign. On the other hand, he was probably one of the many intellectuals who wanted to criticise the arrogant and incompetent authority. But his professional situation set him narrow limits.

By taking this situation into account, we might understand why Adler – maybe in consultation with Köbel and Stöffler – made use of the renowned theologian Gabriel Biel to present the theological side of deceiving the people by means of debased coins. Only in the context of the theological commentary, his book on the practical aspects of this issue became socially explosive.

Elitist Twaddle or Pioneer of the German Peasants’ War?

Adler died in 1518, six years before the great peasants’ war started in southern Germany. Did his considerations have an impact on the demands of the peasants, who clearly formulated not only religious but above all economic demands? This included, for example, the protest against the constant debasement of coins and the princes’ orders that taxes had to be paid in other coins than those used on the market. In other words, their concerns were quite similar to those put forward by Johannes Adler in his works.

We can assume that at least the leaders of the peasants were able to read Latin. But probably that wasn’t even necessary. It’s quite likely that Johannes Adler’s book was based on a widespread view that fair money with a stable value was needed, but it wasn’t possible to achieve this objective back then due to global changes. Over the course of the following centuries, a balance had to be found constantly between the common good and the princes’ absolutist inclinations.

We know from history that, at the beginning of the 16th century, the princes were in control of that balance. Only the French Revolution created money that was actually fair.



Stefan Kötz, Geldtheorie an der Universität Tübingen um 1500: Die Traktate De potestate et utilitate monetarum des Gabriel Biel (nach 1488/89) und des Johannes Adler gen. Aquila (1516). In: Die Universität Tübingen zwischen Scholastik und Humanismus, ed. S. Lorenz, U. Köpf, J. S. Freedman and D. R. Bauer. Ostfildern (2012), 117-160

Hendrik Mäkeler, Nicolas Oresme and Gabriel Biel – Zur Geldtheorie im späten Mittelalter. Scripta Mercaturae 37 / 1 (2003), pp. 56-94

Philipp Robinson Rössner, Deflation – Devaluation – Rebellion. Geld im Zeitalter der Reformation. Stuttgart (2012)


We bought this bibliophile treasure in April 2020 at the Graz antiquarian book and art shop of Wolfgang Friebes.