The decline of the Roman Empire during the fourth century CE largely resulted in widespread political and economic chaos in western Europe, which endured for the better part of four centuries, a period that, not surprisingly, is referred to as the Dark Ages.
The social chaos, incessant warfare, plagues and general economic instability during that period resulted in a marked reduction in gold mining in the region.
Because of the significant decline in gold production, the precious metal did not circulate to the extent it had circulated in ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, the inability to use the precious metal as currency compelled the Early Medieval kingdoms to use poor-quality copper-based coinage to conduct small-scale trading transactions.
Only in the Byzantine-controlled areas – basically what was left of the Roman Empire after its collapse in the west – were gold coins still used for trade.
Any gold that was mined during that period tended to be accumulated in hoards – usually the king’s – and was used for gifts and bribes, and to buy expensive goods.
Gold was also held in high regard by the dominant Catholic church, which considered it a symbol of eternity and light. During the Early Medieval period, it had little material value for the church but was used to visually represent the religious value of its most important objects, including crowns, altars, reliquaries and bibles.
While gold declined in importance during the Early and High Medieval ages, at least as a form of currency, it was swiftly replaced by robust silver coinage. From the eighth century onwards, silver coinage was used widely across Europe as the main form of currency.
Europe was richly endowed with silver-bearing ore deposits, the mining of which was particularly prevalent in Medieval Britain.
Unfortunately, the adoption of silver coinage largely coincided with the Viking Age, which was a period of much pillaging and looting.
Indeed, from the eighth century onwards, the coastal regions of northern and western Europe, as well as Great Britain and Ireland, were subjected to waves of raids by Vikings, whose chief prize was silver coinage.
In fact, it is estimated that some 400 t of silver was either looted or extorted by the Vikings from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms alone.
By 880 CE, the Vikings had looted Europe’s coinage so effectively that they killed the ‘silver goose’.
After the coastal areas of Europe had been looted to exhaustion, power centres inevitably shifted toward the inner regions of the continent, particularly towards south-east Germany.
The shift in power was given considerable stimulus when, in 938 CE, an enormous silver-, lead- and copper-bearing orebody was discovered at Rammelsberg, in eastern Germany. The deposit proved so rich that the mine continued producing well into the modern era, closing down in 1988, after celebrating its 1 050th anniversary.
Rammelsberg became the single most important source of silver, lead and copper in central Europe during the Middle Ages and, because of the phenomenal tonnages that were yielded from that mine, silver coinage, once again, became increasingly prevalent.
What followed was an incredible silver rush, with major discoveries being recorded and exploited near Freiberg, the Black Forrest, Bohemia, the eastern Alps and in Sardinia.
Because of the prolific mines at Rammelsberg, it was usually experienced Saxon miners that were brought in to develop and work the new discoveries.
The increasing availability of silver coinage during the period known as the High Middle Ages ushered in an unprecedented social and economic revolution. The ready availability of money allowed the oppressive feudal system to be replaced by the concept of nation-states with entrenched monarchical and nobility systems. Greater availability of money also meant that larger capitals and public expenditures could be envisaged – not only castles and cathedrals, but also ports, canals, town residences and palaces could be built. There was also more money to support artists and craftsmen.
Governments across Europe took the opportunity to issue large new currencies. For example, the English minted four-million silver pennies a year in the 1220s, rising to ten-million a year in the 1240s, 15-million in the 1250s and 40-million between 1279 and 1281.
The High Middle Ages was a time of significant economic expansion in Europe, the likes of which would only be witnessed again in the nineteenth century.
The commercial development of Europe experienced during that period was hardly hampered by the lack of available gold but was rather directly stimulated by the discovery and exploitation of significant silver deposits.
However, with increasing stability among the nation-states and growth in prosperity, the active search for gold began and its mining increased marginally.
The first sizeable gold strike in Medieval Europe took place in 1320 at Kremnitz (now Krem-nica), in Slovakia. Following that strike, other gold deposits were discovered in central Germany, France, Italy and Britain.
Noteworthy events of this period included the emancipation of the miner from slavery and serfdom as the Saxon miner became a free agent whose services were in demand from Britain to Transylvania. Further, there were major advances in mining technology, mining geology and metallurgy.
While silver certainly dominated the economic scene of the Middle Ages, gold continued to haunt man’s imagination.
It was during this period that attention was turned to China, India and other mysterious parts of the Far East by the extraordinary journey that was undertaken by Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century.
In his journal, which was published in 1295, he gave an account of the riches he had seen in China: “In this province, gold is found in the rivers and bigger nuggets in the lakes and mountains.”
It was such descriptions of gold riches that strongly motivated subsequent explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, to embark on unprecedented journeys of discovery in search of that most precious of metals.
Thus, it was the quest for gold that would initiate the Age of Discovery in the fifteenth century.