World Coins

Florin a coin with roots in Florence, global legacy

Editor's note: The following is the second post in Coin World's Symbols of Power series about three early coinage units.

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Our second coin term, “florin,” was introduced in A.D. 1252, following a period of some 500 years in which the coinage of Western Europe had been predominantly silver. Named after its home city of Florence, “Firenze,” it became the main medium for the return of coins made from gold. Few coins before the advent of a globalized economy would share its level of impact.

By the mid-13th century, gold was not only available for coinage but gold coinage was, in itself, both useful and desirable. The wealthy cities of Italy, primarily Florence, Genoa, Venice and Pisa, were increasingly dominating the economics of the Mediterranean, changing the flow of the trade routes in African gold from East to West. Situated on the banks of the river Arno, Florence in particular prospered as a commercial center, and was among the first cities to have a sophisticated banking system. Its wealth and patronage of the arts helped turn it into the leading city of the Renaissance.

This new coin was initially worth a Florentine lira, or 240 denarii (pennies). It was of too high a value for daily use, and seems always to have been destined for use in international trade.

The design of the florin barely changed throughout the three centuries of its existence, and features Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, wearing a belted robe and rough, goatskin cape. A saint’s halo surrounds his shaggy hair, while the reverse features a Florentine lily; Florence literally being “the blooming city.”

We can get some sense of the high regard with which the Florentines viewed their new coin in the pages of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, written in the early 1300s. In the lowest pits of the Inferno we meet Master Adam, a counterfeiter of florins. Master Adam was no ordinary back-street forger: he represented Adam of Brescia, who was employed by a rival Italian ruler to undermine the Florentine coinage “with three carats alloy.” In the real world he was, as he says, burnt at the stake in 1281. In Dante’s Hell he sits in the Eighth Circle, the Malebolge or “evil ditches” among the forgers, liars and leprous alchemists.

Success usually inspires imitation, and within a decade or so both France and England had issued gold coins inspired by the florin’s existence. Eventually “florin” became the generic word for a gold coin in England and the word appears in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” (late 14th century) as “floryns fyne of gold ycoyned rounde,” conjuring the image of a glittering and seductive treasure. We hear of Edward III (reigned 1327 to 1377) making grants of annuities from the port of London of up to a thousand “florins of Florence,” while in 1338 Florentine merchants traveling in Essex, England, were robbed by the locals of 160 of their florins. Beyond England and France the model of the florin was even more long lasting. Many places in western and southern Europe and around the Mediterranean simply made their own imitations, replacing the Florentine lily on the reverse with a local emblem.

Coin imitation could be a form of flattery, and yet poor reproductions began to shake confidence in the original florin. After 1284, there was also a powerful Italian rival in the shape of the ducat or ducato of Venice, an easy alternative when trust in the florin faltered. From around 1400 the ducat increasingly dominated Mediterranean trade, largely usurping the role of the florin. There were fewer direct imitations of the ducat to compromise its popularity, although its standards were also widely copied, along with its name. Even in Florence itself the word “ducat” became commonly used instead of “florin.” The Venetian ducat maintained its ancient standards until the end of the Venetian Republic in the 19th century.

The florin also began to be affected by broad trends in European coinage. From the early 16th century silver became increasingly dominant as old mines were revived and new ones discovered. Many of the florins and gulden of Europe changed from being small gold coins to large silver ones, and the name went with the change, but they were the only continuing legacy of the florin’s days of medieval grandeur. Indeed, the silver florins themselves later shrank in size and purchasing power. As the late medieval age of gold was fading before this new age of silver, the Florentine florin itself would soon cease to exist. The last one was issued in 1531, just as the Republic of Florence was being transformed into a hereditary duchy ruled by the Medici dynasty.

Florins of Florence might have vanished, but the florin as a name survived in many countries as a term describing a midrange silver coin, especially the Dutch gulden or guilder. Then, in 1849, the British government decided to issue a 2-shilling piece at a tenth of a pound in value. This fraction was a manifestation of the debate on the merits of a decimal system. One supporter of decimalization urged the introduction of this 2-shilling piece as early as 1838, saying he would “for perspicuity denominate the two-shilling piece, a Florin, as the name of the foreign coin nearest in value, and indeed a name not unknown in the English coinage.”

The florin remained a part of the British currency system until the belated introduction of decimalization in the United Kingdom in 1971. The florin was adopted in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and was retained by Ireland post-independence until decimalization. Meanwhile, the Dutch florin, or gulden, lasted until the currency of the Netherlands disappeared with the introduction of the euro in 2002; with that the last working florin was gone.

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