On the Value of Money
Updated: Aug 19, 2019
I am not very good with money matters. I do not consider worrying about money to be worth the time and effort. But to be perfectly honest, part of the reason for my lack of interest can be put down to the fact that, from a young age I found that those things we call Arabic numerals, and the various symbols that, placed in their vicinity make them increase or decrease, always made my head spin. Avoidance of mathematics and money matters has led to occasional friction with those who expect me to know how much I have spent at the market on a kilo of tomatoes. It also has made me cautious in attempting to make heads or tails of historical financial issues. But sometimes the desire to understand has forced my hand. In my examination of domestic architecture and daily life (Domestic Settings, Brill, 2010) I made a very rudimentary analysis of finances in a chapter on property values and the cost of living. It is a topic worthy of a more capable hand. However, some aspects may be of general interest.
Documents preserved from the 1240s are among the most useful means of learning about two of the Italian merchant quarters in Acre. In that decade both the Venetians and the Genoese sent out representatives to record in detail the properties in possession of their communes in Acre and Tyre. These records have survived and they are of such detail that they enable us to reconstruct the layout of the quarters and the size, form, function and value of individual houses.
One of the more intriguing bits of information contained in these property list is the cost of purchase and rental of apartments, room and shops in these two quarters. In the Venetian quarter rental of apartments and houses could vary considerably. The annual rent for houses, and for apartments in communal buildings, ranged from as low as 7 bezants (the Frankish gold coin) to as high as 180 bezants. The range is remarkably broad (for a comparison that should not be taken too seriously, the range in monthly rental values today is considerably narrower - a standard three-room apartment in Akko (Acre) today is rented for between 1,800 - 3,000 shekels).
The Italian property lists and the abundant archival material from other sources, contain a wealth of facts and figures. This data needs to be thoroughly studied by someone with a better mind for figures. The chief difficulty in understanding the figures is in assessing what the purchasing power of a bezant was at a specific point in time. For this there is plenty of information on the cost of goods and services, and of wages for various professions (I published just a small number of these in my book). Here are some "useful" examples of what one could purchase in neighbouring countries (Egypt and Syria). For the seven bezants that rented a small house by a bakery in the Venetian quarter, it was possible to buy three and a half barrels of wine, or 70 chickens or 70 loaves of bread. Alternatively one could pay for 140 visits to the bathhouse, the repair of 140 glass windows, or the disposal of one's household garbage 280 times.