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Prices and the Thirty Years War

Prices and the Thirty Years War

It would be natural to assume that warfare leads to increased prices and that during the Thirty Years War this occurred. Less money was issued throughout Europe and a greater emphasis was placed on the value of bullion which could bolster your credit rating within Europe. In fact, Spanish bullion was becoming more scarce in Europe so the issue of bullion taking on more international value was a real one. Spanish bullion imports had fallen by 40% between 1590 and 1640 and 'ownership' of Spanish bullion marked out a rich state from a 'pretender'. Spanish bullion was now being found throughout the known world - Russia, China, India, the East Indies etc.

Why was bullion so valuable? Simply because it kept its value whereas coinage throughout mainland Europe was being devalued. Spain devalued her coinage three times from 1600 to 1648 - in 1603, 1636 and 1641. On each occasion, Spain was effectively announcing to Western Europe that her economy was in major trouble. Money lenders would have baulked at lending money to a nation that had claimed to be Europe's richest in the C16th. The major European banks tried to tackle the currency crisis that seemed to affect all of mainland Europe. The Wisselbank in Amsterdam and the Banco Giro in Venice tried, but failed to make an impact. the lack of bullion throughout Europe, lead to coinage devaluation throughout Europe - which could only be interpreted as nations trying to fight a very costly war but with weak and weakening finances.

Price changes and price levels varied throughout Europe. Spain and Italy managed to maintain the price of silver whereas a more impoverished Poland failed to succeed in doing this. Regional price variations were the result of war, high freight costs and, in general, a low level of capital investment. It is true to state that farm prices remained high throughout the war. Industrial prices tended to remain lower. Agriculture suffered from a lack of manpower which pushed up costs, whereas industry could rely on nations at war to purchase their goods. This knowledge that industry could sell goods acted as a spur to search out extra European markets. The markets based in the north-west of Europe were better at doing this than Spain and Italy and by 1648, ports such as Amsterdam, Hamburg and Antwerp had commercial hegemony in Europe.

No general pattern concerning wages can be found for 1618 to 1648. In theory, high food prices should have pushed up the cost of living by a substantial amount. However, while this happened in places, in Spain prices and wages remained close and wages more or less kept up with inflation. Italy in the C17th saw a steady increase in wages. This in turn pushed up production costs which pushed up prices and brought difficulties to local economies.

The impact of the war on Germany with regards to prices is difficult to estimate. One of the reasons is that there were three different currencies in use in Germany during the war- the thaler, the mark and the gulden. Though a generalisation, it does seem that the war was only mildly inflationary in Germany. Food prices increased up to 1640 but fell back after this. Meat prices were often kept down as cattle were kept in towns and cities as armies approached. Peter Limm makes the point that

“There was a rise in real wages from about 1620 and the wage earner was not necessarily in a bad position during the war.”

Certain areas suffered because of the proliferation of mints - money became devalued in many senses not least because the production of money appeared to have become a free-for-all. In some areas producers refused to take their produce to market as the money they received was not worth anything to them. Bayreuth, in 1621, and Magdeburg, in 1622, experienced riots because of the frustration people felt towards the money they were being offered. To try and bring some stability to currency, Austria and Alsace tried to fix the price of the mark. Any real problems appeared to be regional with local impact this was especially true of Germany. Whereas Bayreuth and Magdeburg were badly affected by price fluctuations, Hamburg did well out of the war. The Hamburg Bank gained a great reputation for honesty and by 1648, Hamburg was Germany's richest city. In 1621, Nuremburg had founded the Nuremburg Exchange Bank - this was founded on the Viatis and Peller money lending businesses. The bank did well for the city though it was more in the war zone than Hamburg and on occasions even this rich city found that its outgoings exceeded its income.

As with many things to do with the Thirty Years War, one specific issue affected regions differently and this was as true with prices as with many things.