Early Modern Times – a Czechered past

Early Modern Times - a Czechered past

Dear readers,

Amidst debates over how much money one can make with an education in the humanities (as if that were the point), it is indubitable that the humanities can at least show you where money comes from. The dollars in your pocket–or digitally stored on your magnetic cards and devices–originate in another pocket, a tiny town in the Czech Republic near the German border. The inconspicuous town of Jáchymov is profiled in a recent article, as it was recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List last year. How did the almighty (or perhaps once-mighty) dollar emerge from this tiny corner of Bohemia? In other words, how did we go from Czechs to cash, such that the buck started there?

In 1516, Count Hieronymus Schlick discovered silver in this mountainous area hitherto populated only by bears and wolves. The Count dubbed the area Joachimsthal, the ‘valley of Joachim’, Jesus’ grandad and patron saint of miners. Silver mining began, as illustrated above in this 1548 woodcut. Cents-ing an opportunity, the Count who Czeched out this area was a Schlick customer: he went from being a mere Czeching Count to a savings Count.

At this time, there was no standard currency in Europe, so Schlick set up his own, which received approval from the Bohemian Diet (legislative assembly) in 1520: this was a Diet with a huge appetite for cash. The silver was minted into coins known as Joachimsthalers, abbreviated as thalers. The coins were inscribed with an image of St. Joachim on one side and a Bohemian lion on the reverse. These thalers were by no means counterfeit, even though they were at least half ‘lion’.

Schlick shrewdly matched the weight and thickness of the Joachimsthalers with the central European Guldengroschen coins, and he minted an unprecedented number of thalers. Within a decade, Joachimsthal became the biggest mining town in Europe: its population doubled 20 times, with some 8,000 people working in a thousand silver mines. By 1533, it was the largest town in Bohemia outside of Prague. Because of Joachimsthal’s booming economy, Schlick had money happy returns.

By the mid-sixteenth century, over 10 million thalers were in currency on the continent. Even when the silver was depleted, the silver currency adopted by the Holy Roman Empire in 1566 was named Reichsthalers: this was ‘Reich’ on the money. The thalers were thus the template for currencies coined by the rising monarchies of Europe, including the Scandinavian daler, the Italian tallero, the Polish talar, and others. Having a legitimate and stable currency, it seemed, was not a thaler order at all; and at its height, such currency was thaler than the rest. In the Netherlands, the national currency was known as leeuwendaler, ‘lion dollar’; they were brought by Dutch colonists to New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, and later anglicised by the United States as the ‘dollar’. Given its trade with the US, British North America adopted a decimalised currency to correspond with the American greenback, and so the Canadian dollar was created in 1858. It was thought that having such a currency would make ‘cents’, even though adherents to the old ‘Canadian pound’ regarded it as a ‘loonie’ idea.

The Joachimsthalers have a more sinister legacy, however. As the final dregs of silver were extracted in the sixteenth century, miners encountered a black ore which caused fatalities from lung disease. It was identified in 1898 by Nobel laureate Marie Curie as containing the radioactive elements of radium and polonium. Her work on this ore led to her untimely demise, and these elements were later used to build nuclear reactors and weapons. After the Second World War, during which the Nazis attempted to erect a nuclear reactor in the area, Joachimsthal was renamed Jáchymov. The mines are mostly covered over by forests, but the last functioning silver mine pumps radioactive water to local resorts which advertise ‘radon-water therapy’. Given the fate of Curie, such a treatment is only for far ‘dollar’ wits than hers: dupes who are willing to risk becoming currency-sick.

’til next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Travellers’ Czechs Studies Program

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