A Gothic translation of the Bible (a.d. 340–388) made use of the Gothic term for cattle, faihu, to stand for “money.” The English word fee is a descendant of the German word for cattle, Vieh. In the language of the Anglo-Saxons, Vieh evolved into the word feoh, which referred to cattle, property, treasury, price, reward, levy, tribute, and money. Feoh became fee in modern English, a reminder of the importance of cattle as money in early England. Likewise, the English word pecuniary stems from the Latin word for cattle, pecos. The modern monetary unity of India, the rupee, evolved from the Sanskrit word for cattle, rupa.
At some point in history, cattle have filled a niche in the money supply in virtually every geographical area of the globe, from the most northern Asiatic people of Russia, to the southernmost people of Africa. The Europeans brought cattle to the New World, where they again played the role of money in remote areas.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey make numerous references to the use of oxen as a standard of value. A big tripod, the first prize in a competition, was worth 12 oxen, and a woman with many skills was worth 4 oxen. An unfired caldron was valued at one ox. When two opposing heroes held a friendly exchange of arms in the midst of battle, one set of arms was valued at 100 oxen, and the other at only 9 oxen. A son of Priam, king of Troy, was captured and sold into slavery for 100 oxen, and Priam ransomed him for 300 oxen. In the Odyssey one of the suitors who invaded Odysseus’s house during his absence sought to appease him, offering to give him bronze and gold equal in value to 20 oxen, suggesting that oxen were a standard of value but not a medium of exchange.
One of the most advanced cattle monetary standards could be found in medieval Iceland. Icelandic law fixed the standard unit of value as a cow of 3 to 10 winters in age. The cow had to fall within a medium size, be unblemished and horned, have given birth to less than three calves, and be giving milk. A cow meeting these standards was called a kugildi, the standard monetary unit of Medieval Iceland. According to the law, values ranged from two-thirds of a kugildi for a sterile cow to 1 1/4 kugildi for a five-year-old ox, 1 1/2 kugildi for a six-year-old ox, and so forth. The law also fixed the value of horses, rams, ewes, goats, and pigs in terms of kugildi.
Cattle monetary standards have survived into the modern era, particularly in Africa. In some of these areas cattle have become an ecological problem. They are overstocked because they are a prestigious form of wealth that is valued beyond the bounds of economic practicality. The excess numbers of cows have overgrazed the land, eroding the soil. Traditionally, tribal raids killed off excess supplies of cattle, helping to hold the cattle population in check. Now a growing cattle population is an unwanted side effect of the demise of tribal warfare. Government authorities search for ways to introduce modern money as a means of reducing the cattle population and sparing the ecology. One proposal in a report of the Kenya Agricultural Commission suggested that the government issue coins bearing images of cows or goats, and provide special tokens shaped in the image of livestock and convertible into money.
Cattle were close to the ideal monetary medium in the earlier stages of economic development of many societies. They were a source of food and clothing, a store and symbol of wealth, and were objects of religious veneration. Well-formed and unblemished cattle were in demand as religious sacrifices. They were moveable, they reproduced, earning a crude form of interest, and they could fulfill all the basic roles of money, acting as a medium of exchange, a store of value, or a standard of value.