Slave Currency of Ancient Ireland

Although ownership of slaves represented wealth in slave-holding societies and slaves were popular subjects for barter, ancient Ireland made slave girls, called kumals or ancillae, a unit of account for measuring the values of goods and services. A legendary king in ancient Irish literature owned a chessboard, and each chess piece was said to equal 6 kumals in value. Queen Maeve, a figure in an epic poem dating from before the Christian era, boasted of a chariot worth thrice seven bondsmaids. During the fifth century in Ireland, St. Patrick wrote in his Confessions: “You know how much I have paid out to those who were judges in all the regions, which I have often visited; for I think that I have given away to them not less than the price of fifteen humans” (Einzig, 1966). The wording suggests that St. Patrick did not pay in slaves, but was using slaves as a standard of value for reckoning what he did pay. St. Patrick would not have used slaves as a means of payment. Under his guidance the Hiberian Synod decreed that retribution for the murder of a bishop or high prince demanded either crucifixion or payment of seven ancillae. The decree also required that if blood money was paid in specie, one-third must be in silver, a clear indication that ancillae were only a unit of account, and not a tangible means of payment.
Probably the second century a.d. saw the kumal transformed into an abstract unit of account. The laws under King Fegus, king of Uldah, required a blood money payment of “seven kumals of silver” and “seven kumals of land” for the murder of anyone under the king’s protection. These laws clearly show that land and silver were mediums of exchange, and kumals were only a unit of account. These laws were set forth in two legal texts, the Senchus Mor and the Book of Aicill, both of which contained a table legally sanctioning the kumal standard. According to this table:
  • 8 wheat-grains = 1 pinginn of silver
  • 3 pinginns = 1 screpall
  • 3 screpalls = 1 sheep
  • 4 sheep = 1 heifer
  • 6 heifers = 1 cow
  • 3 cows = 1 kumal
The example of slave-girl money in Ireland brings to the forefront four separate functions of money. Money serves as a medium of exchange, a store of wealth, a unit of account or measure of value, and a standard of deferred payment. The slave-girl money evolved into a unit of account only, while the other roles of money were filled by various commodities, land, and precious metals.
The origin of the social acceptance of the use of kumals as a medium of exchange may have stemmed from the prestige conferred by slave ownership. Also, slaves may have been regarded as the rightful spoils of war, and warriors capturing more slaves than they could employ were free to trade them for land, livestock, and goods and services that they needed. Perhaps the spread of Christianity in Ireland and the concept of Christian love helped liberate Ireland from the base practice of actually exchanging human beings in trade, making kumals less acceptable as a medium of exchange, but still sanctioned by tradition as a unit of account.
See also:
Einzig, Paul. 1966. Primitive Money.
Nolan, Patrick. 1926. A Monetary History of Ireland.
Powell, T. G. E. 1985. The Celts. New ed.