With the race for souls came the building of grand places of worship; the lavishness of the interior decoration being somehow equated with demonstrations of the supremacy of particular idea-less. The builders of the Byzantium church of St Sophia in Constantinople are said to have used 300,000 pounds (136,000 kilograms) of gold on its walls, furnishings and trappings, setting the standard for church building in the rest of the Christian world. Priests, bishops and popes would weigh themselves down under vestments that were heavily embroidered in gold thread. Though poor by comparison, monks were busy in their monasteries reviving the art of writing by copying the Holy Scriptures, using gold suspended in egg white for their illustrations. Some of these books have survived to this day.
Eventually trade, too, was re-established between the European centers. The French king Charlemagne, who was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 AD, had so great a need for gold with which to cast coins for his realm that he had to take his armies all the way to western China, where he plundered fifteen wagons of gold from the emergent Mongol Empire.
With all of Europe under the influence of Christianity by the beginning of the second millennium, it is not surprising that popes and kings turned their attention to the stranglehold Islam had in the east. While the Crusades were ostensibly about returning Jerusalem to Christendom, Muslim gold and trading contacts with China and India were a powerful attraction.
Gold and the New World
An obsession with the treasures of China heralded an age of exploration beginning at the end of the fifteenth century, when the design of ships and sails made ocean journeys possible for the first time. At first the target was the fabled gold of Africa, which remained elusive but opened the possibility of a much more sinister trade in human cargo; one that would be exploited to the full in the Americas once the Inca and Aztec civilizations had been crushed, and the population decimated by openwork and disease. While Spain, and later Portugal, were receiving shiploads of gold and silver into their ports, the British, Dutch and French were importing the luxuries Europeans also craved such as tea, silks, spices and other commodities, which they traded in what had become a vast international market.
With so much gold in circulation, new difficulties arose. Piracy became a major issue on the high seas, and highway robbery became profitable on land. Additionally coins became mutilated so they weighed less than their face value. Clever merchants found it more convenient to leave their money in newly established banks and to conduct their business by means of bills of exchange, which paved the way for the issuing of bank notes. While the idea of paper money caught on, particularly in England, which by the eighteenth century led the world in mercantile development, there was no control over the amount of notes being printed. The result was a rapid deterioration of their value and their buying power, which in turn led to hardship, particularly among the poor whose wages, could not keep pace with the cost of basic commodities.
It took the rampant inflation fueled by the Napoleonic wars to persuade the British Government to act. In 1821, an Act of Parliament was passed restoring the convertibility of bank notes to gold and establishing a gold standard which would control the flow of money in England for the next 100 years. To mark the occasion a new coin, the sovereign, equal to twenty silver shillings, was minted. The European nations and America followed suit, each applying a standard to their own currency so that the value of their paper notes was fixed not just to gold but to each other.
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