Fifteenth Century Portuguese Dinheiro [Money]

Portuguese reals from the 1500s. Note the Portuguese royal arms on the left and the Order of Christ cross on the right.(1)

You might be wondering how all these references to reis and reals and gold duckets relate. Since the twelfth century, Portugal had a currency called the dinheiro. The word today means money. [The Spanish spelling is dinero.] Real meant royal, as in a royal coin, and reis was the plural of real.

The dinheiro system was based on the old Roman monetary system of librae, solidi, and denarii that was reintroduced to Europe by King Charlemagne of France. Think of the English system of pounds, sterling silver, and pennies. The system was based on the weight of the metal, not on a decimal system.

Roman denarii coins found in the Conímbriga excavaction site near Coimbra, Portugal.

Over the years, the coins were cast in different metals, sometimes gold, silver, or bronze. Their relative values varied. The original librae was a pound of silver. [Librae became livre in French, peso in Spanish, and pound in English.(2)

King Afonso I (r.1139-1185) minted the first Portuguese dinheiro coin in around 1179. His metal workers cast it using a metal alloy [mixture of metals] called billon [from the Latin word bullire, to boil as in boiling the metals together] that was mostly copper, with some precious metal [usually silver] and a little mercury mixed in. There was also a corresponding coin worth half a dinheiro called a mealha.

Meanwhile the Byzantines minted coins called siliquae and the Moroccans minted coins called dirhem and dinar based on the same Roman system.

In about 1200, King Sancho I of Portugal (r.1189-1191) introduced a gold coin called the morabitino [maravedí in Castilian].

In about 1300, King Dinis (r.1279-1325) introduced the silver tornês.

In 1380, King Fernando I (r.1369-1371) introduced several new coins:

The Real

In around 1430, the real replaced the dinheiro as the monetary unit. It remained the monetary unit until 1911 when it was replaced with the escudo.

The Crusado

By the 1450s, the Portuguese were obtaining a significant amount of gold from Africa. In 1452, under King Afonso V, the African, the Portuguese treasury minted their first cruzado coins worth “400 reis.”

Portuguese cruzades from the 1500s.(3)


Ducats and Soldi

Ducats were initiated in Byzantium in the 1200s and adopted by the Venetians, who initiated the first pure gold coin in 1284. The Venetian ducat became a trading world standard during medieval times. According to Wikipedia, it contained “3.545 grams of 99.47% fine gold, the highest purity medieval metallurgy could produce.” In 1400:

The Florin

Florence had a gold coin equivalent to the ducat called a florin.

Venetian ducats, c1400. On the left is St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. On the right is Jesus the Christ holding the Gospels.(4)


  1. Image source: media/File:500_reais_ouro_D._Sebasti%C3%A3o.JPG
  2. The British were the last to abandon this system, which they converted to pounds, shillings, and pence [£sd]. Have you ever wondered why the English use a “d” [dinarii] to indicate a “penny”?
  3. Venetian Ducat, c.1400. St. Mark of Venice standing right, presenting banner to kneeling Doge. Christ standing facing, raising hand in benediction and holding Gospels, surrounded by elliptical halo containing nine stars. Attribution: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. Image source wikimedia:
  4. Image source:

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