Do you know what was “Tipper and See-saw time"

“Tipper and See-Saw Time” is the name given to a financial crisis during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).

To explain, at this time the cities in Europe, north of France, were quasi-independent states, while being part of, therefore, under the protection of the Holy Roman Empire. Confusing, isn’t it?

There were a lot of them as you can see on the map. Each state is a different colour.

Each had a specific set of legal rights governing each one’s social, economic, and judicial relationships between the state and the emperor, and among the states themselves.

However, as they were members, they had responsibilities that meant that they had to provide soldiers and, most importantly, money to the Holy Roman Empire. Now this was fine, and they lived with it, that is until the Thirty Years' War. This war went on so long that the Holy Roman Empire was running out of money. As is went for so long, actually years, they needed lots of money just fund the war.

The problem was that these cities didn’t have it, there was a limit as to how much they could tax their citizens, so they came up with, what they thought was a novel solution.

In effect, they did what is what we today call printing money. Of course, they couldn’t simply print money, so instead they simply heavily debased their currency.

To explain, at the start of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) each individual city-state in the Holy Roman Empire began to do this, which created a major financial crisis. What they did was called "Kipper und Wipperzeit", which translated means Tipper and See-Saw Time.

How did they do it?

At the time it seemed easy. You see in those days’ coins were made of precious metals that gave the currency its value. To identify the value you weighed the coins, but let’s be honest most people didn’t, they just took it on face value. This is, of course, what led to this financial crisis.

The City-states realised that they could add fewer valuable metals to the coins, well, obviously not to their coins, no, they copied other cities coins and made those coins with less valuable metal!

They then they took these newly minted coins to other city-states, basically, those that were as far away as possible. They did this as they hoped that if anybody realised what was happening it would damage the other city-state but not theirs.

Why was it called “Tipper and See-Saw Time”?

This was because what they did was to use tipping scales to identify the value of the coins. Then they took them out of circulation, melted, then mixed them with baser metals such as lead, copper or tin, making new lower valued coins, which they then put back into circulation. The effect was that they were making more money, yes, it was the same as when todays forgers print false money, except this was done by a city-state!


The problem was that it wasn’t just one city-state that did this, in fact, most of those city-states in the Holy Roman Empire used it as a way to finance the war

Basically, the bad money was taken from the state mint to their neighbours where they bought and sold goods making their money good. Unfortunately, at the same time those city-states were also debasing their coins!

The result was hyperinflation, fundamentally there was a rapid increase in prices over a short period of time. This became a major crisis throughout many city-states in Europe as these debased coins spread rapidly from city-state to city-state.

What then happened?

Well, it was obvious really, the general public twigged it.

There were many pamphlets denouncing the practice, then riots and, eventually, the soldiers and mercenaries refused to fight unless they were paid in “real”, non-debased money.

Then what the city-states didn’t want to happen, happened!

The practice had become so widespread that the city-states began getting their own debased coins back. Therefore, they had to stop the practice, but, unfortunately, by this time it had already created so much financial confusion, the debased metal coins had become so worthless that children even played with them in the street. Unfortunately, by then this debasement had spread across Europe from Germany to Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and, even, Poland.

Attempt at prevention

During this period, they came up with many methods that they felt would prevent the debasement of coins and to prevent “Gresham's Law”.

Sir Thomas Gresham, was the financial agent of Queen Elizabeth I, and he argued that bad money always drives out good. To explain, he said, that if coins contain metal of different values but have the same value as legal tender, the coins composed of the cheaper metal will always be used.

For this reason, after this in Europe, the import of bad coins led to banishment, burning, or the confiscation of goods. Unfortunately, they found it difficult to enforce, which meant that movement of debased coins continued to flow in and out of the city-states for many years. But it was not state sponsored, well, that’s what we are led to believe!

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