merovingians

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ….
 

The Franks had little idea of the state as a public institution, and the regnum Francorum (kingdom of the Franks), while remaining a family inheritance, was inherited according to the rules of private law, divided on each occasion between the sons or nearest male relatives of the deceased (Grierson and Blackburn, 84).

THEY GREW THEIR HAIR AND BEARDS LONG; in medieval Latin they were called reges criniti, the “long haired kings.” In modern French they are known as les rois fainéants, the “do-nothing kings” (history has not treated them kindly). The Frankish Merovingian[1] dynasty, which ruled most of France and parts of neighboring lands from circa 457 to 751 CE, may be an obscure corner of late Antiquity but it offers numismatists a complex and challenging coinage.

The Merovingians took their name from Merovech (or Merovius) a semi-legendary fifth-century chieftain credited as the dynasty’s founder. He fought alongside the grand coalition of Romans and barbarians that turned back the armies of Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in central France, 20 June 451. Clovis I (Hlodowig in Frankish), grandson of Merovech, was baptized as a Catholic on Christmas day, 496, thereby establishing an alliance between the Church of Rome and the rulers of France that would endure for centuries.

Pseudo-Imperial Issues

merovingians1As the Roman Empire in the west declined, the supply of Imperial gold coins dried up and the Franks, like the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths and other emergent Germanic kingdoms, issued their own coinage in the name of the emperor in far-off Constantinople. These “pseudo-imperial” coins are crude in style and attributed to “uncertain mints.” Inscriptions are often blundered, and die engravers sometimes did not clearly understand what they were copying.

For example, a tremissis from the time of Chlotar (or Chlotaire), who ruled 511-561, depicts the winged figure of Victory on the reverse transformed into something more like an eagle.

Pseudo-imperials are difficult to date precisely. If your kingdom was on bad terms with the current emperor in Constantinople, your gold solidi might carry the name of his long-dead predecessor, like Anastasius I (ruled 491-517).

Theudebert

Born about the year 500, Theudebert son of Theuderic I (Thierry in modern French) was a grandson of Clovis. As a teenager he fought in battle against raiding Danes and neighboring Visigoths. When his father died in 533 (or 534 – many Merovingian dates are uncertain) he fought his uncles Childebert and Clothar to win his throne.

He must have had a high opinion of himself, because he did something then that shocked contemporaries: he issued gold coins in his own name, imitating those of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (“the Great”). For centuries, gold coinage had been a prerogative of the remote and semi-divine emperor. Putting himself on the coinage asserted that Theudebert was equal to the ruler in Constantinople. On the solidus, the inscription reads D N THEODEBERTVS VICTOR (“Our Lord, Theodebert, Winner!”). Only about 35 examples of this coin–issued at several different mints–are known, with most in museums. The last specimen to appear on the market sold for US$50,000 in a 2009 New York auction by Stack’s[2].

Gold tremisses in the name of Theudebert are also known. A bent and nicked example[3] went for $3,545 in a 2009 German auction[4].

Frankish “National” Coinage

The varying quality of the gold content of coins in a single hoard shows that users were prepared to accept as currency whatever came their way (Grierson and Blackburn, 109).

About the year 570, Merovingian pseudo-imperial coinage disappears and is replaced by a “national” coinage very different in style and fabric. The sole denomination was the increasingly debased gold tremissis, at a reduced weight of about 1.2 grams.

Coins from early hoards averaged 85-95% gold, but by 670 the fineness was down to around 30%, with some late examples containing as little as 13% gold (Blet-Lemarquand, 178); in jeweler’s terms, less than four carats fine. They would have looked very much like silver.

The obverse usually bore a crude bust, and the reverse a cross. A common form of the cross found on these coins is the croix ancrée, or “anchory cross,” with two semicircles springing from the top in opposite directions. Names of kings appear rarely. Of some 32 rulers, coins are known for only 12.

Instead, the names of mints and “moneyers” appear, usually crudely lettered and often only partly legible because dies were cut too large for the flans. Over 800 different mints have been identified, along with over 1,500 different moneyers. These moneyers were artisan contractors, sometimes itinerant, who produced short runs of coinage from any available precious metal when local chiefs or clerics needed coins.

Eligius, Moneyer and Saint

The most famous Merovingian moneyer was Eligius (or Eloi).

Born about 588 near Limoges, he apprenticed as a goldsmith. His skill was so great that King Chlothar II (ruled 613-629) commissioned him to make a gem-studded golden throne, and appointed him as mint master at Marseille.

Under Dagobert I (ruled 623-634) Eligius became chief counselor to the king.

According to legend, he devoted himself to good works, becoming bishop of Noyon in Flanders in 642. After his death in 660 he was canonized, becoming the patron saint of goldsmiths, mint workers and coin collectors.

Gold solidi and tremisses in the name of Eligius as moneyer were minted at Paris and Marseilles and Palatium (“the Palace”) – probably wherever the king happened to be at the time.

In a 2016 New York auction, a Paris tremissis of Eligius sold for $6,250[5].

Massalia

The great Mediterranean port of Marseille (Massalia), founded as a Greek colony around 600 BCE, was barely affected by the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, thanks to its strong walls and vigorous commerce. Semi-independent, Marseille retained much of its Gallo-Roman culture, being governed by a class of capable “patricians”.

Marseille continued to issue gold solidi and tremisses in the name of the Byzantine emperor long after its Merovingian rulers and the neighboring Visigoths and Lombards had dropped any pretense of recognizing Constantinople’s authority over anything. The coins bear the name and profile portrait of the emperor (even though regular Byzantine issues had long since switched to a facing bust). Most surviving examples are in the name of Maurice (ruled 582-602), but coins are also known for Justin II, Tiberius II Constantine, Phocas and Heraclius.

The reverse shows a Latin cross on globe, with the city’s mint mark M A and small Roman numerals: XXI for the solidus and VII for the tremissis. This indicated to literate users that the coins were on a lighter weight standard than regular Imperial issues: 21 rather than 24 siliquae for the solidus and seven rather than eight for the tremissis.

From Gold to Silver

agmerovingians

About the year 670, gold coinage ceased and was replaced by the issue of silver deniers (the modern French term for the Latin denarius). There had been some earlier fractional Merovingian silver coinage (tiny pieces of uncertain value weighing 0.4 grams or less) known mostly from grave finds. The denier was issued on two distinct weight standards: a “Germanic” standard of about 1.3 grams based on 20 grains of barley in the north, and a standard of 1.1 grams based on the late Roman scripulum in the south.

Designs mostly followed traditional patterns, with a crude bust on the obverse and a cross on the reverse–not to mention the names of moneyer and mint–but monograms, birds, beasts and geometric patterns also appear. The metal can be as pure as 93% silver or as base as 65%, and on later pieces the weight often falls below a gram.

Merovingian law codes, which prescribed fines in cash, reckoned 40 deniers as equal to the old gold solidus.

Collecting the Merovingians

All Merovingian coins are scarce. Because there are thousands of types, many are unique, or exist only in a handful of known examples. Merovingian coins are found in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Switzerland and Western Germany but they rarely traveled much further.

The standard references (Belfort, five volumes, 1892-95 and Prou, 1892) and most of the vast literature, as you might expect, are in French. In English, Grierson and Blackburn (1986) is the best general introduction.

The booklet Reading Medieval European Coins (Walker, 2000) is highly recommended for beginners. A search on the term “Merovingian” on the CoinArchives Pro database of over 2.4 million items produced only 336 hits (including repeated sales of the same coin). The collection of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in New York lists 107 Merovingian coins in its online database, all superbly photographed.

In recent sales, typical gold tremisses have sold for prices ranging from $1,500 to $4,000. The rare gold solidi command prices from $6,000 to over $25,000. Silver deniers typically sell for $200 to $500, with exceptional specimens bringing prices as high as $2,000-5,000.

In a major auction of ancient and medieval coins, there are rarely more than a few Merovingians.

* * *

Notes

[1] In popular culture the most familiar occurrence of “Merovingian” is the name of a particularly irritating French character in the film The Matrix (1999): http://matrix.wikia.com/wiki/The_Merovingian

[2] Stack’s Moneta Imperii Romani Byzantini. 12 January 2009. Lot 3405

[3] The gold tremissis, being small (1.3 grams) and thin (about 1.5 mm) often took a beating in circulation.

[4] Gorny & Mosch Auction 175. 9 March 2009. Lot 317

[5] Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles Auction 37. 5 January 2016. Lot 765

References

Belfort, Auguste de. Description Generale des Monnaies Merovingiennes. Paris. (1892-95)

Blet-Lemarquand, Maryse, Marc Bompaire and Cécile Morrisson. “Platine et Plomb dans les Monnaies d’or Mérovingiennes: Nouvelles Perspectives Analytiques” (Platinum and Lead in Merovingian Gold Coins: New Analytic Perspectives), Revue Numismatique 166 (2010)

Dickie, D.P. and R. Parrott. “Merovingian Coins in the Collection of the American Numismatic Society”, ANS Museum Notes 4 (1950)

Grierson, Philip and Mark Blackburn. Medieval European Coinage: 1 The Early Middle Ages. Cambridge (1986)

Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. Seaby (1991)

Harl, Kenneth. Coinage in the Roman Economy: 300 BC to AD 700. Johns Hopkins (1996)

Lafaurie, Jean. “Eligius Monetarius,” Revue Numismatique 19 (1977)

Loseby, S. T. “Marseille: A Late Antique Success Story?”, Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992)

MacDowell, Simon. Catalaunian Fields 451: Rome’s Last Great Battle. Osprey (2015)

Prou, Maurice. Les Monnaies Mérovingiennes. Paris (1892)

Yoon, David. “Gateway to the World, Corner of Nowhere: Provence in the Merovingian Period”, ANS Magazine 15:2 (2016)

Walker, Ralph. Reading Medieval European Coins 2nd edition. Fairfield, CT. (2000)
 


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