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CoinWeek Podcast #161: Let’s Get Medieval – Mike Markowitz on Coins of the Middle Ages

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This Week, CoinWeek Ancients writer Mike Markowitz gets medieval. I’d say he gets medieval on that As – but Ases are Roman coins and not medieval, so I can’t say that. Moving on… What is it about Medieval coins and medieval art that makes them so different than their ancient counterparts? And specifically, why are they so UGLY? Mike digs into the topic and offers some interesting insights that might have you looking at this specialty area in a new light.

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The following is a transcript of Mike’s podcast:

Mike Markowitz: Let’s get medieval. This is Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek. The first reaction that most collectors have to seeing a medieval coin for the first time is, “That thing is uuug-LY.” Few medieval coins are masterpieces of numismatic artistry, but what they lack in eye appeal they often make up for in historical interest. Reading the history of this era leaves you with a strong impression that the main interests of medieval rulers were war, hunting, and fathering illegitimate children – not necessarily in that order. This left little time or energy for concern with the technical aspects of coinage.

But what do we mean by a medieval coin? More specifically, a medieval European coin? Why were they so ugly? Why would anyone want to collect them? Assuming you want to add some medieval coins to your collection, how would you get started? Let’s begin by considering what historians mean when they talk about the Middle Ages or the medieval era of history.

The word ‘medieval’ comes from the Latin phrase “medium aevum” meaning “middle era”. The Middle Ages, logically enough, are what comes between ancient times and modern times. Thinking as a coin collector, the question is, when does ancient coinage end, and when does modern coinage begin?

Like most things in numismatics, it’s complicated.

The first writer to divide all of history and ancient, medieval, and modern seems to have been the Italian Florentine historian Leonardo Bruni in 1442. He was the first historian to date the end of the ancient world to the deposition of Romulus, the last Roman emperor in the West, on September 4th, 476. The only problem with this date is that nothing actually changed in the coinage or indeed in the lives of most people.

The extremely rare gold coins struck in the name of the puppet child emperor Romulus during his brief reign as a powerless figurehead command fabulous prices when they come to auction because so many collectors want to own an example of the “last Roman coin”. A gold solidus in the name of Romulus sold at auction for 150,000 euros in 2017. A slightly better one sold for the equivalent of $361,000 in 2014. The last gold tremissis, a one-and-a-half-gram gold coin worth a third of a solidus, sold for over $60,000 in 2020.

The year 500 provides a nice round number for the beginning of the Middle Ages. Many historians now prefer to use the term “Late Antiquity” for the chaotic five centuries that’s stretch from the crisis of the third century 235 to 284 down to the early Muslim conquest, 622 to 750. This era used to be called the Dark Ages, but this term is now out of favor with historians. The concept of the Dark Ages originated in the 1330s with the Italian scholar Petrarch, who regarded the post-Roman centuries as dark compared to the light of classical antiquity.

History is a continuous flow of events. So, any attempt to divided up into periods is arbitrary. But for the sake of understanding, it’s helpful to talk about the early, middle, and late coinage across the thousand-year span from the year 500 down to 1500.

Why were medieval coins so ugly? There are many reasons.

When we look at some of the great works of early medieval art like the ninth-century Book of Kells, a richly illustrated Irish gospel manuscript, or the awesome stained-glass windows of 12th-century cathedrals like Chartres or Notre Dame de Paris. We can clearly see that medieval artisans were capable of creating beautiful things. But these things were created in the service of God for the church. Now, some bishops and monasteries did issue their own coinage, but overall money ranked pretty low on the list of things that needed to be enriched by the handiwork of skilled craftsmen who were, after all, in short supply.

Mints were often operated by for-profit contractors employing semiskilled temporary workers.

Medieval coins are often so thin, that parts of the obverse design actually strike through onto the reverse.

Medieval coins were often struck in a copper alloy with as little as 2% silver, a metal that tends to turn dull black or gray over time.

Medieval coins were often recalled, melted down, and reissued. So, it might not have seemed worthwhile to expend a lot of effort on beautifying them.

Dies were often used until they cracked or wore out.

Surviving medieval coins are often clipped because–despite the horrendous punishments on the books–weak states lacked the power to enforce their laws against this practice.

The skill of engraving a realistic portrait or human figure and metal, skills that take many years to develop, was gradually lost in the decline of the Roman Empire, and they would not reemerge until the renaissance of the 13th and 14th centuries.

500 – 800 CE

Let’s talk about the coinage of the early Middle Ages from about 500 down to the year 800.

At the beginning of these three centuries, the circulating coins in most of Europe consisted mainly of old Roman imperial issues, and imitations or pseudo-imperial coins produced for the barbarian warlords, who were busy carving up the remains of the Roman Empire. There were basically just two denominations in gold. The solidus, four and a half grams, and the tremissis, about a third of a solidus. Silver had nearly vanished from circulation except in parts of Italy and North Africa. A few copper or bronze coins were being produced locally, wherever the urban economy continued to have a need for small change in two or three denominations. Try to imagine an economy where the only currency consists of $100 bills for the ruling elite and some nickels, dimes, and quarters for the daily purchases of the urban working class.

In the German language, the period from the fourth to the sixth century is called the Völkerwanderung, the wandering of the nations or the migration of the peoples. Because all the different tribal federation’s moving around in Europe were issuing copies of the same imperial coins, it’s sometimes difficult to say who struck what, especially when the copies are well executed. Over time, however, the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Franks, the Vandals, the Lombards, the Anglo-Saxons, and others developed distinctive national styles, which experts can usually identify.

Coinage is conservative. People don’t like to see changes in their money. Even today in the 21st century, we have circulating coins with inscriptions in Latin, an ancient language no one actually speaks. On modern coins of Switzerland, for example, the name of the country is still written out in Latin, Confoederatio Helvetica, the “Swiss Confederation”. So, wherever coins were still being struck in the early Middle Ages, the mint authorities copied and recopied what was familiar to the users, but the technical production skills were gradually eroding. Many of the engravers who cut the coin dies were probably not literate in Latin or in any language. So, we see more and more spelling errors or letters that were cut backward.

In numismatic catalog descriptions, you’ll often see the term ‘blundered inscription’. By the year 800 or so, we see inscriptions that are reduced to a string of meaningless dots, circles, and strokes. A famous medieval moneyer was St. Eligius, Eloy in French, who died in the year 660. He was a counselor to Dagobert, the Merovingian king of France. Apprenticed as a boy to a goldsmith, he rose to become a bishop and after his death, the patron saint of mint workers and coin collectors. The rare gold tremissis that he issued at Paris has sold for $5, 000 to $8,000 in recent European auctions.

800 – 1200 CE

Let’s talk a little about the coinage of the high Middle Ages from about 800 down to 1200.

The year 800 is significant in history because on Christmas Day in that year, Carl, the King of the Franks, better known today by his French name, Charlemagne, was crowned as Roman emperor at Rome by Pope Leo III. At the time, most westerners considered the imperial throne at Constantinople to be vacant, because it was occupied by a woman, the empress Irene, who had deposed her own son to rule alone. Irene proudly refused a political marriage with Carl, something that might have reignited western and eastern Christendom, one of history’s great “What if?”s. Some of the most highly sought-after medieval coins are the very rare silver denarius bearing the portrait of Carl. These were modeled on the old imperial Roman denarius depicting the emperor wearing a classical laurel wreath. The coins of the so-called Carolingian Empire would have a powerful influence on western coinage for centuries to come.

Virtually, the only coin struck was the denier or penny, originally about two grams of 94% silver. 12 pennies made a shilling, 20 shillings made a pound, two-thirds of a pound was called a mark. But these were just units of account and not actual coins. The Anglo-Saxon kings of England adopted the system, which remained in use with many different denominations in different metals right down until the United Kingdom introduced decimal coinage in 1971. Over time, the weight of the medieval penny gradually declined, and the fineness of the silver deteriorated. a trend that we often see in numismatic history.

As luck would have it, there is a very precise record of centuries of European silver production trapped in the Greenland ice sheet.

Most of the silver produced during this period was extracted from silver-bearing lead ore is mined in Germany, France, Britain, and the Balkans. Some lead ore is contained as much as 1% or 2% silver. The crude refining methods in use put lots of lead particulates into the atmosphere. Prevailing winds carried these microscopic particles into the Arctic where they fell out with snow and were trapped in the accumulating annual layers of ice. Modern ice core drilling in Greenland, Siberia, and other places has given us a detailed time series that tracks the intensity of silver refining over time. About the year 800, there’s a sharp upward spike in the trend line. This reflects the Carolingian Empire’s adoption of silver coinage standards, and this continues jaggedly upward right until the bubonic plague, the Black Death as it was called, 1346 to 1353, which causes a crash in economic activity across the Old World that was not recovered from for almost a century.

The typical medieval silver penny of this period usually bears a crude profile or a facing head of the ruler or sometimes the monogram of Charlemagne, which continues to appear on coins of his successors long after his death in the year 814. The reverse often bears a simple cross and possibly an inscription that names the mint city or the moneyer or both. Moneyer being that contractors, often goldsmiths who were authorized to issue official coinage.

Very limited amounts of gold coinage imported from the Byzantine Empire or the Islamic caliphates circulated in medieval Europe. In a few places, imitation gold coins were issued to pay ransoms or fines, to purchase land or luxury goods, for donations to the church, or for use by the aristocracy. A unique and very famous gold coin in the British Museum was issued for the powerful Anglo-Saxon king Offa, who ruled from 757 to 796. It copies a dinar struck in 774 at Baghdad under the caliph, al-Mansur of the Abbasid dynasty. The words Offa Rex in Latin, inscribed upside down on the reverse right in the middle of the Arabic inscription, make it clear that the moneyer had no understanding of Arabic, and the Arabic text contains many errors.

1200 – 1500 CE

Let’s talk a little about the coinage of the late Middle Ages from about the year 1200 down to 1500.

One of the key economic trends in this period was the gradual return to a gold standard across much of Europe. One of the earliest new gold coins to appear was the augustalis issued by the Kingdom of Sicily under Frederick II, who ruled from 1220 to 1250. With a weight of 5.3 grams in 20-and-one-half-karat gold that’s about 85% pure, it was a very high-value coin and failed to catch on in trade internationally. It’s certainly one of the handsomest medieval coins with a portrait in profile of Frederick, attired and titled as a Roman emperor on the obverse, and a magnificent spread-winged eagle on the reverse. In recent sales, high-grade examples of this rare coin have sold for $7,000 to $15,000 and up.

The gold coins that came to dominate western trade were the fiorino d’oro or florin of Florence in northern Italy, and the ducato or ducat of Venice. These appeared about the year 1250, and they were struck to the same standard, three-and-a-half grams of nearly pure, almost 24-karat gold. Medieval refining methods too could produce gold as pure as .9947. The last little trace of platinum group metals could not be refined from gold until modern times. 150 different European states and principalities issued imitations of the florin which bears an image of St. John the Baptist on one side and a stylized lily flower, the badge of the city on the other. Many issuing authorities substituted their own patron saint for John the Baptist on their florins.

The duckett of Venice bore a standing figure of Christ surrounded by stars on one side and an image of St. Mark handing a banner to the kneeling chief executive of the Venetian Republic, the doge. Because the duckett and the florin were bullion trade coins that circulated vigorously for centuries, they often got a lot of circulation wear and high-grade medieval examples are relatively scarce today. Collectible examples in very fine condition can still be found for around $700 to $800.

Venice had also introduced a widely imitated silver coin, the grosso or metapan in 1193. In Italian, grosso simply means “large”. Weighing 2.18 grams with a purity of 98.5%, it was worth 26 of the debased copper alloy pennies or denarii that circulated as small change in Venice.

The grosso inspired a French coin, the gros tournois; the German groschen; the English groat valued at four pence; and many other copies.

As the Venetians came to gradually dominate the trade of Constantinople, the grosso was even imitated by the Byzantine Empire with a coin called the basilikon.

A very important economic event of the late Middle Ages was the so-called Great Bullion Famine of the 15th century. The peak years of this Europe-wide precious metal shortage were about 1457 to 1464, silver coinage almost disappeared. Europe had a long-running precious metal deficit in world trade. Products from China and India such as silk and spices were highly valued, but Europe lacked goods that the East wanted in exchange and had to pay with gold and silver, which were always in demand. This meant that in exchange for renewable eastern goods, Europe was exporting its nonrenewable precious metals. Silver mine output also fell during the 14th Century, partly due to the Black Death, which killed so many miners, and partly from the technical problem of digging to greater depth due to the difficulty of preventing the mines from flooding – a problem that wasn’t really solved until the Industrial Revolution provided steam-powered pumps.

After the year 1500, a flood of silver and gold from the New World and a massive strike of silver in 1512 at Joachimsthal, which is now Jáchymov in the Czech Republic, dramatically transformed the European economy. Also, machinery began to come into use, slowly replacing the ancient method of hand hammering the coinage despite resistance from the mint workers. This was the dawn of modern coinage and the end of our story.

But returning to our original question, why would anyone want to collect medieval coins? The one-word answer is history. Since there are relatively few collectors of medieval coins, these coins can be relatively inexpensive considering how much history you get to hold in your hand for not too many dollars. Of course, the great rarities in gold are always going to be the object of fierce competition at major auctions.

Another one-word answer is ancestry.

For example, most collectors of medieval Hungarian coins that you meet are of Hungarian ancestry. Armenian Americans are avid collectors of the fascinating medieval coinage of Armenia and so on. In the United States and much of the English-speaking world, the most enthusiastically collected medieval coins are probably the issues of English kings, from William the Conqueror down to Henry VIII. By one estimate, about 23% of Americans can trace their ancestry to Great Britain.

Because the United Kingdom has sensible antiquities laws and an active community of metal detectorists, freshly discovered medieval coins are constantly appearing on the market. Possibly the record price paid for a medieval coin is for the gold double leopard of King Edward III, a seven-gram gold coin issued for just a few months in 1344, which sold for £400,000 (equivalent to $725,000 back in 2006). Only three examples of this coin are known, the other two being in the British Museum.

Recently growing in popularity are the coins of the Crusader States, especially the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which existed from 1099 to 1291. Collectible silver coins of the Crusader States can still be found for under $100.

In conclusion, how would you get started? The short answer here is to buy the book before you buy the coin. And above all, find a reliable dealer. Remember, that if a deal seems too good to be true, it’s probably neither good nor true.

Would you like to know more? The standard reference in English is Medieval European Coins, a massive work in progress from Cambridge University Press that will eventually total 17 volumes.

The best one-volume introduction to the subject in English is Philip Gerson’s Coins of Medieval Europe, published by Seaby in London, 1991, 248 pages and beautifully illustrated.

For British coins, the standard catalog is Coins of England, published every year by Spink, a dependable price guide.

The booklet Reading Medieval European Coins, by Ralph Walker, is very handy and helpful, just 44 pages. A new copy can be ordered online for $24.

For general background on medieval history, a reference that I have found very helpful is the 464-page Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, edited by the historian Norman Cantor, about $16 in paperback.

For CoinWeek, this is Mike Markowitz, wishing you good hunting.

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