By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
From the end of the eighth century into the 13th, European coinage consisted primarily of small silver coins typically weighing less–sometimes much less–than 1.5 grams. These coins were generally known by names that were variations of the words “penny” or “denarius”. The average weight of these coins and the fineness of their silver tended to decline as the years passed.
The decline in the “real value” of European coinage came just as Europe began experiencing dramatic economic advances, with trade and prosperity spreading across the continent. The pitiful state of the coinage did not present a serious problem for ordinary people, but it caused huge problems for the ruling class and the rising merchant class: routine transactions could require hundreds – if not thousands – of coins, and the important folk had better things to do than spend their time counting out the coins necessary to make a deal.
Something needed to be done.
The Solution: “Gross” Coins
In retrospect, the answer to the problem seems obvious – mint bigger coins, with good quality metal – but finding that solution required the skills and wiles of the Venetian merchant republic. In 1193-1194, during the reign of Doge Enrico Dandolo, the Zecca (Venetian mint) began producing the ducatus argenti (“silver ducat”), which quickly became known as the denaro grosso (“big penny”) or simply grosso (“big”).
The first grosso weighed about 2.18 g, more than six times the weight of the standard denaro, and its 98.5 percent silver content – the purest possible at the time – far surpassed the approximately 20% silver content of the standard denaro. When it first appeared, the grosso was equal in value to about 24 to 26 standard denari, which helped economic transactions tremendously. Further, the purity of the grosso’s silver made the coin internationally acceptable, helping to fuel Venice’s trade dominance.
The design of the grosso was revolutionary as well. The coins of previous doges consisted primarily of brief inscriptions identifying the doge and St. Mark, with a small cross and sometimes a tiny bust of the saint. The obverse of the grosso depicted full length figures of the doge and St. Mark holding a banner between them, with inscriptions naming the doge on the left (H • DANDOL), giving his Latin title in the center (DVX), and identifying the city as belonging to St. Mark on the right (S • M • VЄNЄTI). The reverse portrays the facing enthroned Jesus Christ, identified by name in an inscription in Greek letters (IC XC).
The conventional reason given for the launch of the grosso was that Venice needed larger, more valuable coins to pay the workers who built the fleet that Venice used to transport the army of the Fourth Crusade to the East. Stahl (2000), however, has demonstrated conclusively that the grosso first appeared in 1193 or 1194. It was fortuitous that the Venetians already had this coin in place when it came time to build ships for the Crusaders.
Venice’s Italian rivals were the first to recognize the power of the grosso. Versions of the coin appeared in Verona, Bologna, Reggio, Parma, and Pavia by 1230, and at Como and Bergamo by about 1250.
Smaller versions of the coin with the same high silver content appeared in Lucca, Florence, Siena, and Pisa, who apparently entered into an economic treaty whereby their coins were interchangeable with each other. The next innovation would come a bit further south.
When in Rome, Do As the Venetians Do (But Bigger)
In 1253, under the leadership of Brancaleone degli Andalò, the Roman Senate launched a much larger version of the grosso, one weighing about 3.27 g (about 50% more than the Venetian grosso) and measuring about 25 mm (about 25% wider than the Venetian coin).
The obverse of Rome’s grosso depicts a standing lion with an inscription that names Brancaleone and includes the ancient Roman abbreviation • S • P • Q • R (for Senatus Populusque Romanus, or “the Senate and People of Rome”). The reverse portrays Roma seated on a throne, holding a globe and palm, with the inscription ROMA CΛPVT mVnDI (“Rome the Capital” – or Head – “of the World”).
The First Grosso North of the Alps
In 1266, the French king Louis IX (St. Louis) launched the gros tournois, the first heavy coin ever minted north of the Alps. Tournois refers to the royal mint in the city of Tours. The gros tournois weighed about 4.22 g, nearly double the weight of the Venetian grosso that started it all.
Louis’ new coin was equal in value to 12 deniers tournois and its design largely followed that of the smaller coin. The obverse depicts a cross pattée in the center surrounded by two Latin inscriptions, one that translates to “King Louis” and the other to “Blessed be the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” The reverse has an image of a castle that represents the castle in Tours surrounded by the inscription TVRONV.S CIVIS (“City of Tours”). The outer rim of the coin displays 12 lilies, representing the denomination (12 deniers).
A Mountain of Silver Coins
In 1298, huge silver deposits were found in Kutná Hora, a town about 40 miles east of Prague. It has been estimated that the mines produced 20 tons of silver per year during the first 40 years of operation. In 1300, King Wenceslaus II took control of the mines and enacted a mining code that governed all mining operations. He decided to put all that silver to good use, and in July 1300 he began minting his own large silver coin, the grossi pragenses or Praguer groschen. Wenceslaus shut down the 20 existing mints in Bohemia and opened a new mint in Kutná Hora for the purpose of striking the new coins. The mines are no longer active, but the site is a major tourist spot.
The Praguer groschen was extremely successful. It became so dominant in Central Europe that for the next 150 years most of the German states based their economies on the Praguer groschen rather than launch their own groschen.
The Prager groschen was equal in value to 12 parvi (“smalls”) and weighed about 3.72 g. The obverse of the Prager groschen presents a royal crown surrounded by two inscriptions, one reading WENCEZLAVS SECVNDVS (“Wenceslaus the Second”) and the other DEI GRATIA REX BOEMIE (“By the Grace of God, King of Bohemia”). The reverse features an image of a standing lion with a double-tail, and the inscription GROSSI PRAGENSES (“Big Prague [thing]”). The double-tailed lion is still part of the arms of Luxembourg.
Large Sterling Coins
English coins were generally far superior to the coins of the rest of Europe, as English kings maintained the “sterling” (.925 fine silver) quality of their coinage. Nonetheless, for almost 500 years the coins circulating in England consisted almost entirely of pennies, which were thought to be inadequate for large-scale transactions. In 1279, Edward I launched a coinage reform that included the introduction of a groat valued at four pennies.
Edward’s groat was the biggest of the “big coins” of the 13th century, weighing in at 5.83 g. The obverse presented the crowned facing bust of the king with the inscription EDWARDVS: D’I: GRA’: REX: ANGL’ (“Edward by the Grace of God King of England”), while the reverse displayed a long cross fleury and two inscriptions, one identifying the mint and the other reading E DVX AQVT :DN’ S hIBR (“Edward Duke of Aquitaine Lord of Ireland”).
Edward’s experiment ultimately failed: his groat did not catch on and production ceased within three years. The failure was probably due to the lack of need for the coins; the groat was significantly larger than any other silver coin being minted in Europe at the time, and the English penny was large enough to serve the needs of the English public. Another possible explanation for the failure of the groat is that the moneyers who managed the mints had no incentive to support the coin: their contract with Edward provided that the entire profit (seignorage) from minting groats passed to the king, with the moneyers receiving nothing.
The situation was very different 70 years later.
One of the many consequences of the Black Death pandemic of 1348-9 is that despite the best efforts of the rich and powerful, the wages of the workers who survived the pandemic increased substantially, due to the shortage of laborers. In 1351, Edward I’s grandson, Edward III, relaunched the groat. The new groat was valued at four pennies just as the original had been; however, the weight of the penny had been reduced over the years, so that the new groat weighed less as well, at 4.7 g – but still heavier than any other country’s “big silver coin”. The new groat proved quite successful and remained a mainstay of English coinage until 1855 when the last groats were minted for regular circulation (silver 4 pence coins are still minted, but these are only used for ceremonial Maundy Money presentations).
Henry VI, Edward III’s great-great-grandson, had an extensive issue of groats that he minted in both England and France, which he claimed to rule.
The groat shown here was minted in 1430-1431 by Henry VI in Calais, the French city that was the first major conquest of Edward III during the Hundred Years’ War. The obverse shows the king’s crowned facing bust and the inscription + hЄnRIC’· DI’· GRΛ’· RЄX ◊ ΛnGLIЄ · Z · FRΛnC’ (“Henry By the Grace of God King of England and France”). The reverse shows a long cross pattée with two inscriptions, the inner one reading VIL ◊ LΛ : CΛLI SIЄ · (“City of Calais”) and the outer one reading + POSVI DЄVm : Λ DIVTOR Єm · mЄVm (“I have appointed God as my helper”).
Overseas “Big Coins”
Some European “Big Coins” were minted far away from Europe. The First Crusade resulted in the establishment of several Crusader States in the Middle East, the last of which (and the last to fall) was the County of Tripoli, which was formed in 1109 and fell to the Mamluks in 1289. Sometime after 1240, the counts began striking silver gros weighing about 4.25 g. Most of the known specimens are very nicely done, and they are usually found in near-Mint State condition.
The gros shown here was minted by Bohémond VII (reigned 1275-1287). The obverse design consists of a cross pattée within a tressure of 12 arcs and an inscription reading SЄPTIMVS : BOЄMVNDVS : COMЄS (“Count Bohemund VII”). The reverse presents a triple-towered castle façade with crenelated towers and walls, also within a tressure of 12 arcs, and the inscription + CIVITAS : TRIPOLIS : SVRIЄ (“City of Tripoli in Syria”).
The reason for striking the gros is not known. Tripoli was not involved in significant trading relationships that would have required such a coin, perhaps accounting for the excellent condition in which they are found – they likely saw very little circulation.
Collecting Big Medieval Coins
Examples of the “big coins” can generally be acquired without spending an arm and a leg, if one avoids the big names. The groats of Edward I are very expensive, but the groats of later English kings can be obtained quite easily and quite reasonably.
And sometimes even the “big coins” of “big names” can be obtained for affordable prices: nice coins of Louis IX can be obtained for a few hundred dollars, and the grossi of many of the doges of Venice can be obtained for less than $200.
The best source for studying “big coins” is Grierson (1991), who covers the full scope of Medieval European coins very thoroughly. The excellent photographs of coins are all based on coins from his personal collection, which he bequeathed to the Ashmolean Museum.
Spufford (1988) is intensely technical but provides an excellent overview of the economic conditions of the period.
Stahl (2000) focuses on the mint of Venice but the conditions at that mint mirror the conditions at contemporary mints elsewhere in Europe.
* * *
Allen, Martin. Mints and Money in Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2012)
Biaggi, Elio. Monete e Zecche Medievali Italiane Dal Sec. VIII al Sec. XV. (1992)
Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. London: Seaby. (1991)
Malloy, Alex et. al.. Coins of the Crusader States (Alan Berman, ed.). Fairfield, CT: Attic Books, Ltd. (2004)
Spufford, Peter. Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1988)
Stahl, Alan. Zecca: The Mint of Venice in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, American Numismatic Society. (2000)
All coin images courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (CNG), unless otherwise stated.
* * *
About the Author
Michael T. Shutterly is a recovering lawyer who survived six years as a trial lawyer and 30 years working in the financial services industry. He is now an amateur historian who specializes in the study of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, with a special interest in the art and history of the coins of those periods. He has published over 50 articles on ancient and medieval coins in various publications and has received numerous awards for his articles and presentations on different aspects of the history of the ancient and Medieval world. He is a member of the ANA, the ANS, the Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors, and numerous other regional, state, and specialty coin clubs.