By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
A product of the highly fragmented political and economic world of central, eastern, and northern Europe during the early 12th century, bracteates are one of the more interesting numismatic innovations of the past two thousand years. Thought to have been first struck in Thuringia and Saxony-Meissen during the early 12th century, the technology needed to produce these uniface coins came from local goldsmiths.
An extremely thin piece of metal would be placed over a soft backing material, usually lead or leather, and then struck by a single coin die. Unlike a normal coin die, these were deeply engraved, so the design would be deeper than the total thickness of the blank planchet. By doing so, the mirror (negative) image of the obverse design could be seen on the coin’s reverse. As a result, the “leaf-thin” metal of a bracteate is actually bent into shape by the die. In order to accomplish this, the flan must be between 0.05 and 0.20 mm thick; for comparison, a modern U.S. quarter is 1.75 mm thick.
The only reason these coins could stand up to any amount of circulation without being immediately crushed was the structural integrity provided by the ultra-high-relief design, much like corrugated cardboard. It is important to note that, even if a coin is uniface, it is not a bracteate unless produced in this particular method.
While there are examples from as late as the 17th century, the majority of bracteates were produced throughout the three centuries between the 12th and 15th centuries. During this time, hundreds of independent political entities in central, eastern and northern Europe produced over 10,000 distinct types of bracteates. There are a few reasons for the proliferation of bracteates during this time period. Firstly, the comparatively low production costs of producing only one die. Secondly, the soft backing placed under the flan cushioned the die and extended its life. Thirdly, the large surface area allowed for a variety of detailed designs to be employed – early bracteates could reach up to 50 mm in diameter.
It was common for the small bracteate-producing entities to practice a form of monetary taxation called renovatio monetae. Translated directly as “coin renewal”, this practice involved the periodic recalling of existing currency at a favorable exchange rate for the state in order to restrike the coinage. Many German principalities in the 12th and 13th centuries would recall its coins once or twice a year and peasants could exchange their coins for a standardized rate (for example, four old coins for three new types). Subsequently, the old coins would be demonetized and restruck. If, like in these small statelets, there were relatively low levels of coinage, this process could be carried out effectively. In order to ensure that the old coinage was no longer accepted, the design would be changed before re-issuing.
Additionally, the fact that bracteates break easily necessitated periodic recoinage. The image below shows just how fragile a bracteate is. This made the bracteate what is termed a “short-lived” coinage system. This does not mean that bracteates stopped being used, but rather that the individual pieces did not survive long, especially when compared to how modern coins remain in circulation for 30 years on average.
Also, due to the frequency of re-coining and the technically difficult production process, bracteates were very rarely imitated or clipped. Unlike two faced coins that are relatively easily cast, Bracteates are much too thin to be cast. Despite this, there are contemporaneous court documents from the 1340s that prove the existence and circulation of forgeries alongside genuine examples.
Early bracteates often contained legends that identified the issuing authority, the mint, and sometimes the date. If located towards the edge, this is called an “outer legend”, and those located in the fields are called “inner legends”. As these pieces were created by the ruling class, virtually all of the legends were in Latin.
When the average diameter began to shrink and the artistic style was simplified towards the end of the 12th century, the legends began disappearing. As a result, these “silent and anonymous” coins are much more difficult to identify and necessitate a more general knowledge of the imagery and common styles of the time.
Over this era, four main types of minting authorities existed, each with their own unique imagery: ecclesiastical, civil, imperial or royal, and free imperial cities.
For the first 50 years of bracteate coin production, ecclesiastical authorities controlled 106 mints (61 by bishops and 45 by monasteries); civil authorities controlled 81; and the crown had 28 imperial mints. Until the early 13th century, there were no free cities minting coins. Reflecting the shifting political and religious landscape of central Europe, by 1296, the numbers had changed dramatically. As laid out by Roger Svensson in his 2013 paper on bracteates, while the total number of mints had increased from 215 to 414, the percentage controlled by the crown and religious institutions had shrunk from 62.3% to 45.6%. The majority of the increase was in the civil category, where the laymen went from controlling 81 mints in 1197 to 220 facilities in 1260, an increase of 171.6%. Additionally, by the mid-1200s, there were only five free imperial city mints.
Ecclesiastical bracteates were almost exclusively struck by bishops and abbots (or abbesses). Most of these coins portrayed the individual responsible for the issuance as a main design device. The male figures wore a mitre while the females were vailed. Often, the bishops and abbots were portrayed wearing a coat and holding a crosier, a lily scepter, or a bible, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two types of figures. Alternatively, these religious coins could display the issuing mint’s patron saint or a common religious symbol, such as a crosier or double cross. Without a legend, it can be hard to differentiate between those pieces struck by monasteries and those struck by bishops, as demonstrated by the examples below.
The second category of minting authorities, civil individuals, are also called laymen. These individuals were not allowed to display a crown and usually did not show any significant religious imagery. The issuer (a duke, a count, or a local lord) was often depicted alone and in full armor. Reflecting their martial role in society, these men usually hold a sword in one hand and a banner or shield in the other. A number of examples are known where these men are on horseback. Additionally, as seen on the example below struck by Albert the Bear (Margrave of Brandenburg), many examples have a certain amount of architectural details.
Royal bracteates on the other hand, nearly always depicted the king (or emperor). The portrait could, however, take several forms. The king could be shown seated alone holding his regalia, actively riding a horse, or simply as a crowned bust. Regardless, the ruler is always crowned if shown. As the coins were reduced in size, the full-length royal figures were shrunk down into busts. Other times, the ruler was replaced by various patron saints, a royal castle, or an animal. The animal, usually a lion, is also always crowned. On the very smallest royal bracteates, a simple crown motif is often employed.
While it was not unusual for various authorities to pawn their minting rights, in several interesting episodes, the German emperors pawned their actual mints. One such example was in 1209 when Otto IV (ruled 1209-15) pawned the imperial mint at Saalfeld to Henry II the Elder (r. 1197-1236), Count of Schwarzburg.
The last type of bracteate was issued by imperial free cities. During the 13th century, a number of cities were granted the right to strike their own coinage. Most notable are the early grantees of Bern (1224) and Lübeck (1226). Bracteates struck by such cities often show stylized versions of city gates or an element taken from the city’s coat of arms. For example, while this example from the free imperial city of Ravensburg has a city gate, the piece from Brandenburg shows the eagle, which can be found on their flag.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).