By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
It is impossible to make generalizations about the German States during the period after the Thirty Years’ War because the country we now know as a single unified Germany was then comprised of almost three hundred principalities, ranging in size and strength from the large organized states of Prussia and Austria to the small free cities of Frankfurt and Aachen. This almost two-hundred-year period is called the Kleinstaaterei. As defined by the noted British historian Joachim Whaley (2013), the term “Kleinstaaterei”, coined in the early 19th century, “denote[s] the extreme territorial fragmentation” of the German state partially as the result of the Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia.
While all of these statelets were culturally German, some belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, some were free cities granted independence by imperial decree, and others belonged to dynastic ducal families with lineages stretching back through the medieval period. One thing, however, that almost all of them shared was the fluidity of their borders as a result of political marriages.
Until the mid-15th century, most of these small German states did not possess any large-scale silver deposits and therefore were unable to mint many large high-grade silver coins. However, “new sources of silver ores discovered mainly in Central Europe and Southern Germany in Erzgebirge, Saxony, and Tyrol, between 1460 and 1540” reversed this economic disadvantage (Borges et al., 454). First minted in 1517 in Jáchymov, a small town in the Karlovy Vary region of the Czech Republic populated by ethnic Germans, the Joachimsthaler slowly gained acceptance and became a widespread trade coin and can be seen below (Tikkanen). Soon the term thal, meaning “valley”, came to denote this numismatic type because many of the small cities and towns striking these early examples were situated in valleys near rich newly discovered silver deposits (Ochman).
The Joachimthalers minted by the Counts of Schlick became the “paragon of a heavy silver coin” dwarfing most contemporary small silver coinage used by peasants in everyday transactions (Kampmann, 41). These thalers and others like them were used to facilitate trade with Italy and other southern states during the renaissance as well as an important resource for local defense.
For example, Duke and Prince Julius of Brunswick-Lüneburg and Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel issued a series of Multiple Thalers in an effort to establish a “permanent reserve fund for the defense of his duchy” (Benstheman). These coins ranged from 1 ¼ to 16 thalers in value – an enormous amount of silver when a standard 1 thaler coin weighed about one ounce. He forced his subjects to purchase these massive coins, many of whom paid more than face value, and then required the owners to exchange them for low-grade silver coins, to create an “instant source of good silver coinage” (Benstheman).
But even though these large Multiple Thalers were relatively unusual, they demonstrate the importance of high-quality silver coinage in the early modern age.
While most standard weight thalers included no major innovative design elements, Christian Duke of Saxe-Eisenberg’s Death Thaler of 1679 is different. This interesting example both displays the intimate love of a husband and demonstrates the early modern European relationship with death all wrapped up in religious symbolism. Unlike in modern times, the “imminence of death required people to prepare for the possibility of dying” with little to no warning (Korpiola & Lahtinen, 10). Since “death was always present and coping with death was a part of everyday life”, it is only natural for a nobleman to commemorate the passing of his first wife on a death thaler (K & L, 184). In fact, the pre-modern world viewed death as “something natural which you actually have to master” and not a taboo subject to be hidden away (K & L, 185).
The Duchy of Saxe-Eisenberg was definitely not immune to these cultural forces. A small statelet comprised four small towns, namely Eisenberg, Ronneburg, Roda and Camburg, the Duchy was separated from the larger Duchy of Saxe-Gotha five years after the death of Ernest I the Pious on 26 March 26, 1675 when the Duchy was split between the deceased duke’s seven surviving sons. Ernst I can be seen below a Double Show Thaler commemorating the Duke’s marriage to Elisabeth Sophie, Duchess of Sachsen-Altenburg, in 1636. Their marriage typified the era’s dynastic power building and combined Saxe-Gotha and Saxe-Altenburg into one entity, the House of Saxe-Gotha and Altenburg. This weak union dissolved shortly after the Duke’s death due to competing claims of ownership from his surviving male children and members of the widow Elizabeth’s extended family.
Born in 1653, Christian, the fifth son of Ernst I, typified the cultured German nobleman of the time.
Traveling extensively, he became enamored with art, music, and culture and dedicated a large portion of his wealth to their pursuit. Following the death of his father, he joined his brothers in ruling Saxe-Gotha. In 1677 Christian of Saxe-Eisenberg married Christiane daughter of Christian I, Duke of Saxe-Merseburg and Christiana of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Their marriage lasted only two years when Christiane died of childbirth complications in 1679. Interestingly, Christiane is known as the Duchess of Saxe-Eisenberg, even though the duchy would not be created until the year after her death when the Duke received the newly created Saxe Eisenberg in 1680.
In commemoration of his wife’s death, Christian struck a series of attractive silver ¼, ½, 1, and 2 thaler coins in 1679 (Higgins, 1904, pg 7449).
While several types of the 1679 Death Thaler exist with slightly different obverse legends, the reverse tableau always remained consistently as seen on the image below. The two central design elements, a cherub and the skull it sits on, have several layers of symbolism. While it is clear that the skull represents death, the cherub has a more complicated allegorical nature. Its three main roles are to allude to the fact that Christiane succumbed to complications from childbirth, to represent the love between Christian and Christiane, and a more general representation of her daughter Christine.
Above the cherub, another aspect of the design alludes to the fleeting nature of life. Two hands reach down from the heavens and grasp a banner that reads Omnia Vanitas, meaning “All is Vanity”. This saying references the King James Bible and is a part of the sentence “Vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes omnia vanitas” (Ecclesiastes 1.2.). Translated it reads: “vanity of vanities says the preacher, all is vanity.” The design includes this to remind the audience that according to contemporary Christian mores, all things on earth are temporary and that in time we will be reunited with our loved ones in heaven.
Additional design elements include a vase of flowers in the left field. While the type of flower cannot be discerned–and different varieties hold varying symbolic meanings–in general, they symbolize love. Used in this context, similar to how modern cultures use flowers in funerary ceremonies, the flowers mark the connection between the couple. However, in the 17th century, flowers also represented wealth, since it was costly to procure a large quantity before the modern era.
Lastly, the incense burner in the right field recalls the incense burned during church services in general, and the deceased’s funeral more specifically.
Like most art related to death, these rare and highly sought after death thalers contain a huge amount of allegorical information and tell not only the story of a couple’s love but also reflect the wider society’s relationship with death and grieving.
Interestingly, the 1679 Death Thaler is not unique. Another example of this type of commemorative thaler was struck a decade previously in Saxe Weissenfels, less than 50 km from nearby Saxe-Eisenberg (Snodgrass, 74). This example seen below was coined in 1669 by Duke August, a distant relative of Christian I, and commemorated his deceased wife Anna Maria.
The obverse design of Jacob wrestling the archangel is circled by an inscription that reads Habet Deum Qui Habet Omnia, which means “He who has God has everything”. The reverse inscription denotes the dates of Anna Maria’s birth, marriage, and death on July 1, 1627, November 23, 1647, and December 11, 1669, respectively. While not actually including symbolic imagery related to death as the Saxe-Eisenberg Death Thaler does, this earlier example incorporates similar religious metaphors in order to commemorate the death of a duchess and demonstrates the efforts of mid-17th-century German nobility to commemorate deceased spouses with numismatic art.
Unlike most thalers from other German States during the 16th century, the Death Thaler of 1679 was only minted for one year and in limited quantities resulting in few surviving examples. Consequently, it is difficult and expensive to acquire even a low-grade piece. According to auction records and sale posts on online marketplaces, if you are lucky enough to purchase an example, it will cost between $2,000 and $5,000 USD.
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Benstheman. (2020, June 12). Tales From the Vault: The Multiple Thalers of Brunswick. American Numismatic Association.
Borges, R., Silva, R., Alves, L., Araújo, M., Candeias, A., Corregidor, V., & Vieira, J. (2018). European Silver Sources from the 15th to the 17th Century: The Influx of “New World” Silver in Portuguese Currency. Heritage, 1(2).
Flantzer, S. Johann Ernst IV, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Unofficial Royalty.
Higgins, F. C. “Sketches of European Continental History and Heraldry for the Use of Numismatics”, Spink & Son’s Monthy Numismatic Circular, XII. (March 1904).
Korpiola, M., & Lahtinen, A. (Eds.). Death and Dying in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. (2015)
Ochman, P. From Thaler to Dollar. The Tontine Coffee-House: A History of Finance. (October 7, 2019)
Snodgrass, M. E. (2019). Coins and Currency: An Historical Encyclopedia (2nd ed.). McFarland.
Tikkanen, A. (2011). “Jáchymov Czech Republic“, Encyclopedia Britannica.
Whaley, J. (2013). Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, vol. 2, The Peace of Westphalia to the Dissolution of the Reich, 1648–1806 (Vol. 2). Oxford University Press.
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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).