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Reading medieval coins

What coins where used in the Middle Ages and how far they travelled

Paloma Pucci (se abre en una nueva ventana) (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Medieval coins show us that communication through both text and image was not restricted to books in the Middle Ages. Coins were not only a measure of how much things were worth, they were capable of expressing personal and territorial identity, economic security and collective memory. They were used for buying and selling goods, calculating wealth and transmitting ideas of faith, power and authority. Coins were a fundamental aspect of the medieval visual world, the most common set of text and image throughout the population. For most people, coins may have been the only image of political authority they were likely to see, and probably the only writing as well!

 Denier from Laon, with the figure of the king

Symbols of power

As with written language, these pieces of metal used a series of signs and symbols that validated their authority in order to transmit a message of worth, power and belonging. They were visual statements that guaranteed that a simple piece of metal had a certain value with which one could easily exchange all types of things. Coins worked in a similar way to the seals on a charter. They represented the authority of the issuer, and whereas a charter communicated its contents by being read out loud, the value and meaning of a coin could be understood by assessing its materiality and imagery alongside the text. Both image and text guaranteed the worth and authenticity of a coin, and being able to recognise one was just as important as being able to read the other.

Coins were emitted by rulers and were produced in mints - workshops that were usually located in cities and centres of power along rivers and frontiers, often marking where one territory began and another ended. Between the 10th and 12th centuries, counts, dukes and territorial authorities such as bishops and abbots began to emit their own coins, often representing their identity or their history, and promoting a certain sense of economic and political community.

Produced by the thousands (even millions), the value of a coin often depended on how easily it could be recognised as being official and authentic - the text and images it contained had to be clear and easily reproduced. Easy repetition was thus more important than variety. Coins with the greatest monetary value were the least subject to modification and visual innovation, so much so that kings often emitted coins based on the same model as their predecessors’ just to give an impression of stability. The more important and the more mainstream the coin, the simpler its imagery. So, we are more likely to find artistic innovation in coins produced by bishops, abbots and abbesses from secluded territories.

Writing and rewriting history

Coins could also rewrite history. The town of Sancerre in France, for example, was named after Saint Satyrus ‘Serre’, whose relics had been deposed there in the 7th century CE. In the 12th century, it was decided that the name of the city actually came from its foundation by Julius Caesar, which linked the town to the glory of the Roman Empire. This story was not true, but in order to make it convincing, a new coin was emitted with the image of a bearded head with the inscription IVLIVS CESAR on one side and a cross with the name of the local count, STEPHANVS COMES, on the other. Thus inscribed, this new coin served as an authentic historical testimony of the city’s link to the Roman Empire.

Imperialism and international trade

Early medieval coinage closely imitated Roman and Byzantine imperial tradition, copying old imperial models and the names of their original issuing emperors. These coins were emitted by small territorial authorities and were meant to evoke and embody imperial power. In the second half of the 8th century CE, the Carolingians developed a more standardised mint system, and a new silver coin called denarius was emitted by the king himself. The denarius was simple and distinctive: it had the royal monograms, the word REX (king), the abbreviation of the issuing mint or workshop and Christian symbols like the cross on one side and a simplified image on the other. The Carolingian denarius served as a model for the German pfennig, the English penny, and the French denier.

In the 13th century, with growing towns and markets, international trade became ever more far-reaching and coins from European countries, Byzantium and many Muslim states rubbed shoulders in the Mediterranean. The denarius had gradually lost its value, and the more long-distance the trade, the more valuable and more standardised the coin had to be in order to ensure its transfer into a wider variety of monetary systems. Highly valuable coins such as the Arab dinar, the Florentine Florin, and the Byzantine solidus were more widely recognisable and accepted. It was quite common for the text and image of these powerful coins to be imitated in territories far and wide, allowing new coins to quickly benefit from the value and authority of better known (and more stable) coins.

Identity and propaganda

Authorities knew that coins could be read and interpreted by everyday people, and that they were not only an expression of identity but also great propaganda. Their circulation was thus very important, because coins could be used to recount important events: fairs, wars, incursions, coronations and deaths. In the 14th century, for example, France emitted the écu, depicting the king of France sitting on a gothic throne and holding a shield. The écu was meant to remind whoever held the coin of the power of the monarchy. The English coin of the time was called the noble, and it pictured a small ship bearing the king of England, reminding the holder of the naval victories that England was having in their ongoing war with France, the Hundred Years War.

Around the same time, the French crown issued a gold coin with the image of the Easter lamb, to which Edward III, King of England, responded in defiance by emitting another gold coin for its territories in Aquitaine (where most of the fighting between the French and the British was taking place) with the Plantagenet heraldic animal, the leopard.

British and French coins continued to bicker against each other until the emission of Edward III’s last coin when, in response to the franc à cheval, which showed the French king riding into battle gallantly on horseback, Edward III emitted the guyennois, in which the King of England appears dressed up as a knight, barging in through gothic city gates.

Franc à cheval, December 5th 1360, emitted by King Jean II of France (1319-1364)

Most of these medieval coins nowadays are found in hoards - groups of coins or other objects that were once deposited together and concealed for safety, in hopes that the owner would one day be able to come back and recover them, an event that could happen in times of great strife, such as plagues or wars. These findings give us snapshots into what coins were used in the Middle Ages, as well as how far they travelled, not only for trade but as tokens of identity and memory, bearing the image of one’s ruler, one’s country and one’s community.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.