Seminary XLIX: whose coin is it anyway?

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, by Eadhun at London, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, by Eadhun at London, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

I missed a week with the IHR seminars lately but had to ensure that I made it to London to hear my colleague Rory Naismith speaking to the title, “Kings, Moneyers and Currency in Southern England, c. 750-c. 865″. Rory was here in part trying to distill his Ph. D. for presentation and even with the IHR’s hour-long papers that’s never easy. The detailed background that what he was saying needed gave me, who by now knows something about coins, some trouble keeping up, and I did wonder how a non-numismatist would cope. Rory avoided getting too technical over the actual coins, but also avoided getting bogged down in explanations of the methods he was using (including the statistical ones based on the occurrence patterns of coin dies which I think of as Mr Esty’s Amazing Estimators).1 This is probably wise but meant that I’m not sure anyone but me really understood how he was getting his information at some points.

I suppose that leaves it to me to explain what he was saying, but that would be a long post because there was an awful lot of information. He was talking about what mints operated in Southern England, what coins they struck and who controlled them, and the basic fact that you need to make this significant is that over the period that Rory has chosen, between the reforms of King Offa that create the broad penny exemplified above, and the general collapse before the Vikings of 865, everywhere English south of the Humber, Mercia, Wessex, Kent, Sussex, Essex, East Anglia and Middle Anglia were using the same standard of coin. What Rory did next was show how patterns of issue changed over that period, an East Anglian mint that is probably Ipswich acquiring importance and London losing it (despite being Mercia’s only mint), and so on. He also showed that almost throughout the period, Canterbury is the mint whose coin was most widely used and that it’s more likely to turn up in any given find outside Kent than in Kent, and other such anomalies, and that actually this is true of most of the coinages in circulation except that of `Ipswich’, which did circulate outside East Anglia but predominated within it. There were also a lot of issues about the patterns of use and how far they match those of manufacture, something which we can to an extent get at by comparing finds with evidence from the dies and so on. For more than that, you’d have to go to him I think.2

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern twopence piece for scale

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern twopence piece for scale

However, the key section of the paper and one of the two things that got people interested in the comments was the question of who controlled the coinage. It has been traditional for a while to see the uniformity of the coinage as showing royal power and especially that of Mercia, which means that almost no non-English coin is used in these kingdoms and the English stuff that is keeps a more or less fixed weight and standard (Northumbria’s debased copper stycas being an exception that probably demonstrate a higher monetisation around York that needed lower denominations). That the kings were involved is held to be self-evident from the fact that they appear on the coins, but Rory was attributing a much large rôle to the moneyers, who were not the actual workmen hammering out the coins but the metallurgically-knowledgeable master craftsmen who took the metal and organised its coining. To them he attributes the basic design, and also the general agreement to issue at such and such a standard (following royal orders at first, but essentially those of Offa over what became a long long time). This he takes from sharing of designs between mints in different kingdoms and so on, and it was persuasive, but much discussed afterwards because of the damage it does to the `maximum state’ view of those like James Campbell.3 I myself am quite happy to have a way to deal with that, because the evidence of law and politics for patchy and variable royal control to me sits uneasy with this highly-controlled coinage, and if we can detach the kings from its manufacture a bit that helps the disjunction. So that I think is the importance of Rory’s work that caught the audience.

Obverse of silver penny of William I the Conqueror, by Garwig at Lincoln, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.802-2001, William Conte Collection

Obverse of silver penny of William I the Conqueror, by Garwig at Lincoln, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.802-2001, William Conte Collection

The other question that came up was how much these coins are worth. This is not something that can easily be answered, because money use in the ninth and the twenty-first centuries simply doesn’t compare: there is, for example, much much more to buy nowadays which means that price markers like “how much is a loaf of bread” don’t really work. With those cautions, Rory’s estimate of a buying power of the order of £10-20 modern pounds sterling per silver penny is pretty canonical among numismatists, but was disputed by the Anglo-Normanists present, largely because of Domesday Book which considers a penny to be the appropriate tax for a hide, a measure of land supposed to contain enough resources to feed a household for a year. Stephen Baxter argued additionally that since in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a penny a day was considered a fair wage for a labourer, and those pennies were metallically worth much less, an Anglo-Saxon one should have been more like £200 not £20. Oh to be a lecturer, where a daily wage of £20 seems unthinkable, eh? There were other arguments too, but all related to a much later period. The problem is the year 1000, or rather the century-plus period of economic growth that preceded it. By 1086 there was, again, much more to buy than there was in 786 or 886. It is not as simple as there being more wealth driving prices down (or up); there were complex things going on that resulted simply from more people wanting to buy things and more money being made so that they can easily do so. An active economy doesn’t necessarily imply lots of coin, and lots of coin doesn’t necessarily imply a developed market because there are lots of other things coin is used for as well as trade.4 And there are market uses for high-value coin even when they’re too big to buy a loaf of bread with.5 The two economies really don’t compare and we have to privilege the contemporary evidence over the detailed evidence. I am myself inclined to trust the numismatists on this, especially while they continue to give me employment.


1. Okay, you don’t really want to know, but, because ancient and medieval coins were struck from hand-carved dies, the individual dies are recognisable from the coins. That means that in any given sample from a coinage, we can count how many dies were used, and then some people will try and reason up to how large the coinage probably was. This obviously has big implications for how common it was and therefore how it was being used. (See on this Philip Grierson, Numismatics, Opus 70 (Oxford 1975, many reprints), pp. 94-111.) This is really only safe to do in relative terms with high numbers of dies, but a while ago a statistician called Warren Esty tackled the question of whether and how this could in fact be done in quantitative terms, using a virtual sample against which to test various equations for estimating coinage sizes (W. Esty, “Estimation of the Size of a Coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185-215). His conclusion, that it was basically unsound, has been largely ignored in preference to relying on the estimators he thought were the best of the bad bunch. For a more forthright view about the possiblities of this method see the words of another of my colleagues, Theodore V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: Facts and Fantasies” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335-51.

2. Some introduction to these issues for medievalists will shortly be available as Jonathan Jarrett, “Digitizing Numismatics: getting the Fitzwilliam Museum’s coins to the world-wide web” in The Heroic Age Vol. 12 (2009), but until then see Grierson, “Numismatics” in James M. M. Powell (ed.), Medieval Studies: an introduction (Syracuse 1976), pp. 103-36.

3. Referring to, especially, James Campbell, “The late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in idem, The Anglo-Saxon State (Hambledon 2000), pp. 1-31, but also Mark A. S. Blackburn, “Coinage and Contacts in the North Atlantic during the Seventh to Mid-Tenth Centuries” in A. Mortensen & S. V. Arge, Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic. Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Viking Congress, Tórshavn, 19-30 July 2001 (Tórshavn 2005), pp. 141-51.

4. Classically, of course, Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

5. Blackburn, “‘Productive’ Sites and the Pattern of Coin Loss in England, 600-1180″ in Tim Pestell & Katharina Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in Early Medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003), pp. 20-36.

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6 responses to “Seminary XLIX: whose coin is it anyway?

  1. I like anything that can set a cat amongst the maximilist-state pigeon orthodoxy (?) too, but it wasn’t clear from this post how much you agree with your colleague. You say he relies on statistical methods, then in the note seem to cast doubt on them via Esty. Have I misread something here?

    Also, whoever took the picture of the coin die needed to use something other than the obverse of a UK coin for scale – it’s unclear without the caption whether it’s a penny or a tuppence and the latter’s significantly larger. (Not to mention that you need to be a Brit to understand the scale instinctively.)

    • I intended to leave it unclear how much I disagree with my colleague, indeed. Statistical methods are however only one part of his armoury, and he uses them as a check to other means of assessing coinage importance and distribution. Good point about the picture, which Rory also provided.

    • Derian le Breton

      It’s a re-creation anyway. There are plenty of extant medieval dies to look at if you want to see an original.

      Typically upper dies are around 4″ long and a bit over 1″ diameter (usually slightly larger than the coin itself, sometimes tapering at the face, sometimes not).

      • Most of the ones that exist are rather later, and obviously not as clear to look at as this one. I think there are only five genuine Anglo-Saxon dies known, three from the same site in London, and all in fairly rubbishy condition. This is a replica of one of them.

  2. Pingback: Seminary LIII: brain-stretching new take on late Anglo-Saxon England « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Seminar CVII: money has been power for quite a while « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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