Lost in citation II: slaughtering sacred cows

For a variety of reasons, only one of which is my imminent departure, my department is currently in full-on publication frenzy. The boss has calculated that, if we include our personal work, the department is trying to send nine books to various presses by the end of the calendar year. One of these, Derek Chick’s corpus of the coins of King Offa, is already with the press; my magnum opus will be finally with the printers soon after mid-October, hopefully still available for Christmas :-) and that leaves me only three which remain my job for a short while longer. Of one of these will I speak. I shan’t say which one, though it will I guess be kind of obvious; that’s not the same, however, as making it web-searchable… It involves, once again, the ghost of Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, so you may want to tune out now…

Gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.8162 (Grierson Collection)

Gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.8162 (Grierson Collection)

In this text, the question is covered of what was used as a medium of exchange in Asturias and León before there was coin being struck there. There have been a range of theories about this, and a fairly recent article by Wendy Davies that is characteristically thorough covers most of the options.1 She detects several regions of practice, some using metal-based standards and possibly, in León, actual metal proto-currency, but others using several value referents, including livestock:2

… there are some very clear regional differences: before 930, price in Sahagún texts was usually expressed in terms of clothing or farm produce, especially animals, which were sometimes given a valuation in silver solidi but more often not; and it was once expressed as a silver vessel.20 Thereafter, price was often expressed in terms of solidi until the 970s, when this mode of expression came to predominate. Although the number of cases is smaller, Cardeña transactions more often used solidi to express price before 930, as they did from the 960s, but frequently used produce and objects in the 930s and 940s. Half of all tenth-century cases also had a valuation in solidi attached; records of Cardeña sales were more likely to use the concept of the solidus than records from the other collections, at any point in the tenth century.21 Celanova transactions, on the other hand, used metal concepts only rarely and they never predominated in this period. The contrasts between the three are therefore stark: western Celanova essentially non-metal-based; eastern Cardeña more metal-based than not; and central Sahagún changing its practice across the century….

So, OK, the question that arises is what these various populations thought a solidus was and what it was worth, and that’s where we come in. This certain work I’m copy-editing said, until quite recently, as follows:3

It has to be remembered that when there are no coins in circulation, the use of units of account is possible only on condition that a verifiable value referent exists. In the case of Galicia this referent was the ox, and logically that has to be taken to mean an ox of average stature, neither extraordinarily strong nor particularly thin. This could be modulated by a practice whereby more or less than the stated value changed hands if the ox that was actually given in payment was especially excellent or manifestly deficient. Some authors (Gautier Dalché, 1969a, pp. 49-50; Sáez, 1946, pp. 5-6) have failed to grasp this mechanism of fixing prices by equating a value of account with physical goods (an ox, a modio (measure) of grain, a sheep, etc.). On the other hand, Mínguez, 1979, p. 43, n. 5, accepts that an average value served as a reference. He admits that there could occasionally be some upwards or downwards variation in prices, but from a fixed referent.

You see here that we are in good old regula magistri territory here, and so I thought it would be best to cite some actual evidence for the practices we’re talking about here, not least because I’m not sure I believe in any value standard where an ox could be worth the same as a sheep. Would you believe, the evidence turns out to be harder to find than you might expect? I mean, there are some fabulous prices: “a chestnut-coloured cow, a quilted and lined linen cloak, 12 cheeses, and this price in the place of 4 gold solidi and 1 tremiss”, but this just doesn’t help at all because (a) the authors quote it wrong, reading ‘IIIIor’ as ’4 or’ not as a short-form of ‘quattuor’, whereas there is really no gold referred to, (b) in the manuscript there are seventeen spaces after the word for ‘cheeses’ so the price is probably incomplete (and was perhaps never actually fulfilled) and (c) there are of course no gold solidi for them to be talking about, Louis the Pious’s above being unknown in this area and the only coin of that denomination that has been minted in the West for more than a century.4 Of course, arguing from silence with Spanish coin finds is a dangerous game but it’s a problem.5 So what about them there magistri? The authors cite three works that tried to address this very problem by collecting references to prices in León, Galicia and Portugal in this period. Surely exactly what’s needed! Well—you know what’s coming—no.

The most up-to-date of these references was the first blow from Don Claudio, a paper from the Spoleto conference of 1960. However, that only actually refers back to an earlier article of his for the data—yup, we’ve played this game before—and it also makes it clear that the equivalence of a sheep to a solidus is being made via the grain measure known as a modius; that is, we see that a modius can be worth a solidus and that a sheep can be worth a modius, and therefore…6 And OK, that is logical, but it still gives us a chain at whose ends we can have supposedly equivalent sheep and cows and I don’t reckon this much. Also, Sánchez-Albornoz thought these were probably sometimes being paid in leftover Roman silver coin, which numismatists and historians since him have found frankly implausible.7 Next up would be the Portuguese contribution, which was published in Don Claudio’s own journal, and that has a long list of equivalencies, but only one mentions a sheep with an equivalence to something else, and that’s a modius. Only halfway there I’m afraid. It’s slightly better for cows, but their value (where it can be clearly averaged to a single cow, which is very rarely) is usually around the two-solidus mark and sometimes rather higher. The lowest it gets is one-and-a-half.8 And then there’s a study on Galician Celanova, and that messes things up further by having two sheep that were worth four modios (which the author suggests may be because the modios were of barley not wheat, thus unhinging any hope of using his own evidence that way because of course this is never specified) and eight sheep elsewhere that were worth twelve solidi.9 And these two and Sánchez-Albornoz’s paper all refer to an earlier paper of his, and that refers you back to almost his first paper of all from 1928.10 How anyone who doesn’t have access to an incredible research library is supposed to follow this up is beyond me.

Thin cows grazing

Some cows will sell for more than other cows at market

So with the 1928 paper, at last, we reach port. Here are 266 price equivalencies from the early eighth century to well after 1000, meaning that another factor that we simply can’t calculate for is inflation. We can tell it’s a factor because he cites a Celanova reference in which four cows are worth forty solidi from 1001. In 796, however, the other articles all said, there was a cow worth one solidus; but it turns out that when you actually check the real document’s text it’s actually two separate prices, a cow and a solidus.11 What there is quite a lot of is boves soldades, which it is assumed are cows worth a solidus. It’s not clear to me that that’s what it means at all, however, I could equally argue that soldadis is derived from solidus the adjective, solid, worthy, especially as this is also the period in which people start referring to their liege followers as homines solidi, which I don’t think means they are people worth a solidus. (Slaves usually go for much more than that.) And, furthermore, the prices are off still: Castile shows us a bovis soldadis worth two modios and a goat worth one, and Celanova often talks about ovelias modalias, which by analogy ought to be sheep worth a modius.12 The prices, if they suggest anything at all overall, may suggest that an average cow was worth roughly twice what an average sheep was, but we’re still talking median not mean and it’s still not matching neatly to any currency equivalent. These animals vary in worth and that’s all there is to it.

Catedral de Le&ooacute;n

The Catedral de León, still home of the eponymous Archivo

So, even if I could find the two documents that Sánchez-Albornoz cited as proof that a sheep could be worth a solidus too, documents from 1001 and 1008 that pay 100 sheep or 100 modii, or 100 modii or 100 solidi, I might still be inclined to dismiss them as singletons. But since a hundred of anything ought to average out quality variations a bit, it’s still worth investigating, of course. Sadly, however, these are the only documents Sánchez-Albornoz cited from the Archivo del Obispo de León, as opposed to the Archivo de la Catedral. You might think these two would be the same things, but apparently not. The latter has been edited, for a start, and these documents aren’t there.13 So, where are they? You’ll notice that if you search on Google for ‘”Archivo del Obispo de León”‘ the only hits are from Don Claudio’s work. I can’t find any other reference to this archive. Complete-looking lists like this one don’t mention it. I realise not everything is on the web, but it’s also not mentioned in the edition of the cathedral’s documents. I do not know if it was a separate thing (which happened at Barcelona, so quite plausible14) or what. Maybe it got destroyed or dispersed during the Civil War. I presume Don Claudio didn’t actually make it up! But it’s not apparently there now and its documents’ shelf-marks can’t be traced. So there’s basically no proof of this solidus sheep at all, and the cow looks pretty weak also (otherwise it’d be worth more, oh ho ho). This, by itself, cannot constitute evidence of social practice over three very different economic zones over a century and a half of considerable economic change. This bit has therefore been removed from the text and I hope that in the long run our authors will agree that was for the best. As to the actual situation, perhaps it’s best to leave Wendy the last word there:15

Different valuation systems clearly meant different things to different people in northern Spain in the tenth century. All those considered here were notional units of account – mental constructs…. In some parts – near Celanova and Sahagún especially – they related to active systems of commercial exchange; in others – near Cardeña – the systems belonged to the world of writing and had less to do with buying and selling. The Atlantic systems were distinctive, but not wholly cut off: they certainly indicate thriving exchange economies, with some commercial aspects – the very existence of valuations makes this a sale culture. The systems of the meseta were even more obviously thriving, more commercial, as also more urban and less characteristically rural, and already by the late tenth century were beginning to be related to the wider economic networks of Spain and of the world beyond. Their relationship to the economic mainstream of western Europe obviously cannot be assessed in respect of the tenth century alone and needs a forward look into the eleventh, but the fact that transaction practice was already changing in mid-tenth century is an important signal of wider
and deeper change.

Slaughtering the sacred cows of Iberian numismatics one at a time, Jarrett, out.


1. W. Davies, “Sale, price and valuation in Galicia and Castile-Leon in the tenth century” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 149-174. Not only is this thorough about saying what the evidence says, it also sets out how much evidence there is and how it’s distributed over time. There are graphs of charter survival. That’s what I call thorough.

2. Ibid., pp. 157-158.

3. I shan’t give a citation for this, partly because of the nod towards discretion already mentioned, partly because I gather that the one of the authors who had their name on it may actually have let the other write it, and largely because this text is not going to survive so even if you knew what the finished book was you still wouldn’t find this there.
4. Actual text P. Loscertales & G. de Valdeavellano (edd.), Tumbos del Monasterio de Sobrado de los Monjes (Madrid 1976), doc. no. 18: “Precio, id est bove colore marceno, manto laneo vilado et chomacio, kaseos XII [                 ], et est ipso precio in aderato solidos IIIIor et I tremese”. On the absence of gold solidi in the West, which went back to the Visigothic kingdom at least, see Mark Blackburn, “Gold in England during the ‘Age of Silver’ (eighth-eleventh centuries)” in James Graham-Campbell & Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek 2007), pp. 55-98. On the Visigothic coinage the new work of resort is Ruth Pliego Vázquez, La Moneda Visigótica (Sevilla 2009).

5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Digitizing Numismatics: Getting the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Coins to the World-Wide Web” in The Heroic Age Vol. 12, online at http://www.heroicage.org/issues/12/foruma.php, last modified 12th June 2009, §5.

6. C. Sánchez-Albornoz, “Moneda de cambio y moneda de cuenta en el reino asturleonés” in Moneta e scambio nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 8 (Spoleto 1960), pp. 171-202 at p. 183.

7. References to the debate in Davies, “Sale and valuation”, pp. 161-164.

8. P. Laguzzi, “El precio de la vida en Portugal durante los siglos X-XI” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 5 (Buenos Aires 1946), pp. 143-147.

9. Ernesto Sáez, “Nuevos datos sobre la costa de la vida en Galicia durante la Alta Edad Media” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho España Vol. 17 (Madrid 1946), pp. 870-885.

10. Sánchez-Albornoz, “El precio de la vida en el reino astur-leonés hace mil años” in Logos: Revista de la Faculted de Filosofia y Letras, Buenos Aires Vol. 3 (Buenos Aires 1945), pp. 245-264, repr. in idem, Estudios sobre las instituciones medievales españolas (Mexico City 1965), pp. 369-410, citing idem, “La primitiva organización monetaria de León y Castilla” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español 5 (1928), pp. 301-345, repr. in idem, Estudios sobre las instituciones medievales, pp. 441-482.

11. L. Sánchez Belda (ed.), Cartulario de Santo Toribio de Liébana (Madrid 1948), doc. no. 67.

12. Homines solidi: Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutation d’une société (Toulouse, 1975-1976), II pp. 743-746. Bove soldado worth two modii: Loscertales & Valdeavellano, Tumbo de Sobrado, no. 29. Goat worth one modius: J. A. Fernández Flórez (ed.), Colección diplomática del monasterio de Sahagún (857-1300) (León 1987-1993), doc. no. 357. Oveliae modaliae: J. M. Andrade Cernadas (ed.), O Tombo de Celanova: estudio introductorio, edición e índices (ss. IX-XII), Fontes Documentais para a Historia de Galicia (Santiago de Compostela 1995), doc. nos 340 & 403.

13. They ought, if they were going to be there at all, to be in José María Fernández Caton (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León, III: 986-1031, Fuentes de le Historia Leonesa 55 (Leó 1995), but they ain’t.

14. As with many cathedral and monasteries, in the high Middle Ages the bishop’s property at Barcelona was administered separately from the cathedral’s proper, which was held by the chapter: unlike most of them, this separation still persists today meaning that there are two parallel editions of the early cathedral’s documents divided according to which half of the operation wound with the lands concerned!

15. Davies, “Sales, prices and valuation”, pp. 173-174.

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8 responses to “Lost in citation II: slaughtering sacred cows

  1. On a largely unrelated but at least vaguely numismatic topic, might you happen to know where to hit the books on the topic of (probably late-ish) Roman aurei? It has a bearing on some Scandinavian stuff I still pick away at, as the word crops up coin/weight unit term, though the exact etymological journey that it took is a bit hazy/funky. That, of course, is more what I’m looking at, but informing myself on the numismatic issues from the Roman side — or their basics, anyway — would clearly be advisable.

    • In the words of a colleague, “I may not know the answer, but I know where to find out,” and in this case the answer is that colleague. Stay tuned and I’ll give you some basics tomorrow.

      • Rock. I’ll stay tuned. :)

        • Right! We suggest, as a basic guide to Roman coinage to start with, C. H. V. Sutherland, Roman Coins, The World of Numismatics (London 1974), which is hopefully reasonably obtainable and will tell you, you know, what a quinarius is and so on. It’s old, and anything it says that involves putting one thing and another in a definitive chronology together should be checked, but for basic orientation it will do. Then for aurei specifically, the current state of the art is in Spanish, but I guess that’s no problem for you: Xavier Calicó, Los áureos romanos: 196 a. C. – 335 d. C (Barcelona 2002). You’ll note from that that the denomination has a closing date; after that point the gold coins being manufactured are solidi and tremisses, as per the later Visigothic coins you might be more familiar with, and that’s how things stand until much much later. How long these things stay in circulation, though, especially beyond the boundaries of the Empire in areas where they may not be being used strictly as money, who knows? How’s that?

          • That’s great — many thanks! :) Yes, the question of late-running extra-imperial circulation complicates matters, though if I get lucky whilst rummaging through the archaeology of coin hoards, I may get some idea on that (or not). The great thing about the official closing date, though, not withstanding the fact that the coins themselves may have continued drifting about, is that it at least suggests that the term entered Germanic — and perhaps specifically North Germanic, or something ancestral to North Germanic — at a possibly earlier rather than later date. My whole thing here is looking for elements of “intangible” culture that may have come from the Roman-ish world to the Scandinavian world at relatively early dates. Amongst archaeologists, there is plenty of evidence regarding material cultural items — but those who deal with “intangible” culture tend to ignore the possibilities of early connections. I’m poking around looking for possible hints. (It’s never provable, since I can hardly dig up a loan-word in a dateable context :) but one can at least try to be suggestive. :))

  2. Pingback: Seminars CXXXVIII-CXLI: busy in Oxford | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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