Propaganda coinage from the Investiture Controversy?

Pope Gregory VII deposes King Henry IV of the Germans

Here is something a bit lighter-weight before we get back to Leeds: about 0.9 g, in fact, I’m told. But first some background. Some of you don’t need introducing to King Henry IV of Germany (1056-1106, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1084) and Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085): in fact, almost anyone I’ve ever taught probably still feels their jaws tighten when those names are spoken near them, but let’s forget that. For those of you who don’t know, the coincidence of these two in power was pretty much the ultimate clash of ruling ideologies in the Middle Ages. Put in extremely over-simplified brief, the question was which was the superior power, pope or emperor? The papacy maintained, unsurprisingly, that ultimately the popes held authority over the emperors because they were ultimately responsible to God for the emperors’ soul and because their concerns were eternal not worldly and so forth; and the emperors maintained that the papacy had no business mucking round in affairs of the world for exactly that reason and should back out. This was a less theoretical conflict than that makes it sound because hanging down from this high position were concerns about how far kings or popes could choose or appoint bishops, how far those bishops could hold lands from kings and under what terms, how far they had to obey the pope, and ultimately the only point about which anyone was even slightly prepared to compromise was the details of the ceremony by which bishops were given, or invested with, their landed properties by the king. As a result of this the whole shebang, which extends beyond Henry and Gregory but of which they were the mutual pinnacle, is usually known as the Investiture Controversy, or Crisis, or Contest, whatever, but it was not, really, about investiture; at a purely realistic level it was about land and men and power over them, at a more theoretical level it was about spiritual purity and freedom from corruption on the part of those administering the sacraments of Christianity to the people, and at the ultimately theoretical level it was about nothing less than control of the world.1 So you can see why tweaking a few procedural details didn’t ultimately solve very much.

Teaching diagram of powers in the Investiture Controversy

Teaching diagram of powers in the Investiture Controversy, not my best diagram ever alas

There are some tremendous sources for all this mess, because nothing got medieval churchmen writing so much as a threat to the medieval Church, and both Henry and Gregory had clever men on side who likely genuinely believed in their positions and argued them with heartfelt fervour.2 There had also been genuine ties of respect between the young king and the middle-aged pope, and that probably also led to an extremity of feeling. Only thus, really, can you get a royal letter to a pope that addresses him by his old worldly name and as “false monk”, and finishes by commanding him to get down off the papal throne, “Descende, descende“, and be damned. And Gregory’s stuff was no less angry. Henry wound up excommunicated, and with papal backing for his opponent for the kingship, and Gregory eventually wound up dying in exile. All the same, heavy though this all is one could be forgiven for thinking that it was pretty much exclusively a concern of men of letters. OK, in Milan Gregory was encouraging street-mobs who broke in on the homes of priests whom they thought had paid for their orders and took all their property (the Patarenes) but otherwise, did any ordinary person care about all this stuff? It wasn’t as if either Gregory or Henry would actually be in control of the world if one of them won, after all. Well, thanks to a cunning numismatic contact, I can now say that it does look as if a bit more than parchment was used to try and get these points across, by Henry at least.

Reverse and obverse of silver penny of Liège depicting royal investiture with ring and staff, found in Estonia as part of the Kose hoard

Reverse (top) and obverse (reverse) of silver penny of Liège

This appears to have been struck in Liège, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, and it does appear to show an investiture. The person who brought it to my attention suggests that it represents Henry IV investing his son, the future Henry V, with the regalia of kingship, but I’m not quite sure myself if that’s what it does in fact show, because the things that the senior, and certainly crowned, figure on the left appears to be conferring are a ring and a staff, the very symbols of episcopal investiture over which (in the Empire, at least) the Investiture Controversy was fought. And Liège was an episcopal mint under imperial control. Either, in other words, this coinage is explicitly saying, “You know what? Kings are kind of like bishops, and the Emperor gets to invest them, amirite?” or else it actually is a bishop getting his stuff, which would be an even clearer statement of the royalist orthodoxy. Presumably the relevant bishop owed the king pretty heavily: that would not be unusual.3 Anyway: there are apparently seven of these coins (which used to be attributed to Maastricht, but which my informant thinks—and I agree for what that’s worth—don’t quite match the types there), and they’ve been found as far afield as Estonia (which is where this one came up), in hoards and in single finds, so, although they presumably weren’t common, neither do they seem to have been a ceremonial issue that didn’t go anywhere.4 So I think we have to look at this as a genuine propaganda coinage and the Investiture Controversy must be where it fits. There’s a lot more to work out here but it’s the kind of thing historians should have paid attention to a while ago, really. I wonder what other types might have something to say about these issues?


1. There’s approximately eighty thousand pages of work on this subject – approximately – some of which I mentioned a while back, but basically the best introduction is Uta-Renate Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy: church and monarchy from the ninth to the twelfth centuries (Philadelphia 1988, repr. 1995), and there’s a handy update to the scholarship in Maureen Miller, “The Crisis in the Investiture Crisis Narrative” in History Compass Vol. 7 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1570-1580, DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2009.00645.x.

2. If you’re just trying to get a grip on all this the assembly of source excerpts in Brian Tierney (ed./transl.), The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, Sources of Civilization in the West (Englewood Cliffs 1964), repr. Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 21 (Toronto 1988), is still really handy. Heavier texts can be found either in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica series Libelli de lite or in various translations, often by Ian Robinson.

3. My starting point for this is still Timothy Reuter, “The `imperial church system”‘ of the Ottonian and Salian rulers: a reconsideration” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 33 (Cambridge 1982), pp. 347-374, reprinted in his Medieval polities and modern mentalities, ed. Janet Nelson (Cambridge 2006), pp. 325-354. What should it be by now?

4. This has all come up because there are three of these things, badly battered, in the Pimprez hoard, which has been broken up for sale now but was catalogued and imaged for publication prior to that and should be coming out soon; the clearer example here however is from the Kose hoard, found in Estonia in 1982, and now in the Tallinn National Museum. I’m not quite sure where the image is from, although I’m guessing that the hoard was published in summary fashion in Coin Hoards Vol. 6 (London 1982) or Vol. 7 (London 1983), and that that is probably the source. Google Books tells me that there’s some brief account of the hoard in Jüri Selirand and Evald Tõnisson, Through past millennia: archaeological discoveries in Estonia (Tallinn 1984), p. 135, but won’t let me see enough of it to get at the references below that alas.

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16 responses to “Propaganda coinage from the Investiture Controversy?

  1. Ooohh. Juicy. Wish this had come to light *before* the end of term… but I duly bookmark for future iterations. Thanks!

    • I haven’t actually had a chance to throw this into teaching yet either, and I have not yet found out where it’s been published, so I share at least some of your frustration!

      • BTW. Hmmm… fascinating, in that, insofar as I considered coins as ‘texts’, I always thought of them as rather general statements of authority, as opposed to weapons in specific ‘wars of ideas'; but I see now that this was rather naive. Can you put your coin hat on and give us some refs where the use of coins for *special* propaganda purposes like this is discussed/generalised?

        • Coins contain texts, and also images, and also encode value, they’re quite complex! But the best instances I can think of apart from this are Roman, issues celebrating specific conquests and so on. Nero issued a series of sestertii showing the Temple of Janus with its doors shut, which only happened when Rome was at peace, by way of showing that he had brought peace to the Empire. Vespasian was the first ruler to put a personification of Securitas on his coins, the etymology being from se cura, ‘without care’, so this was by way of assuring the populace, “you’ve got no worries now I’m in charge”. There’s quite a lot of that kind of thing. Hadrian has a whole series of subjected personifications of provinces. Constantine adds the labarum and the Cross on Golgotha to the reverse devices. One Iconodule Byzantine emperor, I forget which I’m afraid, puts Christ in the place of the emperor on his gold coins thus making them all into tiny icons. Moving forward, Offa has a very rare issue showing Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, presumably an imperial allusion; Alfred the Great issued a special series with monograms of Londinium on once he was in control of the London mint, with his bust on the other side; the Viking coinage of York is exceptionally complex, combining a legend dedicating it to a saint and an obverse carrying a cross like the contemporary Anglo-Saxon coinage with reverses that also featured swords, Torshammers and later on, birds that might be ravens, might be eagles, might be doves. Simon Keynes is extremely excited about Æthelred II’s use of the Agnus Dei on his coins and was working on a long piece about this with Mark Blackburn, I don’t know what will come of that. I can probably come up with specific literature for each of these but not a general survey alas. This paper by Ildar Garipzanov might get you some of the way though!

          • J. Hillgarth, “Coins and Chronicles: propaganda in sixth century Spain”, Historia, 15 (1966) and reprinted in his Variorum collection discusses the propaganda use of coins in relation to the conversion of Visigothic Spain to Catholicism in general and the rebellion of Hermenegild against Leovigild in particular.

            P. Kershaw, Peaceful Kings (Oxford 2010), discusses the use of the coin legend PAX ET ABUNDANTIA in the context of Gibichung Burgundy.

            Also numerous articles by Frank Clover on the propaganda value of symbols and text on Vandal coinage – reprinted in his Variorum collection.

            • One more:

              The coins minted at now Arab-controlled Carthage in the very early 8th century are dated in ostentatiously Byzantine-esque fashion by reference to the indiction. Presumably in an attempt to get across a message that there was nothing new under the sun.

              • And, I suppose, contrariwise there’s the negative statement implied by the Umayyad reform of the early Islamic coinages so as to replace the Byzantine and Persian figural types they’d continued with a purely epigraphic, Arabic and Islamic one on a different (but compatible) weight system… once it was OK to do so!

  2. Oooh, most interesting – thanks for sharing! If you’re looking for anything more recent than Reuter’s “The ‘Imperial Church Cystem'” (which is excellent and has, I think, aged very well) to cite, then I’d also highly recommend his ‘Ein Europa der Bischöfe. Das Zeitalter Buchards von Worms’, in Bischof Burchard von Worms, 1000–1025, Quellen und Abhandlungen zur mittelrheinischen Kirchengeschichte 100, ed. W. Hartmann (Mainz, 2000), pp. 1–28, which has conveniently now been published in translation as ‘A Europe of Bishops. The Age of Wulfstan of York and Burchard of Worms’, in Patterns of Episcopal Power. Bishops in Tenth and Eleventh Century Western Europe / Strukturen bischöflicher Herrschaftsgewalt im westlichen Europa des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts, Prinz-Albert-Forschungen 6., ed. D. Waßenhoven and L. Körntgen (Berlin, 2011).

  3. highlyeccentric

    That damn investiture crisis gets into everything, doesn’t it?

    In other news, ooh, shiny!

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