Seminar CVII: money has been power for quite a while

Another social habit of mine with seminars is that when friends from the past have come to where I am now, I try and turn up, and thus it was that I made my first trip thus far to the Seminar of the Winton Institute for Monetary History in the Ashmolean Museum. Their theme for the term was ‘Money and value in medieval England, 7th to 14th centuries’ and thus they’d got my erstwhile Fitzwilliam colleague, Rory Naismith, to come over and talk about `Mints, Moneyers and Authority in Anglo-Saxon England’. He started with a story from Genoa in 1299, when a Venetian warship managed to storm the harbour, and what they did with this sudden and short-lived naval advantage was to land a small workshop team, set up a forge and knock out a few dozen coins of Venice on the foreshore, thus briefly turning Genoa into a Venetian mint before being chased out. The point here is that even if it may seem to be less so now, the ability to strike coin has been an attribute of power for a long time. When the chronicler Procopius got all in a froth about Western `barbarian’ kings striking gold coin with their own names on, rather than the emperor’s, that wasn’t because he was weird or because the kings were stupid; like the Venetians, they were sending messages in metal.1

Silver early penny of Hamwic, unknown date, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1770-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny of Hamwic, unknown date, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1770-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, probably of London, c. 685, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1580-2007

Silver early penny, probably of London, c. 685, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1580-2007

This makes it somewhat weird to move the picture to England and find that the first coinages there, with some notable but very rare exceptions, are so anonymous and abstracted in their types that we don’t even know how many mints there were, let alone where they were (and as the Venetian example shows, a mint doesn’t need a fixed location in any major way). If the rulers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms circa 620 to 750 were controlling the coinage, it’s very hard to see. I mean, I don’t know what that symbolism above is, but it’s pretty clearly not `a Roman Emperor’.2 Instead, it seems likely to Rory (and I buy this myself, much to the annoyance of some scholars of later England for whom the idea is anathema) that the moneyers, whoever they may have been, were running the coinage themselves in cooperation.3 Since some of the mints do appear to have been the shoreline trading ports the scholarship calls wics (think Ipswich, Norwich, Greenwich, Sandwich, and most importantly the Anglo-Saxon settlement across the River Itchen from Southampton, predictably called Hamwic, which we can be surer than all the others was a royal foundation and operation because, weirdly, of the food evidence4) the kings were presumably taking some kind of cut, but that’s not the same thing. That seems to have changed around 750, when King Eadberht of Northumbria, in collaboration with his brother Archbishop Egbert of York (of whom we have heard) started minting silver pennies with their names on, and after that it caught on, Beonna King of the East Angles and then King Offa of Mercia, who also brought the coinage in line with that of Charlemagne, and this presumably changed the power balance involved in the making of money. Because it’s a claim of power, we find Anglo-Saxon kings doing the same thing as the Venetians did later, minting in towns they’d taken even if they weren’t going to be able to keep them. Thus Egbert King of Wessex had a very short-lived issue of coin from London in 825 and of course, when his grandson Alfred the Great managed to reoccupy the place after the Vikings had detached it from its by-then-native Mercia, he did the same and kept it going even though he was, nonetheless, handing the city back to Mercia in some sense.5 Never mind towns: there are kings we only know of because they struck coin…6 But that is still, then, somewhat new.

(Royal brother on the left, episcopal one on right, identifiable by his gear. Take two crosses out on perambulation? I just preach and go! but then Bede complained…)
Obverse of silver early penny of York mint in the name of King Eadberht of Northumbria and Archbishop Egberht  of York, 737x58, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1998-2008, De Wit Collection

Obverse of silver early penny of York mint in the name of King Eadberht of Northumbria and Archbishop Egberht of York, 737x58, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1998-2008, De Wit Collection

Reverse of silver early penny of York mint in the names of King Eadberht of Northumbria and Archbishop Egberht of York, 738x57, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1998-2007

Reverse of the same coin

As the country was disputed between the rulers of Wessex and those of more Viking persuasions for the next century or so, you can imagine that where mints were put in this period got very political. King Edgar had maybe eighty mints in his domains: the entire Roman Empire sometimes ran with twelve, so this is not what you’d call necessary.7 It’s only during the reign of Athelstan (924-937) that every coin finally carried the name of its mint as well as the face of the king, but it may also only have been in that period that it became primarily commercial at an ordinary, rather than a trader’s convenience and tax tool; Athelstan’s laws have quite a lot of stuff about markets, regulation of trade and indeed coinage, as if these matters needed new attention.8 Nonetheless, since the volume of coinage in circulation in Athelstan’s reign appears to have shrunk (though I could not tell you how shaky the ways of guessing this are9) the economic aim probably still wasn’t the primary one. This is especially likely to be true because so many of the system of fortresses against the Vikings known as burhs appear to have run as mints, even though this early almost none of them were functional towns and some were never big enough to have a hope of becoming such.10 Rory here argued that the dominant interest in the coinage was therefore still the moneyers; coin was being struck at the kind of places where the kind of business that men of power and influence who were moneyers did was done. The institution of money production in early England, therefore, says Dr Naismith, is the moneyer and not the mint.

Reverse of silver penny of King Alfred showing the London mint's monogrammatic signature, Fitzwilliam museum CM.YG.1139-R, Young Collection

Reverse of silver penny of King Alfred showing the London mint's monogrammatic signature, Fitzwilliam museum CM.YG.1139-R, Young Collection

This gave rise to a certain amount of discussion about supply and demand in questions, as you might imagine. Obviously a king could mint where he chose but if there was no demand for the coin and the functions of coinage, it wouldn’t circulate, so the point would be lost. On the other hand it seems pretty clear, especially from the burghal argument, that that wasn’t always the primary driver. So we may all have to do some rethinking, and Rory’s rapidly burgeoning publication trail is going to be a vital tool to do that thinking with!11


1. Procopius, History of the Wars, transl. in H. B. Dewing, Procopius (Cambridge 1914-1954), cc. 7.33.5-6, in vol. IV, pp. 438-439, cit. R. Naismith, Money and Power in Anglo-Saxon England: the Southern English kingdoms, 757-865, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 80 (2012), p. 39 n. 142, and just as well too because none of the books I immediately have to hand about the kingdoms where it happened choose to mention it!

2. An attempt to explain the symboloism exists in the form of Anna Gannon, The iconography of early Anglo-Saxon coinage: sixth to eighth centuries (Oxford 2003).

3. Naismith, Money and Power, pp. 128-155.

4. On wics generally, see Richard Hodges, Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2000); on the food supply at Hamwic, which was basically too uniformly dull to have been sourced at market, so must have been orchestrated from outside, see Jennifer Bourdillon, “Countryside and town: the animal resources of Saxon Southampton” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 177-195.

5. Tony Dyson, “King Alfred and the Restoration of London” in London Journal Vol. 15 (London 1990), pp. 99-110; Mark Blackburn, “The London Mint in the Reign of Alfred” in idem & David Dumville (edd.), Kings, Currency, and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century, Studies in Anglo-Saxon History 9 (Woodbridge 1998), pp. 105-123.

6. Most obviously one Harthacnut of maybe-York, only very recently discovered—this is the perils of working on coinage somewhere where metal detecting is legal, there’s always more you didn’t know about about to be discovered—but also King Eardwulf of Northumbria, on whom see Elisabeth Pirie, “Earduulf: a Significant Addition to the Coinage of Northumbria” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 65 (London 1995), pp. 20-31.

7. This point from Rory’s paper, and I did think it slightly special pleading, since the Empire’s everyday coinage also came from a shedload of provincial mints striking bronze, at least in the East; but it would be a fair comment for the entire Western Empire, which usually only ran I think nine or ten, and that’s counting in the one in Croatia.

8. On laws and coinage generally see now Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

9. There is, as you might guess, disagreement on this, not just in the field but even in the Department of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam where I met about three-quarters of the people I’ve cited here, and since I’ve cited almost all my other old colleagues already let’s add two more, Martin Allen, “The volume of the English currency, c. 973-1158″ in Barrie Cook & Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. A. D. 500-1250: essays in honour of Marion Archibald, The Northern World 19 (Leiden 2006), pp. 487-523, versus Theodore V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, The President’s Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335-351. Martin will notice if I don’t also mention his new book, Mints and Money in Medieval England (Cambridge 2012), where he revisits such questions pp. 295-304.

10. David Hill & Alexander Rumble (edd.), The Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications (Manchester 1996).

11. Not least because as well as his Money and Power already mentioned he has also lately published The Coinage of Southern England 796-865 (London 2011), 2 vols, essentially the illustrated corpus from his thesis. It’s going to be where study of the pre-Alfredian coinage starts from now on…

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6 responses to “Seminar CVII: money has been power for quite a while

  1. Hi Jon,

    What a marvellous post, and a very nice summary. Talks and presentations always seem much more coherent when you put them up here, digested and with proper exegesis. One point in my defence about the issue of Roman mints is that the plethora of local mints in the eastern Mediterranean virtually all disappear by the end of the third century: during the time of Constantine and after (when there is still a huge amount of coin around) there really were just a very, very few mints feeding the needs of the whole empire. These were situated based on administrative rather than economic needs, and make an interesting comparison to what is going on in the West at the same time – most famously with the 800+ ‘mints’ of the Merovingian kingdom.

    Thanks again,

    Rory

    • Stupidly, I hadn’t thought about the chronology of the provincial mints, you’re quite right of course. I guess I just didn’t have anywhere else to get my hooks into the talk :-) As for the Merovingian ones, well – a book for someone else, perhaps…

  2. This sounds like a very interesting seminar–thanks for sharing your thoughts. The equation of coinage with power is also very nicely paralleled in the Islamic world, where striking your name on the coinage in the ‘hutbe’ was a declaration of temporal authority. This, and being acknowledged in Friday prayers, was the way in which political claims were conveyed to the majority of a new ruler’s subjects.

  3. Ross Smythe

    In contested territories (particularly in ASE), can we see minting in conjunction with other authority-claiming activities, such as granting lands that the king does not hold securely, or perhaps a royal expedition (I’m thinking about the reconquest of the Danelaw here)? There must have been a number of demonstrative behaviors alongside minting that would send the same message, or reinforce it.
    Sounds like an excellent, thought-provoking paper. Thanks for the recap. Ross

    • Well, Rory would be the man to ask (and you’re closer than I am) but I would have thought so, yes; if I remember rightly Athelstan’s REX TOTIVS BRITANNIAE coinage is only struck in the Northern mints so there’s definitely some political targeting of these messages going on. and that’s just the first example I can think of; I’m sure this is one of the reasons Alfred is keen to strike coin in London, for example, and Offa in Canterbury before him…

  4. Pingback: Seminar CIX: where’s the money in early Anglo-Saxon England? | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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