Category Archives: numismatics

Seminar CXLIII: turning coins into sources for the Islamic conquest of Persia

Back when I taught at Oxford, I was twice asked by students taking the General History I paper if they could do an essay on Sasanian Persia, and I had to tell them no. This was not because I knew nothing about it; that was true, but as anyone familiar with the Oxford tutorial system will probably know, doesn’t usually represent an impediment. What stopped me was that I had too much trouble putting together a reading list; aside from a couple of chapters in Cambridge Histories, one very quickly descended into pop-history retellings of the Shahnameh or single-article accounts of Sasanian policy told entirely from Roman sources, very few of even these were in UK publications so not usually available in Oxford and I couldn’t see any way of setting something up for students to frame an argument around.1 I now know a bit more about the field and suspect that in fact I could have done something, but there is still a dearth of work considering how important this massive polity was for more than four hundred years in jointing the West to the rest of the world and occasionally shaking it to its roots.

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

That dearth is most certainly down to a dearth of internal sources, and the few that there are, mainly epigraphic, being in languages like Pahlavi that no-one can learn outside a really big university. In this respect, then, Persia is to late antique history somewhat as Mercia used to be to Anglo-Saxon history: we can see that it’s important, but all the sources we read about it are written by its enemies and not sufficient to explain. Persia, however, has yet to receive its Frank Stenton. And the comparison works in another dimension, too, because one thing that Stenton did was to properly integrate the study of the coinage into Anglo-Saxon history, and coinage is one source of which the Persian empire has actually left us quite a lot.2

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Shiraz, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Nishapur (I think)Shiraz, showing Khusro’s bust right with legends either side and issue marks in the margin outside and a Zoroastrian fire temple on the reverse with its two attendants, in a triple border with crescents outside in each quarter, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

The Sasanian state minted a large and surprisingly consistent coinage of silver drachms, along with various other gold and copper issues of less panregional regularity. There’s lots of it left, and it continued not just up to the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 650s but beyond it, as the new Islamic rulers of the old state struck ‘Arab-Sasanian’ coins of basically similar kinds into the 690s. The devil here is in the word ‘basically’, of course; there are lots of variations and they’re really intriguing. Hardly anyone works on this, however, because if you add the obscurity of dead languages to the geek isolation of numismatics you have an area where few indeed care to tread. [Edit: a commentator has handily provided a list of the few below!] But, a person who does is Susan Tyler-Smith, and she came to Birmingham on 29th January as part of the schedule of supporting events for the Faith and Fortune exhibition at the Barber Institute, where she gave a lecture entitled, simply enough, “Faith and Fortune: Arab-Sasanian coinage”.

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, with almost no change except that (I am told) the local governor’s name in Arabic now occupies the right-hand legend and the one in the outside margin “La illah ila Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah”, ‘there is no God but Allah [and] Muhammad [is] the Prophet of Allah'; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

There is a lot we don’t know about these coinages: we’re not clear on a number of the mints or who controlled the designs, though they sometimes name governors and can thus be pinned to provinces and even sometimes dates. On the other hand we do see, as above, that while they developed Arabic outer legends on the obverses (the side with the face) right the way up to the full “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet”, as here, they do so around an unchanged coin type that not only names the last Shahanshah, Yazdigerd III (651) and may even show his portrait, though if not it’s Khusro II’s (591-628). That type, moreover, still carries a Zoroastrian fire altar with two attendants on the reverse, despite the orthodox Islamic position on such religions as it would be formulated. (Exactly the same continuity of types and portraits was going on with the bronze coinage of the ex-Byzantine provinces now under Islam, too, which is slightly better studied.3) The picture the coins give us, of an inclusive Islam keen to keep the public faces that people in its new lands knew and respected, is a rather different one from that of the mostly eighth- and ninth-century texts which tell us of non-stop triumphal and singly-religious conquest.4 It’s not that it’s any less Islamic—Sue started by telling us that one of these coins, from Marv in 685/686, is the first text we have using the name Muhammad—but that that Islam, as work on Egypt and Bactria, whence there is also contemporary documentation, has shown, was far keener to engage local populations on the terms they were used to than it would later become.5

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700, showing the dead Shahanshah’s bust right as before but paired with a Gopatshah, what the site I found this image on quite correctly calls a man-faced bull; the coin was sold at Baldwins in London some time back, whence the picture.

One can also do more concrete stuff with this material than ideology, however. The silver coin of the Persians was probably primarily a fiscal coinage, struck for tax payments, and the real work of money in the market, as in Byzantium, was done with copper-alloy coins of a much more local circulation. We know much less about these: they didn’t travel as far and they have been much less collected in the West, while their original areas of circulation have become and stayed difficult for outsiders to reach. They share the use of old images, and some very old ones, including Mesopotamian figures (said Sue) like the Gopatshah above; again, whatever signification these images still had was not worth losing in favour of starting a new-look régime until very nearly 700. Much could be done, however, with a better picture of where these local coinages came from, where they got to, what their striking authorities might have been and how if at all they adhered to standards, a picture of control and interrelation that might match or challenge that of the Egyptian evidence. Sue might be the only person in the UK, and alarmingly more widely, who could do this, but there is work like this to be done with both these and the Arab-Byzantine coinages and I hope, in the reasonably near future, that both Sue and I will be parts of a project to do it using the coins at the Barber Institute among others. This lecture was an excellent demonstration of how this could be done and how it could be explained to the non-expert, which set the standard of such an exercise enjoyably high.

1. I suppose that the place any such reading list would start is the relevant chapters of Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, volume 3: the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods (Cambridge 1983), 2 vols, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200929 and DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521246934, perhaps topped up with Ze’ev Rubin, “The Sasanid Monarchy” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14: Late Antiquity. Empire and Successors, 425-600 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 638-661, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521325912.025. After that, though, things get tricky…

2. I’m thinking here of Frank Merry Stenton, “The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings” in English Historical Review Vol. 33 (Oxford 1918), pp. 433-452, repr. in his Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris M. Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 48-66, but also that article’s reprise and the heavy use of coin evidence along with everything else in his Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford History of England 1 (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1947, 3rd edn. 1971).

3. I say this, but the basics are still catalogue publications on both fronts, books such as John Walker, A Catalogue of the Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum: A Catalogue of the Arab-Sassanian Coins (London 1941), Steven Album & Tony Goodwin, The pre-reform coinage of the early Islamic period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), Tony Goodwin, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, Studies in the Khalili Collection 4 (London 2005) and Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008). Recent work in the Arab-Byzantine series is collected in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (Oxford 2012), whereas there’s no such work to point to with the Arab-Sassanian stuff, really.

4. An account and critique in Hugh Kennedy,The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

5. For Egypt I’m thinking of Petra Sijpestein, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132; for Bactria there’s Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan (Oxford 2001 & London 2007), which is not to say that’s the easy way in, because there’s not one!

In Marca Hispanica XXV: la meva primera adreça publica en català

I wrote a few posts ago of having been able actually to talk to fellow scholar of the tenth-century Catalan coinage Xavier Sanahuja, and that is because over 4th-6th December 2013 I was very briefly in Barcelona, and my backlog has now got up to that point so I should tell you about it. The occasion was a very numismatic one, a launch party for two works. The first of these was the then-latest volume of the periodical Acta Numismàtica that I was just showing you pictures from, but the second was a rather weightier work, Medieval European Coinage 6, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula, by Miquel Crusafont, Anna Balaguer & Philip Grierson, at which point you may see where I came in.1 The occasion was put on (and the accommodation for myself and the other UK participant, Dr Elina Screen, general editor of the series, generously paid for) by the Societat Catalana d’Estudis Numismàtics, who publish the Acta, and it was a really nice occasion, but somewhat challenging because it involved me giving a speech. I thought that it would look pretty weak if I, the scholar of Catalonia, speaking in the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, already, didn’t do so in Catalan, but my Catalan isn’t very good.

Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013)

Cover of Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013)

There is a story I tell about my learning Catalan. I’ve never actually been taught either Catalan or Castilian (i el meu castellano és molt pitjor, cosa que no creu cap català!) When I first came up with an idea to work on this area, I was a Master’s student, and I took my idea to Professor Rosamond McKitterick, who was more or less in charge of me at that point. She told me to take it to Dr Peter Linehan and ask him if it was viable, and he said, if I recall, “Yes, I suppose so, if you can read Catalan. Can you?” And I replied, “I don’t know, but I’ll go and find out.” I went and looked through the first two things on the reading list he’d given me, one of them being Abadal’s Primers comtes catalans as I recall, and the other some earlier work of Abadal’s, and I found that what with several years of both Latin and French I could manage, with a dictionary to hand somewhere. When I came to write up the relevant essay, in fact, I realised that the second Abadal piece had actually been in Castilian, but by then it was too late!2

Joan gili's Catalan Grammar, 2nd edn.

As you can see, my guide to good Catalan was extremely second-hand… This is the second edition, it’s now in its nineteenth!

Anyway, I managed, and realised that Rosamond had been right that no-one else in the UK was using this brilliant mass of evidence, and here I still am, except when I’m doing something else. This does not equate to a speaking knowledge of a language, however! In fact, I made a bit more of an attempt to learn by means of picking up a copy of Joan Gili’s Catalan Grammar when it passed through the hands of the booksellers who then employed me, and that and a Routledge dictionary have held me together. Every trip out to Catalonia I make my grasp of the spoken language gets a bit better, too, but it’s still not good, and the fact that I learnt it from a grammar written in the 1940s means that people marvel at my last-century mannerisms while I don’t get half the colloquialisms, especially the periphrastic past tense using anar, which is really common but which Gili obviously didn’t like and mentions only in a footnote.3

Sala d'adreça in the Institut d'Estudis Catalans

It looks less of a challenge in this state than it did when it was full of learned Catalan scholars

So on this occasion I cheated. I didn’t mean to! I wrote a speech, in actual Catalan as far as I could, and passed it to Xavier to correct, and got back what was basically a rewrite, saying what I’d wanted to say but in almost none of my chosen words, and it was so close to the time by then that I just delivered that. I delivered it among the great and the good, though, as Joan Vilaseca has recorded: the occasion was led off by Professor Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, no less, and Xavier, Elina and the surviving authors also both spoke, as well as the President of the Institut and the head of the Consulat Britànic a Barcelona. But I did OK, I think, and I had to speak Catalan for real afterwards as almost everyone I’ve corresponded with in Barcelona was there, most notably Professor Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, to whom I owe a great deal of help, and of course Joan Vilaseca, loyal fellow of this blog and major contributor to the effort of making resources for studying Catalonia available online via I hadn’t expected to meet Joan—as he says in his report, he had heard about the occasion only that day—and it was great to meet him and put a face to the comments; thankyou, Joan, for coming out for it! And then there was an excellent dinner and late-night gin-and-tonic with numismatists in a cellar bar, making the whole endeavour seem much more underground and gritty than one usually expects, which is where we were discussing hoard provenance of transitional diners, because we know how to have a good time… But a good time it was, and it also gave me about twenty kilos of books to take back to Cambridge or Oxford and a day and a half in Catalonia to do something with, about the latter of which I’ll tell you post after next!

1. Full cite, because I’m still proud of it, Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013). This won’t be Philip’s last work, either, not bad for a man who died aged 96 eight years ago!

2. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biogràfies catalsn; serie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), still not a bad place to start, in fact, and probably idem, “El dominio carolingio en la Marca penínsular hispánica. Siglos IX y X” in Cuadernos de Historia. Anexos de la Revista «Hispania» Vol. 2 (Madrid 1968), pp. 38-49, transl. as “El domini carolíngi a la Marca Hispanica (segles IX i X)” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó which is why it’s worth mentioning in this post you see, Estudis i Documents 13 & 14 (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), 2 vols, I, pp. 139-152.

3. Joan Gili, Introductory Catalan Grammar, with a brief outline of the language and literature, a selection from Catalan writers, and a vocabulary (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1952, many more since), periphrastic future dismissed at p. 50 of the 2nd edn. n. 1, “very often in use”. That’s exactly the problem!

Coins of Borrell II?

Reverse of Barcelona diner of Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona, Girona and Osona (992-1018), now in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, GNC 113672

Reverse of Barcelona diner of Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona, Girona and Osona (992-1018), now in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, GNC 113672

In 2010 I published an article about the coinage of later tenth-century Catalonia that concluded, among other things, that we may not have any.1 You would think this is a thing it was possible to sure about, perhaps, but almost no medieval coins carry a date, so one dates the things by their issuing ruler. Where that’s not clear, neither is the date, and this is far from the only thing about early medieval Catalan coinage that’s not clear…

Transitional diner, probably of Barcelona, struck between 878 and 1018, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, their CM.345-2001

OK, this is an unusually rough example, but illustrative, I think… Transitional diner, probably of Barcelona, struck between 878 and 1018, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, their CM.345-2001, actual size 14 mm across

The things of which we can be more or less certain are these.

  1. When the Carolingian kings took over government in the area that is now Catalonia, they had coin struck at their normal standards at four mints, Barcelona, Girona, Castelló d’Empúries and a place identified as RODDA that could be either Roda de Ter or Roses, jury’s out; Roses has won general acceptance but seems a priori an odd choice given it’s no real distance from Castelló d’Empúries.2
  2. In 864 King Charles the Bald of the Western Franks, ruler of the Spanish March as it by then stood, held a council at Pîtres in France which laid down provisions for a coinage reform that seem not to have been followed in Catalonia; no coinage at the new standard is known from Catalan mints and pieces are known which seem to be degenerations of the earlier one.
  3. Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona, Girona and Osona (992-1018) struck a new issue of diners (the Catalan derivation of the Latin denarius that gives us French ‘denier’ and Castilian ‘dinero’, among others) in his own name, which we can therefore date to his reign.
  4. There are also several types of what are known as diners de transició, transitional diners, which must belong somewhere between points 2 and 43.

The transitional diners are characterised by legends that are basically illegible, often being no more than sequences of triangles or circles. They vary a lot in weight and size but are always less than regular Carolingian standards. They all have a small cross in a border on the centre of their obverse, with a junk legend around, but their reverse types vary. There are three known:

  1. a type that is just the obverse repeated with slightly different junk legends (cross type);
  2. a type bearing three circles arranged in a triangle within the central border;
  3. and the type above, with a strange device a bit like a schematised beehive. This is usually held to represent the tomb of Santa Eulàlia in Barcelona, which is handy because it gives us a sort of terminus post quem: Catalonia’s first real local saint’s cult began when her body was relocated by Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona, who ruled 862-890 and who moved her from the floor of Santa Maria del Mar to the cathedral that now bears her name, so if that’s what it is on the coin the coinage must postdate that.3 I am inclined to think it’s a bodge of the Carolingian Temple type myself, but I obviously just like to make things difficult…
Reverse of a Temple-type denier of Louis the Pious, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.112

Reverse of a Temple-type denier of Louis the Pious, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.112

The first substantial work on these coinages was done at the very beginning of the twentieth centuries and concluded little more than the above, but in 1999 Anna Balaguer published her thesis on Catalan medieval coinage, which argued among other things that these coinages were probably all from Barcelona, since the three circles device recurs on Ramon Borrell’s coinage (which is said to be from Barcelona) and the obverse types seem to be kindred.4 After that it became possible to rethink things a bit, not least because in 2005 a whole bunch extra of these transitional coins came onto the market, with a few more following in 2009 in such a way as to make it seem likely that someone had found a hoard and didn’t want to tell people.5 Xavier Sanahuja published an article in 2006 in which he attempted a new description of the transitional coinages using that data and argued that these were the remnants of a single hoard discovered in 1886 but not then fully catalogued. Someone had, he reckoned, been sitting on the rest and now it was coming to the surface, because they’d died or something.6 In 2008 Miquel Crusafont i Sabater took the state of knowledge thus far and produced a synthesis which argued the following things:

  1. the ‘Tomb’ type makes no sense till the tomb was found, but is obviously non-Carolingian, whereas Bishop Frodoí was a Frank and an appointee of Charles the Bald so would surely have struck coin in Charles’s name; the immediately succeeding bishop of Barcelona, Teuderic, therefore makes more sense (890-912?) for the Tomb type’s issuer.
  2. since the three-circles type is carried on in Ramon Borrell’s coinage, it is presumably the last of the three;
  3. the cross type therefore probably belongs between the two, since it can’t really be before or after;
  4. that means that we have three types for three comital reigns, Guifré II Borrell (898-911), Sunyer his brother (911-947) and Borrell II Sunyer’s son (945-993), so it’s easy enough to assign them one each, Tomb type to Guifré Borrell, cross type to Sunyer and circles type to Borrell.7

This has the advantage of simplicity, but involves more or less dismissing Sanahuja’s more cynical argument that since there was nothing in the 1886 hoard that need be dated after 925, all three of the Catalan types should probably therefore be considered to have been in circulation by then, in which case, because no similar hoard has come up from later, we just don’t have any Catalan coin from between 925 and 992×1018. That’s roughly how things stood when I got my 2010 article out, pitching a case I’d been making for a while that the coinage reform, from the diners de transició to the Carolingian-standard diners such as issued by Ramon Borrell, must have taken place under Borrell II, and probably in 981 or 982. That implies there ought to be a reformed coinage of Borrell’s, and we certainly don’t have any of that. I thought that this probably gave the edge to Sanahuja, and thus argued that we probably have no coin of Borrell’s at all.8 This presented a certain slight difficulty in as much as Miquel doesn’t agree with me—in fact, I’m not sure that anyone does—and I was at that point copy-editing him on the subject, but we have agreed to disagree and there it stands.9 Or so it did.

Five circles-type diners de transició, life-size (14 mm) in the centre and enlarged outside, reverse left and obverse right

Five circles-type diners de transició, life-size (14 mm) in the centre and enlarged outside, reverse left and obverse right, from M. Crusafont i Sabater, “Troballes monetàries XXVIII” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 43 (Barcelona 2013), pp. 249-260 at p. 253

The reason I am now telling you all this, however, is these things above, part of a collection of 12 diners de transició that Miquel has just published, which he had been allowed to photograph and study as they came through the market in Barcelona in the residue of the estate of a collector who had bought them in 2005 from a travelling bric-a-brac salesman.10 There are three Tomb-type diners and one of its halves, an òbol, two cross-type diners and one cross-type òbol (previously unknown) and these five circles-type diners. Miquel argues, cautiously, that this is not the same proportion of types as occurs in Xavier’s virtual hoard of 2006 and so is probably not yet more of the 1886 find making its way onto the market (though I have spoken to Xavier about this and he thinks it totally is, because like any of us he likes his own theory best and this hardly disproves it). But Miquel also has a go at the legends, and that’s very interesting. You’ll see from the above that the reverse legends are hardly more than triangles and wedges, but that the obverse ones seem also to include circles. Xavier also noticed this in 2006 and then argued that the obvious referent was King Eudes of the Western Franks (888-899), ODDO, become OOOO as lettered on the coins, which fits with his suggested early date for the coins. Miquel, however, with a scheme that demands these coins be nearly a century later than late, now ingeniously argues that the referent might be either of Emperor Otto I (936-973) or Otto II (973-997) of the Germans, the former of whom Borrell met in Rome in 970.

A manuscript drawing of Otto I, sadly only from about 1200, receiving the surrender of King Berengar II of Italy

A manuscript drawing of Otto I, sadly only from about 1200, receiving the surrender of King Berengar II of Italy. “Otto I Manuscriptum Mediolanense c 1200” by Artwork: Creators of the Chronicle of Bishop Otto of Freising; Photo: AndreasPraefckeOwn work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This would be pretty heavy, as they say. Though various scholars have argued for an increasing awareness of the new Holy Roman Empire in tenth-century Catalonia, it’s only ever rested on that 970 meeting in Rome and another Catalan count running into Otto II at a council there in 979, which is not really any more than coincidence.11 [Edit: see comments where Joan Vilaseca causes me to rediscover a third meeting, of Borrell's sons with Otto III (997-1002), from which a charter may have resulted.]  Certainly neither Otto ever seems to have corresponded with the Catalan counts or in any way considered this area part of their kingdom. On the other hand, Borrell spent a lot of his rule looking for new, powerful but distant patrons to compensate for his decreasing wish for contact with the Frankish kings. I think, all the same, that this would be an unparalleled departure for his politics and since his charters on the subject invoke a king called Charles as the origin of his family’s power, it’s that name I’d expect to see on his coins until at least 985 (by which time, if I’m right, the coins would not have looked like these anyway).12 I think that means I don’t buy it, that these legends must refer to Eudes if they refer to anyone (which I’m not sure that they do), that if so Xavier’s early date is still more likely, that in that case he is probably also right that almost everything we have in this line is coming from that one hoard and that we therefore still don’t have coins of Borrell II. But if I’m wrong, I could be staring at a picture of them right now and have some rethinking to do!

1. J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London: Royal Numismatic Society 2010 for 2009), pp. 217-243.

2. See now Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 68-71.

3. The suggestion was first made by Miquel Crusafont in Numismática de la corona catalano-aragonesa medieval, 785-1516 (Barcelona 1982), p. 31; on the inventio see Joan Cabestany i Fort, “El culte de Santa Eulàlia a la Catedral de Barcelona (s. IX-X)” in Lambard: estudis d’art medieval Vol. 9 (Barcelona 1996), pp. 159-165.

4. Anna M. Balaguer, Història de la moneda dels comtats catalans (Barcelona 1999), pp. 64-67.

5. For the 2005 find see n. 6 below; the 2009 appearances were in Aureo y Calicó Auction 219 (2nd July 2009), Barcelona, lots 138 & 139 and Auction 220, 16th September 2009, Barcelona, lot 398.

6. X. Sanahuja, “La moneda de Barcelona al segle X segins les troballes Espanya-1 i Espanya-2 (925)” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 36 (Barcelona 2006), pp. 79-113.

7. M. Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals”, ibid. vol. 38 (2008), pp. 91-121.

8. See n. 1 above.

9. Crusafont, Balaguer & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, pp. 74-78.

10. M. Crusafont i Sabater, “Troballes monetàries XXVIII” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 43 (Barcelona 2013), pp. 249-260.

11. The 970 meeting is discussed, along with its evidence, in J. Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: false metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1-41; the 979 one is attested in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader & Manual Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LXI (Barcelona 2003), doc. no. 455.

12. See J. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1.2 (Turnhout: Brepols 2012), pp. 1-21, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

[This post originally went up on the 9th February, and I've now reached the point in my backlog where I first stubbed it as a draft so it can be set free to join the stream of posts. But! It has also lately been decided to extend the exhibition, which will now run until February 3rd 2015, it's that successful. So if you haven't already gone and seen, you still have time to do so. And who knows but what I may be behind the doors at the end of the gallery...]

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 3 February 2015

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014; image by BlindMice Design

One of the earliest signs that I’d arrived in Birmingham in some academic sense was an invitation to the private view of an exhibition currently running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage. This is less surprising than it sounds because it was being curated by two Ph. D. students of Professor Leslie Brubaker‘s, along with two other postgraduate students in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, one of the former of whom, Rebecca Darley, is an old friend of mine from my days at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (The other three are Daniel Reynolds, Ali Miynat and Maria Vrij.) Thus it was that my name got on the list as an early medievalist who knows something about coins, and this has all been good for connecting (or reconnecting) me to people at Birmingham whose paths I otherwise wouldn’t immediately cross. Also, the exhibition is really good.

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680x696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680×696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown; image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

People have been amazed by what four postgraduates have been able to do with this exhibition; certainly, it’s one of the best numismatic displays I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, you know. The scope runs from Emperor Constantine I, when the new Christian faith got its first representations on metal, through Byzantium’s seventh-century crises (a period noticeable, among other things, for the beards given emperors on the coinage, not the main point of the display here but one can’t help notice) and those of Sasanid Persia in the face of each other and Islam, through to the various attempts by Islamic rulers to make something of the fiscal systems they had inherited and the currencies on which those operated, running as late as the Artuqid dynasty in the twelfth century. The coins have been very carefully selected; every case has a point to make and makes it clearly.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632. Scholars are in dispute over whether Heraclius’s beard here should be described as `egregious’ (Jarrett) or `badger-smuggling’ (Darley). Image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

That does mean that the weight of text to object seems high, though the text is not dense to look at and of course the objects are small. The text is, admittedly, not simplistic: the audience is assumed to be able to handle complex ideas if they’re set out clearly, and the layout and design of one of the cases takes a little working out, but in both areas that is not least because we’re dealing with visual and abbreviated packages that represent complicated theology in highly compressed form and with systems of representation that affect and influence each other (one of the things that the exhibition makes very clear). Still, while the visitors to a public viewing may not be a fair sample—I did spend a while arguing with Rebecca over whether one caption should say “overstrike” or “double-strike”, after all—there seemed to be no problem getting the point on the day, and I gather that there have been many comments in the guestbook about how informative it is, so it may be that this is pitched about right, in fact.

Entry to exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Entry to the exhibition; photo by Daniel Reynolds, used with kind permission

Anyway, it is well worth a look if for some reason you’re in the area of my workplace: not only is it interesting and thought-provoking in itself, and stylishly designed, but it is a great opportunity to see the Barber displaying items drawn entirely from its own excellent coin collection, a collection which is in some respects the best in the UK but unjustly under-used and little-known. It’s a problem I recognise from the Fitzwilliam that a museum with strong holdings in fine art, especially paintings that are large, unique and often of immediately-recognisable content, winds up with doubts about the exhibition potential of objects that are small, mass-produced and whose details are obscure of reference and often have to be peered at, and which often seem to be roughly-made. I understand those doubts, but they are unfounded: medieval coins can be fascinating and their obscurities can be made clear. Rebecca, Dan, Ali and Maria have done a great job of showing how and you could go and see. (In fact, if you were to go on March 8th, between 2 and 4, you could hear, as there will then be an ‘In Focus’ session with the curators. Book ahead! But even if not that, please consider having a look.) It runs till the end of November 2014 beginning of February 2015.

Feudal Transformations XIX: change before the year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Just after arriving in Birmingham, I finished reading Guy Bois’s provocative book The Transformation of the Year 1000 and was actually quite impressed; it represents a far better saving throw for the transformation theory than I’d anticipated.1 Seeing a problem with packing almost all the change required by the theory of Duby and Fossier and the like into a few decades shortly after 1000, Bois comes up with a quite complex paradigm of change in which he manages to have both slow change and a ‘revolution’ at the end of it.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Go on, one more time won’t hurt

This he does basically by saying that what we have in the tenth century is the final slow settling into ruins of the ancient state, with public government and justice, towns driven by a parasitic state apparatus administering those systems, and slave agriculture. This had been increasingly unsustainable as time went on and efforts like the Carolingian reforms to prop it up with new structures (and here’s the subtlety) actually accelerated its collapse by making more possible locally-concentrated power at the same time as a coincidentally burgeoning economy made that economically viable. Inside the old structure of society, therefore, new bases of importance and power were emerging centred on the market and on local territorial domination, all of which in fact made it harder to maintain the older bases of power as a monopoly. The revolution came when, with the end of the Carolingian state and withdrawal into the Île de France of its Capetian successor (because this is a paradigm about France, don’t think otherwise), the exterior structure of public power finally collapsed into dust, ceased to operate as a brake on the forces of social change, and what was left standing was this incubitic set of new power bases, now free to grow, around which the opportunistic (and here most of all the monks of St-Pierre de Cluny) coordinated their operations. And thus feudalism.2

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864x77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection
Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864x77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection

Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864×77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection

Silver denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Billon denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Billon denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Who even knows what they thought that monogram meant three hundred years later? Evidence of high medieval numismatists, as with so many other things, is easiest to find in Spain…

The first bit about this that caught my critical imagination is the idea that those who were interested in patching up the ancient state actually undermined it; that is, the Carolingians in trying to make things better actually make things worse. Bois exemplifies this using the monetary system, which is probably why it caught my attention. In brief, the Roman system of gold and silver coins struggled on till the sixth century, whereafter the gold coinage was debased until it more or less ceased to exist, in the course of which it was struck by hundreds and hundreds of semi-private issuers all over Francia. After this the whole system atrophied and a desultory and poor silver coinage of a very various standard was all the money there was. The Carolingians, faced with a mono-metallic system, reformed it several times until there were a restricted number of royally-controlled mints striking a more-or-less good coinage but only in silver. This was lower-value, thus more accessible, so that greater monetisation resulted than had been so for a while, enabling market exchange and the collection of revenues in coin at new levels. And that meant that when the royal hands came off the tiller in the early tenth century that resource was available to the new local powers, who start minting their own silver coin in profusion (here again, nost least the monks of Cluny).3 I think there are problems with this as an actual account of the history of the coinage – that local minting in silver takes much longer to start happening than Bois’s chronology of change implies, suggesting that it is a result of market growth not a cause, for one thing; for another, Cluny got a royal license to strike coin, and it was otherwise outside any useful royal jurisdiction so one could read that as an increase in royal power and it’s certainly hard to see it as the opposite – but it’s an excellent illustration of Bois’s more general model of damaging attempts to preserve a dying social system.4

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny, from Wikimedia Commons

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny. “Cluny Transept exterior” by RTPeat / Richard Peat Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem I have with arguments like this that run, ‘O well they tried, poor dears, but the whole thing was doomed, quite hopeless, they were spitting in the rain’ about the Carolingians, which in some ways go back to Louis Halphen and his contemporaries, is that they benefit from the fact that the Carolingian Empire’s fall is there to be explained. Most of us would not, however, put this down to critical internal systems failure, but to a prolonged civil war more or less due to the royal family’s inability to stick to an equable division of power followed by a long series of assaults by raiders for north and east further destabilising transregional solidarities.5 A counter-factual approach that could accurately remove the effects of the Viking attacks and, if not eliminate the Brüderkrieg at least make it more like the equivalent, and very long-lived, Merovingian system in which the important thing was not so much the periodic war as that that war was always between rival Merovingians, perhaps by predicating a reasonable supply of healthy male heirs, would quite possibly entirely vindicate the Carolingian reform efforts, which after all did at least at first make them much stronger kings.6 An analysis that relies on an absence of competent legitimate operators of a system isn’t really assessing the viability of the system itself. Likewise, Bois’s argument is proven by the eventual collapse of the ancient state, but there’s a species of teleology involved when he says that the Carolingians’ own measures worked against their interests, which forces him to define the things they did that endured as part of the new world, if only because they survived. Given the collapse was to happen, there’s no successful innovation that Bois’s theory would actually credit to the Carolingians except ones that they abandoned.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Now, let’s take it to the March! Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona, as made a tiny bit more famous by my book

This is all the more paradoxical because the same problem exists in reverse with Catalonia and the scholarship of the feudal transformation. As Bonnassie famously argued, Catalonia (where a strong and (I would argue) even strengthening public power was maintained up till very late, there was then a political vacuum caused by a double minority in the rule of Barcelona forcing other motors of power to pick up the slack and after a short civil war the public power recovered only by adopting these other motors and abandoning its old ones) is an almost perfect archetype of the feudal transformation, but because it so clearly revolves around the power vacuum of 1018-1035 and before that the public power seemed to be riding the serpent of progress really pretty well, people don’t like it as a general model.7 There’s also the problem that this was the only area of Latin Europe with much of a gold coinage, because of raiding and trade with al-Andalus.8 But Bois’s argument also revolves around a dramatic state collapse at the same time as an economic take-off. Is this somehow not the same?

Gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76)

Sticking with the metaphor, this is a gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76), by way of illustrating that at least some things were not quite the same in Catalonia

Bois was of course writing a micro-study of Burgundy, not Catalonia, and it’s the anti-transformation lobby who have preferred to ignore Catalonia’s apparently indissoluble example of the phenomenon.9 All the same there is a problem here because Bois’s model doesn’t work for Catalonia. Firstly, it’s very unclear how much Carolingian reform was in fact applied here: the local law was left running, the final currency reform of 864 was never enacted here, the intellectual culture arguably stayed fairly Visigothic and the counts operated as independents from a very early stage. Secondly, as said, public power here did not atrophy: the counts, despite various troubles, remained militarily effective and towards the end of the period, fuelled no doubt by the various reveues of the frontiers, were even overhauling and improving the apparatus of state power and their control of it. Only when that effort was slackened did stuff go wrong. It is hard not to see Borrell II’s and his son’s creation of numerous castle-holding dependants as the seeds of their own undoing, but it’s not undoing but lack of doing that let them grow.10

Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), where as you have read some of that castle-ceding was done

Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but if you have a feudal transformation in one area and an explanation for it, but another one in a different area whose relevance you have to dismiss because its explanation is clearly different, this is kind of like ignoring that your theory has been falsified. Of course there are factors in CataloniaBurgundy’s changes of that era that Catalonia did not share, so the problem exists both ways, but this suggests to me that the problematic has been placed at the wrong level. If you accept both then feudal transformation becomes only one way that states of a certain kind might respond to the end of effective state governance in an ‘ancient’ or ‘public’ mould. After three years of teaching this subject to graduates, I came to conclude that the correct question to ask about the phenomenon it assumes is not, “Why is all of Europe going through a social crisis c. 1000?”, which is fairly easy to disprove premise by premise and then ignore, but “Why do so many and various polities of the post-Carolingian world finish up so similar in social articulation and governance despite their different situations and paces of change?” This turns it less into a question of modes of production or public versus private than into one of cultural transfer and the appropriation of ideas between governments, which is maybe not as exciting, but might have a lot more application to other situations.

1. G. Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992).

2. Ibid., pp. 161-167.

3. Ibid., pp. 165-166.

4. Philip Grierson, “Coinage in the feudal era” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 949-959.

5. See François-Louis Ganshof, “L’échec de Charlemagne” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Vol. 91 (Paris 1947), pp. 248-254, transl. as “Charlemagne’s Failure” in idem, The Carolingians and the Frankish monarchy: studies in Carolingian history (London 1971), pp. 256-260, taken up by e. g. Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium. Soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire (New York City 1954), Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingien (Paris 1968), transl. as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977).

6. Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” in Peter H. Sawyer & Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29.

7. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, as ever; cf. Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001).

8. Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543; J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243.

9. Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, where see p. 773 n. 17; the whole article later repr. as “Note critique” in idem, La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? Servage et chevalerie dans la France des Xe et XIe siècles (Paris 1997).

10. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010).

Seminar CLXXX: hiding English coins in tenth-century Rome

One good paper about travel to Rome deserves another, or something; five days after hearing Lizzie Boyle tell us about Irish clerics whose journies to Rome went awry, on 27th May 2013 I was listening to my old colleague Rory Naismith addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Peter’s Pence and Beyond: the Forum Hoard and Anglo-Roman monetary relations in the Middle Ages”. The hoard in question here is 870 silver pennies and a gold solidus found in digging in the Forum of Rome in 1883. The digger was looking for the house of the Vestal Virgins so went pretty much straight through the later building between Santa Maria Antiqua and San Silvestro in Lacu where the coins turned up, so they have had only the most cursory publication up till now; Rory and colleagues are now changing that and he was in Oxford to tell us more about it.1

I guess about the middle of this picture...

The composition of the hoard first: the solidus is one of Emperor Theophilus (829-842), and among the silver there are five Continental pieces, one of Emperor Berengar I (915-924) from Pavia and the others from Pavia, Strasbourg, Regensburg and Limoges.2 The rest is Anglo-Saxon pennies of all the kings from Athelstan (924-939) to Edmund (939-946) barring six from the mint of Viking York. The whole thing seems to have been in a bag of some kind because also found were two silver hooked-tags that could have been fasteners and seem to bear the garbled name of Pope Marinus II (942-946), and when it came up it was all in a cooking pot.3 A 940s assemblage date thus seems pretty obvious, but Athelstan’s contribution makes up nearly half of the English stuff even though it would have been in circulation the longest, and should, we might think, have been withdrawn by this time.

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

London is the mint best represented, and that is where the die-links are most frequent, suggesting that coins from there had circulated less than the others, but a sixth of the coins are from Midlands mints and another sixth from even further afield. Rory thought that this probably represented the circulation available in London or close by around that time, and pointed out that Bishop Theodred of London, who died 942×951, had been to Rome and bequeathed stuff he’d bought in Pavia, among a sum of wealth from which 870 pennies would hardly have been significant.4 Whether that constitutes a smoking gun or not, if this was circulation (and we have very few southern English hoards of this period from which to judge, they’re actually more frequent in Italy!) if this was the coin doing the rounds in 940s London the Anglo-Saxon coinage system was some way off its later level of regulation. I also don’t see how we can rule out that the owner of these coins wasn’t adding stuff or even taking stuff out as he moved, so there are difficulties with interpretation still, but it’s still a good chunk of evidence for money use somewhere!

Inscribed hooked-tags from the Forum Hoard

The hooked-tags from the hoard, inscribed +DOMNO MA and RINO PAPA, a matching pair. Blunt, Okasha and Metcalf, Pl. VIII.

The question that follows, however, is that with any hoard: why did someone bring it where it was found, put it there and then not come back for it? The last one of these can almost never be answered, and here the second one was hard to answer too — opinions varied on whether this was a run-down or busy part of tenth-century Rome and the most that could be agreed was that it would have been hard to be unobserved, while the actual location doesn’t seem to have been part of the precinct of any active churches — but with the first there are two obvious suggestions. The first is that this was a pilgrim’s gift, and the custom-made fastening does make it look like a votive offering; if so, however, it obviously never got given! The second, which has the same problem, connects to the tax of Rory’s title, ‘Peter’s Pence‘, a levy on the English for the support of the papacy which is canonically blamed on either King Offa of Mercia or King Alfred the Great of Wessex, but which is otherwise hard to demonstrate in operation before the time of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016). This seems too early, therefore, and in any case it’s nothing like as much as a Peter’s Pence payment would presumably have been: Rory said that it matches about one-third of what Berkshire paid in the time of Domesday Book, in which case where’s the rest?

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

It was the closing points that probably interested me the most, though, sometimes-numismatist as I suppose I am. These were about the use of money in tenth-century Italy. This seems to have been quite restricted. A full quarter of early medieval coins found in Italy have been English ones. The papal coinage is only ephemerally preserved. However, from the 970s onwards the royal coinage of Pavia seems to have had some kind of a renascence; it rises in find frequency to drown out both English and papal issues. This being Western Europe’s most urbanised area, it seems improbable that there wasn’t money of some kind in use in markets; the English stuff however seems to have been what one hoarded (presumably because it was well-known to be better). In that case, should someone have just stolen this bag meant for Pope Marinus from Bishop Theodred or whoever, and then found it full of English coin, stashing it somewhere out of the way where they could take coins from it few by few, and not getting very far with that before some mishap befell them, still seems a perfectly possible outcome. We will never know: but lost precious metal really seems to pique the popular interest, and in cases like this it’s not hard to see why!

1. I suppose it depends what you mean by cursory: there’s D. M. Metcalf, “The Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 62 (London 1992), pp. 62-96, online here.

2. These details, except the attribution to Berengar, are from ibid.; Rory mentioned the Theophilus solidus but called the others ‘Frankish'; the Berengar attribution came out in questions.

3. The tags have been published in James Graham-Campbell & Elisabeth Okasha, with Michael Metcalf, “A Pair of Inscribed Anglo-Saxon Hooked Tags from the Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 221-229.

4. His will is edited in Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge 1930), no. 1, and translated in eadem (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 106.

Back where the money is

Some of you may have been wondering, if you knew how temporary my lecturing rôle at Birmingham was, what has happened to me since it ran down by way of employment, and now that I have some pictures to go with the announcement it’s time to answer that silent question. Since August 2014, I have been and will for the next little while be the Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

My new place of employ, really pretty much next to the old one

Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition currently on inthe coingallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition, and a really big map, all down to Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds with help from Maria Vrij and Ali Miynat

The Barber is to the University of Birmingham roughly as the Fitzwilliam Museum is to that of Cambridge, which is to say, a university museum blessed with an excellent fine art collection that has also been lucky enough to acquire a world-class coin collection. The Barber’s strengths are especially in Byzantine coinage, where they have—we have—probably the best collection in Europe, but because of staff leave and other factors this has been essentially inaccessible for the last couple of years, except in connection with the Faith and Fortune exhibition I’ve mentioned and in charge of which I now more or less am, but for which I can of course take absolutely no credit.

Library shelving in the Coin Study Room of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Shelves of the Coin Study Room, library currently undergoing audit and reorganisation

Anyway, part of my job is exactly to end that inaccessibility, and there’s plenty of people already wanting to come and do either research or teaching with it, which is great. Where my actual expertise comes in, however, is that much of this collection is catalogued but not to database-compatible standards, those catalogues are not on the web and almost none of it is published, so there is a lot to do to get it where its contents are as well-known as they deserve to be and can be searched and studied from outside. But, these are things in which I have past form, so I and a slowly-growing roster of willing volunteers will get something done on that; watch this space. Right now, to do much work on the coins will mean watching this space:

Doors of the Coin Study Room in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, seen from inside with one of the coin vaults open and a tray out

Coin trays open and doors to coin room firmly shut. Security, you understand. But the real question is probably, which contains more gold? And actually we have plans to get data on the coins at least…

… but this is going to change. There are also some exciting research questions I’m looking forward to getting at with this collection. About those you’ll doubtless hear more as they develop but while a number of them are substantially other people’s ideas (not least Rebecca’s and Daniel’s, collaborators whom one could not hope to better) with which I’m able to help, some are my own fascinations which I had never previously thought of exploring. Stay tuned and I will tell you more! And for now, this is where I am and what I’m doing.