Interdisciplinary Conversation VI: the use of medievalists as per Lévi-Strauss

I described a few posts ago the long long path that led to the publication of my recent article “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”; this is a post about something I found on the way. It became clear early on with that piece that the problem with the general understanding of agriculture in the early Middle Ages had become Georges Duby; he didn’t originate a lot of the ideas that he popularised, but his work is now where most people find them and he integrated them into an overall progress narrative that everyone but early medievalists finds very useful, so it’s hard to shake people’s convictions even now that the early Middle Ages must have been the agrarian Dark Ages.1 But of course Duby’s key works were published in the late sixties and early seventies and he lived until 1996, so it became important to be sure he’d not modified his own views since, because of the incessant reprinting of those old works, it would have been possible that no-one much noticed.2

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby. I no longer have any idea where I found this image in 2008, alas, so I hope it’s copyright-free

Now, the short answer is that he didn’t, despite some wavering, but in the course of trying to find that out I came across an issue of a journal with which he’d long been concerned, Études rurales, celebrating his career and including a number of pieces by him, which I therefore knew I had to seek out.3 I think I found this out maybe three separate times, and downloaded all the articles at least twice (finding the second time that I’d already done so years before and forgotten), over the long time it took me to revise the article, but in 2016 I was at last actually reading them, and it was interesting. None of the Duby pieces were in fact new, all being reprints of classic or rare work from long before, but several people were updating his findings or, in some cases, just praising them, and one of the latter was no-one less than Claude Lévi-Strauss. When I set to writing this post I had to wonder if such a meeting of minds was possible anywhere else in this era than Paris; I went through my bibliographies and decided that if Clifford Geertz had written something saying how cool David Herlihy‘s stuff was, or maybe for the UK if Mary Douglas had about—well, who? Richard Southern‘s?—it might be of the same order, but those things didn’t happen, and I couldn’t think of other parallel grand academic personalities of such broad social scope. Anyway, in Paris in 1996 it did happen and Lévi-Strauss wrote a short laudatory piece, the basic point of which is that anthropologists should read lots of medieval history because it’s really good to think with.4

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, from “Le Structuralisme de Lévi-Strauss”, La-Philo, online here, and far too cool an image not to use even though not really very much what he looked like for most of his long life, it seems

Now, since (as indeed he says and I have often lamented) the general tendency of medievalists is to borrow their theory from anthropologists (and not, as Sean Manning has just been pointing out in comments, usually the currently-active ones), this could be said to be swimming against the tide. Lévi-Strauss explained himself by saying that the vast scope of the Middle Ages, with its diversity of social hierarchy and structures, belief systems and economic foundations, provides the laboratory of alternatives that one never has studying a concrete population who are what they are whether you understand it or not. It offers the counter-factuals which allow you, the anthropologist, to say, well, my study group didn’t have to turn out this way, other things have happened; what makes the difference here? “C’est cette fluidité… qui fait du Moyen Áge un vaste laboratoire où l’ethnologue et l’historien peuvent mettre á l’épreuve leurs hypothèses théoriques.”5 And he gave a few examples from Duby’s work, as the occasion required.

Now, when I read that the first time, my thought was, well, are these accolades that medievalists would want? Is what we provide only a databank against which others can better evaluate the Great Us and Where We Are Now? Is our function to illuminate the present, rather than to make visible the past? But since then, of course, I have raised a small amount of money and hope, indeed, to do so more in order to do exactly the kind of work that le grand prof. was praising here, pointing out that the Middle Ages offer models based in complexity and fluidity that serve better to illuminate quite a lot of modern situations than a constitutional perspective founded in the naturality of the nation-state. So I might be moving towards a qualified presentism as part of our rôle in a way I would once have rejected as unfair to the lives, dilemmas, choices and actions of the people who actually populated the world we study. I think, on reflection, that Lévi-Strauss here managed to bridge the gap I have occasionally pointed out between presentism and the people whose actions and situations did not lead directly to modern Western national constitutions and social structures, by finding a way for, “toutes sortes d’expériences sociales… dont la plupart resteront abortives,” still to inform us.6 Sometimes these old guys were pretty clever, I guess!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28 at pp. 5-10.

2. The two most relevant works here being the much-reprinted (and still in print) Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, transl. Cynthia Postan (London 1968) and Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (Ithaca NY 1974), translations of French works from 1966 and 1973 respectively.

3 Philippe Braunstein (ed.), Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), online here. Duby wavered about some of his conclusions about agriculture in Georges Duby, L’histoire continue (Paris 1991), p. 97, but while he admitted he might be wrong he made no suggestion about what would be more right.

4. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Remise de l’épée à Georges Duby” in Braunstein, Duby, pp. 21–23, online here.

5. Ibid., p. 22, meaning (for those without French), “It’s this fluidity… that makes the Middle Ages into a laboratory where the ethnologist or historian can put their hypothetical theories to the test.”

6. Ibid., p. 22, meaning, “all sorts of social experiences… of which the greater part would remain abortive”.

Gallery

Dudley Priory

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Towards the end of March 2016, for reasons I don’t now recall, I was back down in the West Midlands for a short trip. This is relevant to the blog because while I was there, it was determined by two … Continue reading

One ruler, one mint, one type (keep moving)

Apparently I was mainly thinking about coins in late spring of 2016, as I seem to have stubbed a lot of posts in a row about numismatics. This is the third and last of them for a little while, which was occasioned by teaching the rise of Islam for my first-year module Empire and Aftermath at Leeds. I like to do this using the coinage as the key primary evidence, because I can and because, as has been observed by greater scholars than me, basically all the Islamic textual evidence for the actual seventh-century spread and conquest is post facto, written deep in hindsight, while the limited contemporary evidence we have is either largely written by outsiders and deeply hostile or written by non-Islamic insiders whose perspectives were unhelpfully local.1 Getting a picture of what was going on over, say, all of Syria, Palestine and Iraq between about 650 and 700 beyond the rough succession of caliphs and some key battles, is therefore very difficult, and even that can be tricky; consider, after all, that this is the period during which Shi’a Islam separated from the Sunni branch and each side’s historiography has a quite different view, not just about which caliphs were legitimate, but even about when they ruled and whose relations they were.2 The coins don’t settle those questions (though they open up others about faction and segmentation3) but they are at least directly contemporary sources from inside the territories newly run by Islam. That is, assuming that we can correctly date and attribute them. And that’s where the fun starts, of course!

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

The biggest problem here is that at first, the new authorities of Islam basically imitated the coinage they found in the areas they took over, by way of maintaining tax systems and basic economic exchange. It wasn’t until the 690s that Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (of whom we have heard before here) unified the various disparate post-Byzantine and post-Persian coinages he now had in his realms. Up to that point, his territories ran a pseudo-Byzantine gold coinage, a pseudo-Persian silver one and a whole scatter of pseudo-Byzantine and some pseudo-Persian copper-alloy ones.4 Most of the copper-alloy, at least, carry little or no identifying information. It is generally assumed that there was a transition from things more or less like their originals, through things less like them with Greek rather than Latin legends to things even less like with Arabic text on them to the so-called Standing Caliph coinage and then unity, but actually, despite painstaking analyses of what was being restruck onto what, what is found with what and how weights might have changed down an utterly hypothetical declining scale, as I’ve said here before, we still can’t honestly say that all of those different sorts of coin and a whole set of ‘imitative’ issues weren’t being struck alongside each other, by issuers ranging from the state through town councils to local blacksmiths.5 The closer one gets to the latter picture, the more informative the coins seem about how the process of Islamic takeover might have looked on the ground, which is to say, more or less like a prolonged vacation by state authority, saving occasional visitations, and then some episodes of suddenly-tightening regulation, maybe only in some places.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Some day I hope to write about this, as I’ve said, but today I just want to write about coins like the one above. You see, one of the exceptionally problematic aspects of the coin evidence for a normal tale of military conquest and take-over is that, to all appearances, imperial small change continued to arrive in the ‘conquered’ territories for some years after their ‘loss’ by the Empire. This is really obvious, because the issuing emperor changed at about the right point; the supposedly-crucial Battle of Yarmuk that effectively debarred the Byzantines from Syria took place in 636, as near as we can be certain, Emperor Heraclius died in 641 and after some confusion his grandson Constans II succeeded, and Constans’s copper-alloy coins are frequent finds in Syria, arriving, it seems, up till about 655 (though dating Constans’s coins relies on those guesses about weight that I myself don’t trust).6 So why was the Empire still shipping in or selling to its supposed enemies? Part of an answer may lie in these coins, which are found very frequently in Syria and nearly as often in Cyprus, but don’t really occur elsewhere in the Empire.7 They look very much as if they were being struck in Cyprus for use in the now-Islamic provinces; it has been argued instead that they were being made in Syria and exported, but if so they occur more than any other sort of probably Syro-Palestinian issue in the island.8 By the 670s the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate had even agreed that neither of them could effectively take Cyprus off the other, and so there was established a condominium in which their two sets of representatives shared the island’s taxes; one wonders how many other areas might early on have had some such fuzzy arrangement in which the Empire grudgingly recognised the conquerors as new quasi-independent governors but still demanded recognition of its dominion in the form of tax, and then that situation got wiped out of potential record by changes in the 670s to 690s.9 If such areas had made a pact with the Caliphate, both sides might have quite happily claimed them as their own without either really having much control over them until they made an effort to assert it.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista where credited to Classical Numismatic Group

But there is a numismatic problem with such a hypothesis! And that problem is, these coins do not bear a mint-mark indicating Cyprus like the authentically-Cypriot one above (KVP or KVPR for Kypros), but carry the unhelpfully unspecific legends of the regular issues of Constantinople. And yet they do not look like the contemporary metropolitan coins of Constans II. Furthermore, just to confuse matters, coins that did carry the Cyprus mint-mark were almost certainly being made in Syria, imitating the earlier issues of Heraclius and Constans II!10 So, a number of options open up, one being that these sort-of-regular coins are actually somehow imitative or unofficial (whatever those words really mean in a situation like this), perhaps because there was a mint on Cyprus, potentially running under Islamic control and making what those authorities thought real coin looked like, or otherwise, that Constantinople was making an export-standard copper-alloy issue that was then being shipped to Cyprus for distribution into Syria.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

I’m not sure which of these hypotheses I find less likely, to be honest: the former requires effective forgers who nonetheless didn’t fully understand the system into which they were passing coin, and who made their coin larger and neater than the regular issues they were imitating, in which case what was the profit? and the latter seems like an administrative headache with no clear gain except keeping Cyprus slightly further from fiscal independence. But the latter also incurs numismatic disdain because numismatists really try to avoid hypotheses in which a single mint is issuing distinct sorts of coin of the same standard at the same time. They will even mount hypotheses on the basis that that couldn’t happen.11 Now, I’ve disproved a couple of these already in my small way, but in this instance I’m not so sure it needs doing; although we as a discipline don’t usually admit it, it’s very unclear as to why the Empire put mint-marks on its copper-alloy coinage. It’s often assumed that it was for accounting and authentication purposes, either knowing how much a mint was making or being able to track dud coins back to their issuing mint, but in the former case the only place you could do that was surely at the mint itself, before dispersal into currency, in which case why bother marking them? and in the second, it’s very peculiar that it was done on the effectively worthless metal of the small change but not on the highly-protected gold of the solidus, and no-one ever tries to explain that.12 Whatever the reason was, though, it’s not hard to imagine the mid-seventh century involving circumstances in which that just didn’t apply. Either way, the coins are telling us something about what’s going on here that a purely textual approach will never disclose; but numismatics also has to shed an assumption or two before we can do the kind of work with it that opportunities like this make possible…


1. Compare Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: the Islamic Near East from the sixth to the eleventh century, 2nd edn (Harlow 2004), Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam (Princeton 1997), online here, and now James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001/acprof-9780199208593.

2. It’s actually quite hard to find a good reference for the history of this division, but Chase F. Robinson, “The Rise of Islam, 600‒705” in idem (ed.), The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries, The New Cambridge History of Islam 1 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 171–225 at pp. 193-208, does the job OK.

3. Adam R. Gaiser, “What Do We Learn About the Early Khārijites and Ibāḍiyya from Their Coins?” in Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 130 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 167–187.

4. The best guide here is Stefan Heidemann, “The Merger of Two Currency Zones in Early Islam: the Byzantine and Sasanian impact on the circulation in Byzantine Syria and northern Mesopotamia” in Iran Vol. 36 (London 1998), pp. 95–112, online here.

5. I’m thinking here of Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008) as both guide and target of critique.

6. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 19-21, but see now Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72, online here.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, p. 21, and Phillips, “Import”, p. 42. Philip Grierson attributed these to Emperor Constantine III (641), despite that ruler not living long enough to reach the ‘anno III’ they indicate, but correctly noting that there is also a Sicilian variant of the issue: Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Volume Two: Phocas to Theodosius III 602–717 (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1993), 2 vols, II pp. 396-397 and 399 (DOC III.2 Heraclonas 5 & 9).

8. See n. 7 above; Foss argues for Syrian manufacture.

9. On which see now Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017), pp. 72-86, but with specific reference to numismatics also Zavagno, “Betwixt the Greeks and the Saracens: Coins and coinage in Cyprus in the seventh and the eighth century” in Byzantion Vol. 81 (Athens 2011), pp. 448–483, online here.

10. Regular coins of Constans II: Grierson, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue III.2, pp. 445-446 (DOC III.2 Constans II 62), and Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 20-21; the ‘Cyprus imitation’ issues are discussed ibid. pp. 22-24, emphasising the volume of the issue, and Zavagno, “Betwixt Greeks and Saracens”, pp. 466-467.

11. For example, one more relevant than the other, see Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 38 (Sabadell 2008), pp. 91–121 at pp. 91-106, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243, or Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713–976: Structure of the Issues; Corpus of Coin Finds; Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History (Lancaster PA 2007), p. 45, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2017), pp. 514–535 at pp. 521-522. In both cases the authors themselves invalidate the assumption in the same work, Crusafont in “Moneda barcelonina”, pp. 106-121 and Füeg in Corpus, p. 39.

12. Thus for example Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24 (inc. p. 21: “it was desirable, for administrative reasons and as a precaution against counterfeiting…”), or Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg-D. Schaaf and Jean-Michel Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par Cécile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf, Réalités Byzantines 15 (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104 at pp. 61-69 (simply no explanation).

Many many Barber Institute coins now online

Following up on that previous post more quickly than usual, the mention of Dr Maria Vrij of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, my honourable successor and exceeder in post there as Curator of Coins, and also the use of the University of Birmingham’s online objects catalogue to instance a Barber coin, both lead me together to pointing something out that’s deserved notice since it began in March 2016 with some of the Barber’s Roman Republican coinage, which is: they have managed to put really quite a lot more of their coin collection online since I left you know!

An anonymous bronze quadrans of the Roman Republic, struck at Rome in 215-212 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0073

For a while Maria was keeping me posted as uploads went up, so that I could post about them here, but since I wasn’t really posting and she soon had a new exhibition to cope with, that stopped and I’ve only just got as far as the first stub I made to mention this to you all. What this means is that the phenomenon has meanwhile achieved very serious proportions! When I took on that collection, 188 items were online, out of a collection of nearly 16,000; by the time I left, not least due to the efforts of Maria, that was 462. But since I left, in four fairly short years (three only 365 days each, I believe!), that total has risen to more than the 3,000 items the search will find at once, even in just Byzantine coins. I can determine that it includes 2,109 Roman coins, including 400-odd Republican pieces, but not including 22 Late Roman pieces of about 250, so that at least is still ongoing work, and the Byzantine collection doesn’t yet include the coins of Constantine XI so can’t be finished yet either, but it’s amazing what has been achieved. That achievement includes the digitisation and getting online of 908 Sasanian Persian coins, a larger collection than most other places in the world and surely pretty much the only one online; it includes the fascinating Mardin hoard, which is very worn Roman and Byzantine coins that were some of them countermarked for use in the medieval Islamic world and therefore presumably were all used thus, since they were buried together; and a selection of Trebizond and Vandal stuff, to name but a few things I can find in searches.1

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked 'Saif' and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked ‘Saif’ and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

So great things have been afoot, and so many feet have they been a’ that I can’t actually determine how great they are; but we are talking records in the thousands, all with good images and metadata that tell you at least something about the rulers who issued them and sometimes the collectors who found them and made it possible for the Barber to make them available all these years later. More is doubtless still to come, but meanwhile I invite you to have a browse, follow some cross-references and revel in the numismatic riches of it all!

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081. Note the way that the method of striking with two dies has left the image of Christ doubled up on the obverse!


1. The Mardin Hoard has actually been exciting people for long enough to be published in print, at least in summary, as N. M. Lowick, S. Bendall & P. D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic countermarks on Byzantine folles (London 1977).

All that Glitters 7: the slight return

With due respect thus paid to events that have overtaken us, I return to my sort-of-scheduled programming here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe and also to the subject of Byzantine coinage, from which it seems I will probably never entirely escape. And why indeed would one want to? But I can bring one thing to a close with this post, which is my reports on the experiments that my collaborators and I did on the All That Glitters project analysing Byzantine gold coins by X-ray Fluorescence of which you have by now heard so much, at least until we actually publish properly on it. So here is the last post on the theme for the time being.1

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

And therefore last chance to re-use this photograph of the S8TIGER WD-XRF machine in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham!

I’ve done so many of these posts now that summarising the experiments in any detail would be quite difficult as well as tedious, so for the purposes of this post, let’s just say, we’d gone into the project hoping to say something about changes in the trace elements present in the coins that might tell us something about changing metal sources and minting practices, and we’d found that for two reasons that wasn’t really possible, although we did still find some stuff out doing it. The first and more historical of those reasons why not was simply the nature of the Byzantine tax system, which persistently called in coins from across the Empire, melted them down and redistributed their metal centrally to the mints for striking, thus ineluctably mixing all the different mints’ practices together; the only place we could really see compositional difference was provinces that were falling off the Empire, and even then interaction was usually sufficient to keep things mixed up. But the other reason was that the detection machinery, be it never so sophisticated, couldn’t really tell us what we wanted to know, and that also for two reasons, one being because of invisible surface deposits from the soil that we couldn’t properly see through with the X-rays (and couldn’t safely remove very effectively), and the other being simple and frustrating variation in results.

At what had been supposed to be the end of the project, therefore, because of the various constraints and inefficiencies of getting the coins safely to the analysis machinery and back, we had unspent money left in our grant budget, and so I thought—I think this was me, but if not, I’m sorry to either Rebecca Darley or Maria Vrij for stealing their credit here—that one useful thing we could do with half a day was get some kind of baseline figure for how bad that variability was. So on 16th February 2016 we did a very simple experiment. We took one coin, put it in a sample cup and then without touching it, moving it or changing it in any way beyond what the automatic handling in the spectrometer put it through, ran it through exactly the same test five times, and then turned it over in the cup and did that again for the reverse side, giving us ten runs on the same object in which there was literally nothing more that we could have done to reduce variation.

Apparently I wasn’t taking the security photographs that day, so I cannot show you that coin in its sample cup, but here it is in shiny catalogue image; it is a gold-ish tremissis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V probably struck in Sicily or Italy, as we demonstrated in the last one of these posts, between 717 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4542

The results were not encouraging. Admittedly, in terms of gold content they were not too far apart, ranging from 85.26% to 87.21%, an error margin of only about 3%, but even that is 2% raw difference in apparent metal content. People have founded theories about currency alteration on the basis of disparities like that, so if you’re getting them between measurements of a single coin that’s a problem. But the less present elements had similar amounts of variation: silver 7.63% to 8.84%, copper 1.78% to 2.39%, iron 0.15% to 1.04%, aluminium 0.38% to 0.67%, magnesium 0.13% to 0.67%, and then a host of other elements that one didn’t even see in some or most tests. Again, these margins may not seem like a lot, less than a per cent in some cases, but those less-than-per-cent margins are in some cases more than the total percentage of a metal in question, which meant that the error margins we were seeing were mathematically huge, in the order of 300% to 500%. Basically, no respectable scientist would trust such figures, because they could have no confidence that they would be able to reproduce them, and fair enough, because here we were trying to do so and more or less failing.

So what did all this tell us? One gloomy conclusion, that for all we’d hoped to find differently, XRF probably still isn’t a workable way of analysing trace elements in coins, we had more or less already reached, but this let us actually put numbers on why not, which is worth something. I’ve since looked at quite a lot of papers using XRF analyses on coins, and I’ve found only one that used an average of several experiments as their working figure, and that was from 1983 (and was by none other than the late lamented Michael Metcalf, and he was dealing with variations of over 20% depending on what he’d done to Philip Grierson’s coins to get those results, which we know because he actually said so in his write-up).2 He wasn’t even a metallurgist! And he presumably also wasn’t paying for machine time, which is the basic reason that I guess people don’t otherwise do this. But it is, one might say, a little embarrassing for the subdiscipline. Still, I’m not sure that even an average figure from our tests would be very safe to use. How many tests would one need to run on each object to make safe a 300% error margin? What if one of those tests increased that margin? In general, I think that even the best XRF machinery we can get just can’t give accurate figures for small-percentage composition elements, even if it probably still has some application for the big-ticket components. It’s not the conclusion we’d aimed for but when we can get anyone to publish such a negative finding it may not be without value.3 And thus endeth, for now, the sequence.


1. Of course, we have actually published on the project a tiny bit, in the form of Rebecca Darley, “All that glitters…: the Byzantine gold solidus, c. 300-1092″, in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), XV International Numismatic Congress, Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Rome 2017), II, pp. 982-985, but that was actually written and given before we’d done these final experiments.

2. That being D. M. Metcalf, “Interpreting the Alloy of the Merovingian Silver Coinage” in C. N. L. Brooke, B. H. I. H. Stewart, J. G. Pollard and T. R. Volk (eds), Studies in Numismatic Method Presented to Philip Grierson (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 113–126, out of 16 studies I know of from 1966 to 2019; I’m sure there are more, though, and if you feel I’ve missed an important one it would be really useful to know!

3. The main reason that we haven’t yet done more on publication of these experiments, even three years down the line, I should explain, is professional mobility. Even in the course of the project, every single project member changed jobs and only two of them even stayed within the same company/institution. Since then several more of us have moved again. Of course, our new employers all hired us for our own individual qualities and while some of them might like us to do this kind of collaborative inter-disciplinary research, they would prefer to have been part of it, so that only those of us who remain in Birmingham have any immediate professional interest in making this part of our workload. We will publish something on it, because we spent money on the assurance that we would, but it will be when one of us needs it more than whatever else we’re supposed to be working on, and the path to that isn’t yet clear.

In memory of Simon Bendall

I’m sorry as ever for a lapse in posting. Firstly I went on actual holiday, without a laptop—some day there will be pictures, because I did take a camera—and then as soon as I was back I had feverishly to read a 723-page thesis so as to be able to help examine it the following week in Barcelona, in whose airport indeed I now write this post. I had hoped to have written you something about Byzantine coinage by this time as well, and so, I suppose, I am about to do, but it’s not the thing I had hoped for and it must come first, as is unfortunately now common on this blog, because somebody died, and that somebody was Simon Bendall, Byzantine numismatist extraordinaire, whom I knew a little and so want to commemorate here. He died on 26 June after what was apparently a long illness, at the age of 82.

Simon Bendall (1937-2019)

I’m not sure when I first heard of Simon Bendall; it’s possible that it was in citation as I read frantically to prepare for the interview that got me the job managing the coin collection at the Barber Institute. However, I heard from him very shortly after I got that job, because his ever-active networks had brought him the news of régime change and he wanted to ask me for some images for a book he was then working on, which became his Introduction to the Coinage of Trebizond, of which he later kindly gave me a copy.1 That was an illustrative exchange for several reasons, which all help give a sense of the man, so I’ll tell them.

Firstly, I managed almost without effort to enlist him in checking over the Barber’s own initial catalogue of coins of that Byzantine splinter state, because he had once been going to catalogue them for us anyway and had been frustrated at never finding out what we actually had; as a result, to go online at some future point, there is a marked-up printout of the catalogue in the Curator’s work pile, I imagine, where I sadly had to leave it when I demitted. Secondly, yes, print-out, because Simon didn’t use e-mail, and barely used computers; the only practical way to send him a PDF was in print, and all the correspondence I had with him was actual letters, answered in longhand and in scrupulous detail in rather shorter time than I tend to manage with e-mail. Thirdly, that correspondence also got me several stories about one of my predecessors as Curator, the learned but sometimes difficult Michael Hendy, which I was later able to verify from the coin catalogue, because Simon, in his position at the coin dealer Baldwin’s, had been responsible for choosing and sending several important parts of the Byzantine collection while it was under Hendy’s care. Fourthly, it gave me vital ammunition to get the Barber to rethink its image pricing, based on full-size paintings and not really applicable to coins, that when I told him what we would have to charge him he gently pointed out that for that price he could buy an actual one of the relevant coins and photograph it himself for less money. From all this, I got the impression of a man who was a quantity, if you see what I mean.

Before long I was encountering this quantity in print, as well, because Simon was one of the people who had written about the concave fabric of later Byzantine coins, and one of the very few who had asked the important question: well, how did they do it?2 And by then I was also aware that for the coinage of the last and longest-lasting dynasty of Byzantine emperors, the Palaeologans, the standard reference was by one Simon Bendall…3 And in fact, I now learn, a full bibliography of his work would have two-hundred-plus things in it, from two- or three-page notes in the little auction house periodicals we used to have to full-length monographs, because he just knew a lot, largely through his ongoing connections with those same auction houses as employee and then consultant expert. Numismatics is one of the last fields where you don’t have to be an academic to be a major contributor, and that is not least because of the demonstrable importance of the work of people like Simon.

I think I finally met Simon at the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina in 2015, and then again at a couple of meetings of the Royal Numismatic Society. Somewhere in there I must have been told the single event that got Simon onto the web other than his publications, which was the theft of his coin collection in February 2018, sadly not the only retired collector’s collection to get taken from their home that I can think of. Typically, he took it phlegmatically—I suppose he must already have been ill, because he said to me that at least it had saved him the pain of disposing of it. He had once hoped to give it to a museum, he explained, but since it had all been acquired in trade, no UK museum would now touch it; though the thieves had obviously deprived him of one of his life’s works, it did at least mean the collection had not had to be broken up and auctioned as would otherwise have happened. In another of those conversations, more cheerfully, I learnt that his childhood home (and therefore lifelong) football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, had sent him a card signed by all the squad after he’d passed some 50-year attendance marker I wish I could now remember. Anyway, as this all suggests, he was a fount of stories, and it’s a considerable sadness that he won’t be amassing and telling any more, quite apart from all the other horrors and misfortunes of mortality. He won’t be at the next RNS party I make it to, and people will miss him. So will Byzantine numismatics in general, indeed, and so probably will Wolverhampton Wanderers, and that’s not a bad combination of mourners to have. I hope he went and remains in peace; goodbye, Simon, it was good to have known you.


1. Simon Bendall, An introduction to the coinage of the Empire of Trebizond (London 2015).

2. Simon Bendall and David Sellwood, “The Method of Striking Scyphate Coins Using Two Obverse Dies In the Light of an Early Thirteenth Century Hoard” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 18 (London 1978), pp. 93–104, and Simon Bendall, “The Double Striking of Late Byzantine Scyphate Coins” in Celator Vol. 12 (Lancaster PA 1998), pp. 20–23.

3. S. Bendall and P. J. Donald, Later Palaeologan Coinage, 1282-1453 (London 1979).

The intellectual impact of Charlemagne’s coinage

One of the occasional, too occasional I think, debates in numismatics is how much the people who have used coins have understood of what’s put on them by their issuers. I sometimes use this as a teaching point by fishing out a British coin and asking people if they know what’s on it and what any of it means, and although someone does occasionally get it that’s not at all usual. In fact, there is even scholarly literature about how little the British know about their own modern coinage, and I don’t suppose we’re too unusual in this respect.1 But how can we judge this for the late antique and medieval worlds? Information is pretty scant, so it’s always nice to come across a hint in our sources that someone or other noticed the design or significance of the money they were using. And in early February 2016, while I was searching for manuscripts to use in Leeds’s palaeography course, I had such a moment. Observe this!

Sankt Gallen, MS 731, fo. 56r

The opening of the Salic Law in Sankt Gallen, MS 731, fo. 56r

What is this, you ask as you are by now well trained to do, and I respond: it is a page from a big collection of lawcodes that now exists in the monastery of Sankt Gallen in what is now Switzerland, the so-called Wandalgarius manuscript. It contains three texts, the Roman Law of the Visigoths, which is basically a filtered version of the Roman Theodosian Code for use in Visigothic territories, the Salic Law that belonged to some of the Franks, and the Law of the Alemans. Each text has a number of decorated initials in it, and in particular when a line starts with omnis or its derivatives, the Latin word for ‘all’, the illustrator often did the first O as a roundel of some kind. The Salic Law, however, is not in its first version which supposedly goes back to King Clovis of circa 500, but the updated reissue of the time of Charlemagne, and in case this wasn’t clear the illustrator has found a roundel that identifies it using the signifier of Charlemagne that most people would have seen, namely, one of his silver pennies.2

Silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Toulouse between 792 and 812

Silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Toulouse between 792 and 812, image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Admittedly, the illustrator has combined the monogram from the reverse side with the legend from the obverse, but they clearly knew that both were there. I don’t know if that makes the figure holding up the not-to-scale coin the big man himself, but since his coins didn’t (yet) feature a portrait, neither presumably would anyone looking at this have known that either. The monogram, however, meant royal authority so clearly that once Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald revived it, it didn’t fully leave the French coinage for a century or more.3 By his coins shall ye know him, it apparently seemed to our illustrator! And of course that would only work if people understood what that image was. Now, we are looking at a pretty intellectual milieu here, I grant you; wherever this manuscript was made but it’s more information than we usually get on this question in the west, so I’ll take it, and now I give it to you.4


1. I got the two weblinks in that sentence from Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg.-D. Schaaf and Jean-Mare Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par C&eacutecile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104, but my notes don’t seem to record the exact page and I’m not going looking for it right now. More in-depth consideration of the issue has focused on Roman coinage, for which see for example C. H. V. Sutherland, “The Intelligibility of Roman Imperial Coin Types” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 49 (London 1959), pp. 46–55.

2. On the Salic Law, there is no easy guide, but T. M. Charles-Edwards, “Law in the Western Kingdoms between the Fifth and the Seventh Century” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, A.D. 425–600, Cambridge Ancient History 14 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 260–287 gives you a reasonably up-to-date account of both this and its fellows. For an account of the difficulties of the attribution of each recension, see Patrick Wormald, “The Laws of the Salian Franks. Translated and with an Introduction by Kathleen Fischer Drew. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press. 1991. ix + 256 pp. £33.20 (£11.94 paperback). ISBN 0 812 21322 X (0 812 28256 6 paperback)” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 2 (Oxford 1993), pp. 77–79, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.1993.tb00011.x.

3. Charlemagne’s coinage is discussed in Simon Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: empire and society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211–229, reprinted in Simon Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: Studies on Power and Trade in the 9th Century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2007), chapter I.

4. I’m sure I’m not the first person to spot this, and the person I would bet has is Ildar Garipzanov, probably in Ildar H. Garipzanov, “The Image of Authority in Carolingian Coinage: the image of a ruler and Roman imperial tradition” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 8 (Oxford 1999), pp. 197–218, or idem, The Symbolic Language of Authority in the Carolingian World (c. 751-877), Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 16 (Leiden 2008), but again, alas, I cannot check this right now. Sorry Ildar!