Seminar CCXLVI: controversies in studying Carolingian coinage

As promised, the Bank Holiday bonus blog post is also about coins. I promise you only very minimal quantities of numismatics in the next post, but for now we’re still in my whirl of monetary study at the beginning of 2017. On 22nd February of that year, I did something that was already becoming a rarity, which was to head down to London to hear someone speak at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research, and as previously mentioned that someone was the Reverend Dr Simon Coupland and his topic was “New Light from Carolingian Coinage”, and this bears on enough things I care about that I wanted to write it up separately in old style.

Obverse of a silver portrait denier of Charlemagne, probably struck at Aachen between 813 and 814, now in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, image from Wikimedia Commons

Here at least is a Charlemagne denier I haven’t pictured before, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Cabinet des Médailles, image by PHGCOM – own work by uploader, photographed at Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reason there is new light to be shone, it turned out, is because the stuff keeps being discovered. Although the Carolingian coinage is still probably smaller in survival than its Merovingian predecessor, and there are still therefore questions about its actual use to settle—we’ll come back to that—the hoards corpus has trebled in size since Dr Coupland began his study of the subject, and weird and wonderful groupings keep turning up, especially in the border areas of the Empire where foreign coin didn’t get reminted at entry. Dr Coupland also has the kind of contacts that means he hears about the single finds that Continental antiquities laws tend otherwise to prevent coming to light. Who knows what has come up even while I haven’t been writing this paper up, indeed?1 So there were a number of big-ticket declarations he felt he could now make, and then some curiosities we have still to resolve.

Among the big-ticket items were things like:

  1. Charlemagne’s monogram coinage is found further from its mints than any preceding Carolingian coinage; whatever it is was that joined up his empire, it meant that his late money travelled further than the early stuff.2
  2. His son Louis the Pious, however, seems to have minted more coin per year than any Carolingian ruler before or after him; the latter fact was because the civil war between his sons seriously damaged the production and circulation of the currency and Charles the Bald’s reset of his coinage in 864 did not fully repair the situation even in the West (though if it had, we might conceivably not know, since coins from after that point are very hard to date).
  3. On the other side of the war of the Carolingian brothers, Emperor Lothar I seems to have lost control of his coinage somewhat: there seem to be a lot of Viking imitations, which may be because he had farmed out his biggest mint, Dorestad in Frisia, to a Viking warlord called Rorik and apparently Rorik’s moneyers didn’t much care what Lothar’s name was. This, however, raises the question whether the Frisian imitations of gold solidi of Louis the Pious are also Viking occupation productions, which against this background suddenly seems likely…3
Anglo-Frisian imitation of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious found in Aldingbourn area, Sussex, UK, Portable Antiquities Scheme SUSS-2A93DC

Viking-made? An imitation of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious found in Aldingbourn area , Sussex, UK, 5th May 2019, Portable Antiquities Scheme SUSS-2A93DC, image licensed under CC-BY.

On the scale of smaller curiosities, we had observations like this:

  1. We now know that King Pepin III struck a very small portrait coinage, so that’s pretty much every mainline Carolingian with one now.
  2. On the same subject, we now have 47 examples of Charlemagne’s portrait coinage, and the persistently small number of them against the background of his wider coinage makes the question of what they were for still harder to answer, not least because we now have 362 of Louis the Pious’s; it seems clearer that the son of Charlemagne was keener on circulating his imperial image, so what was Charlemagne doing?4
  3. Hoards from around Dorestad continue to indicate the place’s major rôle as a clearing house for international economic contact even before the Vikings were running it, with not just now five hoards of Pepin III and quite a mixture of other Carolingiana but also now a small hoard of King Eanred of Northumbria…5
  4. Despite that, coins from Venice, which was in some ways outside the actual Empire, actually form as large a part of the single finds distribution as do coins from supposed no. 1 port Dorestad, so the high level of finds recovery from the Netherlands may be bending our picture somewhat.
  5. Two hoards from near the major Carolingian mint of Melle, meanwhile, add considerably to the confusion of what was going on in Aquitaine while it was contested between King Charles the Bald and King Pepin II of Aquitaine, as we now have one hoard each of coins in the name of Charles but with Pepin’s monogram (Dr Coupland’s ‘Poitou-Charente 2014’) and one of coins in the name of Pepin but with Charles’s monogram.6 Is it possible some kind of joint rule is reflected here, or was it just blundering, or mint officials trying to play it safe? Why did they have dies of both to mix up? And so on…
  6. Lastly, of many other snippets I could mention, a hoard of 2000 Temple-type coins of Lothar I from Tzimmingen gives us a robust die sample for the coinage and suggests that, if one accepts the infamous Metcalf multiplier of 10,000 coins usually struck per die, that this would have been a coinage of around 4,000,000 pieces.7 But of course, we should not accept the infamous Metcalf multiplier8

You may get the impression that this paper was substantially composed of numismatic gossip, and you wouldn’t be all wrong about that, but behind all this, especially when one starts dealing with numbers like that, are bigger questions. Long ago now Michael Hendy argued that whereas Roman coinage had been primarily intended for tax and was run in the state interest rather than out of any concern for commerce, something in which he has been much disputed since, by the Carolingian era enabling trade was a primary concern of coin-issuing powers, not least because they didn’t really use coin for anything else, since the imperial tax system was gone and they raised troops on obligations relating to land, not by paying them wages.9 We might, now, have enough additional respect for the Carolingians’ estate management and desire to transport wealth in durable forms around their empire to suspect that they did, in fact, have at least some governmental uses for coin, and Hendy would probably not have denied that, but when we’ve got figures like these, and coins moving so far before then getting lost, as Metcalf managed to argue for the early Anglo-Saxon coinages, it seems like trade must be the bigger part of the answer. That raises its own questions about whether this relatively high-value silver coinage was actually very generally available or whether it was, effectively, a tool of professionals. That goes double when one factors in professional soldiery or banditry that might explain hoards in Viking territories, I suppose, but Dr Coupland would argue for a trading factor there too, and I think Mark Blackburn would have agreed with him.10

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious struck at Venice in 819-822, CNG Coins 407389

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious struck at Venice in 819-822, CNG Coins 407389, ex Coin Galleries sale, 14 November 2000, lot 576

As Rory Naismith raised in questions, the place that doesn’t fit into this picture as one would expect is Italy, part of the Carolingian realms at least down to Rome and sometimes further from 774. While it’s probably not ideal metal detector territory for much of its surface, Italy is nevertheless pretty thoroughly archaeologically surveyed and dug, and yet, as Alessia Rovelli has repeatedly argued, the finds of coins from the Carolingian era are way fewer than from the Roman, Byzantine and even Lombard eras before it.11 She has therefore concluded that the Carolingians didn’t really strike much coin in Italy, and yet beyond the Alps Venice and Milan are major parts of the sample. If those mints were primarily striking for what turned out to be export, it’s hard to argue that this was a coinage for the market, when Italy’s concentration of cities even then should have provided a much more urgent market context than the other side of the Alps. In this respect, at least, this coinage looks like a tax one, a point made on this occasion by Caroline Goodson, in which case why does it look like a trading one inside Frankish territories? For Dr Coupland this was probably something do with the finding circumstances, but an alternative might be that Italy was something of a colonised territory under the Carolingians, from which they extracted wealth that was really only being spent in the heartland, whereafter it spread more normally. But what was Italy doing for money in its own markets if that was so? There is a bigger answer needed here if it is to contain all this evidence, but of course, one has to know what the evidence is. Certainly, the audience of this paper had to ask their questions differently by the end of it from how they would have at the beginning, such was the new evidence presented. As you can tell, I am still thinking with it now, and now, after much delay, so can you!


1. Dr Coupland has been trying to keep track of this for a while: see Simon Coupland, “A Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards 751-987” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 171 (London 2011), pp. 203–256, on JSTOR here; idem, “A Supplement to the Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards, 751-987”, ibid. Vol. 174 (London 2014), pp. 213–222, on JSTOR here; idem, “Seven Recent Carolingian Hoards”, ibid. pp. 317–332, on JSTOR here; idem, “A Hoard of Charles the Bald (840-77) and Pippin II (845-8)”, ibid. Vol. 175 (London 2015), pp. 273–284, and Simon Coupland and Jens Christian Moesgaard, “Carolingian Hoards”, ibid., pp. 267–272, are just the ones I easily have reference to; I suspect there are more…

2. See now Simon Coupland, “The Formation of a European Identity: Revisiting Charlemagne’s Coinage” in Elina Screen and Charles West (eds), Writing the Early Medieval West: studies in honour of Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge 2018), pp. 213–229.

3. See Simon Coupland, “Recent Finds of Imitation Gold Solidi in the Netherlands” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 261–269.

4. Simon Coupland, “The Portrait Coinage of Charlemagne” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: Studies in Memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 145–156.

5. For a view predating these recent finds, see Simon Coupland, “Boom and Bust at 9th-century Dorestad” in Annemarieke Willemsen and H. Kik (edd.), Dorestad in an International Framework: New Research on Centres of Trade and Coinage in Carolingian Times (Turnhout 2010), pp. 95–103.

6. This is presumably that covered in Coupland, “A Hoard of Charles the Bald (840-77) and Pippin II (845-8)”, and I guess the other one is in either idem, “A Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards” or idem, “A Supplement to the Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards”.

7. Metcalf in D. M. Metcalf, “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, on JSTOR here, but for a statistical sanity check of the methods (which basically aren’t sane) see Warren W. Esty, “Estimation of the Size of a Coinage: a Survey and Comparison of Methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, on JSTOR here.

8. See for a final word on this, at least as it should have been, S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again” in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135.

9. Michael F. Hendy, “From Public to Private: The Western Barbarian Coinages as a Mirror of the Disintegration of Late Roman State Structures” in Viator Vol. 19 (Turnhout 1988), pp. 29–78, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.2.301364.

10. Obviously there are the important methodological cautions of Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, on JSTOR here, which I do love to cite still, but against it in this context see D. M. Metcalf, “Viking-Age Numismatics 4: The Currency of German and Anglo-Saxon Coins in the Northern Lands” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 148 (London 1998), pp. 345–371, on JSTOR here, and idem, “English Money, Foreign Money: The Circulation of Tremisses and Sceattas in the East Midlands, and the Monetary Role of ‘Productive Sites'” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 15–48.

11. Alessia Rovelli, “Coins and Trade in Early Medieval Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 45–76.

Things I did not know about coinage in al-Andalus

I owe you all some blog posts! So I hope you don’t mind if they’re mostly about coins, because apparently at the beginning of 2017 I was dealing with coins at pretty much every level. The Roman stuff just discussed was being catalogued while I could still catalogue, but I’d chosen that stuff to catalogue because I needed to know what there was for teaching my late antique survey module. Teaching with coinage on my final-year special subject is harder, because for much of the period of Iberian history it covers there was no, or almost no, coinage being issued in the Latin kingdoms, and I don’t read the Arabic with which I might better understand the Muslim state’s or states’ stuff, and either way the Leeds collection has basically none of it. I did, however, run one class on the economy of al-Andalus, focusing on money and slaves, and for that I wanted to show the students some coins, even if the most they got from it would be that the state had considerable powers of standardisation, that the Islamic standard of coinage was fairly universal and that when the caliphate began it reintroduced gold coinage and that was no coincidence. Those all seemed like worthwhile teaching points…

Gold dinar of Caliph 'Abd al-Raḥmān III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 929-930, Tonegawa Collection 6871

Gold dinar of Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 929-930, Tonegawa Collection 6871

So I went hunting for a resource to use and remembered the existence of something I had once found, the Tonegawa Collection. If you haven’t met it, this is an increasingly-comprehensive open online and expressly anti-copyright collection of images of and information on coins of al-Andalus; but right now, it was an English-language resource with many pictures and so I leapt at it. Of course, I had actually to look at it first to ensure that this would probably work, and in the course of that I learnt many cool things about Andalusī (i. e. Iberian Muslim) coinage and stubbed this post in which to tell you all of them.

Gold solidus struck in Spania in AD 711-712, Tonegawa Collection 9084

Gold solidus struck in ‘Spania’ in AD 711-712, Tonegawa Collection 9084

Some of these things I knew already, like this one. The Visigothic kingdom that the Muslim forces took over in the Iberian Peninsula in 711 had had a mostly-gold coinage of so-called tremisses, technically one-third of a Roman/Byzantine solidus. Unlike most places where Islam took over a tax system, where it just maintained the existing coinage until the application of a new one had been worked out, here something more studied was done: the new régime struck solidi, which the Visigoths had not for a long time, on the Byzantine weight standard and with halves and thirds like the Byzantines, but of a new design with Latin inscriptions recording the value, country of issue (Hispania) and the Islamic date, and a star on the other side. There were also copper-alloy coins of a less standard kind.1 Conventional wisdom is that this was the application of the system the Muslims had met at Carthage when they took that, but that had been thirty years before, since which time coinage there had been regularised with that of the rest of the Islamic world, and in any case the last solidi from Islamic Carthage were fat globby things quite unlike these in both fabric or design.2

Gold bilingual half-dinar struck in al-Andalus in AD 716-717, Tonegawa Collection 98

Gold bilingual half-dinar struck in al-Andalus in AD 716-717, Tonegawa Collection 98

Next, five years later, came coins closer to Islamic dinar weights, with both Latin and Arabic inscriptions as you see above, and then five years after that regular Islamic dinars, then soon after that gold ceased to be issued and it was only silver dirhams and copper-alloy fulūs till the new Caliphate in 929 (see the first illustration). Whatever was going on here involved some deliberate decisions about how this was going to work and perhaps some early sense that this was going to be a new province of a different kind to the other Islamic possessions. There’s a story from the later Arabic sources that the first delegate governor of al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Azīz, son of the governor of Ifrīqīyya who had conquered the peninsula, married the widow of the last Visigothic king and started looking as if he would set up as the new one, so that his men murdered him for his pretensions; I wonder if this coinage is showing us the same thing, a potential breakway régime which thought it was too far from Damascus to be stopped and in the end proved to be wrong.3

Silver dirham of Emir Hisham I struck in al-Andalus in AD 802-803, Tonegawa 187x1

Silver dirham of Emir Hisham I struck in al-Andalus in AD 802-803, Tonegawa 187×1

Likewise, it’s interesting to me that throughout the history of the rule of some kind of the first, Umayyad, ruling dynasty of Islam in the peninsula, the mint named on the precious-metal coinage was almost never more specific than the whole province, first Hispania then al-Andalus, as if any minting place was the same given the uniformity of control.4 Given how shaky Umayyad control often was here, that might have been quite an important thing to assert: coinage of Toledo or wherever would have been politically contentious when the city rebelled, as it often did, but while all the coinage was from ‘al-Andalus’, even when the governors or emirs controlled relatively little of that space, at least their money would not make that obvious. It’s frustrating not knowing where they were made, of course, but there was probably a point to it.

Copper-alloy coin of one Ibn Qāsī struck at an uncertain mint and date, Tonegawa Collection 10

Copper-alloy coin of one Ibn Qāsī struck at an uncertain mint and date, Tonegawa Collection 10. The Arabic which identifies the issue apparently more or less renders as ‘Son of Cassius/Qāsī’ and ‘Conquest’, which is fascinating if so, but obviously isn’t all the script on the coin so if anyone feels like decoding the rest for me I would be in their debt and would footnote their assistance in subsequent publication…

Now this much I already knew, largely because of long ago having copy-edited the volume I’ve been citing for it all. But the Tonegawa Collection showed me lots of new things. For example, I dimly knew that Islamic law considers only precious-metal coinage to be the business of the state, so that base-metal small change can effectively be provided privately.5 It could, though, also be provided at intermediate level, such as by city or March governors, and that’s how come the above is a coin of the infamous Banū Qāsī, the frontier warlords about whom at this point I’d only a year before written the first English-language synthesis longer than a paragraph.6 Was that just necessity, at one of the periods when they held the big city of Zaragoza, to keep the markets and tax systems running, or was the chance to issue even base-metal coin part of how they tried to embed themselves into the area before anyone could come along and push them out of it again? I hadn’t realised that the coinage could be a source here, because no-one who works on them mentions it, but now when I finally revise that paper, I can.

Copper-alloy fals overstruck in al-Andalus at an uncertain date on a nummus of Emperor Maximian, Tonegawa Collection IIF

Copper-alloy fals overstruck in al-Andalus at an uncertain date on a nummus of Emperor Maximian, Tonegawa Collection IIF

I could go on for a while, but I’ll keep it to just these two further things. This is a copper-alloy fals, and I can’t tell you anything really about who issued it or when—though if anyone reading can make anything of the legend I would love to know—but I can tell you that it didn’t start this way, as this has been struck straight onto a Roman nummus of Emperor Maximian (285-305, 307-308 and 310). Coins like this have been the seed of a long (friendly) argument between me and Eduardo Manzano Moreno, who has indeed now published his side of the dispute (on which more in a couple of posts). I maintain, backed by now considerable finds evidence, that there were Visigothic base-metal coinages struck in the Peninsula; he maintains that coins like these show that the circulating medium of small change was actually reused or still-used Roman coins.7 I thought that unlikely, but there are, as this demonstrates, coins that make him at least part right. They don’t make me wrong about the Visigothic stuff, though! Nonetheless, what this is is a coin that, even if not continuously, had been in use for at least 429 years when this happened to it, perhaps rather more, and which presumably then went to be used some more before someone helpfully lost it or hoarded it. You can see why I was sceptical, but as it’s true it is, as Neil would have said, pretty heavy, man.

Double-pierced silver dirham of 'Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Double-pierced silver dirham of ‘Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Lastly, as any of you who have worked closely with me and my numismatic buddies will know, we think piercing of coins is really interesting.8 Apart from anything else, it tells us that despite the presumably-fixed value of the coin in precious metal, it was still worth more for someone to bore some of that metal out of it and hang it on a string or whatever than to maintain that. You can sometimes tell a lot by how a coin is pierced; if it was hung on a string, for example, what face would be the right way up? Which way through was the hole pushed? Does that match? If there are two holes, it was probably going to be stitched to fabric; how does that change our picture? Here, we seem to have both: the damage at the edge seems to be where a single piercing caused the edge to crack off, and then someone put two holes through it more centrally. Or perhaps those things happened the other way round, who knows? So had this coin been crossing some kind of culture divide, was this change of use, or had it just fallen off whatever it was attached to and someone decided to make sure? We can’t answer these questions, of course, at least not normally, but their answers would make up individual object biographies in which the coin interacted with its different and equally individual users, and this coin apparently did more obvious interaction than many.9 I wonder what?

Anyway. That is enough numismatic effusion for now, especially given that the next post will contain more. Imagine how much worse it would be if I could read these things…


1. My guide here is of course Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: The Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 54-61.

2. See Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 147-148.

3. On the story and its background see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain 710–797 (Oxford 1989), pp. 37-38.

4. Crusafont, Balaguer & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, p. 59. The exception is the period 947-961, when the coins of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III were issued from his palace at Madinat al-Zahra’, outside Córdoba.

5. See Stefan Heidemann, “Numismatics” in Chase F. Robinson (ed.), The New Cambridge History of Islam: Volume 1: The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries (Cambridge 2010), pp. 648–663 at pp. 649-651.

6. Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qasī, 842-907”, unpublished paper presented at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 9th July 2015; it does, alas, remain unpublished, but I can also offer you Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia 718 to 1031” in Javier Muñoz-Basols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40 at pp. 28-29, assuming of course that you cannot access the much more comprehensive Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografias 17 (Madrid 2010).

7. Eduardo Manzano Moreno and Alberto Canto, “The Value of Wealth: Coins and Coinage in Iberian Early Medieval Documents” in †Simon Barton and Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: New Directions in the History of Medieval Iberia (711-1085) In Honour of Simon Barton, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 76 (Leiden 2020), pp. 169–197. In my defence I cite Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Madrid 2015), pp. 125–160, for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. On coin piercing see Rebecca Darley, “Money, Art and Representation: the powerful and pragmatic faces of medieval coinage” in Rory Naismith (ed.), A Cultural History of Money in the Medieval Age, Cultural History of Money 2 (London 2019), pp. 99–124 at pp. 119-121.

9. You probably don’t need a reference for the idea of object biographies but if you want one, here are two, Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value” in idem (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), pp. 3-63, and Karin Dannehl, “Object Biographies: from production to consumption” in Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources (London 2009), pp. 123–138.

I found this coin, 5: Roman public image regulation

I should apologise for the lack of a post last week; the time in which I had meant to write it all went on processing the photos from which I was going to construct it. These were, as you may guess from the subject line, all coins, in fact most of the coins that I selected for the first run of one of the modules I suggested that I could when I applied for the job at Leeds, a second-year option based on the social and political changes of the late antique period in the West as seen through its money. As I originally conceived it, this module was going to work using the collections in the Leeds Discovery Centre but, as you’ve heard, soon after arriving I was informed there were resources as good much closer to hand and so it ran with the materials in Special Collections in Leeds University Library instead. This year I ran it as an MA module instead for the first time, which worked a lot better, but since firstly very few of my students seem to read my blog and secondly, and more grimly, it seems very unlikely we’ll be able to run any modules based on supervised handling of objects any time soon, there seems no harm in dedicating a post to one of its teaching points, which is to what the images I have finally processed most obviously lend themselves.

Obverse of ilver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Obverse of a silver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Reverse of silver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Reverse of the same coin. I freely admit that this one has nothing to do with the post, I just couldn’t read the date or mint signature and am hoping that someone who can will be reading… It’s happened before!

So, if you ever read much in the way of numismatics and coinage history for the pre-modern period, you may have met the idea that coinage is in some sense state propaganda.1 And one could debate whether that is its primary purpose or whether it’s mainly for ensuring the operation of the economy; but since to be recognised as coin it must identify an authority of guarantee, or else it’s just a round disc of metal, many issuers have indeed used that fact to say something about themselves with their money. Where it gets tricky, though, is when from there we try to extrapolate the public image policy of ancient and medieval rulers. Do we, after all, imagine that modern heads of state choose their coinage designs? Those of us who remember the first UK pound coins will remember that they had eight different edge inscriptions and a different reverse design every year, which was basically anti-counterfeiting and although the designs did have some purposes of eliciting national pride in our great achievements and heritage, I don’t suppose any of us thought the Prime Minister came up with them, let alone Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.2

Reverse design of the 2004 UK pound coin

Reverse design of the 2004 UK pound coin, showing the Forth Bridge in Scotland

But when one tries the same argument on ancient or medieval rulers, one finds people weirdly reluctant to let go of the idea of royal or imperial agency. I once had a ten-minute argument with someone in the Institute of Historical Research about the coinage of William the Conqueror and the intended significance of the portrait iconography, with the other party believing that his facing portrait was a deliberate echo of Byzantine imagery which indicated William’s quasi-imperial status as now being a ruler of plural realms, and because they wanted this to be William’s initative they loudly asserted that since the coin bore his image and name, and thus directly touched his reputation, he could not have afforded not to take a personal interest. My counter-argument was more or less, “You mean he really thought he should look like this?”

Silver penny of William I of England struck by Æstan at Winchester between 1066 and 1087

Silver penny of William I of England struck by Æstan at Winchester between 1066 and 1087, from Tony Clayton’s Pictures of Coins of the UK, linked through for your perusal

Y’see, I believe that someone chose that crown and the facing portrait, which do indeed look like Emperor Justinian I’s coins a bit (see below), but I don’t believe that it had to be William who chose them, still less that it was intended to be portraiture; I think the designs would have been settled at a much lower level, and I don’t think William expected it to resemble him so much as generally to look like the kind of royal or imperial figure wot belongs on a coin. But neither of us had any proof of our positions, which is why the argument went on for so long. And so the question arises: lacking any actual documentation of these decisions, as until the maybe-fifteenth century we are, can we hope to show any case where the decision about what a coin looked like really did rest with the ruler?

Obverse of a gold solidus of Justinian I struck at Constantinople in 538-565, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, CC/WC/BYZ/001 Reverse of a gold solidus of Justinian I struck at Constantinople in 538-565, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, CC/WC/BYZ/001

A halfway position has been achieved with one or two Roman imperial coinages, which is possible because Roman minting happened on such a scale that there were obviously a great many separate pairs of hands at work in the coinage and there must therefore have been some higher-level direction about what the designs should look like. This gets even truer when plural mints are involved, and long ago a scholar by the name of Patrick Bruun did a careful analysis of one sort of coin of Constantine I, the so-called Gloria Exercitus coinage (The Glory of the Army) focusing on the differences between the mints’ interpretation of the design. I won’t trouble you with the detail here and now, mostly because I can’t remember it, but the point was that only some of the details varied. Therefore, he argued, the things that didn’t must have been in the instructions sent to the mint.3

Copper-alloy coin of Constantine I struck at Trier in 333-334, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2959

Copper-alloy coin of Constantine I struck at Trier in 333-334, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2959

Actually, the instructions must have been sent to the die-engravers, and they might not have been at the mint—they might even all have been in the same place and the dies distributed once carved, though that would be a bad way to cope with wastage and still avoid forgery—but the basic point holds, that we can see (a) that there were instructions and (b) roughly what they included. Even this, however, doesn’t get us as far as (c) who came up with those instructions. Did Constantine say: “I want a coinage that’s about the soldiers, man, I want to really speak to those guys, let them know that they all together support the unified Empire, so let’s have two soldiers both holding the same standard, it’ll be super deep”, or was it only the first clause or two then some artist came up with the rest and the under-secretary of the Count of the Sacred Largesses or similar went, “That’ll do, send out orders for a hundred dies in that pattern to be delivered in a month”? Can we ever know? Well, there might be just one coinage where we can, and it’s this next one.

(Top: billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972.
Second row: billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962.
Third row down: billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885.
Bottom: billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued.)
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

You will quickly note that these coins are quite similar. That is true even though they are coins of four different emperors and each struck at a different mint in a different year. Nonetheless, there they are, pretty much indistinguishable except by text. Coincidence? Strong tradition? Well, almost certainly not, because these four all ruled together. They are the four Roman emperors known as the First Tetrarchy, a college of four rulers selected by their eldest member, Diocletian (284-305) to rule with him as delegates in different parts of the Empire. Despite that geographical delegation, their edicts all went out in the name of all four emperors, their monuments often depicted all four of them together even though that probably happened only twice, and, importantly for us, all the mints of the Empire issued coins in the name all four emperors at once.4

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, on the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, on the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki, third register down; image by Armineaghayanown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reasons for this are pretty clear if you know about the so-called third-century crisis, a fifty-year run of short imperial Roman reigns brought to an end by a seemingly-endless series of military coups as frontier situations bubbled out of the control of any single ruler: wherever the emperor could not be, there a resentful army appointed their own and the result was continual civil war.5 Diocletian, whose entire military career up to his succession—in a military coup—was spent in this political environment, seems to have realised that the need was for multiple emperors, but not plural emperors as had hitherto been tried, with a ruler’s young son who could be seen as inexperienced or second-best promoted up, but four more-or-less-equally experienced military officers any of whom could stand in for any of the others.6 And that seems to be what their public image was intended to convey: the emperors are all the same, and speak together; if you have one you have them all; they can’t be turned against each other and there is always one to whom you can address yourself.

Silver argenteus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Trier in 289-300, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2529

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, again, this time on the reverse of a silver argenteus of Diocletian struck at Trier in 289-300, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2529

So I wouldn’t like to say, especially given the more naturalistic image on the coin above, that there was a meeting in which Diocletian and the others decided, “you know what we should all have? Beards and really really thick necks, like, unreal necks, OK?” The basic design details might still have been due to someone else lower down the chain, and the key thing might have been that it was easy for most die-cutters to reproduce, so, basic but characteristic. But that the same design went everywhere and every emperor struck the same coins for all four of them in his mints, I think must have been settled in such a conference between the top men themselves, and I would imagine that that being so, they probably did actually approve the designs before the dies were ordered. But this might be the only case where I’m prepared to admit that it really was the rulers’ decision…7


1. You need examples? How about Barbara Levick, “Messages on the Roman Coinage: Types and Inscriptions” in G. M. Paul and M. Ierardi (edd.), Roman Coins and Public Life under the Empire (Ann Arbor MI 1999), pp. 41–60 or Cécile Morrisson, “Displaying the Emperor’s Authority and Kharaktèr in the Marketplace” in Pamela Armstrong (ed.), Authority in Byzantium (Farnham 2013), pp. 65–80?

2. Of course, the anti-counterfeiting didn’t in the end work, which is why we now have the new seven-sided bimetallic ones, but by then people were already trying to solve the problem with lasers, as so often happens nowadays: see Andrew Appleby and Thangavel Thevar, “Identification of British One Pound Counterfeit Coins using Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy” in Optical Engineering Vol. 55 (Bellingham WT 2016), pp. 044104-1-044104–6, DOI: 10.1117/1.OE.55.4.044104.

3. Patrick M. Bruun, “The System of the Vota Coinages: Coordination of Issues in the Constantinian Empire” in Norsk Numismatisk Årsskrift Vol. 96 (Oslo 1958), pp. 1–21, repr. in Bruun, Studies in Constantinian Numismatics: papers from 1954 to 1988, ed. by A. Tammisto, Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 12 (Rome 1991), pp. 27–36.

4. A good guide here is Roger Rees, Diocletian and the Tetrarchy (Edinburgh 2004), which has a useful appendix of translated sources.

5. Here I like Alaric Watson, Aurelian and the Third Century (London 1999), despite the obvious case it wants to make for the brief reign of its imperial subject.

6. The alternative had been attempted by Valerian (253-260), whose son Gallienus (253-268) did OK until Valerian was captured by the Persians and he had to raise his own young sons to the purple, which ended badly for them. See for an attempt to save Gallienus’s reputation, of which there is now pretty much one per emperor, John Bray, Gallienus : A Study in Reformist and Sexual Politics (Kent Town 1997), an attack on the older Lukas de Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus (Leiden 1976). Actually, I don’t think anyone has tried to rescue Valerian yet…

7. Actually, that’s not quite true: I’m pretty sure that Emperor Nero chose most of his coin designs, but my main justification for that belief is that he fancied himself an artist and their iconography’s often very clever, which however much I like it as an idea still isn’t proof…

Rites de passage: judging a doctorate for the first time

As said last post, as 2017, when the world was quite different, rolled around, I began the year by examining my first doctorate. Pretty much as soon as the public transport started working again, in fact, I was on my way to Cambridge. Now, in fact, the thesis was fine; I’ve not yet been placed in the position of examining a thesis that wasn’t more or less OK, thankfully, and if and when I am I doubt I’ll write about it here.1 When I say it was fine, I mean our biggest objection as examiners was that there was more in it about elephants than was strictly speaking required by the topic, but I want to reflect on the actual process a bit, just because it is a set of rituals not shared everywhere and merits reflection.

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby speaking to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Cambridge

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, discoursing on ‘”Useless Peace”: Carolingian-Umayyad Diplomacy, 810-820’, for the University of Cambridge in 2014; click through to find it as a podcast…

In the first place, my involvement in this was very much being stepped back into old networks. The person being examined was Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, seen above, whom I had met at seminars at the Institute of Historical Research and who had also helped put on a conference three years before at which I presented. I was co-examining with someone I’d known for much longer, Dr Marios Costambeys, of the University of Liverpool but who, because of holding his doctorate from Cambridge, allowed to function as internal examiner there. Meanwhile I was the external, who has the easier job (as I now know): all the external has to do is read the thesis, write a report, sit in a room with the candidate for a couple of hours talking about their thesis, decide the judgement with the internal examiner, inform the candidate and then write up actions for the candidate if necessary, and then hand the rest over to the internal examiner for dealing with, take one’s honorarium and go home. Given the timing, I was reading Sam’s thesis over the Christmas holiday and New Year, but I have had worse tasks to take away to relatives to pore over while everyone else is celebrating the change of the calendar, and this task got much easier once it became clear that the thesis was going to be perfectly possible to pass.

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from Wikimedia Commons

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, photograph by Ardfernown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, naturally enough we had arguments and quibbles here and there. Sam’s topic was ‘Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World’, which necessitated at least some examination of early medieval elephants in order to understand what would, at the time, have been understood by it when Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, of Arabian Nights fame, sent Charlemagne a lone bull elephant whose name was Abul ‘Abbas, this being a historical thing that actually happened between the real historical persons of those names in the late ninth century.2 It just, maybe, didn’t need quite as much about elephants as Sam had put in. We advised him to cut that back and pour out his elephantine concerns in a separate article.3 I was interested in deconstructing a distinction Sam was making between diplomacy of necessity (intended to produce an outcome between the two parties) and diplomacy of prestige (intended to impress and make you look splendid but not necessarily to change anything), on the grounds that some embassies could do both; as Sam pointed out, the other option is deliberate disengagement, which can also be pursued for different reasons. Marios was interested in what Sam thought he was adding to our overall picture of the Carolingian world, to which Sam’s answer was that Charlemagne and his court were much more capable of handling contradictions in their attitudes and philosophy than our own tradition of analysis by logic and categories makes easy for us to understand; that seemed to me and still seems to me a big point, which if we could grasp properly would help us understand these worlds better. In general, to whatever we asked, Sam had good answers, which is roughly what is supposed to happen in this exercise, and we were able to pass his thesis with only a few recommended corrections, which he completed in pretty short order and thereafter, once the University bureaucracy had processed Marios’s acknowledgement of that fact, he was and is entitled to call himself Dr Ottewill-Soulsby, and richly and rightly deserved too.

The School of History, University College London

The School of History, University College London

Still, it is strange to reflect upon. In 2006, in a room in University College London, I went through this same process as examinee, with quite a similar outcome (and I then got on a train to Brighton to see Clutch play with Stinking Lizaveta in support, got more than a little drunk and finally collapsed happily in what I then thought was the best company in the world, and it was really a very good day in my life).4 Then I went back to working in a museum for nearly five years, at last got an academic job, briefly went back into museums and then got my job at Leeds, and that last, along with having got through the process myself, now qualified me to judge whether someone else should be allowed to set out on this somewhat shaky bridge into academia, if they want to. My having some knowledge of Sam’s field was obviously also important, but it’s not the only qualification required. Consider also that, if they’ve done it right, the person being examined knows a lot more about the topic than the persons examining do; part of the job of the viva is almost to make sure of that. At the same time, it is ‘only’ an examination of a piece of written work done for a degree qualification, not a golden key to academic employment or anything. The fact that this process is the only summative assessment of a multi-year project means that the sunk costs and aspirations in it are huge but don’t change what it actually is. But nonetheless, it can mean somebody’s world. I’m very glad that the first one I was asked to do was possible to pass so uncontentiously. Thanks, Sam; you were not the only one performing a rite de passage in that room, and you made it a lot easier for both of us than it might have been…


1. I’m now up to four, because that’s what this blog’s backlog looks like. Each will be told a little of in its due season, though, because all their respective victors deserve their time on the podium.

2. On which, apart of course from Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 2017), pp. 83-92, you could profitably see Leslie Brubaker, “The Elephant and the Ark: Cultural and Material Interchange across the Mediterranean in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 58 (Washington DC 2004), pp. 175–195, or more broadly Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York City 2004), pp. 43-68.

3. It must be said that no elephantine article has yet come forth, but what has is Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Leiden 2019), pp. 263–292, if that’s any use to you instead…

4. The matter of that day then being Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 2005), online here, as well of course as Clutch, Robot Hive / Exodus (DRT Entertainment 2005) and Stinking Lizaveta, Caught Between Worlds (At A Loss 2004), among others of their works.

Chronicle VII: January-March 2017

We continue to live in upset times, which make the events of a few years back seem even less relevant than they might have been before. Plus which, these posts aren’t actually much fun to write, and this one was set to be fairly grim anyway, which current circumstances set in proportion somewhat; I may not have been having a great time, but look at the world now, right? So I’ll observe chronology and do it, but be more schematic and briefer than usual, so I can move on quickly. In case you prefer to move on even quicker, I’ll put the rest below a cut… Continue reading

Name in Print XXV: un treball nou sobre l’Abadessa Emma i el comte Guifré el Pelós

This post was delayed by the time it took my copies of my previous publication to arrive, because my obsessive sense of chronology demanded that I do them in the order they came out. But even at the time I posted my last publication news there was already another in the queue, and in fact had been since December 2019—that different world, when there was no global pandemic and people were still hoping Britain would somehow stay in the European Union—when, from that very international bloc and specifically from Barcelona, this arrived in my hands.

Cover of Irene Brugués, Coloma Boada & Xavier Costa (edd.), El Monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femení dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019)

Cover of Irene Brugués, Coloma Boada & Xavier Costa (edd.), El Monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femení dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019). You may recognise the cover image…

The significant name for me in this story is the third one on that cover, that of Xavier Costa, who will enter our backlogged story next post but, in the short version, was at Leeds for a term in early 2017 and thus found out (more) about my work. Then, in October of that year there was a conference at Sant Joan de les Abadesses, a town that bears its name because of the nunnery that was established there by Count Guifré the Hairy, and about which I wrote my first ever article and a decent part of my first book.1 I found out about this a little while later, when one of the participants got in touch asking for a copy of what would become my Traditio article, and I was sorry not to have been invited—there was no budget for international travel, I later found out—but was intrigued to know that new work was being done on the abbey.2 But although I had not been able to go to the conference, Xavier being one of the editors meant that I did get invited to contribute to the resulting book, which meant an awful lot to me as it was almost my first recognition from the Catalan academy. At first, being given carte blanche, I offered something that turned out to be almost exactly what Xavier had been intending to write, but when that became clear I instead offered to take over a chapter about the establishment of the nunnery for which they had no author assigned.

Now, this was not as easy as it might have been. You might think I could just have reprised my older work, but in the first place there was newer work to take into account, in the second place I’d changed my mind about some of the issues and most of all, this meant writing about Guifré the Hairy and his establishment of power in Osona, a subject on which I had previously written probably a paragraph at most and that not very well thought out.3 It’s not as simple as it seems, because as far as we can tell no-one had given Guifré rights over the county of Osona, which had been out of Carolingian control for fifty years when he succeeded to Barcelona, and why communities there should have engaged with him is not actually clear if you don’t start from the position that a nation was there waiting to be formed. This is, though, the same problem to which I devoted a tangled series of blog posts a few years back, which then turned into an article that was nearly lost, and that meant that I did myself now have a theory about how he might have done this, which to my delight seemed to fit.4 And with that realised, suddenly this became much easier to write…

Title page of Jonathan Jarrett, "La fundació de Sant Joan en el context de l'establiment dels comtats catalans", in Brugués, Boada & Costa, El monestir de Sant Joan, pp. 83-107

Title page of Jonathan Jarrett, ‘La fundació de Sant Joan en el context de l’establiment dels comtats catalans’, in Brugués, Boada & Costa, El monestir de Sant Joan, pp. 83-107

I got to write it in English, thankfully, but thanks again to the good offices of Xavier Costa it has been published in really quite stylish Catalan, which is another first for me.5 I got to see one or two of the other chapters in draft, so could take account of them, but with others there are inevitable differences of opinion and interpretation. Well, that is the nature of scholarship and I hope that even though I have not met all of my fellow contributors we will still be able to talk about those differences some day in the future, maybe even back at Sant Joan. Until then, here is a volume that is the state of our understanding about the place and its importance in the formative period of Catalan history, in which I’m very proud to appear, alongside some expert company. Thankyou Xavier, the other editors and the Abadia de Montserrat!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (2004 for 2003), pp. 229–258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x; idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: Pathways of Power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 23-72.

2. That article, in case you had forgotten, being Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152, DOI: 10.1017/tdo.2019.7.

3. The newer work mainly being Antoni Pladevall, “El monestir de Sant Joan, del cenobi benedictí femení a canònica clerical” in Marta Crispi and Miriam Montraveta (edd.), El monestir de Sant Joan de les Abadesses (Sant Joan de les Abadesses 2012), pp. 18–37 and Martí Aurell i Cardona, “Emma, primera abadessa de Sant Joan de les Abadesses”, ibid., pp. 38–45, neither of which had noticed Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future”, but also Manuel Riu, “Església i poder comtal al territori d’Urgell: Guifré el Pilós i la reorganització de la Vall de Lord” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 29 (Barcelona 1999), pp. 875–898, online here, and Ramon Ordeig i Mata, “Cel·les monàstiques vinculades a Guifré el Pelós i a la seva obra repobladora (vers 871-897)”, edd. S. Claramunt and A. Riera, in Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia Vol. 22 (Barcelona 2001), pp. 89–119, online here, both of which I’d shamefully missed in my own earlier work because, I know it’s hard to believe, but back then most journals weren’t online! Current issues of Catalan stuff were really hard to get in the UK even in 2007, when my book manuscript was sent off. Doubtless Drs Pladevall and Aurell could say something similar about my stuff.

4. That article being Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (2014), pp. 202–230, online here.

5. Citation therefore being Jonathan Jarrett, “La fundació de Sant Joan en el context de l’establiment dels comtats catalans” in Irene Brugués, Coloma Boada and Xavier Costa (edd.), El monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femen&icute; dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019), pp. 83–107.

I found this coin, 4: a Hungarian enigma

Marking jail continued further into the Easter vacation than it was supposed to and will resume tomorrow, but despite an intensive program of sleeping and eating between those sentences, I have found this time to write you a very quick blog post. And as so often when I need a quick post, this one is about a coin, another of the ones from the University of Leeds collection that I was using for teaching and had thus photographed, as you can now see below.

Obverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Obverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Reverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Reverse of the same coin

Now, I have taught with this thing for several years, because I have a small teaching set I use for the university’s MA in Medieval History which display cultural identification of some kind, and these include a few which are apparently signalling ‘wrong’, such as Crusader dirhem imitations or Islamic coins with figural imagery. This would appear to be one of the former, at first glance, in as much as it appears to display Arabic but it’s only pseudo-Arabic, but the problem is firstly that a dirham should be silver and this is copper-alloy, and secondly that these coins are found nowhere near the Holy Land but instead in Hungary, a Christian kingdom more or less from the year 1000 until 1946.1 So why do we get these Islamic imitation coins? When I first put this coin in a teaching set I thought I dimly knew the answer, and then when I tried explaining it realised that I really didn’t. So I thought I should find out the answer and make a post of it, but it turns out that the answer is somewhat uncertain…2

Manuscript illumination showing King Bela III of Hungary

Manuscript illumination showing King Bela III of Hungary, from the 14th-century
Chronicon Pictum, image by unknown authorhttp://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3f/IV_Istvan_III_Bela_Imre_KK.jpg, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, because the text is all only pseudo-Arabic and doesn’t actually mean anything, attributing them is difficult. We tentatively assume that, because they occur in finds with pseudo-Byzantine copper-alloy coins (as seen below) in the name of King Bela III of Hungary (1172-1196, as seen above), and because otherwise no medieval Hungarian ruler seems to have issued copper-alloy coins, that these are probably also his. I knew one of the pseudo-Byzantine coins from the Barber Institute Collection, and that’s why this one seemed familiar to me when I first met it in Leeds. The pseudo-Byzantine type could be sort of explained by Bela having passed some time in exile at the court of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos as a youth.3 I grant you that that doesn’t wholly explain why you’d decide you needed copper small change that looked Byzantine, but it at least explained where he’d got the idea from. It doesn’t really explain pseudo-Islamic coinage at all, though, and that’s roughly where the words dried in my throat in that first class.

Concave copper-alloy coin of King Bela III of Hungary, Ars Coin Wien, VCoins SKU: B42

Concave copper-alloy coin of King Bela III of Hungary, Ars Coin Wien, VCoins SKU: B42

Now, there was a Muslim population in Hungary of this period, and when these coins were first identified the suggestion apparently was that these were struck for them.4 There are Iberian-peninsula parallels for this but some of those coins, the Castilian morabitinos of Toledo, carry correct Arabic proclaiming King Alfonso VI and Christianity, and the others only have pseudo-Arabic but are gold, trying literally to cash in on the use of Islamic coin already circulating in the Christian kingdoms.5 This here, however, is neither an attempt to broadcast to an Islamic (or at least Arabic-reading) population nor an attempt to break into a market of Islamic coin use, not least because as far as we can tell from finds Islamic coins proper were not used in Hungary.6 Weirdly, this one’s antetype does seem to be Iberian-peninsular, which just complicates matters further.7

So the question is not solved. The work from which I glean a lot of this information suggests that Bela III found his kingdom in need of small change, for which it had no local prototypes, and had copper-alloy coins designed that imitated the two prestige denominations of the day, the Byzantine nomisma and the Islamic dirham, but even though this does seem to have happened, the reason why is still not very obvious.8 But they exist, and they confuse people, so now that I am happier that my ignorance at least accurately replicates the state of the field, I expect I shall go on putting it in front of students and saying, ‘Hungarian! How do we explain that?’ Maybe one of them will come up with an answer!


1. When I was reading up on Hungary very fast for the Inheriting Rome exhibition, I used Miklós Molnár, A Concise History of Hungary, transl. Anna Magyar (Cambridge 2001), and found it very useful, but I’m no kind of expert.

2. Most of the substantive information about these coins in this post comes from Péter Tamás Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Hungary”, unpublished M. A. thesis (Central European University 2015) online here, pp. 33-41.

3. Molnár, Concise History, p. 31.

4. Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts”, pp. 37-38, where this idea is also refuted. On the Muslims in Hungary see Nora Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims, and ‘Pagans’ in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000-c. 1300 (Cambridge 2001), DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511523106.

5. Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 24-28 for an outline.

6. Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts”, p. 40.

7. Ibid., pp. 35-36.

8. Ibid., pp. 38-40.