‘Cooked gold’ in tenth-century Barcelona coinage: a likely correction

One of the advantages of doing scholarship on the Internet, insofar as one can, is supposed to be that you can update and correct your work. Those who like this idea seem to believe that one would never put any of one’s projects down and move on, but be happy to update them forever, rendering them forever unreliable as citations, and in general you may guess that I don’t agree that this should be the future.1 All the same, sometimes one does find something that makes one’s work look likely to be wrong and then there seems little point in not using this outlet to make that public. The unlucky victim this time is my article, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2010 for 2009), pp. 217-243, and specifically the bit of it where I discuss a particular usage of the documents from around Barcelona in the late tenth century, prices given in auro cocto, ‘cooked gold’.2 Here’s what I said in the article:

“The use of bullion was becoming more common, and the increasing incidence of qualifications like ‘bono placibile’, and in the case of the foreign mancuses, ‘chocto’, literally ‘cooked’, ‘burnt’, suggest that its standard was frequently a matter of concern.

“The term ‘chocto’ is worth a brief digression. This apparent testing or melting may have been because of a variety in standards of the gold dinars that were reaching Barcelona from various mints in al-Andalus and, probably, beyond. The origin of individual dinars is only specified in later documents, when the bulk of coin in use must have been such that such testing would have been impractical. At this early stage foreign coins may have been converted on arrival into bullion of a known standard. It is hard to read the term ‘chocto’ as referring to anything other than melting; destructive assay methods would hardly have been used on so large a scale and would, in any case, have left no minted coin with which to pay the required price.62 It may therefore be that the coins were being reminted into local versions of the mancus.63 When the supply of Islamic mancuses began to dry up in 1020, a moneyer by the name of Bonhom began to mint local ones that circulated for many years.65 The paucity of finds of imported coin of an earlier period might be explained by such a practice.”

”    63 See A. Oddy, ‘Assaying in Antiquity” in Gold Bulletin 16 (1983), pp. 52-9. I am grateful to Marcus Phillips for bringing this useful paper to my attention.
”    64 On local manufacture of mancuses elewhere see L. Ilisch, “Die imitativen Solidi mancusi. ‘Arabische’ Goldmünzen der Karolingerzeit’ in R. Cunz (ed.), Fundamenta Historiae: Geschichte im Spiegel der Numismatik und ihrer Nachbarwissenschaften. Festschrift für Niklot Kluüßdorf zum 60. Geburtstag am 10. Februar 2004 (Hanover, 2004), pp. 91–106.
”    65 On the mancuses of Bonhom and Eneas, see [Anna M.] Balaguer, Història [de la moneda dels comtats catalans (Barcelona, 1999)], 53-5 and [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. 78-81]….”

This was a sticky bit when I wrote it and looking back now the problems are even more evident. Poor-standard coins should have been more concerning once there were more of them, so why would the people of Barcelona have adopted an expensive reminting process before that point but then abandoned it? I provided an answer to this but I don’t like it, and the fact that the Bonhom mancuses survive but my notional earlier ones don’t could be just coincidence—and this whole article was after all about coins we probably don’t have—but it doesn’t make the theory any more likely. Still, in the light of what I knew it seemed like a workable answer. But then, on New Year’s Eve 2014 (because I know how to have a good time) I was reading up on the scientific study of Byzantine gold coinage for the All That Glitters project, and I found Robert Halleux getting all Greek and quoting a papyrus that contains ancient instructions for the testing of gold, in French translation which I translate as follows:

“If you want to purify gold, melt it anew or heat it, and if it is pure it keeps the same colour after being put in the fire, pure like a piece of money. If it appears more white, it contains silver; if it appears ruddier and harder, it contains copper and tin; if it is black, but pliable, it contains lead.”3

Not content with that, Halleux then quotes a [Edit: thanks to Gary for the corrected source here]letterthe Natural History of Pliny the Younger as well: “aurique experimentum ignis et, ut simili colore rubeat ignescatque et ipsum”, which is an oddly-cut quote that makes me think M. Halleux’s Latin was perhaps not so smart as his Greek in 1985. His citation certainly wasn’t, as I can find no sign of this text in Pliny, but Part of it, however, appears to mean, “gold tested in flames, both so that it shines and burns with the same colour and…”.4 Whatever M. Halleux was actually quoting, This just seems much more likely to be what is going on in my documents, testing by fire in a non-destructive way rather than actually remelting. In that case, however, it seems much less likely that the coins would have been restruck, so the Bonhom mancuses probably were the first local ones made in Barcelona.

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

The Bonhom mancuses are themselves vanishingly rare, however, and there seem to be no pictures of them on the web, so, here’s a slightly later Barcelona mancus struck under Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76), from a Cayón sale of 2009

Admittedly we still have no more sign of the actual Andalusi mancuses in the area than we do my hypothetical ones, but at least we know that the Andalusi ones did exist and that the Barcelona documents were reacting to coins we have from elsewhere.5 I don’t think it does anything serious to my overall argument in my article, either, but this alternative reading of the ‘cooked gold’ in those documents is good reason to scotch what was always one of my weaker suggestions. So let it be noted, I disavow my old idea, and I now think that that ‘cooking’ was no more than a light flame-grilling to see what colour the coin turned.

1. Compare David Parry, “Burn the Boats/Books” and Jo Guldi, “Reinventing the Academic Journal”, both in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the Academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from the digotal humanities (Ann Arbor 2013), pp. 15-18 and 19-24, both fixed texts of what were originally online presentations archived here, with Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy” in Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty (edd.), Writing History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor 2013), pp. 246-258.

2. J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2010 for 2009), pp. 217-243 at pp. 234-235.

3. R. Halleux, “Méthodes d’essay et d’affinage des alliages aurifères dans l’Antiquité et au moyen âge” in Cécile Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Jean-Noël Barrandon, Jacques Poirier & Halleux, L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 39-77 at p. 40:
“Si vous voulez purifier l’or, fondez à nouveau ou chauffez, et s’il est pur il garde la même couleur après la mise au feu, pur comme une pièce de monnaie. S’il paraît plus blanc, il contient d’argent ; s’il paraît plus rude et plus dur, il contient du cuivre et de l’étain ; s’il est noir, mais mou, il contient du plomb.”

The text of reference here is Halleux’s own, R. Halleux (ed.), Papyrus de Leyden, papyrus de Stockholm : fragments de recettes. Texte établi et traduction (Paris 1981), within which the bit here cited is Papyrus Leyden X 43, but it ought also to be locatable in Earle Radcliffe Carey (trans.), “The Leyden papyrus X: an English translation with brief notes” in Journal of Chemical Education Vol. 3 (New York City 1926), pp. 1149-1166.

4. Halleux, “Méthodes d’essay”, p. 40, citing Pliny, Natural History XXXIII 59, which you can see for yourself with a slightly more comprehensible text here.

5. On the absence of actual mancuses in finds from Catalonia, see Miquel Barceló, “L’or d’al-Andalus circulant als comtats Catalans entre 967 i 1100: un or vist o no vist?” in J. M.Gurt & A. M. Balaguer (edd.), Symposium Numismatico de Barcelona I (Barcelona 1979), pp. 313-327; on the chronology of the documentary mentions see Pierre Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

This post was written with the aid of The Bevis Frond’s White Numbers (Woronzow 2014), which has made it much more pleasant to pull together.

4 responses to “‘Cooked gold’ in tenth-century Barcelona coinage: a likely correction

  1. It’s rare that i can pay back a bit of the pleasure i’ve got from reading your work.
    Your ext auri experimentum est, etc (not et) is in Pliny book 33, chapter 19

  2. The dicotomy between reliability/correcteness of citations is unsolvable with current standards, but it must be noted thet the original Xanadu project (the precursor of hypertext) was espcifically designed to deal with edited and versioned texts (using bidirectional links). HTML/HTTP had a simpler design (unidirectional links) and was able build momentum, and that’s why we are caught in a disfunctional electronic citation system. :(

    About auro cocto, Doubts. Were those late C10th pàyments made in ‘auro cocto’ using muslin coints? Or were those coints converted to bullion?

    • It’s not possible to be sure, of course. Sometimes a mancus is clearly a weight measurement, because it is used as a value for other goods, ‘mancuses of denarii‘ or similar. But after a while distinctions emerge that seem to relate to the actual coins and their issuers, mancusi iafari for example, referring to a vizier called Jafar in charge of their issue from Córdoba. And as you know, often Catalan charters specify when their payment is to be made in something other than money, ‘in rem valentem…’, but this doesn’t have to mean that sales that don’t say that were actually paid in coin, of course, or whether that coin would be gold or silver whether valued in mancuses or solidi… It wouldn’t solve these problems, but one little hoard with a secure archæological context would really help!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s