Money of post-Viking Brittany

I only have time to write a very short post, but happily I have something quite short to communicate, arising from an equally short article by my old colleague Rory Naismith in last year’s Numismatic Chronicle.1 I suspect there is interest among the readership, somehow… Basically, in late 2011 there went through a Brussels auction house, as part of a small but really good collection of Carolingian (and some other stuff of interest to those of more classical and modern bents) coins, a two-coin hoard apparently found in the 1990s on the banks of the Loire near Saint-Florent-le-Vieil. The first was a penny of King Edward the Elder of England, and the second was this, which I reproduce from an old online copy of the auction house’s web catalogue:

Brussels, The BRU Sale auction 6, 9 December 2011, lot 153

Our mystery coin

If you follow the link that goes through that image to you’ll find that the auctioneers, although they had successfully talked quite a lot of rare and unknown stuff, had really struggled with this one. Their description reads: “England. Vikings (?). Penny (AR, 1.30g, 10h). Uncertain mint. 885-954. Small cross pattee. Rev. Moneyer’s name. Possibly unpublished.”2 Rory, however, has other ideas. He notes firstly that it is more of an Anglo-Carolingian hybrid than an Anglo-Viking one, presumably working off the arrangement of the moneyer’s name, and then points to the near-Breton findspot and finally reads off the moneyer’s name as CONGVION, Conwoion, also Breton. All in all, he argues, this is probably a Breton coin.

Now as we have frequently observed, in print we academics are limited by the standards of reasonable proof and so on but here on a blog I can speculate if I like. As Rory says, the coin:

“stems from the aftermath of a period when Brittany was threatened by viking [sic] attacks, and its leaders sought refuge in, and support from, England. Alan Barbetorte (‘twisted beard’) (d. 952) returned from exile in England in 936, and had vanquished the vikings by 939, thus establishing himself as Count of Cornouaille and Nantes. His position remained tenuous, however. Sporadic viking attacks continued into the 940s, sometimes under Norman patronage, and Alan also faced attacks from Judicael Berengar, count of Rennes.”3

So that’s our context. There’s nothing here to say this is a coin of Count Alain, however. The obverse inscription, which Rory reads as FELECMANIS, is obscure; Rory compares it to the mint signature for Le Mans, CENOMANIS, but it seems to me that this cannot what the engraver was after; although they don’t seem to have been familiar with this kind of work (two forms of E, backwards Ns) their mistakes are still competently carved. So it could be a mint we don’t know about – on an unparalleled coin that probably isn’t as surprising as it would be otherwise – but it could also be a person, for whom this apparently-Breton moneyer Conwoion (and I feel obliged to say that a Breton name does not of itself make someone Breton) was striking coin.

Google map of Brittany

Google map of Brittany and the approximate findspot of the coin, marked as ‘Loire’ down towards the bottom centre

Now I have no idea at all who this person would be, count, bishop, abbot, untitled warlord or immigrant pirate chief, though Feleman or Felkman might have been their name. I have to admit that the word appears to be in the genitive (i. e. the possessive case), which makes a place-name more likely, but even if the issuer is not named here, there must have been one. If Rory is right, someone in that uncontrolled Channel coast zone had decided it was time their area had money again, money that would look roughly acceptable in both England and in Francia but which presumably to them sang of their locality. Now, I have to admit that I come back to that ‘Breton name need not equal Breton’ problem, or more specifically need not equal Brittany. If I were guessing what that signature FELECMANIS meant, I think I would pretty quickly light on Fécamp in Normandy as a possibility [Edit: though as Fraser gently demonstrates in comments, I’d be wrong to do so], and then remember all the links between Bretons and Normans that we can recount and think that maybe this is a Norman coin with a Breton moneyer striking it. There’s no way to decide, and Rory’s proposal may be the simpler, but wherever it was, someone there had decided enough was enough and there needed to be money in the area that was internationally recognisable and communicated both to England and to Francia, thus claiming their own authority in the area. It’s an important early sign of independent state formation in this old fringe of Francia, and I wish we knew more about it. I suppose we can hope for more to be found or recognised!

1. R. Naismith, “A Pair of Tenth-Century Pennies Found on the Banks of the Loire” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 174 (London 2014), pp. 223-225.

2. Jean B. Forestier & Maxime Mégret-Merget (edd.), The Bru Sale Numismatics and Paper Money Auction 6, 6th December 2011 (Brussels 2011), online here, lot 153, from a ‘European private collection’. The record on Sixbid suggests that it didn’t sell, and Rory informs us that the coin is in a private collection, but whether it’s still with its 2011 owner I couldn’t guess.

3. Naismith, “Pair of Tenth-Century Pennies”, p. 225.

18 responses to “Money of post-Viking Brittany

  1. It’s a great coin, isn’t it? Tenth-century Brittany is full of mysterious issues, and this one is particularly odd. My first thought when I heard about it of the Breton chieftain Felecan recorded in Flodoard, but if Rory’s right in dating the coin to the 940s-970s – and I’m not a coinage expert, but I think he probably is, or at least it looks to my eyes like coins of Edmund rather than Athelstan – then Felecan’s been dead since 931, so it seems unlikely to be in his name…
    I would suggest, though, that Fécamp is unlikely as a place for it to be minted, insofar as the Latin for Fécamp was ‘Fiscannus’, which doesn’t look a lot like ‘Felecmanis’; there’s also, as far as I’ve been able to find, no evidence for a mint there. There’s a major horde found there, too, and it was an important ducal centre, so one might expect there to be more traces if there were, perhaps.

    • Fine! I did think I should have looked up the Latin for the place. It was, indeed, the hoard that made me think of the place, but I should probably also have thought that there are none of these coins in it. So the jury is still out, though Felecan is a tempting idea, especially as it was supposedly found with a coin of Edward…

  2. Judicael Berengar witnessed a charter of Alan II in 944. According to a genealogy compiled for a Count of Anjou in C11, Judicael was a son of Pascweten, son of King Alan I, and thus Alan II’s first cousin and actually a stronger hereditary claimant to the duchy. According to the same source, Judicael’s son was Conan I, the maternal grandfather of Duke Robert I of Normandy.

    Alan II’s return from England in alliance with fellow exile Louis IV of France put so much pressure on the Viking settlements that Normandy soon collapsed: the immediate cause was that William Longsword was assassinated during a diplomatic conference in Flanders, and Louis seized Normandy.

    Saint Conwoion (born c 800) was the first abbot at Redon and an adviser to King Nominoe.

    To my untrained eyes, the lettering on the coin looks like “F E L space (mangled) space (badly mangled) H I S” in the left image and in the right image “C O N (T?) V I O N”.

    Could “Fel” mean Felix, as in felicitous, happy? Alan II declared 1 August a national holiday after his allied victory over the Vikings at Trans-La-Forete on that date in 939.

    • The confusion of H, M and N in this style of lettering is understandable but I think I agree with Rory’s reading, having seen a few Anglo-Saxon pennies in my time but rather fewer than he has. That last-but-two letter certainly isn’t an H, the bar is set at an angle. FEL for felix would be a possible echo of Roman coinage—there was a very common type of the family of Constantine with the legend FEL TEMP REPARATIO, which I have always wanted to render as ‘happy pay-back time!’, but it leaves the rest of the legend even harder to explain and there’s nothing else here to indicate that that’s what’s in play. The contemporary coin types that are similar would have a place-name or issuer’s name in that space rather than a slogan.

  3. In case it has relevance, in modern KLT Breton, Trans-La-Forete is named Treant Felger.

    • Aha, now I see where you’re going! I have to say, I don’t think Alain’s an unlikely issuer, but it does then strike me as odd that he is not very clearly named on the coin. If this was part of a propaganda campaign for his return to the area, that seems a very strange thing not to do.

  4. To inject a wild strain of thought, 1 August 939 was a Thursday. Thursday is “Khamis” in Arabic and “Chamishi” in Hebrew.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. I like all your posts but really love the coin ones.

  6. “Felger” is the Breton name for the town of Fougeres, near where the battle took place.

    It’s not totally far-fetched to imagine Hebrew connections in Brittany: it had a 9th century King named Solomon, and a founder Saint named Samson; also, the Dukes believed they had a descent from Saint James the Greater. Moreover, Magnus Maximus was famously protective of the Jews, so much so that Saint Ambrose wrote that people were exclaiming that “the Emperor has become a Jew!” So there were long periods when Hebrew themes were very popular in Brittany (Perhaps the duchy had an early form of British Israelite doctrine?)

    Whether this translated to fair treatment of Jews in the 900s is a good question.

    The crosses suggest that the patron of the mint considered him or herself a Christian, but Bretons were notoriously eccentric in how they practised their religion.

    • I don’t see why you want there to be a Jewish involvement here, but it would certainly be worth checking what medieval spellings of the placename that is now Fougeres on maps were and whether it could ever have had the extra syllable we seem to need.

      • I did say this conjecture was a “wild” idea, but while we’re brainstorming pattern matches, it might as well be counted. Having said that, Breton words and names draw on varied sources: for example, in documents from the 800s the names Arthur, Uther and Eudon all occur. I had thought that Eudon was a variant of Germanic “Odo” (“possessor of wealth”), but a translator states that it means “good gift” (like the Anglo-Saxon lady’s name Godgifu), which looks for all the world like a Greek-Latin composite. Some of the Breton month names are obvious (eg Mae) but several others are very peculiar, so their practices were syncretic.

        If the “Chamis” were Hebrew-derived and “Fel[g]” stands for Felger, then the phrase on the coin means “Fern Thursday”.

        Why wouldn’t Duke Alan have put his name on the coin? He didn’t win the battle alone: his allies Judicael of Rennes and Hugh of Maine deserved a mention too.

        Perhaps this was a special issue commemorative coin? Two coins, however remarkable, is a little small for a “hoard”. We may be looking at a deliberate time capsule: Edward the Elder received the Breton refugees from the Loire Viking rebellion, so his coin represents the beginning of the drama, whereas the mystery coin declares its conclusion.

        Maybe the location of the two coins marks a local ceremony? It’s downstream of Angers, and the Counts of Anjou received their title for helping the Franks fend off the Viking attacks in the region, so maybe they were involved too?

        • Well, almost anything’s possible as long as there’s only one of it, although I do find the idea of constructed time capsules a bit too much: again, if that was the case and communication was to an unknown audience, it seems to me that the message should be more obvious so as not to be misunderstood.

  7. Modern KLT (Kernev-Leon-Tregor) Breton has “Yaou” for Thursday, but I don’t know what the dialect of Vannes uses, and Old Breton (between 800 and 1100) may have been different again.

  8. This may be a little more to our liking: “Chamis”, locative/dative/ablative form of the Latin word chama/chamae (noun, feminine) for bi-valve shellfish: a clam or cockle. Attested by Pliny.

  9. According to James Parker’s 1894 “A Glossary of Terms used in Heraldry”, the Escallop shell (coquille in French) was the pilgrim’s badge, and a symbol of St James the Greater, who is often depicted as a pilgrim. It also symbolises long voyages, important naval commands, and great victories.

    On coats of arms, the scallop shell is known from the time of Henry III of England, but on the principle that heraldry draws on pre-existing, sometimes religious, imagery, the above interpretation may be plausible in the context.

    • Surely not so early! Heraldry is a later preoccupation than the tenth century. And it doesn’t function in text anyway; if that was what we were seeing, surely it would be represented graphically. I don’t see why this coin has to be doing anything out of the ordinary for a penny: issuer on one side, moneyer on the other. We just don’t (yet) know the issuer. Anything more arcane would be a message for far fewer people than would have actually seen these coins, assuming (a) that there were more of them and (b) that they were for regular circulation. I grant you that those are both unprovable assumptions so far but I draw some support for them from the basic normality of the coin. This thing was, I think, meant to pass as a penny or denier (and may even have been made from them).

  10. The medieval routes from south-west England to Santiago de Compostela landed in Brittany then went overland, crossing the Loire near the place where the coins were found.

    Now, although the earliest recorded pilgrimage from England to the shrine of St James was in 1092×1105, the shrine itself is much older and Spanish pilgrims were going there in the 800s.

    Given the depth of religious feeling in Wessex, perhaps an early pilgrim took the arduous journey in the mid 900s, the way having recently become much less hazardous.

    The Bretons were financially savvy, so maybe Conwoion’s coin functioned like the modern St Christopher’s medallion?

    (St James’s Day, 25 July, is exactly a week before “Liberation of Brittany from the Vikings” Day. An idle fact, but perhaps a useful mnemonic to Bretons.)

    • As said in comments to the last post but one, the actual date of the discovery of and beginnings of pilgrimage to Saint James’s tomb is quite hotly contested; 900 might be safer than 800. And indeed, there is a small hoard of pennies of Æthelred the Unready from Roncesvalles which has been taken to be an English pilgrim’s cache. But there’s nothing to suggest a pilgrimage context for this coin, I think.

      The Bretons were financially savvy, so maybe Conwoion’s coin functioned like the modern St Christopher’s medallion?

      Maybe it functioned like a coin!

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