Monthly Archives: July 2016

Minute details of minting in Constantinople

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I had, “for my sins or for whatever reason”, been reading A Corpus of the Nomismata from 713-976 in Constantinople by Franz Füeg.1 This was not leisure reading, I should probably say, I had been asked to review both it and its partner volume covering 976-1067, which of course meant I had to read it in detail, of which there is much in the books.2 What they actually are is a number of corpora of Byzantine gold solidi of Constantinople (not just one corpus each, as you might imagine) and a series of attached essays dealing with the design, political æsthetics and production of the coins. Füeg is not a numismatist by training—there are, after all, almost no places that one can acquire such training—but a retired professor of architecture, and this may be one of the reasons this book goes to some strange places. It seemed to me in reading it, though, that the author doesn’t always recognise where his argument, or even in happy moments his data, take him, and that the true worth of the book is in deductions which it requires like the one I want to set out in this post.

Six denarii of Emperor Septimius Severus, all struck from the same obverse die but different reverse ones, and collected by Doug Smith

Six denarii of Emperor Septimius Severus, all struck from the same obverse die but different reverse ones, and collected by Doug Smith, on whose website this image is located (and which is linked through it)

The great strength of Füeg’s work is that he has a huge sample die study. For those not already speaking fluent numismatist, this is a thing one can particularly do with pre-industrial coinage because each of the dies with which the coins were struck were, of course, hand-carved and therefore unique in detail. Thus, if one has enough of a certain issue of coins, one expects to see individual dies turn up again and again, and someone with sharp enough eyes and short enough sight can recognise them.3 There are various things one can do with this information, but the simplest thing one can do is to count the dies one observes, and this Füeg has done. That is data we didn’t have before, whatever its quality may be, and my brain started to fire where he observes that there is a drop in the number of reverse dies being used at the Constantinople mint at the point where the coinage ceases to distinguish between officinae of the mint on its gold coinage.4

A copper-alloy forty-nummi coin of Emperor Justin II, struck at Constantinople in 565-566, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1208

A copper-alloy forty-nummi coin of Emperor Justin II, struck at Constantinople in 565-566, in the Alpha officina, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1208

So, OK, you may fairly ask at this point, what’s an officina? And the answer is that we don’t really know. In the mid-fourth century the Roman coinage, which was basically uniform across the whole Empire but with frequently varying codes that identified the issuing mint of each coin, began to add letters to reverse designs in use at certain mints that seem to have distinguished issues within their production; Lyons is especially complex, for example. By the time we can sensibly speak of Byzantine coinage, this system had settled into a sequence of Greek letters for each mint.5 Most mints ran to only two or three letters, alpha, beta, gamma, sometimes delta and epsilon, or more confusingly nothing and theta, but Constantinople could get up to iota in some issues. On the copper-alloy coinage these letters appeared below the main denomination mark on the reverse, as you see above and on the gold they appear at the end of the reverse legend as below. These, we call officinae, largely because some of the early Roman instances actually use the letters OF and a number for them.

A gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Constantinople in 583-601, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1810

A gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Constantinople in 583-601, in officina Eta (H), Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1810, not to scale with previous. Note how the officina letter is bigger than and out of line with the letters of the legend (VICTORI-A AVCC), suggesting that the die was marked for an officina only after it had been completed elsewhere.

As I say, we don’t really know what these divisions within the mint were. Some obvious suggestions have been made—different workshops (as implied by the word we use for them), teams within the mint, markers of different commissioned officials or even companies making the coin—but we don’t really have the means to test these theories. Or we didn’t, until now. But Füeg notices that when this marking of officinae ceases (under Emperor Leo III, some of whose coins you can see here) the count of reverse dies drops noticeably. He doesn’t do anything with this fact but it’s part of the answer.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 717  and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4530

As mentioned, the officina-marking only stopped on the gold at this point; here is a copper-alloy follis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V, struck in Constantinople in 717-741, and about the clearest thing on it is the mark for officina Beta. Not to scale with previous coins; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4530

In case you’re not with me, consider. If the way that the mint worked was that there were up to ten separate workshops or even teams turning out coins at full capacity, they would go through dies at the same rate whether those dies were marked for them or not. But production seems to have stayed up and reverse die use went down. That can only mean that prior to the change, reverse dies marked up for officinae weren’t being used to capacity, which means in turn that there must have been a point in a minting cycle or design lifetime at which each officina stopped work. That’s not simultaneous striking under each mark, therefore; the officinae must have been sequential, switching over at intervals we don’t know. That’s where Füeg’s observation leads, even if he hasn’t taken it there. It’s not a big deal, perhaps; but no-one’s been able to figure it out before, it affects millions of pieces of evidence that passed through millions of people’s hands and if he won’t figure it out I am happy to do so instead.

A gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople in 717-741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4510

A gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople in 717-741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4510. Not to scale with previous coins. The alert will notice that this coin has a Theta at the end of the reverse legend instead of the old officina mark. These have long puzzled people. Füeg has an explanation for them, of course, but that would be another and much longer blog-post…6


1. F. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713-976: Structure of the Issues, Corpus of Coins Finds, Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History, ed. Italo Vecchi & transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2007).

2. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Basil II to Eudocia 976-1067: corpus from Anastasius II to John I 713-976 with addenda, structure of the issues 976-1067, the concave/convex histamena, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, ed. Vecchi & transl. Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2014), reading the which is what has held up the review. But it will get done, after another project that I haven’t yet told you about is off my desk for a bit…

3. For explanations, as well as Doug Smith, “Die-Links: a tool for the numismatist” in Celator Vol. 9 (Lancaster PA 1995), pp. 12-17, as linked above, see Philip Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford 1975), pp. 142-144.

4. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I, p. 11.

5. R. A. G. Carson, P. V. Hill & J. P. C. Kent, Late Roman Bronze Coinage (London 1960); Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24.

6. The short of it is that he thinks the mint switches to using indictional dates here for a few years, which lets him do all kinds of magic with reattributions and so on (Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I, pp. 13-18). The long of it, explaining all of that, would be oh so much longer…

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 4 and final

Although it continues to be a ridiculous reporting backlog I have, yet it does advance, and we now reach the last day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. This is always the hardest day, because the dance is the night before but the first session starts early so that play closes in time for people to head home. I suppose I should just be grateful that for the first time in my attendance I wasn’t presenting first thing Sunday morning… But some people of course were, and since they included both a friend and someone talking about the Picts, there I duly was.

536. Pathways to Power in Early Medieval Northern Europe

  • Jan-Henrik Fallgren, “Early Medieval Lordship, Hierarchies and Field-Systems in Scandinavia and the British Isles”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “State Formation within the Localities: a comparative approach to land management and productive processes in early medieval England and Northwestern Iberia”
  • Óskar Sveinbjarnarson, “New Evidence for Emerging Power Structures in Northern Pictland”
  • Douglas Bolender, “A Household Perspective on State-Formation in Medieval Iceland”
  • This was a tightly-focused session. All were looking for answers to the same question: what can we say about how social hierarchy and power emerge in the northern edges of Europe in the post-Roman centuries? For Dr Fallgren one answer lay in farm organisation: he saw a pattern of central big houses, often long-houses, with surrounding fields with a marked-out perimeter in all of Öland, Gotland, Ireland, England and Pictland. This meant ignoring a considerable amount of variation about how this was done in practice and I thought the similarities he was detecting risked being more or less demographically determined, but if the causation could be more clearly worked out there’d be something to say here all the same. Álvaro, in the way that perhaps at the moment only he can, was also comparing widely, England, Ireland and Spain, emphasising that there was never a mythical autarkic peasant moment on which lordship comes to be imposed in any of these societies, but that still, lordship and organisation of settlement do intensify together in ways that we can observe in the historical and archæological record.1 His paper was valuable for emphasising that despite this, that lordship does not include everyone and Spain especially shows us lots of small independent proprietors continuing alongside and between the big coagulating lordships in their areas.2 For Mr Sveinbjarnarson, working with the much less forthcoming evidence from the erstwhile Pictland, where he had been digging at the fort complex of Rhynie, the significant time was the fifth and sixth centuries, when after a period of breakdown we see wealth acculumation and deposition as hoards, prestige imports reaching this far north again, an increase in size and decrease in numbers of fortifications, big old forts being reactivated and so forth. I think we sort of knew this but Mr Sveinbjarnarson was able to colour in a lot more of the picture than I knew about.3 Lastly Professor Bolender, who had the hardest job in some ways: although there is textual evidence for settlement organisation in early Iceland in the form of Landnámabók, ‘the book of the taking of lands’, finding enough of any kind of archæology to challenge it is very difficult; one question asked him what tools, roads or place-names might add to the enquiry, to all of which his answer was pretty much “the evidence doesn’t exist!” For now, Landnámabók‘s picture of initial large farms set up by the earliest settlers then infilled by smaller settlements, and eventually large consolidated interests emerging seems at least not to be contradicted. Iceland of course offers that initial purely peasant society which Álvaro was stressing didn’t exist in his areas, and it’s interesting to see the same dynamics nevertheless emerging, but I did think that the messages of this session might have been even clearer if one of the papers had tackled an area where large landownership never went away, like Southern Gaul, just to get a better idea of what they were seeing that was close-to-universal and what that was specifically extra-Roman. Still, to want so much is already a sign that the comparison was forcing some quite high-level thinking!

Then, I think we couldn’t face the canteen lunch and went into town for nachos. This was a good idea from the point of view of food, but less good from the point of view of timing, as we returned late for the last session of the conference, which was this one.

540. Peasants and Texts

  • Helen Cushman, “Marcolf’s Biological Warfare: Dialogue, Peasant Discourse, and the Lower Bodily Stratum in the English Solomon and Marcolf
  • Sherri Olson, “Peasants, Texts, and Cultures of Power”
  • Shane Bobrycki, “The Peasant and the Crowd in the Early Middle Ages”
  • Maj-Britt Frenze, “Textualized Pagans: Depicting the ‘People of the Heath’ in Conversion Era Anglo-Saxon England”
  • Because of the late return, I can tell you nothing about Ms Cushman’s paper, which I entirely missed; my apologies for that. Professor Olson, however, mounted a strong argument from fourteenth-century court rolls from Elmlea and Durham that despite the popular picture of peasant societies as being illiterate, these ones both generated and disputed with written records, from their own agreements (kept at home, apparently) right up to the court rolls itself, which were sometimes consulted by peasant plaintiffs; while not by any means all themselves literate, they were still what the more theorised among us would probably call a textual community, bound by a shared interpretation of what these texts that governed their tenures meant.4 Shane, whom I met in Cambridge years ago and had not seen since, gave us an erudite run-down of shifting attitudes to crowds in the largely élite-written sources for the early medieval West: the Romans distrusted all forms of public crowd, for all that the élites needed their approbation, but in the early medieval context crowds were sometimes good, the legitimate forum for validation and expression of justice, righteousness and so on. Unless, argued Shane, that crowd was made up of peasants, in which case pretty much all our sources still consider them dangerous and illegitimate and use the language of ‘rusticity’ only for things they want to denigrate… Lastly, Ms Frenze did that most Kalamazoid of things, trying to strain new meanings out of Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Her conclusions were roughly the same as Shane’s: the ‘heath’ is dangerous, though for Bede Christian blood could sanctify it. I had managed to dodge all the Beowulf papers so far, so I guess I had to catch one, and I do understand why there are always so many, but if the deliverer of one doesn’t at least acknowledge the problem of dating the poem I’m afraid my response to them will always be sceptical.

And so that was that! Goodbyes were said and we variously made our ways to our transports, for us a train to Detroit and then a plane out the next morning after a small amount of cautious sight-seeing around that post-lapsarian city, and back to the groves of UK academe. But it was a good conference, more surprisingly like Leeds in demographic than usual but with most of the people I’d hoped to see seen and many things learnt. I always hope to make it to Kalamazoo again, but one has to know about one’s schedule so far in advance to mesh it with a UK teaching job that it takes forethought I rarely possess. Next time, though, I might now be exalted enough not to settle for the dorms…


1. Álvaro’s cites here seem worth giving, they being Susan Oosthuizen, “The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia and the Origins and Distribution of Common Fields” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 55 (Exeter 2007), pp. 153-180; Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, Thomas R. Kerr & Lorcan Harney (edd.), Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100: the evidence from archaeological excavations (Dublin 2013); Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Dublin 2000); and Thomas Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge 2000).

2. The best cite for this case may still be Pierre Bonnassie, “Du Rhône à la Galice : Genèse et modalités du régime féodale” in Konrad Eubel (ed.), Structures féodales et féodalisme dans l’occident méditerranéen (Xe-XIIIe siècle) : Bilan et perspectives des rercherches. Colloque Internationale organisée par le Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique et l’École Française de Rome (Rome 1980), pp. 17-44, online here, trans. Jean Birrell as “From the Rhône to Galicia: origins and modalities of the feudal order” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 104-130.

3. He cited Leslie Alcock, perhaps his “Early historic fortifications in Scotland” in G. Guibert (ed.), Hillfort Studies: essays for A. H. A. Hogg (London 1981), pp. 150-180, or his “The Activities of Potentates in Celtic Britain, AD 500-800: a positivist approach” in Stephen Driscoll and Margaret Nieke (edd.), Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland (Edinburgh 1988), pp. 22-46. I’m not sure how the field at large feels Alcock’s stuff has held its value but I learnt an awful lot from it when I was still insular in my interests.

4. The theory in question would be Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the 11th and 12th centuries (Princeton 1983), accompanied in Professor Olson’s citation by Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd edn. (Oxford 1993, 1st edn, 1979). These two books certainly have kept on giving…

The quiet return of the ruler of all

Long-term readers may remember a post from when I was teaching on medieval views of the Apocalypse, in which I looked at some charters from St-Pierre de Beaulieu that mention the end of the world every now and then, and then stopped doing so somewhere around the year 1000. I’m still interested in that kind of inverse evidence for a phenomenon, in which what we can actually see is concern stopping, and I think that last year I found another sort. Consider: in 843 the Synod of Constantinople, under the Empress Theodora as regent for her son Michael III and Patriarch Methodios, relegalised the veneration of images of heavenly persons, or icons, in the Byzantine Empire.1 Meanwhile, at some point between 842, when Theodora’s husband Theophilos died and she assumed the regency for their son, and 856 when she demitted the regency, the gold coinage of the Empire began to show a portrait of Christ on it, and it would continue to feature either Him, the Virgin or a saint, and often more than one, from then on until the empire’s final end in 1453.2 This was, therefore, the beginning of something big, and it seems to have begun with the end of the condemnation of icons.

Gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

One I couldn’t source from the Barber Institute’s collection, alas, a gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

This is not true in a way, because it didn’t quite begin here. You may even remember a very similar-looking portrait on the Barber Institute coins of Justinian II’s first reign (685-695) which I told you all about in March 2015. It would be very neat to be able to say that the promotion of Iconoclasm by Emperor Leo III meant the removal of Christ from the coinage, but it won’t work: for one thing, we are as you may remember no longer sure that Leo III really did very much about icons one way or the other, and for another and more important thing, it was Justinian II’s initial successor Leontius (695-698) who removed Christ from the coinage, not Leo III (717-741). Justinian restored a slightly different portrait of Christ to the coins in his second reign, but that was stopped by his immediate successor Philippikos (711-713). Leo and his descendants certainly did change the coinage, but mainly by putting themselves on it to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it has frustrated a number of scholars who have hitherto accepted the idea that Iconoclasm was an all-consuming state policy which divided the whole empire that not only does the coinage not show any other trace of this almighty schism, but the coins of the supposedly pro- and anti- parties don’t even really differ.3 So why should the reappearance of Christ, supposedly distinguished by his long hair and Gospel Book as the Pantokrator, ruler of all, already, be connected either?

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Well, whether or not Iconoclasm had been a big deal under Leo III, it had certainly become one by 843. The whole issue had provoked a three-way theological dispute with the papacy and the Carolingian Empire and become a casus belli for several coups (because, like bullying someone for whatever makes them different, any excuse will do for that perhaps, but it became effective propaganda).4 This is the spirit in which our principal written sources for the controversy were written, and the whole reason why our perspectives on Leo III and his son Constantine V are so warped by them.5 Thus, whether or not the removal of Christ from the coinage had been for theological reasons or just to make it clear that Justinian II and all his policies were now gone, for those that knew those coins—and someone obviously had some of them coins at the mint to copy—it would have been seen as theologically motivated by 843. This is how I am trying to get away with arguing that the changes to the coinage in 695 and 711 were not to do with theology and that in 842×856 was, but if you will accept it, it’s another of these cases like the Beaulieu apocalypse charters, in which our sources only expose that something was a concern once it ended!

Triumph orthodoxy


1. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 447-452.

2. I met this fact for the first time while reading 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, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner & ed. Italo Vecchi (Lancaster PA 2007), where the issues of 843 are discussed p. 30 and illustrated p. 76, but I don’t by any means accept Füeg’s close dating of the issue, for which there is no firm basis.

3. Frustration evident in Philip D. Whitting, “Iconoclasm and the Byzantine Coinage” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingham 1971), pp. 158-163. On the actual coins see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 150-187, but even he performs this same double-think, in which the coinage is unchanged by the advent of Iconoclasm but Irene’s changes to it must be explained in its light, not in the light of her having murdered her son the emperor (p. 158) and Theodora’s restoration of Christ to the coinage (p. 178) is also an Iconodule move. Only the latter seems justified, and even that underexamined.

4. For the Western side of the story see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm and the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009).

5. This is the basic argument of Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era. The sources in question are accordingly discussed in John Haldon & Leslie Brubaker, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era: the sources. An Annotated Survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001). See also Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (Bristol 2012).

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 3

Continuing the press through my reporting backlog, we now reach the third day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies, or as it’s otherwise known, Kalamazoo, 16th May 2015. Time is as ever short and the subject matter ageing, so I shall try and just do my brief list-and-comment format and I’m happy to provide more if they tweak people’s interest. But this is what I saw and some of what I thought…

Early Medieval Europe III

Obviously not one I could miss, given the participants:

  • Eric J. Goldberg, “The Hunting Death of King Carloman II (884)”
  • Cullen J. Chandler, “Nationalism and the Late Carolingian March”
  • Phyllis Jestice, “When Duchesses Were Dukes: female dukes and the rhetoric of power in tenth-century Germany
  • Professor Goldberg made a good attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of King Carloman II, who did indeed get himself killed in a boar-hunt thereby wrecking Western Francia’s chance of Carolingian security, but who had also received the text of advice we know as the De Ordine Palatii from Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims and the acts of whose single council speak in moralising terms of reform and a return to old law in a way that suggests he had taken it to heart, and intended to rule like the right sort of king had the boar not won in one of the court’s fairly essential mutual displays of valour; it might justly be noted, as did Professor Goldberg, that the hunt was happening on a royal estate freshly recovered from the Vikings. As usual, it turns out not to be simple. Cullen made a fresh attempt at explaining the details of Count-Marquis Borrell II‘s undesired escape from Frankish over-rule in the years 985-987 without the national determinism that the standard Catalan scholarship has attached to those events, painting Borrell’s position as one of local legitimacy via multiple fidelities to powerful rulers rather than independència; I might not quite agree, preferring to see something like a serial monogamous Königsfern (to use Cullen’s own concept), but there’s no doubt that nationalism distorts all our perspectives.1 Lastly Professor Jestice looked at three German noblewomen, Judith Duchess of Burgundy, Beatrice Duchess of Upper Lotharingia and Hedwig Duchess of Swabia, over the 960s to 980s, during which time all of them were in various ways in charge of their duchies in the absence of an adult male ruler, and who were all addressed as dux, ‘duke’ as we translate it, in the masculine, in that time, and were awarded charters and held courts like the rulers in whose places we usually consider them to have stood. As Professor Jestice said, it’s a lot easier just to say that they exercised power in their own right, isn’t it? After all, when Duke Dietrich of Lotharingia threw his mother out of power, the pope imposed a penance on him, so you have to wonder if their categories were where we expect them to be. Questions here were mainly about the gendering of the language, and whether it actually has significance, but the point is surely that we can’t mark a clear difference between these women and their male counterparts, so should maybe stop doing it.

432. Money in the Middle Ages

Another obviously-required choice, with later ramifications I couldn’t have anticipated.

  • Andrei Gândilâ, “Modern Money in a Pre-Modern Economy: Fiduciary Coinage in Early Byzantium”
  • Lee Mordechai, “East Roman Imperial Spending and the Eleventh-Century Crisis”
  • Lisa Wolverton, “War, Politics, and the Flow of Cash on the German-Czech-Polish Frontier”
  • Andrei opened up a question I have since pursued with him in other places (thanks not least to Lee, it’s all very circular), which is, how was Byzantine small change valued? From Anastasius (491-518) until the mid-ninth century Byzantine copper-alloy coinage usually carried a face value, which related to the gold coinage in which tax and military salaries were paid in ways we are occasionally told about, but its size didn’t just vary widely, with old 20-nummi pieces sometimes being bigger than newer 40-nummi ones, but was occasionally increased or restored, while old Roman and Byzantine bronze coins continued to run alongside this stuff in circulation at values we don’t understand.2 It seems obvious that the state could set the value of these coinages in ways that look very modern, but the supporting economic framework is largely invisible to us as yet. Lee, meanwhile, retold the economic history of the eleventh-century Byzantine empire, which is as he observed often graphed by means of tracking gold fineness, but could instead be seen as a series of policy reversals by very short-lived emperors that only Alexios I Komnenos, hero of that particular narrative, even had time to address in a way that had a chance of lasting.3 Lastly Professor Wolverton pointed at how often money was involved in the making and breaking of relations across her chosen frontier and argued that more should be done with this by historians, with which I am certainly not going to argue, although discussion made it seem as if the first problem is going to be the numbers provided by her sources.

Then coffee, much needed, and to the next building for…

472. Rethinking Medieval Maps

  • Rebecca Darley, “Eating the Edge of the World in Book Eleven of the Christian Topography
  • Thomas Franke, “Exceeding Expectations: appeasement and subversion in the Catalan Atlas (1375)”
  • Chet Van Duzer, “A Neglected Type of Mappamundi and its Re-Imaging in the Mare Historiarum (BnF MS Lat. 4995, fo. 26v)”
  • Anne Derbes, “Rethinking Maps in Late Medieval Italy: Giusto de’ Menabodi’s Creation of the World in the Baptistery of Padua”
  • Most of this session was somewhat late for me, though not uninteresting, but as keen readers will know Rebecca Darley’s research just about meets mine at Byzantium. She was here arguing in general that, in the early Middle Ages, maps were not tools to be used to find things but ways of imaging space that could not actually be experienced, and used the sixth-century Alexandrian text known as the Christian Topography as an example. It argues in ten books for a flat world the shape of the Tabernacle but then apparently adding an eleventh using quite different source materials to describe the voyage by sea to India and Sri Lanka, with details of the animals from there that the author had seen or indeed eaten. The thing is that the book’s earlier maps don’t show India or Sri Lanka at all, and the cited animals and foods make it seem that the author wasn’t at all clear where they really were; they were not abstract enough to be mapped, but could be directly experienced. QED!

    The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

    The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.


    Then Mr Franke introduced us, or at least me, to the Catalan Atlas, a world map made by a Jewish artist for King Peter III or Aragón in 1375 which, according to Mr Franke, encodes in its numerous labels of sacred and indeed Apocalyptic locations and portrayals of their associated persons a message that Antichrist will look like the real Christ and that Jews will not be associated with him.
    An eight-page montage of the Catalan Atlas in its Paris manuscript

    An eight-page montage of the Catalan Atlas in its Paris manuscript, by Abraham Cresques – Bibliothèque Nationale de Fance, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41309380


    Mr Van Duzer, for his part, introduced us to another map-as-conceptual-diagram, not the well-known T-O map but a sort of V-in-a-box that shows the different destinations of the sons of Noah about the continents as per the Bible, developed and more less forgotten in the seventh century but revived in his fourteenth-century example manuscript as a vertical projection of a curved Earth, all of which together is more or less unparalleled.
    Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat 4915, fo. 26v

    Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat 4915, fo. 26v, showing the division of the world between the races


    Lastly Professor Derbes described a world map that can be found in the sixteenth-century baptistery of Padua built by the Carrara family as part of a larger effort of showing off the learning and artistry which they could command. As with much of the session, all I could do with this was nod and enjoy the pictures but the pictures were all pretty good.

And that was it for the third day of papers. Once again, I didn’t do any of the evening sessions but instead hunted dinner in Kalamazoo proper, which the waiter told us was among other things the first home of the Gibson Les Paul guitar. This also means I missed the dance, which is becoming something of a worrying conference trend and perhaps something I should combat, at Kalamazoo at least, but by now I needed the rest, and so this day also wound down.


1. Until Cullen has this in print, one can see Paul Freedman making some of the same points more gently (because of being in Barcelona to do it) in his ‘Symbolic implications of the events of 985-988’ in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), 2 vols (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23-24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), I pp. 117-129, online here.

2. The current state of the art on this question is more or less one article, Cécile Morrisson, “La monnaie fiduciaire à Byzance ou ‘Vraie monnaie’, ‘monnaie fiduciaire’ et ‘fausse monnaie’ à Byzance” in Bulletin de la Société Française de Numismatique Vol. 34 (Paris 1979), pp. 612-616.

Link

Busy-day links

Today is a day with no time in it, where the morning goes on training and the afternoon goes on meetings and in the evening I am celebrating someone’s viva, and there’a about half an hour all told to complete daily tasks such as updating the blog. Happily, I have a stash of links saved against just such an eventuality! Let me therefore distract you with things that others have put on the web, with headings!

Discoveries of stuff

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey


You would think that Byzantine churches had little in common with London buses, but there is at least this, that as the saying goes, you wait ages for one then two come along at once, one in Turkey for which grand claims are being made (for which link a hat tip to Georgia Michael of the University of Birmingham) and one off Turkey which is just really cool to look at.
Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey


And then there’s an especially shiny hoard of Roman and non-Roman silver from Scotland which people are using to draw conclusions about the Picts in a period before all of us would be comfortable using the word, for which link I owe a tip of that same hat to the Crofter.1
Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Sad News

While writing the long-delayed post on the Bíblia de Danila, I noted briefly that to my sadness John Williams, a scholar of the art of the medieval Iberian peninsula whom I did not know but whose work has been very useful to me, had died; here’s a memorial of the sort he richly deserved.

Interesting Research

We have here a pedigree (as it were) of looking at work on genetics with a critical eye; this new study looks better than usual and I’ll have to give it its own post. The hat is here tipped to James Palmer at Merovingianworld.

Quality medievalism

If you’re going to try to relive the Middle Ages then your soundtrack needs to be right, amirite? Here’s an example of how to do it. Resuming my metaphorical hat, I now tip it to Z the Cold-Hearted Scientist for passing this my way.

Resources!

A museum in Japan has some old maps. Perhaps not surprising, even if they have obligingly put them on the web? But medieval maps don’t usually work the way we expect, and it turns out that there are eighth-century maps of field systems in here which kind of do. Obviously this is Japan so links to what I do not at all except that here are people using the kind of tools we would use for the kind of jobs that our study population must too have had but for which they used… well, we don’t know. But it’s one in the eye for all those who suggest that representational cartography has to postdate some major Western intellectual development innit? Maybe you don’t care as much as I do about this but Rebecca Darley, who provided me with the link and to whom the hat is now tipped, probably does so I bet there are others too.

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Then, fellow frontiers and charters enthusiast Igor Santos Salazar has let me know about this monumental task on which he has been engaged, a database of the judicial records from medieval Tuscany which is now online. Lavoro erculaneo, Igor!

And lastly in this section, they said it would never happen; several people died in the course of trying to do it; it has been complicated by two world wars, international tension and the Iron Curtain, to say nothing of funding and staffing troubles, but it is done: the charters of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840) are published at last.2 Here not a tip of the hat but sincere congratulations to Herr Professor Theo Kölzer for making it to the end of such an inauspicious task!

This is cool

Lastly, much more in my regular line, firstly just a really cool Spanish church site, well written up and photographed, for which thanks to José Manuel Serrano Esperanza for introducing it to me, and now to you.

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

And then last of all, heard of only today, an exhibition opening on Monday at the Yorkshire Museum (in York), entitled Constantius: York’s Forgotten Emperor, curated by an old colleague of mine, Andy Woods, which exhibition has been brought about by the discovery of a huge hoard of Constantius I’s coins that the Museum hopes to acquire. Do have a look!


1. There’s an actual article behind this one, which a quick websearch reveals as Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg, Alistair McPherson and Oskar Sveinbjarnarson, “(Re)Discovering the Gaulcross Hoard” in Antiquity Vol. 90 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 726-741.

2. On the troubles of the project up to 1990 see Peter Johanek, “Probleme einer zukünftigen Edition der Urkunden Ludwigs der Frommen” in Roger Collins & Peter Godman (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 409-424.

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 2

The second day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies—which is where my reporting backlog currently sits, alas—began reflectively…

226. The Nature of the Middle Ages: a Problem for Historians? (A Roundtable)

I went along to this mainly for reasons of celebrity-spotting, but it’s also often interesting to hear veterans of the field talk about what the field actually is, and to set it against one’s own perspectives. There are dynamics here about how elevated you get before your bird’s eye view becomes cloud-cuckoo land, but equally ones about being so close to the ground that you define the whole world by your local topography, and so on. All of this was given extra meat by this ICMS being the 50th, provoking reflection on the ICMS itself as much as anything. The scheduled presenters each picked their own targets for their muses, as follows:

  • Robin Fleming, “What Material Turn?”
  • Marcus Bull, “The Study of the Middle Ages and the Dread Word ‘Relevance'”
  • Ruth Mazo Karras, “Not Quite Fifty Years of Women’s History at Kalamazoo”
  • Paul Freedman, “Changing Subjects in Medieval History”
  • Nancy Partner, “Medieval ‘People’: Psyche?/Self?/Emotions?”
  • Some of these were complaints, and some reflections. Professor Fleming told everyone else that we don’t use objects enough in our history, and the conference programme certainly gave her a basis for the stance. Professor Mazo Karras charted the growth of the history of women from the archive of ICMS programmes—the first session on women at the ICMS was (only?) eight years coming but the take-off point for her was when societies started to form to do the work elsewhere. Professor Freedman, who was one of the first people to realise how great Vic is as a place to work on and whom I was glad to meet at last, had done similar analysis and noted, among other things, that at the second ever ICMS there had been seven women presenting, four of whom were nuns, but also that English literature and English history still dominate the programme, but that the rest has diversified hugely since 1965. Professor Partner spoke mainly of periodization and the problem of difference, between us and our subjects, which she argued could only be approached by deliberately seeking the ‘interiority’ of our sources, a kind of ‘depth psychology’.

    Medieval manuscript illumination of King Arthur's court and the Round Table

    Of course, it now strikes me that the very word ’roundtable’ is a medievalism, not something that any of the participants mentioned, but the site I got this image from epitomises the medievalism pretty well…

    This opened up the question of the session title perhaps more than the others had, and discussion went two ways, one following this, asking what we could do to avoid the problems of the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’, which have myriad difficulties because of being defined only by whatever lies outside them and not having clear ends. Professor Partner had argued half-jokingly for ‘really early modern’, but David Perry, one of the organisers, argued that it means more to people outside the Academy than it does to us, and Steven Muhlberger continued that by saying that the emptiness of the category actually serves us by allowing us to fill it with whatever suits us. True, useful, but hard to make into a clear mission statement, I think…

    Faulty slide purporting to set out differences between women's situation in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance

    Periodization and women’s history: what we’re up against, grabbed just now from the web

    This desire for a mission statement was what had occupied Professor Bull’s contribution, which I haven’t yet discussed. This is because it seemed to me a much more UK-focused perspective than the others and to sit oddly with them. His was a pitch familiar to me from my years in Oxford, in fact, roughly that that we should stop paying attention to governments and managerial bodies who want us to justify our subject, especially in terms of its relevance to the era in which we live, not least because we medievalists will always lose to the modernists in such a contest but also because modern-day relevance must by its nature shift all the time so can’t be a foundation. I accept the logic of this but it seems to me that this is only a fortification that can morally be erected by those who have no outside paymasters. Oxford had been mostly aggrieved that those of its paymasters whom it had trained didn’t seem inclined to respect that privilege, and obviously that someone pays some of your money doesn’t mean that they should get to set all of your agenda, but to argue that they can set none of it because what we do is just worthy of support, whatever it is, is, I fear, unlikely ever to convince those with nationally-accountable beans to count.

    Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)

    But why should we stop now, when we’re beginning to get books out of it, I am tempted to ask? Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)…

    The people who picked up on this in discussion seemed mostly to argue that our use to the wider world is not to show how the Middle Ages is like whatever is now happening, but to show when other people who are saying that are wrong. I feel the push to do that very strongly myself, as you may be aware, and have long argued that to use history is almost always to misuse it, but behind this is an idea of a ‘correct’, empirical and detached vision of the Middle Ages whose perfect fruition would be that no-one outside the Academy ever derived any benefit from the study of the past at all except in a pure æsthetic form; if they discovered anything that was ‘relevant’ it would have almost to be suppressed before it got into others’ hands. It seems to me that people are always going to have reasons why they find this stuff interesting and the best we can do is to train them to find it interesting enough to be careful with it. You can tell, anyway, that this interests me as a subject of discussion, but I still wish we could have the discussion with the economics in. As an earlier defender of this view said, “money doesn’t stink”. You’d think we couldn’t strike for more of it without considering where it comes to us from, but it seems not so. So anyway, from here to coffee and calmer waters…

248. The Venerable Bede: Issues and Controversies I

  • Thomas Rochester, “The Place of Luke and Acts in Constructing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • Morn Capper, “Bede and the Making of ‘Mercian Supremacy’: Challenging the Construct”
  • Sarah McCann, “Nodes of Influence: Networks, People, and the Writing of History”
  • It is of course impossible entirely to avoid Bede or Beowulf at the ICMS, but in this instance I would of course have gone anyway because of the presence of Morn Capper, long-standing friend of both this blog and your blogger. Morn’s paper argued that the groundwork for the period of the eighth century in which the kingdom of Mercia dominated England was largely laid in the seventh century, when Bede was in some sense watching, and yet he tells us very little about how it was done: for him, Mercia under the famous King Penda only shows up when it was on the warpath, whereas our sources for his successors Wulfhere and Æthelred emphasise negotiation, alliance and sometimes infrastructure. As Morn said, all of these rulers must have done all of these things but Bede is mainly interested in how far they supported the Church and so the version of Mercia we get from him is very partial indeed. As for the other two, both were at a very preliminary stage, Mr Rochester to establish Biblical models for Bede’s structuring of the Ecclesiastical History and Miss McCann to build a network model of the History using Gephi, and it doesn’t seem kind to mount a critique of their work here.

315. Fluctuating Networks: the Constructive Role of Broken Bonds in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond

  • Robert Portass, “The Peasant Parvenu: Social Climbing in Tenth-Century Spain”
  • Petra Melichar, “Noble Women and Their (Broken) Allegiances in Late Byzantium”
  • Arthur Westwell, “Studios: a Network of Alternative Power in Ninth-Century Constantinople”
  • Here, likewise, I had mainly come because of the presence of a colleague of yore, Rob Portass, but his paper sat rather oddly in the session as it was principally about bonds formed, not broken, between local transactors in Galicia, which is after all kind of Rob’s stuff.1 He was arguing that confrontation with the actual documents, mainly here those of Santo Toribio de Liébana, showed you peasants making deals with each other and advancing relative to each other, rather than the narrative of the historiography of the area which shows you landlords beating down on peasant necks.2 Well, not here, says Rob. Meanwhile, the other two had picked up on the theme a bit more. Ms Melichar looked at the different ties late Byzantine noblewomen could break, with family, Orthodoxy, political networks and so on, usually to stay connected to one of the other of these sets, but as she pointed out, never as far as we can see to advance their own positions, rather than those of the networks within which they worked. Lastly, Mr Westwell set out a case for the monastery of St John the Forerunner of Stoudios as a long-lived ‘safe’ focus for opposition to imperial religious policies in eighth- and ninth-century Constantinople, although the high point of that was the Abbot Theodore, who set himself and his monks to guard what they saw as orthodoxy through a series of theological disputes and mounted that defence not least by many many letters to people at court, ex-monks who had gone on to serve elsewhere, friendly church officials and noblemen and women, not just mobilising support but giving backing to those people’s own opposition. This was a whole world of source material I’d had no idea about and for me one of the eye-openers of the conference.

That was the end of the academic programme for me on this day. If I remember rightly we now met back up with Morn and set out to walk to the legendary Bilbo’s, a required rite de pizza for the medievalist visiting Kalamazoo. We had no driver so set out to walk it, which is perfectly doable as long as you can work out which way to head, and that I eventually did after being 180° wrong to start with. That was worth it for the guy we checked directions with, however, who despite being of apparently normal build and health counselled us to get a cab: “It’s a hell of a walk. Gotta be half a mile at least.” We assured him that in Britain that is OK to walk and enjoyed our pizza and beer all the more for the adventure, and that was how we wrapped up day two of Kalamazoo 2015.


1. As witness Robert Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

2. Classically presented in Reyna Pastor, Resistencias y luchas campesinas en la época del crecimiento y consolidación de la formación feudal: Castilla y León, siglos X-XIII (Madrid 1980).

Imitation and officialdom in early Islamic Syria

I want to write today about something I want at some point to be working on. This has been in the plans since I was at the Barber Institute and first met the relevant coins, but at the moment I have too many other things to finish to give it the time it needs; I’ve done enough reading to teach it, which worked well, but not enough to write with assurance. So I’ll just set it up to think about and promise to return to it in more depth later. The subject is what happened to the organisation of government in the areas taken over by Islam in its rush of conquests in the mid- to late-seventh century.

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

In Egypt, at least, it is now fairly clear that the immediate difference the Islamic conquest of the 640s made was minimal. The very top level of government, the Byzantine imperial governors and their staffs, was sliced off and replaced by an Arab governor appointed from Damascus, and that often proved to be problematic, but the people who ruled in localities, usually officials called pagarchs, were often allowed to remain in office, raising taxes in more or less the same way (and quite possibly less, which may have meant they were keeping more) and just rendering them to officials from Fustat for transmission to Damascus rather than Alexandria for Constantinople.1 We know this from Egypt because of the prolific, if localised, survival of the papyrus documentation of the administration that dealt with all this, but Egypt’s level of survival, especially for papyrus, is kind of unique. What can we use where there are no papyri? And the answer is, as so often, coins.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

The areas that Islam took over in the seventh century were coin-using ones. In the west, as seen from Medina, there was the Byzantine (or, as they saw it, Roman) Empire, with a tax system based on the gold solidus and made practical by voluminous copper-alloy small change that also fed market exchange and kept city economies running. This system had been in trouble over the previous thirty years because of the ‘last great war of Antiquity’, that between the Romans and Persians during which Persia had for a decent while occupied the Middle East and Upper Egypt, and in that time not only do we apparently find the Persians striking pseudo-Byzantine coinage to keep things running, we also have several of the smaller cities of the occupied zone apparently making their own emergency coin to keep things going; that that is what it is seems obvious by how very much it doesn’t look like the real stuff, as if they feared to be accused of forgery if and when regular government returned.2

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Hastily-constructed composite image of a probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Meanwhile, in the relative east, the system of what had been the Persian Empire, based on a tax system working in silver drachms with only locally-issed copper-alloy small change, also seems to have continued almost unaltered. That is really interesting, not least because of the Zoroastrian and royal imagery of the coinage which was maintained with only the smallest Islamic additions, but it’s not where I want to go today because that system does actually seem to have continued pretty much as before, with provincial governors in the same provinces striking coin of the same sort at the same mints. Not so, however, in the west.

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdigerd III

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdigerd III, islamized only by the addition of the words ‘Muhammad the prophet of God’ in Arabic by the Shah’s left shoulder, image from I forget where alas

In the Roman zone, much of the coinage had previously come from Constantinople or its two satellite mints of Nicomedia and Cyzicus, all of which were now outside the political area. More local mints had been at Antioch, not conquered until 637 and Alexandria (which was taken in 641, reconquered in 645 and definitively fell to Islam in 646), with some coinage perhaps coming in from Cyprus (where Roman-Islamic power-sharing was agreed in 649).3 We know of emergency issues that are probably from Jerusalem and Cæsarea, but these are very scanty and since we can’t date them, we also can’t be sure they were still being issued.4 What this means is that the ex-Roman area of the new Islamic dominion at the point of takeover had no regular mints in it, and even the addition of Alexandria didn’t solve that because Egyptian coinage was struck at a different standard to the rest of the Empire’s.5

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616, Stoa Image Gallery

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Alexandria in 613-618

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of the same rulers struck at Alexandria in 613-618, HJB Coins sale 16 August 2001, not to scale (in fact, none of these are to scale)

So, what did they do? The study I’ve learnt most from so far breaks it down into four phases, all of which can seem a bit surprising.6 In the first place, the captured provinces continued to ship in Byzantine coin; we know this because issues struck after the date of the conquest, for Emperor Constans II (642-664), turn up there still in considerable numbers. Quite how that was arranged, I would love to know… After a while, which we can’t date and could actually have started straight away, local versions of Byzantine coins started to be made, which we can mostly identify because the details start to be slightly wrong. At the extremities of that range they feature things that were never on the same coin together, or which didn’t turn up on coins at all but seem to belong to the general symbolic library.

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

“Er, Severos, usually that B goes below the M, and vertically? What? No, no, it doesn’t matter…” ‘Derivative’ Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Almost none of these coins identify their place of issue, though some of them carry Greek or, perhaps increasingly, Arabic, words meaning ‘good’ or ‘legitimate’ or the like. There is assumed by the numismatists a general progression from real-looking pseudo-Byzantine coins towards things that are essentially Arabicised variations on a vaguely Byzantine theme. If that’s right, then we get more and more Arabic, and among those coins emerge new mints, at Damascus, Tiberias (a. k. a. Tabariyya), Manbij, Scythopolis (Baisan), and many other places, none of which except perhaps Jerusalem and Cæsarea, neither of which stuck at it long, had ever struck coin under the empire.

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

But almost all of these coins seem also to be imitated quite widely, at varying standards that have made one scholar, Clive Foss, write of a spectrum ranging from official issues to things that could have been made by a local blacksmith.7 At the extreme ends of this there are coins overstruck on whole or partial old coins, but this is hard to be sure about because the actual empire did a lot of that too, by now. And running alongside all of this is a myriad of very very worn Roman and Byzantine bronze, as well as some of the new stuff, that was validated or otherwise updated with Islamic countermarks, about which we know hardly anything (though a selection of it is now on display at the Barber Institute, if you’re interested).8

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

And this whole situation lasts until the 690s or so, at which point Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have tried a number of ways of joining Arab-Byzantine and Arab-Sasanian coinages up then replaced them all with the more standard Islamic coinage of the Middle Ages that we recognise somewhat more easily.

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid struck at a mint I can't identify between 713 and 715 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid struck at a mint I can’t identify between 713 and 715 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

So, if you were one of my Empire and Aftermath students, at this point I would be asking you what this all means in terms of authority and government in the area. Usually coinage is a state monopoly; if everyone and his or her neighbour is making coins, who’s in charge? Isn’t it a problem for our picture of the eary caliphate if there were ‘official’ mints like Damascus striking coin and then there was another mint, somewhere we can’t place, imitating them to the point where numismatists actually distinguish it as pseudo-Damascus? How can the ‘official’ coinages and the countermarked quarters of coins hundreds of years old have been part of any system together? What can the point have been of marking some things ‘good’ or ‘of legitimate weight’ when their weights vary by sometimes as much as 50%? Why was no-one stopping the imitation? Could they not do so? These are the kind of questions that understanding the coinage might help with, and I intend to try, with the help of some esteemed collaborators, but any understanding of it is going to have to include the imitations.


1. This has been pretty much established by the work of Petra Sijpesteijn: see for example her “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0366.2009.00198.x.

2. I follow here Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 1 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 1-17, with the Persian coinages described on pp. 9-12. For the phrase ‘the last great war of Antiquity’ I have to acknowledge James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity” in idem, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: historical and historiographical studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006), VI.

3. On the coinage system as it had existed here, see for preference Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 43-77. My dates for the conquests could be challenged; I follow Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam shaped the world we live in (London 2007).

4. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, pp. 14-19.

5. Ibid., pp. 87-98.

6. Ibid., pp. 18-57, on which most of the next two paragraphs rest. Important differences with Foss’s account can be found in Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 144-149, and Stephen Album and Tony Goodwin, The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), pp. 77-112.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, p. 26.

8. Nicholas M. Lowick, Simon Bendall and Philip D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic Countermarks on Byzantine Folles. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Coins from the “Mardin Hoard” of Byzantine Folles, Many with Islamic Countermarks, in the University of Birmingham, 1976 (London 1977).