The intellectual impact of Charlemagne’s coinage

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

Sankt Gallen, MS 731, fo. 56r

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

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

Silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Toulouse between 792 and 812

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

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


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

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

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

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

4 responses to “The intellectual impact of Charlemagne’s coinage

  1. Ildar has indeed written on this – a whole article in fact, as this is important dating evidence for the beginning of Charlemagne’s later coinage. It’s in EME from a couple of years ago: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/emed.12133

    • Thankyou, Rory: once upon a time I knew about that, but it had passed beyond the threshold of memory as I increasingly have no time to do Carolingians reading. I shall try and bring that one back up the priority list!

  2. I’ve not much interacted with numismatics, but this makes it suddenly fascinating to me. Of course a coin is a document like any other that could be understood or not by people interacting with it! Super interesting.

    • Ildar Garipzanov, already mentioned above, has somewhere written that a coin is a kind of metal charter. I don’t quite agree, as I think charters do something different, but he’s right that they are state documents, however mass-produced. And of course because they are mass-produced one can do things with them that normal sources just don’t permit, like plot distribution and travel…

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