Category Archives: Currently teaching…

Chronicle VI: October-December 2016

University and College Union pickets at the University of Leeds

University and College Union pickets at the University of Leeds

Well, just as with the last time I wrote one of these, we are still on strike again, so there is now time to write it. With the trip to Istanbul that immediately preceded the start of term now finally dealt with, it’s time again to look at my life academic as it stood at the current date of my backlog, sadly the end of 2016 but for once I am catching up, and take stock of what was going on and, of course, what of it still merits blogging about! Continue reading

Surely you’re mistaken I

Happy 2020 to all my readers! By way of light relief from my old holiday pictures, here is something I’ve had in store until it was safe to use, another small stash of ‘classic’ student answers to questions of great weight, from years back. There’s one superstar here, but the supporting cast also contributed a great deal. I didn’t check who these students were until after I’d marked these things and by now I have no idea; they will, however, all have safely graduated by now, hopefully after having left this period behind for one they were happier in. Enjoy!

I know what they meant, but…

“With the emergence of Mohammed, Islam exploded in popularity and in influence.”

It had been struggling before, I seem to recall…

“Constantius was an Aryan emperor and when he came to power he attempted to make Aryan the official religion of the Empire.”

There’s probably no safe joke to make about this.

Latin with unexpected results

The fourth century as seen by Goscinny

“[Constantine’s conversion] led to the edict of Milan in AD 313 in which Constantine and Licentius legalised Christianity and other religions.”

Unintended satire

“Firstly, Emperors of the time were considered as ‘Profitis Maximus’ which means ‘the head of religion’.”

Just not sure what happened here

“Justinian took succession of North Africa in the Vanadic War as well as moving out the Frankish and Swedish.”

Reference to a hitherto undocumented migrant crisis?

And most difficult of all, Christianity

Several important contributions by that unknown guest star, to whom both word choice and understanding Christianity seem to have been more challenging than perhaps they realised.

Word choice is important

“The infamous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, still one of the most famous religious buildings to this day…”

I think you can only have one of those adjectives, sorry.

Religion is confusing

“During the thirteenth century the Pope wanted the masses to believe in the all-powerful superior civil leader God….”

Previously someone less all-powerful had been in charge so the popes were less clear about their wishes, I guess.

“The Greek church had laws for the archbishoprics, bishoprics and the intermediate class, their laws were directed at everybody and everyone was on the same level. Each person was an equal. Compared to the Latin church which was very top heavy, mainly aimed at archbishoprics and bishoprics and that was it.”

Besides which, with all those bishoprics on trial the courts were very full anyway.

“Which ended up spuring on Greek nationalism to such an extent that there was no going back, so in Constantinople they tried to get Hagia Sophia on the throne.”

Perhaps in the form of one of those models emperors carry around in mosaics? Otherwise I’m not sure how this happened either…

Anyway, I try to keep glorious moments like these when they occur; they make the marking easier… Hopefully these have either been a diversion, or, if you’re a student, a warning, and either way may it start off a happy New Year for you and me both!

Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, reflected upon from a distance

Somehow Action Short of a Strike still looks a lot like a really hard week—the contract I’m working to doesn’t have fixed hours—so I find myself blogging very late on a Sunday. Both because of that and because of the topic, I don’t want to write a long post (though when I say that it never works, not least because of parentheses like these…): what can there be to say about a conference three years ago? On the other hand, in so far as this blog is my academic record, I don’t want to miss it out: I was there, I did things I hope will matter, and I was for the first time able to host friends for it at the house then ours in Leeds, so it was a sociable occasion worth remembering. Indeed, I made quite a few new friends at Leeds 2016, looking back, so some sort of record is needed. I’ll restrict it, however, to a list of the papers I went to and limited commentary where I have some memory or good notes, and I’ll put it behind a cut so as not to bore those who think this a touch too obsessional. If I don’t feature your paper, please blame my memory, not your content; it was a long and tiring conference, as it always is. But I will take the last day in a separate post, because it was sort of a conference within a conference for me, for reasons that will become obvious in that other post. So this is 4th to 6th July 2016 in my world, as it unfolded… Continue reading

Chronicle V: July-September 2016

Hilary Benn MP addressing pickets at the University of Leeds, 2nd December 2019

Hilary Benn MP addressing pickets at the University of Leeds this morning

Some negotiations are afoot, but the strikes continue, and so I am free to write you more blog. Let’s, as I promised yesterday, look back now to happier times, to wit the summer of 2016, for my next Chronicle post. Admittedly, despite the recent rush, the last one of those three-month slices was a bit more than three months ago, but hopefully this one, covering as it mainly does the summer vacation, will catch things up a bit. So, what did this UK academic do with his summer before he was all unionized and on strike?

Teaching

Well, you’d think teaching stopped over the summer, and of course it mostly does in as much as the undergraduates go home for a bit, but in actual fact as I look through the old diary it is obvious how one never quite gets clear. I got through July with only one Ph. D. supervision, for the visiting Chinese student I’ve mentioned, and in August I saw him again, for the last time, plus one of my postgraduate mentees, but I also spent an hour and a half in an empty classroom recording a canned lecture for our first-year medieval survey module I was taking over, so I was obviously also doing teaching planning. Then in September, as well as a meeting with a different postgraduate mentee, I did a taster lecture for prospective undergraduates, had various meetings to coordinate the upcoming year’s teaching and then in the last week of September of course normal undergraduate teaching began again, with me running three modules, including that whole-cohort survey and my all-new two-semester Special Subject, which had needed an immense amount of translation doing for it, and on the last day of that week I also had to do a transfer interview for one of our doctoral candidates. All of this, course, needed preparation previously. So, given that, I’m not sure I actually took that much time off from teaching in the summer. I certainly did have some actual time off, and I will show you photographs from it as well, but there was no point when teaching was all finished and could be put away. One of my lessons from that summer was that I needed to construct one of those, and I’ve been trying and failing ever since…

Other Efforts

Well, actually quite a lot of this time was spent house-hunting, for reasons I won’t go into, but I was also now starting that coin cataloguing project with an undergraduate that I’ve mentioned here before, which also meant a meeting every few weeks, and also some larger coordination with Special Collections about the further development of work on the coin collection, which at this point I was still also slowly inventorying for an afternoon a week when I could. So coins were definitely a feature of these three months. By September I was also undergoing training, because one of the things in the year ahead of me was my eventually-successful application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, not a simple process at first. But here things were fairly light, which is how it should probably be during an academic summer.

Other People’s Research

Obviously, summer also means no seminars, but on the other hand, also obviously to those of us in the circuit, July also opens with Leeds’s own International Medieval Congress, so I definitely saw some other people talk. It was also my first one as staff, and I suppose that even after three years’ delay that may still make it worth blogging separately. That was actually my only conference that summer, however, so even here things were lighter than they might have been.

My Own Research

All the which, therefore, would lead you to suppose that I must mostly have been doing research. And sure, while the look of my diary is mainly house-hunting and (believe it or not) a holiday, there are also a lot of blanks which must have been so filled. I was presenting at the IMC in my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier strand, but of course that was (almost) done by the time July started. I must have been reading for ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’, because I had drafts of it done in June and October that this time must have made the difference between, and I also turned round a new version of my old piece ‘A Likely Story’, then as now still on its way to publication. Closer examination however reveals that what I was probably doing most of was trying to work out how many of Borrell II‘s relatives I could track down. (The answer, should you be interested, was 66 whom he could actually have met, not including relatives by marriage, whom I probably should have included, but, well, if the book ever emerges you’ll see there were reasons not to bother.) This involved getting deep into the early work of Martin Aurell, whom you may just know proposed long ago that the ninth- and early-tenth-century comital family of Catalonia was seriously and incestuously interbred.1 Let us suffice here to say that on closer examination of the sources I disagree, and that as long-term readers may remember there were just a lot of women called Adelaide in that area at that time, some of whom are not in fact the same as each other. By the end of the summer I was sure that this now needed to be a separate article, but I was not yet in a position to extract it, and I have to admit, have got little closer since then (though I did at least finish Aurell’s book, some two years later). So that was apparently where the rest of the summer went. Looking at that, I shouldn’t feel bad, really; I redrafted one piece for publication and did some serious work on an article and a book, which ought to be good enough for three months. Nonetheless, my life would have been easier in the following year if it had been more.

Whitby harbour and Whitby Abbey seen from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway service into the town

Whitby harbour and Whitby Abbey seen from the North Yorkshire Moor Railway service into the town, and about as close as I got to anything medieval on this trip, but sometimes that’s OK

What does this all tell us, then? Firstly, I guess, looking back, I was tired and fraught, but that was largely the stress of having to move house again, and my partner bore most of that weight. Even that was not all bad – I got a much better sense of West Yorkshire from going looking at many places – but also, I suspect I was still probably working full days most of these weeks, at least those where I was not actually on leave (and then sometimes in North Yorkshire, as above). I just don’t seem to have finished the summer with that much to show for it, and I think that has to be down to the lack of actual downtime and the need to have new teaching ready for the coming year. In fact, I wasn’t really ready, but I didn’t know that then.


1. Specifically, Martí Aurell i Cardona, “Jalons pour une enquête sur les stratégies matrimoniales des Comtes Catalans” in Frederic Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, I pp. 281–364, online here; Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); and idem, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911)” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq 1998), pp. 467–480.

I Found This Coin, 2: Byzantine small-change weirdnesses

It is day two of the UK higher education strikes, 2019 edition, so I suddenly have a gap in my to-do lists such as has not existed for many a month, and consequently you get another blog post!

University and College Union strike pickets at the University of Leeds, 2019

Strangely familiar… The entrance to the Parkinson Building at Leeds yesterday. Already forecasting more photos like this for 2020!

So, if we go back to May 2016, before all this blew up, I still then had time occasionally to volunteer in Special Collections at my beloved university, working through their mostly-uncatalogued cabinets of coins. As in the previous one of these posts, sometimes I’d find something cool. In May 2016 I was mainly doing Byzantine small change, it seems, and in there were two especially interesting pieces. The first one I have shown here before:

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 copper-alloy follis of an uncertain mint struck perhaps in the Middle East in 613-28, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/BYZ/TH/302

It deserves more explanation than it’s had, however. In aspect this is a fairly normal-looking follis of Emperor Phocas, pictured enthroned alongside his empress Leoncia. The reverse has the ‘M’ that indicates 40 in Greek, telling you how many nummi the coin is worth, and below that the mint-mark… And there’s the problem, because that is no mint-mark that the Byzantine Empire used. Sort of nearly NIK or NIC for Nicomedia, modern-day Iznik, but obviously not, and an imperial, literate, die-cutter should have known. So what’s going on here? Well, between 602 and 629, the Byzantine Empire was embroiled in a fight for its life with its neighbouring empire, Sasanian Persia (or as the Sasanians thought of it, Iran). At the high point of this, for the Persians, they controlled most of the Middle East and Egypt, and in Syria and Palestine that situation lasted a decade. Now, this is not the only coin like this, whose designer seems to have known what a Byzantine coin looked like but not understood why, and Clive Foss is not the only scholar to suggest that these might be the small change of the Persian administration, keeping things running but with no real need to care about the traditional pedantries of Byzantine money. This is one of the types he mentions as a possible case of it, and I don’t have a better explanation!1 So this may be a Persian occupation coin, which would be pretty cool, and if it’s not, it’s an enigma, which is also cool.

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Reverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Reverse of the same coin

It was the Byzantines who eventually won the war, however, by dint of continuous and heroic efforts by both the home administration in Constantinople in raising tax and of the Emperor Heraclius in spending it in fast-moving and devastating field campaigns, often deep in enemy territory without contact with home. The whole story is quite exciting, but a big part of it was the desperate raising of money to pay troops.2 In the course of this all kinds of corners seem to have been cut to make money quicker, and this is particularly true of the small change, effctively valueless in and of itself and so of no actual need to make nicely. Rather than melt down old coins, therefore, the mints often just struck new designs straight on top of them, and as here, the old designs often remained partially visible. Now, Heraclius had risen to power by toppling and indeed executing Phocas, whose own coming to power had precipitated the war with Persia, and it is one of Phocas’s coins that was the victim of overstriking here; you can see on the face side, around the bottom left, the letters dN FOCAS that began that coin’s old legend, for ‘Our Lord Phocas’. But the actual emperor has been obliterated by Heraclius and his eldest son Constantine. That could be a powerful act of symbolism, and might just explain why, apparently, looking at its impression the new die was square. Was it actually designed to leave the old text visible to make it clear what had happened here? Well, almost any other coin of this period suggests that no such subtleties were being administered, and that these things were just overstruck on anything any old how, including after a while on Heraclius’s own old coins. What the point of this was, no-one has really figured out, and I have fun debating it in class every year now, but this particular example remains, at least, a poignantly expressive coincidence (and I still don’t know why the die was square).3


1. See Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008), pp. 11-12, for the argument.

2. Probably the best account, for all that I would not recommend it methodologically, is James Howard-Johnston, “Heraclius’ Persian Campaigns and the Revival of the Eastern Roman Empire, 622–630” in War in History Vol. 6 (Abingdon 1999), pp. 1–45, reprinted in Howard-Johnston, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot 2006), chapter VIII.

3. Compare Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 45 & 92, with Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), p. 288; neither really had good explanations for the phenomenon.

Numismatic entertainment

Once I had discovered the coin collection in Leeds University Library and begun to put it to work in my teaching, the convenors of the Leeds Medieval Group were not long in asking me if I might be able to put on some kind of event using the coins for them. We set this up for 25th April 2016, under the title, “Medieval Coins for Beginners: A Workshop”, and I planned it very loosely, because I didn’t at all know what sort of audience to expect: Medieval Group draws people from well outside its host department and indeed from outside the university, so levels of expertise or interest were hard to gauge. After a year at the Barber I was pretty sure I could manage whatever the needs were. As it turned out, basically everybody who came was one of the department’s historians, with one postgraduate looking worried among them. This worked well for me, as I have a sort of undeclared mission to get someone other than me in the department using the coins, so I asked the gathering what they were hoping to get from the workshop, and one of my colleagues whom I will not identify declared loftily, “I want to be entertained.”1 Well, that I could do, but it is of course a trick that can be repeated here, so this post is three of the little stories of coins that I told all that time ago.

Obverse of an Æ3 of Constantine I struck at Rome in 314, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/400

Obverse of an Æ3 of Constantine I struck at Rome in 314, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/400

Reverse of an Æ3 of Constantine I struck at Rome in 314, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/400

Reverse of an Æ3 of Constantine I struck at Rome in 314, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/400

So, let me start with a teaching point of which I never tire. This is a chunk of small change struck for the Emperor Constantine I, at Rome in 314, a couple of years after he had taken over that city by defeating his rival Maxentius, who drowned in the retreat. We don’t know what the small-change coins of this period were called, but these ones are half the size of the biggest, and numismatists unhelpfully call them Æ3s in print and then struggle over how to say that out loud to each other. Anyway! The teaching point is that in the year between his defeat of Maxentius and the issue of this coin in the city where he’d done that, Constantine, along with his colleague Licinius I, had famously legalised the practise of Christianity within the Empire with their 313 Edict of Milan. Many historians will still tell you, faithfully following the testimony of Constantine’s biographer Bishop Eusebius of Cæsarea, that Constantine himself was Christian by this stage.2 These coins show nothing of that, however: on the reverse Constantine is proclaimed Soli invicto comiti, “(to the) Companion of the Unconquered Sun”. It may have been possible to see Sol the sun-god and Christ as somehow reflections of the same divinity, but the type had also been used by the pagan emperors Aurelian and Diocletian, the latter of whom was one of the persecuting emperors whom it seems safe to say was not after an expression of Christian syncretism on his money. Basically, whatever his personal religious convictions were, they didn’t change Constantine’s coinage at all (barring three very very rare types, of which much too much has been made given how drowned they were by continuing pagan issues).3

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

Obverse of a copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227 (not to scale)

Reverse of a copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

Reverse of a copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227 (likewise not to scale)

Two hundred and fifty years down the line and the emperors now ruled from Constantinople, while Rome had been lost and won back several times, even in the living memory of Emperor Justin II for whom this 40-nummi coin, which I showed you a few posts ago, was issued at Nicomedia (modern-day Iznik) in 574-575. We can date it because, unlike almost any other ancient or medieval coins, Byzantine small change between 532 and around 700 carried regnal dates; we don’t know why this was done—why are there dates on our coins, after all?—but current explanations don’t seem adequate.4 In any case, the teaching point here is that you will note that there are two figures on the coin. That’s apparently because Justin II, who was not a well man for much of his reign, ruled with the aid of his Empress Sophia, who therefore seems to have got onto the coins. She only appears on the small change, however, and alongside her husband, whereas all precedents for empresses on imperial coins so far had them having coins of their own struck, and mostly in gold. More bewilderingly, a close look at this coin will reveal that the inscription, δN IVζTINVS PP AVC (Dominus noster Iustinus perpetuus Augustus, our Lord Justin Eternal Emperor) names only the emperor. Just one mint, Carthage in North Africa, struck these coins with the empress’s name on too. Otherwise she is visibly there but in some sense unrecorded, and one could make that into a cunning representation of the real political situation but then Carthage’s practice becomes very hard to explain; as far as we know she wasn’t from there or anything. Who made these choices and why is a question that has been keeping people occupied for a good long while, and probably will some time longer.5

Obverse of a silver penny of King Harold II struck at Canterbury in 1066, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, uncatalogued

Obverse of a silver penny of King Harold II struck at Canterbury in 1066, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, uncatalogued

Reverse of a silver penny of King Harold II struck at Canterbury in 1066, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, uncatalogued

Reverse of a silver penny of King Harold II struck at Canterbury in 1066, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, uncatalogued

Lastly something closer to home, the above is one of the relatively few silver pennies that there was time for King Harold II of England to issue in 1066, this one struck at Canterbury by the moneyer Eadwine, which is proclaimed abbreviatedly on the reverse. Harold’s presentation here is interesting, not least because of how Byzantine it is, with a cross-sceptre and a diadem. The leftwards profile portrait was normal in England at this time, and would be changed for an even more Byzantine facing one by the Normans, presumably unbeknownst to Harold, though he obviously knew that the Normans were a danger. The coin is involved in some quite deliberate political signalling, therefore; not only are there these signs of royalty attached to someone whose family had never previously been royal, but the reverse message is one simple word, PAX, Peace. Of course, Harold’s promise here would prove empty. Ironically—or not?—William the Conqueror’s coins would also use a PAX legend of a kind, but then he could reasonably say that unlike Harold he’d been able to achieve it. That debate has since continued at least as far as Sir Walter Scott, of course, but it’s interesting to be able to see it happening at the time on one of the few public image tools available to a medieval régime.6

So there you have it, stories to tell with three of the sixteen coins I took with me into that workshop, and I hope that they provide some entertainment for you also!


1. That colleague’s anonymity will be protected, but honourable mention here must go to Dr Alan Murray, who was using the coins to teach with even before I arrived and who is so far still the only other person in the School of History to do so except on my modules. I’ll get them one day though!

2. Eusebius is now best got at in Eusebius, Life of Constantine, ed. & transl. Averil Cameron & Stuart G. Hall (Oxford 1999), and for bigger background my students seem to do best with Charles M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, 2nd edn. (London 2010), which does include the coinage as part of its source base.

3. The debate on Constantine’s conversion is almost too tedious to cite, but try Raymond Van Dam, “The Many Conversions of the Emperor Constantine” in Kenneth Mills & Anthony Grafton (edd.), Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing (Rochester 2003), pp. 127–151, for an account of it; on the coin types, a dose of quantitative common sense is provided by Patrick Bruun, “The Christian Signs on the Coinage of Constantine”, in idem, Studies in Constantinian Numismatics: Papers from 1954 to 1988 (Rome 1991), pp. 53–69.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535 at pp. 515-516 & n. 9 for a short round-up of this question.

5. Leslie Brubaker and Helen Tobler, “The Gender of Money: Byzantine Empresses on Coins (324–802)” in Gender and History Vol. 12 (Oxford 2000), pp. 572–594, repr. in Pauline Stafford and Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages (Oxford 2001), pp. 42–64, gathers the evidence but even they struggle to conclude very much about the thinking behind the coins.

6. You probably don’t need a go-to reference on the Norman Conquest of England and the build-up to it but I think Brian Golding, Conquest and Colonisation: the Normans in Britain, 1066-1100 (Basingstoke 1994) is a good one; Martin Allen, “Mints and Money in Norman England” in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol. 34 (Woodbridge 2012), pp. 1-22, is a good introduction to where we are now with the coinage of the era.

Standing figure facing with two long crosses

It seems to have been a while since we had anything here about coins, so here’s a little coincidence that I notice every time I teach with it on my late-antique survey module, Empire and Aftermath. Predictably, I use coinage as a source on this, because we have a good collection to play with and it gets students involved who might not react so well to purely textual sources, but each year I do I am struck by something I remember from much longer ago in my career, which is this coin:

Obverse of an early English penny, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Obverse of an early English penny of the so-called Series L, struck at London in the late-seventh or early-eighth century, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Reverse of an early English silver penny struck at London, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Reverse of the same coin

This is an early Anglo-Saxon penny, and it’s one of the very rare ones that actually carries some legible information about its place of issue: you may not believe me, but the letters around the presumably-royal bust decode as LVNDONIA, London. How many people could have read this, given that the actual coin is about the size of most people’s little fingernails, is another question, but it does, and a sibling of this coin in the same collection was even recovered from the River Thames, so that’s nicely coherent.1 However, today I’m more interested in the reverse imagery. Here it is bigger and clearer:

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

So, what can we be sure that we have here? A figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long-hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, seems reasonable. But he or she is also standing on some kind of crescent, perhaps? And the people who have tried to read this image have therefore wondered if she or he is on a boat, and thus even perhaps a missionary bringing the Christian faith to the English peoples as had indeed happened scarcely two generations before this coin was likely struck.2 It leaves the armoured-looking dress a little hard to explain, but as an iconographic reading it certainly fits its context nicely. But compare it to this one:

Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown

Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown, though I found it in Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008), p. 32. It’s not actually part of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, however, so I don’t know where it now is

I’m sorry that I have no better image of this, but it is one of those enigmatic coins produced in Syria during the earliest decades of Islam that I love to talk about so much.3 And here, again, we appear to have a figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, standing on some kind of crescent. And the people who have tried to read this image have not usually got much further than that it is a development or degeneration of a standing figure of the Byzantine emperor such as is seen on the later coinage of Emperor Heraclius, where he stands in campaign attire with a long cross and cross on a globe, and indeed it doesn’t seem too far a stretch. It might seem weird that a putatively Islamic issuer changes a small cross for a bigger one on a figure that is, putatively, still the emperor who no longer ruled them, but again, we have reason—from the coins!—to suspect that this was a very fluid period and we can’t, for example, be sure that the issuer of this coin wasn’t Christian and didn’t think that the emperor was still in charge, despite the current local régime change, so it’s all far from impossible.4

Copper-alloy 4-<i>nummi</i> of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732

Copper-alloy 4-nummi of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732. The coins of this type usually carry Heraclius’s son standing behind him at his left, but many, like this one, were so carelessly made that he escapes the impression

The problem thus arises only when you know about both of these coins at once. If this is one design, as it appears, then it can’t easily be both a derivative Heraclius and Saint Augustine of Canterbury or whoever, not least because the Anglo-Saxon one also has a royal or imperial bust on it. It is possible, just about, that both engravers were deriving from the bronze coinage of Heraclius, but that is very hard to imagine being available as a model in Britain, since being copper-alloy it only had value inside the Empire; a few Byzantine bronzes are known from British contexts, but very few and to my knowledge from no later than the 580s.5 Also, we have to explain two unconnected engravers both deciding to do exactly the same things to the same design about half a century apart. It’s even less likely, to be honest, though still not impossible, that someone brought the Arab-Byzantine coin to Britain or the Britain-based engraver had met it in Syria.6 There are, admittedly, other versions of this design in both Britain and Syria that come closer to their supposed archetypes, and parallel evolution is maybe more plausible than I just made it sound, but there is, thankfully, a simpler answer. It looks like these:

Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection

Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection, image from Wildwinds under Constantine I, RIC VI 195

Silvered copper-alloy <i>antoninianus</i> of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins

Silvered copper-alloy antoninianus of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins, image from Wildwinds, Severina, under RIC 20 V

The shared reverse type between these two issues is a figure of Concordia with two military standards, personifying harmony among the soldiers, Concordia militum, sometimes such an important message for a Roman ruler to send… It’s an image that still turns up out of the ground every now and then in Britain even now, and I imagine it’s not unknown in the Middle East either, but anyone digging up Roman settlements in either place in the seventh century would have had a chance of coming across one. The design, of course, is not a bloke with two crosses, but a lady with two imperial standards, but three or four centuries later some adaptation to the times probably shouldn’t surprise us, and it’s less of an adaptation than is required to get there from Heraclius and his campaign shorts.

Now, of course, that both engravers had such an image before them explains some things, but it doesn’t tell us either what they thought their model showed or what they understood in what they turned it into. The people who think the English coin shows a saint on a boat may still be right; that may be what the engraver decided the border of the original design meant, or even what it could mean; there was all kinds of scope for invention here.7 Likewise, in Syria, the choice to super-Christianize what had been a secular and indeed pagan image could have a lot of possible meanings, but they could certainly have been deliberate. By suggesting a model I don’t mean to suggest that the engravers of the coins didn’t have anything of their own in mind. But I do think it’s kind of cute that to do that, they themselves were probably engaged in exactly the same game as that we’re playing here, trying to figure out what was shown on these coins from hundreds of years before their own time.


1. There’s an absolutely huge literature on early Anglo-Saxon pennies, or sceattas as they’re widely known, and no space here to try to list it all, but the introductory discussion to coins like these particular ones that I use for students is Rory Naismith, “Money of the Saints: Church and Coinage in Early Anglo-Saxon England” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage, 3: Sifting the Evidence (London 2014), pp. 68–121.

2. E. g. Catherine Karkov, “The Boat and the Cross: Church and State in Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage”, in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 63–71.

3. Citation is in the caption, obviously, but Foss is also a pretty good guide to the whole coinage, at least if you are prepared to be more relaxed about chronology than he wants to be.

4. Helpful here, or at least I find it so, is Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72.

5. Known to me from gossip but also from Tony Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian landscape and economy, c. 575–c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 641 (Oxford 2018), p. 92, where his source is also gossip, but hey…

6. For a realistic assessment of pilgrimage from England to the Holy Land in this period, see Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022.

7. On which see Anna Gannon, “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery” in Barrie Cook and Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. AD 500–1250, The Northern World 19 (Leiden 2006), pp. 193–208.