Category Archives: numismatics

Money of post-Viking Brittany

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

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

Our mystery coin

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 Possibly unpublished.”2 Rory, however, has other ideas.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

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

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

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

Google map of Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

Seminar CCXXXIII: the limits of Byzantine contact with India

My backlog now crawls back towards a ten-month lag as I reach March 2015! Either I was busy during the early part of that month or not much was happening, but on the 11th I was in London at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because Dr Rebecca Darley, then still at the Warburg Institute, was presenting with the title “‘A Sign of God’s Favour’: Byzantine gold coins in Indian Ocean trade”. Now, as those who know me will probably be aware, there are good reasons why I can’t pretend to objectivity in discussing this paper, including my continuing collaboration with the speaker over our All That Glitters project, but hopefully you are not here for critique so much as for information, because what Rebecca knows is not stuff most medievalists do so there’s plenty of information coming…

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, struck at Siscia in 327-328, Classical Numismatic Group auction 2nd February 2014, lot 46

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, struck at Siscia in 327-328, Classical Numismatic Group auction 2nd February 2014, lot 46

But let’s start with this, a perfectly normal and respectable solidus of Constantine I but unusually pierced. This is, we were to learn, how Byzantine gold coins usually occur in India, which is a thing that happens. Roman gold is rather more common (which is to say, still pretty rare): Roman silver coins of Augustus and Tiberius are far from unknown from Indian findspots, as I remember discovering while cataloguing some at the Fitzwilliam years ago, and from Nero onwards gold also starts to turn up, and even some bronze, but the silver dies away quickly. The finds of coins from Constantine’s time are almost entirely solidi (for some quite special values of ‘almost entirely’ that I’ll come back to) and are much rarer, especially after the fourth century, and very often pierced twice, like this, over the portrait and from that side, as if to be stitched to costume as, indeed, coins still often are in India today. And this goes on more and more ephemerally till the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century when the supply seems to dry up. So what was going on?

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I, struck who knows where but most likely in India during the sixth century I suppose

Well, inevitably given how archæology looks for connections and everyone has been very keen to emphasise contact and cooperation in world history over conflict and disengagement since the Second World War, if not before, the normal reading of these coins is that they are evidence of trade. There are texts that have been used to support this as well, but we should, argued Rebecca, be suspicious of this picture. This is at least partly because of the famous Grierson Objection, much beloved of this blog, that coins can be transferred by many processes that are not trade, partly because the texts are not as well-informed or objective as they have been thought to be, but the best argument against it is really the coins themselves, because when that supply dries up (or even before! Datable contexts for these finds are sadly almost entirely lacking) what seems to happen is that people in southern India at least start making imitations of these coins to supply the gap, as you see above.1

Imitation of a Byzantine gold solidus, R. Darley "Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A.D.: a global history", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 60

Imitation of a gold solidus of, well, let’s face it, it’s just ‘a Byzantine emperor’ isn’t it? The die-cutters here were not after exactitude but impression. I have this image by the kindness of Rebecca herself, it being R. Darley “Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A.D.: a global history”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 60

Gold imitation of a Roman sestertius, R. Darley "Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A. D.: a global history", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 57

This one is even better, because not only is the type hardly visible, but what you can see appears to have been copied off a Roman copper alloy sestertius; note the ‘S C’! Undatable as well as untradeable! Darley “Indo-Byzantine trade”, cat. no. 57.

Well, you might say, perhaps that shows that these coins had now become part of an exchange system and had to be supplied once they were no longer arriving. To which one can only offer the above, not imitations anyone cared to make terribly convincing in size, weight or imagery, and say, probably not really, not if gold value is what it’s about. Besides which, in so far as as we have findspots at all, which is not often, Rebecca showed us that they don’t map at all well to known port sites, usually being inland for a start. They might map slightly better to temple sites, and a few had red residue on that could be puja dust from ceremonies (though if so that could be much much more recent), but mainly what these coins, with their piercings and varying degrees of precision in replicating a portrait coinage with foreign lettering on, seem to suggest is some specific kind of personal ornament which it was important to have for who knows what purpose, in whatever quality you could afford, be that a real one, a best-level fake or the thin uniface knock-off or anything in between. They are not, in and of themselves, very convincing evidence for levels of trade, though obviously coins coming in at all implies some minimal level of contact.2

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.

So what about those texts, you may now ask? Well, there are two obvious candidates, one being the originator of the above, Kosmas Indikopleustes, whose scholar-given byname means that he had been to India but had actually as far as we can tell not got closer than the East African empire of Aksum, where he had met people who had, probably. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that what Kosmas was writing was a treatise to prove that the world was flat, you can see from the above map that he was not afraid to fit his world into a particular scheme as dialectically necessary, and the point of his relevant story is that even the unknown rulers of Sri Lanka who have no meaningful contact with the Roman world can see that the Roman gold a traveller brings with him is way way better than the silly Persian silver coins that happen to have arrived at the same time.3 It’s not what you’d call neutral reporting on the balance of payments. Furthermore, it also sees to be more or less lifted from Pliny’s Natural History (which does seem to keep coming up these days), who told a similar story about Roman coins impressing the Orientals, except that then they were silver.4 Gotta move with the times! Meanwhile Indian texts, and indeed Sri Lankan ones of which there are rather more, simply don’t mention Roman traders at all.5 And while we’re at it, there are as far as Rebecca knows no Persian coins in southern India at all, and though there are some Persian ceramics known from Indian sites, it is of the order of a millionth of the evidence from those sites.6 Oddly, or perhaps not, there is a little bit more evidence for contact with Aksum, whose coins also got imitated locally. Obviously they would do as well!

Imitation of an Axumite gold coin of about 400

Imitation of an Axumite gold coin of about 400, with the double piercing again

So Rebecca here positioned herself explicitly against pictures of the early medieval world which are constructed on connectivity and a fledgling form of international relations, pitching instead a picture of low or missing connectivity, in which indeed rather than encourage trade and contact with foreign countries the big empires of the time actually sought to stop it where possible.7 And when objects did make it across the sea, their use, at least these ones, was not primarily economic. This of course provoked some lively discussion, not least because of the limited but significant evidence for commodities from the East reaching the West: as Edward James pointed out, Bede had a box full of pepper he was able to bequeath at his death, which must somehow have come from Kerala because pepper does, at least if it really was pepper.8 So it’s in some ways an argument about how much contact there has to be to count as significant, but I think that Rebecca would rather argue about whom it was significant to anyway, and why, and this paper put that alternative case very strongly.

Bronze fraction probably of Constans I struck in Alexandria in 337-350, found in Karur, Tamil Nadu, R. Krishnamurthy ,Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), pl. XII no. 5

Bronze fraction probably of Constans I struck in Alexandria in 337-350, found in Karur, Tamil Nadu, R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), pl. XII no. 5

One little thing, though, or not so little in some ways, did stick in my mind. This was a paper about gold coins, primarily, not least because silver and bronze Roman or Byzantine coins aren’t found in significant numbers in India, except that in one or two places fourth-century and fifth-century Roman bronze kind of falls out of the river at you, and known examples from these places now number in the thousands, which is an order of magnitude more than the total Roman and Byzantine gold preservation across the whole subcontinent.9 As Rebecca said, it is possible that these all stem from maybe two deposits, just slowly washing down the river over the centuries, and without actually knowing where the deposits are or were, it’s very hard to say any more, but whatever the overall picture is it must, it seems to me, be made different by this. Gold is high-value, prestige, small, might travel singly and sporadically and yes, for non-economic reasons. What the reasons might be for shipping what must have been rather a lot of late Roman bronze across the Indian Ocean and then burying it, as even a minimal interpretation of this would have to involve—a maximalist one, which I’m not putting forward, would presumably be that this stuff was actually commonly shipped over, it was a circulating medium and the coins are either hoards or genuine losses from that circulation—we obviously can’t tell.10 Maybe it was only ballast! But it seems difficult for those reasons to be the same as for the gold. Rebecca could obviously be right about the gold, especially by the sixth century, and this be something else entirely, but I can’t help feel that a ‘global’ picture of Indian Ocean contact will have to account for this stuff as well, somehow.

1. For the Objection, as perhaps only I in this world call it, see P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-140, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II. On the coins in India, meanwhile, you can now see R. Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman Coins in South India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A. D.)” in Himanshu P. Ray and M. Palat (edd.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: landscapes in early medieval South Asian history (London 2015), pp. 60-84.

2. For details here see now ibid.

3. The Greek text is published in Cosmas Indicopleustes, Topographie chrétienne, ed. W. Wolska-Conus (Paris 1968-1973), 3 vols, XI.17-20; I here précis from the translation in Rebecca’s handout, however.

4. Pliny, Natural History, ed./transl. H. Rackham (Cambridge MA 1942), 2 vols, VI.24.

5. I did not realise till I started talking to Rebecca about such things that there was a Sri Lankan chronicle tradition that seems to have compiled a nine-hundred-year long history in the fifth century A. D.! I also have no clear idea of where the historiography now sits on its actual composition and reliability, either, but you can read it, as Wilhelm Geiger (ed.), Mahavamsa: Great Chronicle of Ceylon, transl. Geiger & Mabel Haynes Bode (London 1912) and Geiger (ed./transl.), The Culavamsa, being the more recent part of the Mahavamsa (London 1925), with all being online here.

6. A synopsis of available information here, I think, would be Roberta Tomber, Indo-Roman Trade: from post to pepper (London 2009).

7. Procopius, De Bello Persico, ed. & transl. H. B. Dewing in Procopius, History of the Wars (London 1914), 5 vols, I.20.

8. Cuthbert, Epistola de obitu Bedae, transl. in Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede’s Letter to Egbert, transl. Roger Collins and Judith McClure (Oxford 1990), pp. 299-303 at p. 302.

9. R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), is the only collected write-up of this material, which I should make perfectly clear I would not be able to cite without Rebecca having made her own copy available to me.

10. Ibid. pp. 10-17, while not taking a position in this debate, quotes a number of works that seem to align with that maximum view.


Probably only one person reads my blog so closely as to notice this, but the backlog has actually advanced to the point where the ‘sticky’ posts on the front page that I have been using to hold current events and … Continue reading

Seminar CCXXXI: the disappearing Byzantine teenager

The close of February 2015 seems to have seen me spending a lot of time at seminars, including three evenings in a row of which you heard about the first two posts ago. Here now is the second, when I was in London because Professor Leslie Brubaker of Birmingham was presenting at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, leaving me several flags of loyalty to show by turning up. Her topic was “Teenagers of Byzantium”.

Paris, Musée du Louvre, MS 416, showing Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and family

One problem with such an enquiry is that most of the families of which we have pictures are either royal or holy, and neither necessarily naturalistic… Here Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos illustrates that last problem: if as is thought this was done in 1415, the boys at his and his consort’s sides were 23, 19 and 12 when depicted, given the which we would rather expect some of them to be taller. The artist obviously didn’t think like that! Paris, Musée du Louvre, MS 416, I’m afraid I don’t know what folio

As we have already seen with an earlier paper, the middle patch between childhood and adulthood is one that the Roman, and therefore in law at least the Byzantine one, didn’t really acknowledge in the way that we do, so has to be tracked down in indirect evidence. That earlier paper had used literature from the twelfth century; Leslie works earlier and, of course, in images.1 There it is easy enough (well; not easy, but possible) to point at depictions of people we know to have been the relevant age and observe how their juniority was marked artistically, but the problem is disambiguating that visual language from ways of signalling other sorts of lesser status. For example, things that often mark out youth in Byzantine imagery are less-than-adult size, beardlessness for men and lack of veils for women (sometimes), all of which also tend to be used when servants or followers are being depicted. These are not really signs of youth, therefore, just of less-than-autonomy. That language was also used on coins to indicate junior and senior emperors, and indeed once we get into the Isaurians that language hardens up, with even fully adult junior emperors being shown beardless compared to their fathers and so on. Whatever that is telling us, it’s not telling us what Byzantines thought teenagers looked like. One is left with much more subjective things like roundness of face, relative heights and so on, by which one can suggest that the artists was trying to differentiate someone, but it’s not easy.2

A gold solidus of Emperor Leo IV with his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople in 776-780, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4583

A gold solidus of Emperor Leo IV with his son Constantine V, bearded and not respectively, with their dead ancestors Leo III and Constantine IV on the reverse, fully fuzzed, the coin struck at Constantinople in 776-780 and being Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4583

Leslie did argue, however, that the run into the eighth and ninth centuries marked a change in even this ambiguous visual language more widely than the coinage. Depiction in general was becoming more generic and less individualised, and this left less and less room for the specialisation of appearances in the way that she had been seeking in the earlier period. As Iconoclasm settled in, whether connectedly or not, figural art stopped including the subtleties by which artists might indicate gradation of youth, and non-adults appeared the same way whether they were aged two or twenty-two. Transition across this line came with the beard for men or marriage for women (although pictures of women—pictures at all but therefore especially of women, always a small part of the sample—are very thinly preserved from this period).3 They seemed even less evident to us, sadly, as about half of Leslie’s images were of such high resolution or file-size that the struggling IHR laptop couldn’t actually display them! But what there was provoked a lively discussion and it was good to be part of it all.

Copy of an ivory plaque showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, this copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

One of the other depictions that came up was this, the Trier Ivory, which Leslie thinks shows Emperor Constantine V (beardless) and his mother Empress Eirini (tiny), but which I now realise Jill Harries had the previous year claimed shows Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria (just Roman). Who’s right? It would be a fun argument to spectate on! This is a copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original is still in Trier.

1. Children at least are quite well studied in this light: see Cecily Hennessy, Images of children in Byzantium (Aldershot 2008) and Arietta Papaconstantinou & Alice-Mary Talbot (edd.), Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium (Washington DC 2009), plus also Eve Davies, “Age, Gender and Status: a three-dimensional life course perspective of the Byzantine family” and indeed Leslie Brubaker, “Looking at the Byzantine Family” in Brubaker (ed.), Approaches to the Byzantine Family, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 14 (Farnham 2013), pp. 153-176 & 177-206 respectively.

2. Indeed, when coins get involved as evidence it can all get worryingly circular, as subjective art-historical criteria like size and shape of face are actually ways in which the coins have been attributed to emperors, so that the art historians then take the numismatist’s words that these are in fact depictions of those emperors although those were largely art-historical judgements in the first place… See for examples Philip Grierson, Phocas to Theodosius III, 602-717, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection II (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1999), pp. 386-387 (are there any coins of Heraclius Constantine? Yes if we distinguish them by size of head! No other way of telling) & pp. 391-394 (the same argument for Heraclonas, but with a distinctive inscription in only one of the several such types which still doesn’t distinguish him) or idem, Leo III to Nicephorus III, 717-1081, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection III (Washington DC 1973, repr. 1999), pp. 291-292 (uncertainty over where Leo IV’s coinage with Constantine as junior emperor stops and Constantine V’s with Leo as deceased ancestor begins).

3. Of course, a lot was changing generally in that period, and few if any people know this so well as Leslie: see L. Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), but on this issue more specifically eidem, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 650-850: the sources. An annotated survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001), pp. xxiii-xxvii.

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

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

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

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

”    63 See A. Oddy, ‘Assaying in Antiquity” in Gold Bulletin 16 (1983), pp. 52-9. I am grateful to Marcus Phillips for bringing this useful paper to my attention.
”    64 On local manufacture of mancuses elewhere see L. Ilisch, “Die imitativen Solidi mancusi. ‘Arabische’ Goldmünzen der Karolingerzeit’ in R. Cunz (ed.), Fundamenta Historiae: Geschichte im Spiegel der Numismatik und ihrer Nachbarwissenschaften. Festschrift für Niklot Kluüßdorf zum 60. Geburtstag am 10. Februar 2004 (Hanover, 2004), pp. 91–106.
”    65 On the mancuses of Bonhom and Eneas, see [Anna M.] Balaguer, Història [de la moneda dels comtats catalans (Barcelona, 1999)], 53-5 and [Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 78-81]….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seminar CCXXVII: towards a more relaxed and flexible late Anglo-Saxon monetary system

My mainline posts may be diverging increasingly from my seminar reports in terms of date covered, but you will have to admit that the subject material is fairly coherent as I move onto the next seminar report, because it’s all about money here on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe for a while. For lo, on 4th February 2015 my old colleague Rory Naismith, now of Kings College London, was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and so of course I was there.

A silver penny of Cnut, struck by Godman at London, in 1025-1036 from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

A silver penny of King Cnut, struck by Godman at London in 1025-1036, from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

Rory is, as those who know his work will appreciate, a man who gets stuff done, and accordingly when the Committee of the Medieval European Coinage Project (on which, full disclosure for those that don’t know, I sit) needed someone to write volume 8, which will cover the British Isles from circa 600 to 1066, it was to Rory we turned, and now it is in press, so chalk one more of many up to Rory on that one. At the point of this seminar he had just about submitted that text, and so was able to give us some preliminary conclusions under the title, “Coinage and the Late Anglo-Saxon State”, and having thus elected to focus on the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system he was necessarily led to address the legacy of this man.

Portrait of Michael Dolley

The late Reginald Hugh Michael Dolley

Thankfully this was not quite literal, as Rory informed us that Michael Dolley (for it is he) had produced not just 860 research outputs in his career but 6 children, but nonetheless there is a particular vision of the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system that we owe to Dolley, which has become fixed into a view of what James Campbell called the ‘maximum hypothesis’ of what he also called the Anglo-Saxon state.1 According to Dolley, extensive study of the coinage revealed that from 973, in the reign of King Edgar, a system of sexennial recoinage operated in which the whole kingdom’s money was called in, melted down and reissued in a new type at any of a large number of mints scattered across the country for this purpose. This allowed very tight dating of the sequence of what were, then, necessarily single nationwide issues, and from this really quite elaborate hypotheses have been hatched about how the weights of these coins were managed to encourage people to bring them in at the end of the run despite the cut that moneyers took at recoinage, and many other aspects of fine detail management.2 It’s been thought for quite a long time that this must be too rigid but only now has someone been forced to write a replacement account, and of course here he was talking to us.

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, found at Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, late 2014, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, also found at Lenborough, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

So, in the Naismith dispensation, not everything has changed but a good deal has. In the first place, since we have 1300+ finds of coins of this period, we can start to say something about relative frequency of types with some basis, and this shows us that not every type was struck in equal numbers. Some, indeed, especially the Lamb of God issue of Æthelred the Unready as above, were apparently struck in very small numbers—if you find one, be careful with it—and while some hoards have only one type in, others do mix, often containing several types at once, all of which puts serious holes in the idea of consistent and total type-by-type recoinage. Instead, it seems ineluctable that some types were only experimental and ran alongside others, that recoinage was not always total and that people did save up over several reigns even when the coins in their hoards should have been legally useless. In discussion, in fact, I suggested that they were still exchangeable for new coins and so people waited until they had to do so rather than pay the moneyer’s cut several times over, which I think still works. The coinage winds up looking like a much less tightly-regulated fiscal apparatus as Rory sees it, anyway, and acquires an aspect of simple moral broadcasting and the performance of royal power, all of which is very much in keeping with how we now view that kingship in certain other aspects too.3

Silver Agnus Dei penny of Æthelred II struck by Sæwine at Salisbury

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge also has one of Æthelred’s Lamb of God pennies, which has suffered a different set of misfortunes but which is described in the article linked through the image. The coin is Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1-2009, and it was struck at Salisbury by Sæwine.

This is not necessarily to diminish the power of that kingship, one should say, lest hearts in Oxford start to quail, but rather to change its aims. Starting with James Campbell but picked up by many others, a good deal of work has gone into establishing the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom as unusually closely and effectively administered, and the coinage has been a big part of that because of the kind of micro-management arguments I’ve mentioned, which would require a very modern-looking grasp of fiscal economics to dream up.4 If the kingship’s aims were actually more ideological than fiscal, that doesn’t remove the fact that apparently it could, on a fairly frequent basis, call in almost all of the coinage and replace it, a thing that almost no other medieval state could hope to do or even see any point in. Indeed, one could follow Rory all the way and see the flexibility of this system, minting coins as needed in places that only sprang into life as mints occasionally and meeting demand where the demand mainly was (London, Lincoln, Stamford, York and Winchester struck between half and three-quarters of any given type, Rory had told us), as a strength, indicating a responsive and adaptable system rather than a rigid and dictatorial one. What it begins no longer to look like, however, is a prototype for English modernity, and that is probably good to make clear.

1. Dolley didn’t really compile a monographic statement of his theory, and the closest one can get to a summary of it is probably R. H. M. Dolley and D. Michael Metcalf, “The Reform of the English Coinage under Edgar” in Dolley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Coins: studies presented to F. M. Stenton on the occasion of his 80th birthday, 17 May 1960 (London 1961), pp. 136-168, though one (and by one I suppose I really mean Rory) has also to take account of updates like Dolley & C. Stewart Lyon, “Additional evidence for the sequence of types early in the reign of Edward the Confessor” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 39 (1967), pp. 59-61 or Dolley, “Some neglected Scandinavian evidence for the ordering of the early types of Edward the Confessor”, Seaby’s Coin and Medal Bulletin no. 693 (London 1976), pp. 154-158. Probably the best place to find the significant references is in fact shortly to be Rory Naismith, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 8: Britain and Ireland, c. 400-1066 (Cambridge forthcoming)! As for the Campbell theory, the starting point is J. Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in idem, The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 1-30, along with several other relevant papers, including at pp. 201-225 idem, “Some Agents and Agencies of the Late Anglo-Saxon State” in James C. Holt (ed.), Domesday Studies: Papers read at the Novocentenary Conference of the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of British Geographers, Winchester, 1986 (Woodbridge 1986), pp. 201-218, and one could also point back to Campbell, “Observations on English Government from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 25 (London 1975), pp. 39-54, repr. in idem, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London 1986), pp. 155-170.

2. The extent to which Dolley carried the numismatists of his generation with him is to some extent evident in the number of things about his system that he co-wrote, as witness the cites above, but even in 1976 some disquiet was emerging, evident in Stewart Lyon, “Some Problems in Interpreting Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 5 (Cambridge 1976), pp. 173-224, while on the other hand people who liked to think in systems were having a ball with it, most memorably for me S. R. H. Jones, “Devaluation and the Balance of Payments in Eleventh-Century England: an exercise in Dark Age economics” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 45 (London 1991), pp. 594-607, which is really special thinking.

3. This new perspective seems to be due not least to Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. Volume 1: legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001), though some influence from the German scholarship focussed on ritual must also be involved, visible for example in Levi Roach, “Public rites and public wrongs: ritual aspects of diplomas in tenth- and eleventh-century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182-203. The Lamb of God coinage is especially useful for emphasising this ideological broadcasting, as it seems to have had no real economic rôle: see Rory Naismith & Simon Keynes, “The Agnus Dei pennies of King Æthelred the Unready” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 40 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 175-223, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675111000093.

4. In which respect it’s interesting to compare the works in n. 1 above with Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257, about which I wrote here a long time ago but now seems more prophetic than I then realised.

All That Glitters, Experiment 2

Somehow my posts about me and my work—and that may not be what you’re here for but, you know, I like it—have got behind my seminar reports in such a way that they’re into February 2015 and I’m still in December 2014. Let me resolve some of that disparity by giving you a short report on the second day of experiments in the collaborative project I’m in for analysing Byzantine gold coinage by X-ray fluorescence, which was 14th December. (If you need background I announced this project ages ago here and dealt with some of our starting questions and the first day’s experiment here.)

Cover of J. O. Jeppson, The Second Experiment

Our results have so far not been this dramatic, but then, I’m guessing that our first experiment wasn’t quite as adventurous as this must have been

To recap, we had established that if our experiments were to tell us anything much about elements other than gold, silver, copper and maybe one or two other pre-determined elements, we were going to need not the energy-dispersive machinery we’d been using on the first day but the bigger, more expensive and, most importantly, immobile wavelength-dispersive machinery in the Department of Chemistry in the University of Birmingham, a machine called the S8 TIGER. I am only just able to describe the difference between these two analytic methods: in so far as I can, it’s to do with what is being used to pick up the energy given off by the things you’re bombarding with x-rays. The WD machinery includes crystal collimators that are sensitive to certain wavelenths of that energy, which therefore get picked up better, where the ED machines, which measure only in terms of intensity of signal, simply wouldn’t see such things among the massive gold return, as we had surmised. The WD machine also scans its samples in a vacuum, which eliminates interference from the air.

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

The mouth of the TIGER yawning wide, with five sample cups waiting and one under analysis

On the other hand there are also problems with the WD machinery that don’t exist with the ED kit. For us the first of those was simply access; it’s nothing to do with the actual machinery except in so far as it’s immovable, but because we had to take the coins to the kit rather than vice versa, that meant arranging transport and insurance even on campus, and the transport repeatedly went wrong, which cut into our experimental time a lot. But, also, the ED kit works with narrow beams focussed on points; the WD machine scans its samples in masks such as the one below, of which the two sizes relevant to us were 5 mm and 8 mm, and those were therefore the only area sizes that we could analyse. Importantly, this also precluded examining coins at their edges or over piercings, because the sample has to fill the exposed area completely. This also highlights a problem with both ED and WD methods: non-homogeneity. If for some reason your coin had an odd tiny lump of platinum on its surface, say, the ED machinery would either miss it (in which case you’d never know) or find it and report a massive platinum signal (which would be misleading for the coin’s overall composition). The WD machinery, however, would factor it into the average, so that you wouldn’t necessarily realise that it was a coherent inclusion rather than a component of the main alloy. So there was plenty to worry about even if the machine worked perfectly.

Emperor Heraclius just visible on one of his solidi of Constantinople loaded behind an 8 mm mask for analysis in the Bruker S8 TIGER

Emperor Heraclius just visible on one of his solidi of Constantinople loaded behind an 8 mm mask for analysis

Anyway, we had our goals clear for this test. The first was to get our hands on the machinery and find out what the operational considerations in any further planning were, the results of which you sort of see in the musings above. Here I have to acknowledge the tremendous help and general goodwill of Dr Jackie Deans, official keeper of the TIGER, and Dr Adrian Wright, who had first let us involve the Department of Chemistry in the project and had helpful things to say whenever he dropped in. Our second priority was to run the same ten coins around which we’d built our first experiment on the S8 TIGER and see how the results differed from those on the ED kit. And as it turned out, our third one was to determine how we wanted to use the S8 TIGER, because as Jackie explained to us, it could analyse at three levels, a 2-minute cycle that would probably get us no more data than the ED machinery had, an 8-minute one which should do the job, and an 18-minute one which was the very most data it could gather. Adding 10 minutes to each analysis was obviously going to limit the number of coins we could actually analyse in any given timeframe, so we really rather needed to know whether or not it was worthwhile.

Gold solidus of Empress Eirini at Constantinople set up for analysis in a Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser

The rather different visage in gold of the Empress Eirini, likewise cruelly cut down to 8 mm of glaring royalty

And so what did we find? Well, this machine certainly had more to tell us. We were now getting returns in terms of many elements, at concentrations of down to parts per thousand or even less. This ineluctably meant a decrease in gold concentration reported, because there was now simply more data to fit into the percentages, but the overall picture of lots of gold, not much silver and less copper was still very apparent in the reported figures. What we hadn’t expected, and had now to deal with, was that copper wasn’t usually the third most detected element, and sometimes silver not the second: instead, we were seeing lots of calcium, silicon and sometimes aluminium beating them out. It seemed a priori unlikely that these were original metallic components of the coins in these quantities. That in turn implied that these elements had got into, or much more likely onto, the coins since striking, be that from use, preservation or anything else that might have happened to them. But, whatever they were, they also seemed to be more consistently detected on the long cycle than the medium-length one, meaning that we were going to need to use the long analysis to have any chance of consistent findings. So now we had two difficult questions to answer in setting up Experiment 3: firstly, what could we get done with less than half the scans that we might have hoped to do in any given day of experiments, but secondly, when we did, could we determine whether these results were merely contamination or do anything about that if they were? And these were things which we attempted to address in the New Year, so I’ll stop here for now.