Category Archives: numismatics

Seminars CCXLVIII & CCXLIX: dismantling expectations about statehood from Sicily and Sidon

There has been a gap here, for which I apologise; the second of those family occasions I mentioned last post was to blame, but now I am back on deck, and for this week I want ceremonially to move my backlog out of 2017 by talking briefly about two papers I went to see in December of that year, one in Leeds and one in London. The Leeds one was one of our own doctoral students, and indeed one of my advisees, Hervin Fernández-Aceves, now Dr and at Lancaster, presenting to the Medieval History Seminar we run with the title, “Reframing the Role of Nobility: misconceptions and omissions in the historiography of the kingdom of Sicily” on 6th December; and the London one was the Royal Numismatic Society Christmas Lecture, given by Lutz Ilisch with the title, “Mashghara – a Condominial Mint of the County of Sidon/Barony of Shuf and the Kingdom of Damascus” on 19th December. You wouldn’t think there was a lot of crossover there, but actually both had something to say about the ways that medieval government, especially when carried out in a disrupted environment, very often defies what seem to the modern eye to be ‘natural’ rights or behaviours of states. The modern nation-state is actually quite a strange beast, to my mind, weirdly willing to constrain itself by mutually agreed law and then be surprised when some polities won’t play. If we want to understand that better, I these days maintain, the Middle Ages is a good place to look, and so here are two examples.1

Painting of King Roger II of Sicily from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo

Painting of King Roger II of Sicily from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, from Arabischer Maler der Palastkapelle in Palermo – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Hervin’s work in his thesis, which at this stage he had just finished, was to reassess the composition and political role of the nobility in the famously multicultural Norman kingdom of Sicily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The trouble he had run into, however, was that what he found didn’t match the historiography, which expected pretty much all nobles to hold their lands and offices either absolutely because of having conquered them by fire and the sword, or else to hold them by feudal grants from the kings, and their offices of state, especially the counties they ruled, to be essentially jurisdictional units attached to the territories they took or were given in fief.2 If this seems like a perspective constructed from really old textbooks about Norman England, well, that may not be a coincidence, but what Hervin found instead was that there were no templates and indeed no central administration that could be mapped out as counties. Instead, there were any number of competing nobles who fought with each other for space and office, not necessarily in the same places, and sometimes enlisted the kings or their ducal predecessors as help and backing for these claims. Meanwhile, there were also pre-existent fragments of Byzantine administration under strategoi who also looked to the rulers for guarantee of their position, which they often got. The records of the relationships thus formed do not talk about homage, vassalage, subjection or anything like that; there was no feudal constitution of this state, if indeed it was a state; that someone held a thing called a county, which in any case only emerged partway through the kingdom’s history, did not necessarily mean they called themselves ‘count’ (and if they did, others might not agree) and neither was a count’s territory necessarily a county. Counts’ children might well become counts, but rarely in the same place as their fathers, and the kings were generally able to move them around and keep them from getting too grounded.

The tendency was thus for the dukes and kings to be able to use the competition to constrain the nobility, whether local, incoming or heirs of either, with these agreements until everyone was more or less part of the same overall network, but to call it a system or a constitution would be to miss how very unconstructed this was. By the reign of William I, it was possible for the king to assert enough control to put his own officers in in many counties when they fell vacant and then make the nobility compete to be chosen as those officers, but that doesn’t mean he managed it everywhere. Heaven knows how the kings kept track of exactly how they stood with respect to any given aristocrat, but then I guess that’s partly why we have the records… In discussion Hervin had mainly to defend his anarchic picture of ad hoc government against his fellow doctorands and his supervisor, Professor Graham Loud, the former of whom especially felt that there must have been more coincidence between titles and territories, but Hervin had gone and checked… But this doesn’t seem too odd to me, and the late lamented Susan Reynolds would have been quite happy with the non-existence of the feudal model too.3 The thing I would have now liked to have heard more about is how the dukes and kings justified their right to intervene or determine allocation of these positions, and how much objection those claims met, but I could quite believe that these were basically recognitions that right fell to the biggest sword; it’s just that, as you may be aware, I’ve come to believe that medieval rulers did need both power and legitimacy and that they put much too much effort into the legitimacy for us to suppose that it didn’t really matter compared to force.4 Hervin’s picture was possible for me to accept without shifting that belief, so I was happy with all of this.

Silver anonymous dirham struck in Acre in 1251, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR014

Silver anonymous dirham struck in Acre in 1251, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR014

Dr Ilisch, who had just been awarded the Society’s medal on this occasion, started from a much narrower problem of numismatics and, because coins are in fact sources for bigger things, wound up in a similar kind of larger-scale place. His problem was a species of coin like the one above; I’m afraid I can’t find an example of precisely the type he was discussing. The above is itself a weirdness with which I have several times enjoyed teaching. Its background is that, when the four Latin states established in the Holy Land around 1100 by the First Crusade ran into trouble at the end of the century, for various reasons of necessity they struck quite a lot of imitations of the silver dirhams of the Ayyubid sultans with whom they either fought or temporised for survival. These coins, of course, featured the Arabic shahada, the Muslim invocation of the Prophet Muhammad. The Crusader states were still doing this as the Ayyubids lost their position first in the south to the Egyptian Mamluks and then in the north to the briefly dominant Mongols. Once explained, these coins usually surprise people by the amount of inter-dealing between supposed adversaries they imply, and it seems to have surprised some newcomers too, for as the situation grew worse, a French bishop who found himself in charge of defending Acre in 1250 decided that this Islamicization was part of their problem and had the coinage ‘purified’ with the addition of the cross and a statement of the Christian Creed in Arabic in place of the Islamic stuff. I have always wondered whom he was paying with these things that could read them, and what they thought of this, and should obviously read more about it, but I now learned that they didn’t last very long and were soon replaced with much more plentiful coins using the bismillah instead of the Creed, but with AD dates.5 Despite that last fact, from their preservation context (said Dr Ilisch) these latter coins occur largely in Mongol hoards, not in the Crusader states, and were thus, I guess, used to pay tribute to the Mongols, presumably by Muslim issuers.

Silver imitation dirham struck in the name of the late al-Zahir Ghazi of Aleppo, probably at Crusader Acre, in the 1240s

Here is one of the earlier Crusader pieces, struck in the name of al-Zahir Ghazi of Aleppo, probably at Acre in the 1240s, VCoins e3014

It was one of these issuers Dr Ilisch was trying to track down, one Wajīh al-Dīn Muahhad ibn Suwayd, whom written sources claim was given minting rights by the last Ayyubid sultan and who probably ruled the city of Damascus for them, but whose coins have never been identified. The Mongols left him in place, so he had a while to strike in Damascus, but no Damascus coins fit the bill. There is, however, one particular type of imitation of the post-Acre coins which have the AD date in cursive, and which Professor Ilisch thought might be al-Suwayd’s. There are only 8 of these coins known, and 3 of them came off the same dies, suggesting that the issue might have been quite small (although also possibly very large—this is why die statistics probably shouldn’t be used, especially on tiny samples…), but one of them seems to name a mint, which after long consideration Professor Ilisch thought might been Masghara, a tiny place now in Lebanon which was actually the subject of a treaty between Crusader Sidon and Ayyubid Damascus, by which each side took 50 % of its revenue. And the relevant ruler of Damascus would presumably have been al-Suwayd, so while it’s not conclusive it does all fit. Apparently there is at least one other 13th-century Crusader condominial issue like this, so again we see here ideas about identity, autonomy and prerogatives in general that we would now expect states to care about just not being realistic in these times.

It’s thus reasonable for us to ask, I think, whether in Sicily or Damascus as everything changed around the people concerned, whether back-projecting our expectations about government, administration, sovereignty and the coinage and then declaiming our medieval subjects of study for somehow failing to do what we expect, is really useful. A better way of proceeding is surely to start by seeing what they did, asking what frameworks they had in which those things made sense, and then seeing how their responses to their own situation might speak to anything we have going on now rather than going backwards from where we are now and only grading them on what we expect to find… At opposite ends of the academic status scale, both Hervin and Professor Ilisch were offering us material with which to do that evaluation of the medieval response to circumstances in its own terms, and I’m always up for that.


1. Of coure, another famously good place to look to understand the modern nation-state is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd ed. (London 2006), online here, but I would like to encourage people to look a bit further back than he does…

2. I can’t by now tell which of these works Hervin invoked for what purpose, but the historiography he mentioned included things like Errico Cuozzo, “’Milites’ e ‘testes’ nella contea normanna di Pricipato” in Bullettino dell’Istituto storico italiano per il medio evo Vol. 88 (Roma 1979), pp. 121–163; Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993); and Annalise Nef, “State, Aggregation of the Elites and Redistribution of Resources in Sicily in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries: Proposals for a New Interpretation” in John Hudson and Ana Rodríguez López (edd.), Diverging Paths? The Shapes of Power and Institutions in Medieval Christendom and Islam, The Medieval Mediterranean 101 (Leiden 2014), pp. 230–247.

3. See Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996), where Italy is a close comparator.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (2018 for 2014), pp. 202–230, online here.

5. I did, of course read something when I catalogued the coin which I’ve used as the image here, and that thing was mainly Alex G. Malloy, Irene F. Preston, Arthur J. Seltman, Michael L. Bates, A. A. Gordus, D. M. Metcalf & Roberto Pesant, Coins of the Crusaders States including the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its Vassal States of Syria and Palestine, the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus (1192-1489), and the Latin Empire of Constantinople and Its Vassal States of Greece and the Archipelago, 2nd edn. ed. by Allen G. Berman (Fairfield VA 2004). I’d actually welcome recommendations for more here.

Conferring over coins in Birmingham

Sorry about the lateness of this post; I write between two family gatherings that have taken up quite a lot of writing time. But here is a post even so! We’ve come so far with the whole world situation that people are contemplating having real in-person conferences again, but this post is still a story of the distant past for now, and specifically of 18th November 2017, when I was down in Birmingham and indeed my old place of employ, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, to listen to a conference about the collection I briefly managed, entitled ‘The Barber Coin Collection Colloquium Day: Past, Present and Future Research’. I didn’t speak at this myself, being somewhat embroiled with other work just then, but I learnt a few things by going. These were the speakers:

  • Margaret Mullett, “The Legacy of Anthony Bryer”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Sri Lankan Coins in the Barber Collection”
  • Maria Vrij, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mezezios?”
  • Wei-Sheng Lin, “Armenian Cilician Coinage”
  • K. MacDonald, “African Gold Sources for Byzantine Carthaginian Coins”
  • Anika Asp, “Numismatic Sources for the Empire of Trebizond”
  • Alex Feldman, “Coinage and Commonwealth, 9th-11th Centuries: local dynasties and mints in the ‘Ummā and Oikoumene”
  • Joseph Parsonage, “Coins and Co-Emperors – Crowned Regents in Byzantium”
  • Michael Burling, “Sasanian Numismatic Imagery and its Influence”

Now, of these, Wei, Alex, Joseph and Mike were at that stage various levels of postgraduate at Birmingham and were not primarily working on coins for their theses, and had really been introduced to them either by me or Maria as Curators, so they were presenting partly for practice and partly out of goodwill, and for that reason I shan’t discuss their papers in any detail. Professor Mullett’s presentation, in turn, was largely a biographical sketch of a man who had been involved in the negotiations that led to many of the collection items being in the Barber at all, and you can read about him in more detail yourselves if you like. So that leaves Rebecca, Maria and Dr MacDonald, all of whom had things to say which are still probably interesting if you’re interested in such things!

Gold imitation of a solidus of Emperor Theodosius II possibly made in India or Sri Lanka, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0482

Gold imitation of a solidus of Emperor Theodosius II possibly made in India or Sri Lanka after 402 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0482

Rebecca’s paper was an analysis of the sale history of five late-Roman-or-Byzantine coins which, according to a note lurking in the Barber’s archives, had been found in Sri Lanka. This seemed, on the face of it, dubious. Now, not many people have a better idea of what imperial numismatic material is found in Sri Lanka, and as we’ve seen Rebecca also knows a thing or two about numismatic collectors. A false hope was realised by the possible connection of two of the coins to one Leslie de Saram, a man famous in Lankan archaeology but who nonetheless acquired pretty much all his coins on the London market; but the coin above, as well as one of Maurice, she thought could possibly be Sri Lankan finds given everything recorded about them in the Barber (not much) and the wider finds patterns, though even there the Maurice coin would fill a gap rather than having parallels.1 It makes me suddenly think that if our failed attempts to get through the surface dirt on these coins with an X-ray had in fact been directed at analysing the dirt, maybe we’d have been able to settle this question! But as it is, it is still a matter of possibility whether the Barber does in fact hold coins that went all that way out of the Empire and then had another Empire bring them back again and out the other side…2

Gold solidus of Emperor Constants II struck at Carthage 641-654 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4100

Gold solidus of Emperor Constans II struck at Carthage 641-654 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4100, tested in the All the Glitters project and not found wanting

Since we’re now talking about metals analysis, it probably makes sense to discuss Dr MacDonald’s paper next. This was coming out of a project that was trying, effectively, to work out when and if trade across the Sahara Desert can be archaeologically documented before the Islamic era. Part of this work had involved trying to work out if sub-Saharan gold had reached the north of Africa before that time, and one way to determine this was to test coinage issued in Byzantine Carthage, of which of course the Barber has a bit (and we tested some). The thing here is that Byzantine coins from Carthage took on an increasingly thick, globular aspect over the sixth century, as you can sort of see above, and it has been suggested that this is because the blanks were coming in as lumps from the Essouk goldfields, way way south, because such lumps have been found as production debris there.3 Somehow I didn’t write down what methods Dr MacDonald was using to test his coins, but the methods must have been better than ours as he was finding distinct differences between the normal, flat solidi previously minted by Carthage and the globular ones which did not themselves prove, but were consistent with, the idea of them being on Essouk blanks, and what the difference largely was was that the globular coins were made out of unrefined gold. I would have to say that this didn’t fit with what we’d found when we’d tested one, but then as we know our methods were not very good. This is why I (still) want to know more about his…

Gold solidus probably struck by Emperor Mezezios in Syracuse 668 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4272

Gold solidus probably struck by Emperor Mezezios in Syracuse 668 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4272

Lastly, here if not on the day, Maria’s paper covered a very rare coin of which the Barber has one, apparently struck by a very short-lived usurper—I suppose if he’d been long-lived we’d just call him an emperor—by the name of Mezezios, who rose up in Sicily in 668 after the murder of Emperor Constans II. His coinage was first identified in 1979, but has been disputed ever since, and while Maria did not claim to have solved the problem herself, she did, by explaining the arguments for and against, make it seem much more likely that such a thing would have existed, and therefore that since there are several known from different contexts, they’re probably that thing. The argument really hinges on the fact that, iconographically, the coins appear to imitate those of Emperor Justinian I, from a century before, rather than anyone more recent, and while this has a been a mark against the theory for some people Maria thought, quite reasonably I reckon, that if you’re usurping the throne from a dynasty you don’t borrow their iconography, but go back to before their problem ever arose. Certainly this happens with those who finally did, temporarily, replace that dynasty by overthrowing Justinian II and reversed his numismatic innovations, so I don’t have a problem with it thirty years before either!4

All things considered, this was a good thing to have been part of. It did what I think Maria had hoped, by demonstrating that having a good collection in a university can actually be a generator of research and that that research, even on tiny things like coins, can open up bigger findings. It is necessary to remind people of this, every now and then, and while I’m not sure the people who most needed to know it were there, at least by writing it up, even this late on, I can help to remind a few more people of this significant truth!


1. That Maurice coin is Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1767, visible here.

2. Rebecca now has a version of this story in print, and indeed online, as Rebecca Darley, “‘Implicit Cosmopolitanism’ and the Commercial Role of Ancient Lanka’ in Zoltán Biedermann and Alan Strathern (edd.), Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History (London 2017), online here, pp. 44–65 at pp. 51-56.

3. Dr MacDonald cited what had then just emerged as David W. Phillipson, “Trans-Saharan Gold Trade and Byzantine Coinage” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 97 (London 2017), pp. 145–169, online here.

4. My bit of that is due soon to emerge as part of Jonathan Jarrett, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 36 (forthcoming). You will hear here when that happens!

Books and coins in Blackburn

Having been sadly recalled to the present, it now seems safe to retreat again to the past, and specifically 9th and 10th November 2017, when I was in Blackburn by way of a favour for someone who often features on this blog, Dr Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London. A further chain of favours and persons hangs thereby, and the story of how I or any of us came to be there is a little complex, but it can be told fairly briefly and involves a conference and some coins, so is definitely the kind of story this blog tells. So: it begins with an industrial ropemaker in the town of Blackburn by the name of Robert E. Hart.1 Hart was quite the collector, especially in the field of manuscripts and early printed books but also of Roman and Hellenistic coins, and when he died in 1946 he left most of his collection to the people of Blackburn as, as he had put it, “something for my native town”. And there, in what is now Blackburn Museum, those collections largely remain.

Robert Edward Hart

R. E. Hart, in a much-reproduced portrait here borrowed from and linked through to Wall Street International’s page about the permanent exhibition at Blackburn

It took a while for them to come to notice, however. In the proceedings of this conference, Dr Cynthia Johnston explains how their cataloguing in 1962 led a thin trail of scholars, one by one, north-west to see the various things which interested them, and in 1976 some of the manuscripts were exhibited, but it was really only when Cynthia herself got involved in 2012 that a momentum built up.2 By the time I made it to Blackburn to see any of this stuff there had been two exhibitions and two conferences, all in London where Cynthia is based, but this was the first event that had really been possible in Blackburn itself.3 This was the running order (and where the papers occur in the proceedings, I’ve given a reference).

  • Nigel Morgan, “The Blackburn Psalter: a 13th-century manuscript by the artists of the Bible of William of Devon”4
  • Scot McKendrick, “Contextualising the Art and Innvoations of Blackburn’s Treasure of Early Netherlandish Illumination (Hart 20884)”5
  • Catherine Yvard, “Picturae antiquae: a dismembered Book of Hours reconsidered (Hart 20984)”
  • Eric White, “Toward a History of Early Printing used as Binding Waste”6
  • Rebecca Darley with Jackson Hase, “Collections to Think With”7
  • Emma Herbert-Davies, “The Winchester Cabinet: unlocking an eighteenth-century coin collection”
  • Cleo Cantone, “Bird’s Eye View: travel and pilgrimage to the holy cities of Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina”8
  • Ed Potten, “A Monastic Pharmacopeia: Robert Edward Hart’s copy of the 1485 Gart der Gesundheit9
  • Cynthia Johnston, “‘Given Me by Mr. Maggs’: the relevations of R. E. Hart’s ‘Connoisseur’s Library'”
  • David McKitterick, “Collecting – For Whom?”10

Obviously, this is not really my field for the most part and there are only limited comments about the actual papers I can make here; if I don’t mention them all, it’s not because the ones I don’t mention were any less interesting, it’s just because my notes don’t now let me give a fair account. My notes make it look as if I was especially struck by Eric White’s painstaking detective work in tracking down fragments of books now scattered about various European libraries after being dismembered to serve as bindings for later books, which he described as basically a habit of 1550-1650. The best example he gave was a 1459 Psalter printed in Mainz, which went through 56 editions and which we have in bits of 70 copies; all but 10 of those bits are binding waste…11 Emma, of whose work we’ve read here before, introduced the Winchester Cabinet in the Brotherton Library at Leeds to this audience as a kind of parallel to Hart’s collection. Rebecca’s paper was (as you’d expect me to say) excellent, and focused on the learned networks into which Hart’s coin collecting, as revealed by the notes in his ledgers and papers that are still in the museum, propelled him and the numismatic world in which he thus took part. Lastly David McKitterick rang numerous bells of recollection for me by linking Hart’s activity to a wider world of industrial collecting, already gestured at by several other speakers but here explored, even if through the medium of books, by reference to many other collectors, some of whose coins I’d worked on in my time at the Fitzwilliam long ago; it seems as if it was pretty normal to acquire both manuscripts and coins in this world. In the proceedings of the conference, Rebecca explores this world still further with some really interesting reflections on the civic identities and local pride which explain why these collections actually exist where they do to be used, and Cynthia also does a more holistic take on the world of book-collecting in which Hart so thoroughly took part.12 And the exhibition which went with all of this made very clear what a richness there was to display, and included a small display of some of Hart’s coins with some of his books and study tools, as if he’d just stepped away from the desk for a minute to check something and would be back when he’d found it.

Manuscripts from the Robert Edward Hart Collection on display in Blackburn Museum

Manuscripts from the Hart Collection in the Blackburn gallery

But, you may reasonably be asking, where are you in all this, Jonathan? You wouldn’t be blogging it unless there were something about you, now, would you? And I might, actually, but this time that’s a fair cop. You see, as part of the activity around the exhibition, the Museum had been able to get money together for a refurbishment of its major gallery and the construction of a new study space above it (as well as, for a short while at least, the salaries of the staff necessary to make any of this stuff available…). And so, the evening before the conference, there was an open evening for the new study room, with handling sessions available with some of the collection objects. Rebecca had been asked to do one of these sessions with some of the coins—because the Blackburn collection of coins is rather bigger than just Hart’s stuff, and includes some really unusual stuff such as a decent-sized and basically unknown collection of Sasanian Persian drachms—but she was teaching that evening, so asked me if I could do it. And so a few weeks before I’d come up, had a rather whistlestop introduction to the coin cabinets and nominated my four pieces, and then on the evening in question I was set up with a table, a tray and some handouts, and basically made myself available to anyone who wanted to check out some old coins.

Obverse of a silver sixpence of King Charles I struck in Newark Castle, 1646, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Obverse of a silver sixpence of King Charles I struck in Newark Castle, 1646, Blackburn Museum

Reverse of a silver sixpence of King Charles I struck in Newark Castle, 1646, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Reverse of the same coin, which is Spink 3146 in the relevant catalogue

This kind of work is always fun and it’s possibly the second thing I really miss from the museums world (the first, I admit, being the unfettered access to the treasure troves of stuff). Coins are such an excellent teaching tool, because (for now at least) everyone’s used to using them and thinks they know how coins work, but they often don’t read them in any depth, so by confronting people with coins that aren’t quite familiar, but can be read, you can teach them not just about the era of the coin in question, but also of a new way to look at the material culture of their own lived world as well. The four pieces I picked were a London bronze of Emperor Constantine I from after his supposed conversion showing the Unconquered Sun, a teaching point of which I never tire, a Canterbury ‘PAX’ penny of William the Conqueror (also one of my stand-bys), a Lancaster halfpenny token of Daniel Eccleston (there being no actual Blackburn tokens I could immediately find, alas), and the above. The above is probably the most interesting piece of the bunch, not really being a coin as such, and having a very specific context: as my handout has it,

“During the English Civil War which ended with the capture, trial and execution of King Charles I by the forces of Parliament in 1649, a number of royal outposts were besieged by Parliamentary forces, very few of which could be relieved. Money was among the supplies that did not reach the defenders, forcing their leaders to cut up silver plate and ornaments to make coins with which the restless troops could be paid. Newark was besieged three times during the war, but never fell; this coin survived from the final siege between November 1645 and May 1646.”

It drew a lot of interest because of its shape, of course, and kept it when I told the story that goes with it, but I probably still shouldn’t have used it! It was only afterwards, you see, that I did a cursory search and found that, of course, because such pieces are fantastically rare given how few were issued and how briefly, its probable market value was a full order of magnitude greater than any of the other three. But we were careful and everything was still on the tray when we closed, and perhaps, indeed, we might have relied on that same pride on the part of the visitors in their native place and the collections belonging to those who belong there. As Rebecca’s paper explores, these things get complex. Anyway, it was all great to be part of and got me into a collection I’d never have known about otherwise, and with which I’m still trying to come up with a way to work in future. Who knows but what this may some day come off, and if so, of course, you’ll hear about it here.


1. I draw these background details from Cynthia Johnston, “Introduction. A British book collector: rare books and manuscripts in the R. E. Hart Collection, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery” in Johnston (ed.), A British Book Collector: rare books and manuscripts in the R. E. Hart Collection, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery (London 2021), pp. 1-5.

2. See Johnston, “Introduction”, p. 2; for that exhibition, see J. J. G. Alexander and P. Crossley, Medieval and Early Renaissance Treasures in the North West (Manchester 1976), and note how the title sort of implies that it needs specifying that these things are not in London.

3. Publications resulting from the earlier ones were C. Johnston & S. J. Biggs (edd.), Blackburn’s Worthy Citizen: the philanthropic legacy of R. E. Hart (London 2013), C. Johnston & J. Hartnell, Cotton to Gold: extraordinary collections of the industrial North West (London 2015), T. Burrows & C. Johnston (edd.), Collecting the Past: collectors and their collections from the 18th to the 20th centuries (Abingdon 2019) and C. Johnston, Holding the Vision: collecting the art of the book in the industrial North West (Blackburn 2020).

4. The printed version being Morgan, “The Blackburn Psalter and the William of Devon group” in Johnston, British Book Collector, pp. 23-59.

5. Printed version McKendrick, “Contextualising the art and innovations of the Master of Edward IV in the Blackburn Hours (Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Hart MS 20884)”, ibid. pp. 93-143.

6. In the proceedings, White’s paper is “Fragments of early Mainz printing in the R. E. Hart Collection”, ibid. pp. 145-164.

7. Published as Jackson Hase and Rebecca Darley, “Collections to Think with: Collecting, Scholarship and Belonging in the R. E. Hart Collection (Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)” in Journal of the History of Collections Vol. 32 (Oxford 2020), pp. 369–378, DOI: 10.1093/jhc/fhz022.

8. Printed version Cantone, “Journey in the mind’s eye: the virtue and value of virtual pilgrimage” in Johnston, British Book Collector, pp. 191-212.

9. See Potten’s own report of the conference here.

10. Printed as McKitterick, “The Loyalties of a Collector” in Johnston, British Book Collector, pp. 7-21.

11. White, “Fragments of early Mainz printing”, pp. 159-164.

12. Darley, “The value of the past: heritage between local, global and national” in Johnston, British Book Collector, pp. 213-228; Johnston, “Book collecting in context: Hart and his contemporaries”, ibid. pp. 191-212.

A cautionary tale

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025; coins like these were the ‘Jacobuses’ referred to in the post below

This week, here is an excellent story to frighten young archaeologists and numismatists in their methodological cradles! I encountered this while reading up for an article that still hasn’t come out about changes in the coinages of the post-Roman world; I’m assured it’s now in final stages… But that doesn’t matter for these purposes. I will not, therefore, paraphrase what John Kent, no less, wrote better:1

One of the few comprehensive accounts of the collection, concealment and recovery of a hoard is related in Pepys’ Diary. At the Restoration of 1660, Samuel Pepys declared himself to be earning £50 a year, and to have £40 cash in hand. By the end of 1666, his average annual income exceeded £3,000, and he ‘was worth in money, all good’, above £6,200, beside two-and-a-half dozen silver vessels. Like many of his thrifty contemporaries, he kept his surplus cash under lock and key in his own house; the unfortunate Mr. Tryan, of Lime Street, who kept the key of his cash-chest in his desk, was robbed of £1,050 in money and £4,000 in jewels held as securities for loans. In June 1667, deeply worried by the penetration of the Dutch fleet into the Thames estuary, Pepys resolved to conceal his money. He was at first undecided whether to conceal it elsewhere in London to to despatch it to the family estate in Brampton, Northamptonshire. The latter counsel prevailed and his father and wife took coach, with a bag containing some £1,300. Finding himself unable to convert his silver in hand for gold – he had been forestalled by others – Pepys sent on another 1,000 gold pieces by special messenger, and carried on his own person another £300 worth, together with ‘directions where to find £500 and more in gold and silver’.
“Recovery of the treasure in October of the same year proved a gruelling experience. His wife gave him ‘so bad an account of her and my father’s method in the burying of our gold, that made me mad; and she herself is not pleased with it, she believing that my sister knows of it. My father and she did it on Sunday, when they were gone to church, in open daylight, and in the midst of the garden, where for aught they knew, many eyes might see them; which put me into trouble, and I presently cast about, how to have it back again to secure it here, the times being a little better now’. Recovery began at night, with a dark lantern, but ‘they could not justly tell where it was’, and Pepys began to fear the worst; but ‘by poking with a spit’, it was at length located, ‘not half a foot under ground’. Frantic digging merely succeeded in scattering the coins in the grass and loose earth. Finally, coins, dirt and all, were raised and washed. To Pepys’ chagrin, he found himself about one hundred pieces short, and fearing that the neighbours might have observed him, and come searching on their own account, he and his servant sieved through the earth until they had recovered a further seventy-nine. Pepys considered it quite acceptable that his special messenger should have lost some twenty to thirty pieces en route, and regarded himself as well content with the matter when all was finally safe back in London, ‘under a bed in our chamber’.
“This true story prompts several reflections. Pepys’ wealth, though certainly a ‘savings hoard’, was assembled over a very short period. It certainly included some old coins – he gave three ‘Jacobuses’ (gold pieces of James I) to his father-in-law and its random origin and rapid assemblage suggests that it would have been indistinguishable from a ‘currency hoard’ assembled ad hoc in 1667. Indeed, since his surplus increased in 1666 by only £1,800, as against £3,000 in 1665, we might suspect that the dates 1666 and 1667 were relatively slightly represented, i.e. that the hoard ended ‘weakly’. The really extensive coinages of guineas lay, in any case, in the future, and we may postulate that Pepys’ fortune consisted predominantly of the old ‘broad pieces’. Great quantities of these were certainly still available; a poulterer of Gracechurch Street died in November 1662 leaving an unsuspected hoard of 40,000 ‘Jacobs’. We may conclude that the recovery of a hoard was not necessarily an easy matter, and that there was a significant risk that it would not be recovered intact. The discovery in modern times of a scatter of twenty or thirty broad pieces at Brampton, or between Brampton and London, would give a totally false impression alike of date, of the circumstances of concealment and of the size of the original treasure.”

I think Kent actually relied on the intelligence of his audience a bit too much here in pushing the full implications of this story. It might be worth just setting out what a likely, nay, reasonable, interpretation of a find of say, twenty-five gold pieces of James I and Charles I in a Northamptonshire garden would be: firstly, that it was a small hoard by someone of moderate means (since it was not larger); secondly, that the owner lived thereabouts, since otherwise why would it be there and how would they recover it? and thirdly, that it was probably deposited because of trouble in the English Civil War, since nothing later than that appeared in it and one would hardly expect the Anglo-Dutch Wars to be troubling people in Northamptonshire, landlocked on the far side of the country from the North Sea. And all of these reasonable deductions would be wrong. On this occasion, there is no actual hoard to interpret and we know what happened. But what of even quite recent cases where it’s the other way about, eh, what about them?


1. John P. C. Kent, “Interpreting Coin-Finds” in John Casey & Richard Reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn. (London 1988), pp. 201-217 at pp. 205-206. Links in the text go to the online version of Pepys’s Diary.

Missing Michael Matzke

While still not wanting to let this blog become an obituaries column, this is obviously not a good time in human history to ask people to stop dying. However, this is late news that only came to me when my partner opened up the current issue of the Numismatic Chronicle and found a review of Medieval European Coinage 12: Northern Italy, over whose text I myself toiled for a while in 2008-2009, and noted the fatal † by one of the author’s names.1 And that’s how I found out that I had missed Michael Matzke, Kurator of the Münzkabinett at the Historisches Museum Basel and erstwhile Assistant Keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, dying at the age of 54 last year.

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel; the (German) article linked beneath provides links to many other notices of his passing

I could not say that I knew Michael well; he was out of the department at the Fitzwilliam before I got there, and our scholarships hardly crossed paths. There is, all the same, a certain closeness to someone you only get by editing them, trying to think far enough into their thoughts to make them sit more accurately on the page in your language that they’re currently obliged to use. Without my knowing that much about his life, he thus became very familiar to me as an intellect. Michael was, in any case, very much not a problem to edit, and always polite and helpful in the event of queries, and although due to reasons beyond either of our controls the volume didn’t come out until years after I’d left the Fitzwilliam, I’m glad to say that the last time I saw him was actually at a party celebrating its then-actually-imminent publication, at the XV International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, which of course I reported here.

Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, during a party

Michael’s not in the picture, sadly, but here is the party, in the Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano

The evening before that, I’d been able to introduce that same partner of mine to Michael, among other people, on an extremely crowded balcony four floors up, where one of the Congress receptions was being held. The considerable press of people would be unthinkable now, of course, even without the low parapets, but was getting close to it even then; as Michael observed in stagey discomfort, “this would never be allowed in Germany”. I shall never know now whether he was laughing at his own nation or not, but given what I knew of his humour, utterly deadpan and razor sharp, I shall always suspect it. I’m glad I got to laugh with him and I’m sorry I won’t any more.


1. Andrea Saccocci, Michael Matzke and William Day Jr, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 12: Northern Italy (Cambridge 2016), reviewed by Monica Baldassarri in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 180 (London 2020), pp. 507-509. I should give more reference to Michael’s work but I wouldn’t really know where to start, other than the Bibliography of MEC 12! The links in the text will take you to more if you need to know, however.

Money doesn’t stink (once the blood’s dry)

There was, of course, lots in Michael Hendy’s magnum opus that I was writing about last post that might have provoked a blog post, but apparently I only stubbed one other, and this was it, a reflection on something he was willing to do that many scholars now are not, which is, cite material which he’d seen on sale as well as material in collections.* For example, when I worked at the Barber Institute, we were offered one quite large and fascinating collection; but English law on importing antiquities, which largely follows a UNESCO Convention about the same, made it such a headache to accept that instead the collector in question just sold the stuff. That was a bit of a loss to scholarship, because even if we could track every one of those coins through the market the corpus will still never be together again. But I can also point you at reasonably well-founded-looking stories about how antiquities looting funded ISIS and we’ve heard before here about one rather surreal case of how crime will feed the antiquities market if the antiquities market will buy from it, so though it’s a somewhat extreme position, that there are some scholars who won’t even cite material from sales, let alone buy things themselves, because you just can’t know who got it out of the ground when and whether you’d want them to be able to keep doing that because of your contributions to the market.1 And then I can remember a presentation at the International Numismatic Congress in which an Afghan curator whose museum had been looted had sent a message to the Congress urging us please, please, to ignore the law and buy his museum’s stuff if we saw it come up, so that at least it would not be lost or destroyed, and by now you get the idea that whatever the ethics of this question are, they’re not completely simple.2

Map of the location of Isauria in Asia Minor

The red dot shows where Isauria, the district within which the plurifocal city of Isaura lay, was within Asia Minor; image by Keith Johnston and Polylerus (talk), derivative work, made from Asia_Minor_Map,_Classical_Atlas,_1886,_Keith_Johnston.jpg, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Hendy, however, writing in the early 1980s, was able to remain unconcerned by such issues, and this became very clear when I reached his brief discussion of the Byzantine coinage of Isaura. Isaura was a mint only for a very short time, between 617 and 619, during the desperate campaigns of Emperor Heraclius against Persia. One of several such short-lived mints, and replacing one at nearby Seleucia, it seems to have been meant to provide deployed armies with small change at a time when that could not reliably be brought from Constantinople in time. Its products are rare, and Hendy alone knew of one from the final year of operation, 618/19, of which he said: “I owe knowledge of the so far unique coin (a follis) of this year, seen in the bazaar at Silifke, to Jim Russell.”3

Now, as far as I can see, that specimen—which Hendy himself had not seen, as he admits—remains unique, and we could probably more or less safely dismiss it as being either a fake or so very rare as to be historically insignificant. But the coins of Isaura are rare in any variety. Hendy’s collection of reference, the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington DC, largely assembled by Philip Grierson, contained none when catalogued in 1973, although it subsequently acquired two. The British Museum currently has eight—though if you follow that search link, don’t believe the single picture they have, which is of something quite different—but its catalogue of Byzantine material, published in 1920, contains only two, though the modern digital catalogue also counts two which Wroth thought belonged to Antioch, and I think, as apparently do the current curators, that he was wrong.4 The Bibliothèque Nationale de France has two, or did in 1970.5 The American Numismatic Society has one, only. And the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, of which Hendy was notionally curator when he wrote the above, has four, for what it’s worth, but none of 618/619.6 I bet there are more in collections from closer to the site, too, but I can’t straight away find their catalogues online. (I did just try the Hermitage in St Petersburg, not exactly closer but at least not Western, but no results there; the Istanbul Archaeological Museum so far doesn’t have a catalogue online.) So from the obvious Western collections at least, that’s a corpus of seventeen coins of Isaura, which is not all that many when just the Barber’s total sample of coins of Heraclius from all mints is more than a thousand pieces. The total corpus of Heraclius across those same collections is probably in the order of four thousand, and Isaura thus probably contributes nearly half a per cent of that corpus.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius at Isaura in 617-618, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3496

An impressively messy example, a copper-alloy follis of Heraclius overstruck on one of Emperor Maurice Tiberius at Isaura in 617-618, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3496

Now, forgive me if this is already an obvious point, but whence, and indeed when, did these coins arrive in those collections? In some cases, this information is not available: the ANS record, for example, doesn’t make this public, though they got it in 1984, rather after the UNESCO Convention. Dumbarton Oaks got its from Harlan J. Berk in 1977 and from none other than Simon Bendall in 1980, who apparently traded some Palaeologan coins for it. Perhaps the other party in the swap had full provenance details going back past 1970; perhaps. I can’t supply details for the Barber any more, though almost all its Byzantine stuff was given to the University of Birmingham by Philip Whitting in 1967 and he acquired almost all his stuff through London dealers, so the Barber is probably on the right side of UNESCO here, at least, if only by reason of age. One of the BNF’s coins came to them from the collection of Gustave Schlumberger in the 1860s and the other was already there when a catalogue was first made in 1853, so their trail vanishes into antiquity in a way which almost certainly involves colonial tourism and bazaars, but can’t be shown to. And the BM got its first one in 1859 from one J. B. Warren, bought another from Henri Hoffmann in 1862, these being the two which Wroth published; it subsequently ‘acquired’ four, we are not told whence, in 1920 (two of them), 1925 and 1927, and has no provenance for the remaining two that Wroth misassigned to Antioch, except that they must have arrived before he published in 1920. But if we were in a position to dig further, which for example at the Barber I was, we’d be able to find where Philip Whitting bought those coins, and at the BM possibly where Warren and Hoffmann bought theirs, and maybe even at Paris whence Schlumberger got his, and I bet you that they were all either bought from dealers in London or Paris or actually off market tables in Turkey or Syria, or from people who one way or another had got them from those tables. Perhaps one or two were actually found in archaeological digs, but archaeology in Ottoman territories was usually a matter of licensed European plundering anyway, and the Paris examples pretty much pre-date archaeology as a practice, as do the oldest London ones. Probably none of these coins would be bought, or even accepted gratis, by those collections today.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Isaura in 617-618, CNG Classical Auctions, Triton VIII Sale, 10th January 2005, lot 1368

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Isaura in 617-618, Classical Numismatic Group, Triton VIII Sale, 10th January 2005, lot 1365

But they’re out there, even so. This one was sold at auction by Classical Numismatic Group in 1997 and then again in 2005; there don’t seem to be any obviously available right now through the main dealerships, and looking at eBay through a proxy so as not to stain my own search history, I can’t see any there either, but every now and then one clearly comes up. Now, even by showcasing this coin here I’ve stepped over a line for some of my colleagues; for them to use anything that’s passed through trade is to validate it and the continuing market for such things. And it can’t be said that much would be lost if I hadn’t used it; I have access to other images of the type, as we’ve seen, and there’s nothing unique about this one. We can certainly say that without Hendy’s friend’s find we wouldn’t know the mint dragged on into late 618, but firstly no-one else has ever seen or recorded such a coin, secondly it’s a matter of whether it had an extra vertical stroke right out near the border of the reverse right field, a call which I find hard enough to make even on the photos above, and thirdly that detail probably makes no difference to our greater picture of Heraclius’s reign or Byzantine coinage anyway. If Jim Russell had not been in that bazaar when he was, or had not told Hendy, or Hendy not told us, probably nothing much changes for numismatic or historical scholarship.

But how far back do we want to go with that logic? What if we decided even the 617/618 coins were unusable because of their provenance, or their lack of it? Well, because of the scholarship which had used them already, we would still know that there had been a mint at Isaura and what its products looked like, but we might argue that we should not, because that scholarship was using materials that we would not ourselves use. What if, because this kind of selection had operated in the 1970s and 1980s too, and all the way back to the 1860s when Schlumberger was writing, we just didn’t know about the Isaura mint? What else would we then not know? Well, the series of short-lived mints that date from these years collectively tell us several things. Heraclius didn’t maintain these mints once they’d served their purpose, so they weren’t a new part of the system, they were emergency measures. Therefore, they tell us that the Empire was in trouble; we knew this from the narratives, but that it couldn’t ship small change around safely for several years is a bit of extra depth when otherwise we are mainly told that Heraclius couldn’t pay his troops in gold, once only, eight years later.7 On the other hand, that this could be done tells us something about the administrative ability of the empire even in crisis; mints, whose output seems negligible now but must have been in many thousands at the time, could be set up and shut down, or moved where necessary, quickly and usefully, and systems which were temporarily not useful could be circumvented.

Obverse of copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Obverse of copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Reverse of a copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck onto one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Reverse of the same coin

Thus, the coins of Seleucia, Isaura, Alexandretta and maybe Cyprus—though Cyprus went on working as a mint, so doesn’t quite fit the pattern—do tell us not just how much trouble the Empire was in but also what it could do about it, in detail we wouldn’t get any other way. Obviously, any one of those mints by itself would suggest that; two together probably shows a pattern; we might not need the third. But since the same objections about provenance could doubtless be raised about Heraclian coins of Seleucia and Alexandretta, and indeed without Seleucia and Isaura being known I imagine we’d be attributing the Alexandretta coins to Alexandria because to hypothesize an entire mint on their basis would seem a little foolhardy, and we’d have no indication of where else it might have been anyway, I think the question has to be asked about the whole sample.8 And of course we could carry on up the scale from there ad absurdum; I’m not sure where the absurd starts on this ladder of hypotheses, myself, but we don’t need to climb it all to get there.

Of course, it is absurd, because we don’t do this; the known coins in collections are known, are somewhat published, and have been described in scholarly publication and synthesized into the history of the period, and I’ve not (yet) heard anyone suggesting we should actually roll back on what we claim to know because of it being based on dodgy antiquities and colonial looting, even if some might suggest those collections shouldn’t still be keeping the coins. But thanks to the UNESCO Convention and its pretty widespread uptake, really no other collections can get such coins, only ‘unscrupulous’ private collectors can. (The fact that sometimes those collectors do in fact contribute to scholarship is an issue I can’t look at now, but it has been noted.9) What that ends up meaning, therefore, is that the scholarship has to work with the established material in the big Western collections, because those were all bought, ‘acquired’ or looted long enough ago that we can ignore it. In other words, the Victorians and Edwardians did so much of our dirty work that we can afford to keep our hands clean and insist that others abstain without loss to ourselves.

Now, I myself don’t have a next step from this; I’m stuck in the dilemma. The loss to regional heritages from looting, nighthawking and sale of antiquities is well-documented and huge and I’ve done my bit in documenting it. But even that misnomer of a hoard was only acquired just in advance of a change in English law that now wouldn’t permit Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise Service to do that; now, the Barber’s hands would have stayed off and it would now presumably be in a crate on a shelf in Rotherham or somewhere, in an uncollapseable legal Schrödinger state from which it could be neither sold nor given, unknown to basically everyone in the world (next to the Ark of the Covenant, perhaps). Then again, when stuff comes up on eBay that’s probably out of Palmyra or the now-dispersed collections of the Iraqi National Museum, I wince, and if we did follow that Afghan curator’s advice and buy it anyway, to safeguard it, of course more would turn up to feed that demand and whether or not the money eventually paid for someone to kill someone else, what’s pretty clear is that the stuff would not be returned to the land and people whence it came. But, equally, if the Academy as vested in the global West didn’t have these massive colonial legacy collections to resource its scholarship, acquired by means just as dodgy but a century or two older, I wonder if it would be quite so unanimous about how we shouldn’t participate. I don’t think that means that we should just declare open house on looted antiquities, obviously, but I’d be more comfortable about the debate about what people should do if it involved just a bit more privilege-checking from those who aren’t at risk of exclusion because the international moral clock only started in 1970.


* The title of this post derives from a story told of the Emperor Vespasian, who infamously imposed a charge for the use of public latrines in the city of Rome. When it was put to him that it was beneath his imperial dignity to make money from people’s bodily waste like this, he is said to have held a coin to his nose and replied, “The money doesn’t stink.” I couldn’t find a good way to work this into the actual text of the post, though…

1. Here’s a selection of such scholarship ranging over the last couple of decades: Catherine Sease, “Conservation and the Antiquities Trade” in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Vol. 36 (Abingdon 1997), pp. 49-58; Neil Brodie and Colin Renfrew, “Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response” in Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 34 (Palo Alto 2005), pp. 343–361; Paula K. Lazrus and Alex W. Barker (edd.), All the King’s Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on our Knowledge of the Past (Washington D.C. 2012); Blythe Bowman Proulx, “Archaeological Site Looting in ‘Glocal’ Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency” in American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117 (Boston MA 2013), pp. 111–123; Fiona Rose-Greenland, ‘Inside ISIS’ looted antiquities trade’ in The Conversation, 31 May 2016, online here. I started collecting things like this in order to help write Jonathan Jarrett, Reinhold Hüber-Mork, Sebastian Zambanini & Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: Numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3 (Tempe AZ 2012), pp. 459-489, but as you can see the problem has continued despite our short-lived digital contribution.

2. Reported in Michael Alram’s contribution to the closing ceremony, XVth International Numismatic Congress, Taormina, 24th September 2015.

3. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), p. 416 n. On the coinages more generally, see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 120-121, and in more details, Philip Grierson, “The Isaurian Coins of Heraclius” in Numismatic Chronicle 6th Series Vol. 11 (London 1951), pp. 56–67.

4. Warwick Wroth (ed.), Catalogue of the Imperial Byzantine Coins in the British Museum, 2 vols (London 1908), I, nos 274a & 275 (pp. 223-224), with the rest of Isaura as then thought at nos 266-268 (p. 221). Dumbarton Oaks would have had them, if they had had, in Alfred Bellinger & Philip Grierson (edd.), Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks and Whittemore Collections, 5 vols in 9 (Washington DC 1966-2006), vol. II pt 1, ed. Grierson, online here.

5. Cécile Morrisson (ed.), Catalogue des monnaies byzantines de la Bibliothèque nationale, 2 vols (Paris 1970), vol. I, nos 10/IS/Æ/01-02 (p. 290).

6. Though great efforts were continuing up until Covid-19 struck, these coins are among the part of the Barber’s Collection that has yet to go online. They can however be cited as Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B3493-B3496.

7. For more on this and Heraclius’s response, see Michael F. Hendy, “On the Administrative Basis of the Byzantine Coinage c. 400-c. 900 and the Reforms of Heraclius” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingaham 1970), pp. 129–154.

8. On the difficulty of attributing the Alexandretta coins see Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 73-74; their chronology is not quite the same, but shows Heraclius using the same strategy earlier on.

9. See Jackson Hase and Rebecca Darley, “Collections to think with: Collecting, scholarship and belonging in the R. E. Hart collection (Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)” in Journal of the History of Collections Vol. 32 (Oxford 2020), pp. 369–378.

An unobserved model of Byzantine economic development

After reimmersing myself in the literature of frontiers back in summer of 2017, I deduce from the blog stubs I left for myself that I must then have made a proper attempt to read Michael Hendy’s The Byzantine Monetary Economy.1 This is a monster tome which was supposed to be one of three and still contains a vast amount of material whose relevance to the exact topic is hard to see, but which also throws out important points and valuable insights as if they were incidental; it really needed an editor, but the legend goes that Hendy told Cambridge University Press that if they changed a word of it he’d cancel his contract with them, and somehow they wanted the book badly enough that this cowed them. So it went out as he wanted it even though it’s hard to understand, as a reader, why that was. In any case, despite being thirty-plus years old it’s still important and, I guess because I was by now writing up the work that would become my ‘Middle Byzantine Numismatics’, I set out to read it.2

Cover of Michael Hendy's Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

Cover of Michael Hendy’s Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

One of the major controversies in which Hendy repeatedly intervened during his rebarbative scholarly life was that of the importance of commerce to the Byzantine Empire, both economically and ideologically. Most people have been at least ready and in some cases downright keen to see the emperors as wanting to grow their commercial economy, even though they are sometimes hard-placed to explain why. For Hendy, however, this was anything but a given, and he saw the primary purpose of the coinage, for example, as to enable the tax system and the payment of the army, not to facilitate market exchange. Without wanting to spoil the book for you, he in fact went on to argue that the Byzantine Empire resisted commercialisation to the point that this became the reason that the Italian city-states with which they reluctantly dealt were able to out-compete them and drain the empire’s resource westwards.3 I do personally find him persuasive on this general score, I admit, but of course he was publishing under Thatcher and no-one was interested in anti-commercial scholarship as the 1980s boomed and academics were settling into how we justify the Great Divergence without having to give up our global predominance.

Nonetheless, he began, or nearly began, with a stab at economic modelling as applied to past societies that I think bears thinking with even now. It should be said that Hendy was just as prepared as his rivals to build elaborate hypotheses on shaky figures—he spent seventy pages here on reconstructing the Byzantine imperial budget, largely on the basis of eighteenth-century Ottoman figures, for example—but he obviously thought his were better, because he liked to attack others’ anyway. As witness, on p. 7 he has a set at someone who had applied Fisher’s Equation to the debasement of the Byzantine coinage in the eleventh century.4

Graphic description of Fisher's Equation of Monetary Quantity

If you’ve not met Fisher’s Equation, here is a summary representation, linked through to a pretty clear explanation; I would try myself, but this post is already pretty long and in-depth economics will not help…

Because he never wrote anything briefly when you would like him to have, I summarise how Hendy dealt with this rather than quote. Firstly he admitted that we probably do now have a decent grip on how that debasement unfolded, in which, ironically, he was probably wrong.5 He then admitted that in an economy where there was effectively no credit, and therefore no elasticity in the money supply, restricted as it was by available precious-metal, the application of Fisher ought if anything to be simpler than in a modern economy. But because the coinage was not, as he saw it, a commercial instrument and not made in quantities intended for it to be one, and was thus distributed not where trade required it but where soldiers and state operatives spent it; because transport was slow and its costs away from water very high, with consequent limits on what could be traded and how far; because, “the producer was almost invariably the distributor and/or the seller”; and because a really substantial part of the empire’s wealth was owned by the emperor, a few landed magnates and the Church, and thus immobilised…

“In the light of all these circumstances separately or in combination, and despite wide-ranging claims to the contrary, it is at least questionable whether the application of Fisher’s Equation has much, if any, relevance to the situation, and whether the pre-conditions necessary for its operation in any chronologically and geographically uniform, and in any detailed, fashion existed.”6

And you can see from that both why Hendy is little quoted, if much cited, and how his book ran to 773 pages. Even so, there are still bits one wants to quote on themes like this…

“These observations… are intended to suggest that it is on the one hand unacceptable for the numismatist, in accounting for some monetary phenomenon, to connect it with a contemporary ‘economic crisis’ (for the basic distinction between a financial and an economic crisis is one that is scarcely ever made), the existence of which is asserted through reference to another such assertion, which turns out to be based on a statement in George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State – however distinguished that author, and however valuable that work. But they are also intended to suggest that it is on the other hand equally dangerous, that is dangerous enough to be unacceptable, for the numismatist, in accounting for some other monetary phenomenon, to insert it into a precise mathematical interrelationship evolved in the light of modern monetary theories and conditions. In general, if in no other sense, the result is thereby lent an entirely spurious air of precision and authority, and the nature and mode of operation of the ancient or mediaeval monetary economy involved is effectively never questioned.”7

You see what I mean by now, I guess. Part of me wants to yell “hurrah” and the rest is saying, “Wait, where was all this going again?” and “Could that maybe have been shorter, with fewer subclauses, or else in more than three sentences?” and unhelpfully unsympathetic things like that. I suppose that the general point here is that a model that is never tested against data or accurately set into context can never be proven or disproven.8 Of course, as I say, that didn’t stop Hendy coming up with his own, and what I want to do with the rest of this post is extend one of them for fun. You see, having got to that bit quoted above where he concluded that Fisher’s Equation wasn’t going to work here, he tries to explain the state’s resort to debasement by other means, for which the chief reason was its inability to extract very much money from its leading aristocrats. (He elsewhere argues that the wealthiest Byzantine magnates could severally possess enough to come close to equalling, in their total worth at least, the entire state budget, and while the comparison relies on the accuracy of his reconstructed budget, the figures for aristocratic wealth, at least, are contemporary ones.9) To their wealth, however, there was little alternative, given the probable insufficiency to make up the gap of what could be got from overtaxing the peasantry—which anyway tended simply to drive them into dependency upon those untouchable aristocrats instead.10 Sorry: once you start trying to think with Hendy it’s apparently difficult not to write like him. I’ll fight it.

This got me thinking, anyway, and what I thought is that it has implications which Hendy did not draw out. The tenth century was a time of recovery for the Byzantine Empire, territorially and militarily speaking, but by the end of it, nonetheless, the state was nearly bankrupt. (That is usually put down to Alexios Komnenos’s loss of Anatolia, but he inherited the financial situation, he didn’t create it.11) This would be exactly that distinction between economic and financial crisis Hendy was griping about, I guess. So, OK, let us suppose, as part of another of these untestable models, that, say, the top 5% of the Empire’s population was effectively immune from serious taxation, but that the rest was not. In that case, wealth that accrues to those possessors was effectively amortised from the state’s resources. If the economy grows in such a way that the aristocrats do well out of it, as it seems to have done in the Byzantine tenth century, the figures might work out in such a way that the population overall got richer but the state still got poorer. Now, obviously, one solution might indeed be to try and boost the commercial side of the economy and make up the difference on tolls and sales tax, but since the big aristocrats were essentially autarkic, or could be, that would not liquefy their wealth back to where the state could siphon it off again. So instead, the solution that probably works best for the state is actually to slow the economy down, to encourage deflation and to generally attack the value of wealth until the status differential between the aristocracy and the state has been restored. In that case, overtaxing would not be a desperate tactic to which a bankrupt government was forced despite the damage it must cause to the productive sector; that damage would actually be the point and overtaxing the whole strategy.

Base-silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5532

The expedient to which the state had been reduced: a supposedly silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B5532

In all of that case, then, it could be very much in the interests of a state constructed as we’ve just imagined to hurt its own economy, in order to be able to appropriate more of what was left. Perhaps that is in fact what Alexios I was doing when he reformed, causing what must have been great expense and considerable monetary shortage, that duff coinage!12 It’s obviously not a very capitalism-compatible model, but I think it’s where Hendy was pointing. That he didn’t get there may have as much to do with the arrangement of the book—in which, within six pages from here, he was having to say, “It may be thought that I have wandered far from the customary or even proper preserve of the numismatist, in discussing such questions as erosion, predominant forms of land-use, and twelfth- and thirteenth-century frontiers – and so, perhaps, I have…”—as any capitalist sympathies of his own.13 I’m not even sure it matters what he was ideologically, because what concerned him was how this other society had worked. The political climate of the age may be why no-one else picked up this idea, and maybe I would not have spotted it lurking before 2008 either. But what are we doing this study of the past for, if not to find alternate ways for human societies to do things? I’m not saying this one’s an obvious winner—though I often have to remind my students when they write about the inevitability of the Empire’s decline that it lasted more than a millennium, however variable its health in that time, so its ways of managing politics and change might still work out better than ours—but at least it is one of those alternatives that we are now, maybe, able to see and think with.


1. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985).

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2017), pp. 514–535, which uses Hendy quite a lot.

3. Hendy, Studies, pp. 221-251 on the economic bases and 554-602 for the trade situation.

4. Ibid., pp. 157-220 for the budgetary reconstruction and pp. 613-618 for a worked-out comparison to the Ottomans, on the basis of the same figures he used to construct the Byzantine budget, a circularity he doesn’t seem to have considered. The person who had misapplied Fisher’s Equation is not named by Hendy, but it’s pretty likely that he was referring to Cécile Morrisson, “La dévaluation de la monnaie byzantine au XIe siècle : essai d’interpretation” in Recherches sur le XIe siècle, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance 6 (Paris 1976), pp. 3–47, reprinted in eadem, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter IX, which does indeed apply Fisher to the eleventh-century valuation and which Morrisson was still defending as such an application in eadem, “Money, Coins and the Economy” in Paul Stephenson (ed.), The Byzantine World (London 2012), pp. 34–46 at p. 41 n. 33.

5. Hendy, Studies, p. 3; but Cécile Morrisson, J.-N. Barrandon and Jacques Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Barrandon, Poirier and R. Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 113–187, the same year demonstrated that the debasement had in fact begun at a lower level in the late tenth century and that the eleventh-century tipping point was an illusion presented by the written sources.

6. Hendy, Studies, p. 5.

7. Ibid. p. 7.

8. For me, the archetypal case of this is Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 70 (London 1980), pp. 101–125, which is so obviously and openly founded on no evidence except the author’s own expressed preconceptions that I don’t understand how it got published, let alone became a standard reference.

9. Hendy, Studies, pp. 201-220.

10. See Peter Frankopan, “Land and Power in the Middle and Late Period” in John F. Haldon (ed.), The Social History of Byzantium (Chichester 2009), pp. 112-142.

11. The politics are best retold in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-70, but on the finances specifically, see, with care, Cécile Morrisson, “La Logarikè : réforme monétaire et réforme fiscale sous Alexis Ier Comnène” in Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance Vol. 7 (Paris 1979), pp. 419-464, repr. in eadem, Monnaie et finances, chapter VI.

12. The more normal position on this is summarised, with references, by Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2011), pp. 56–71, online here, good work for an undergraduate journal. However, I disagree with him (and indeed Morrisson, “La Logarikè”, on which he rests here) that Alexios’s coin and tax reforms increased state revenue fourfold; I’ve run those numbers as best I can and I’m pretty sure that they come out meaning that he managed to return the levels of taxation to roughly pre-debasement levels by shifting them onto originally supplementary levies that were now paid in the new coin, rather than the debased valuations of the old core taxes; but the roughly thousand-fold increase in notional tax liability that resulted probably amounted to a slight decrease in overall revenue, that’s how bad things had got. So the reform’s purpose can’t have been just that, or you wouldn’t bother, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been deflationary as well as stabilising.

13. Hendy, Studies, p. 13.

First Trip to China, II: Numismatists Gather in Changchun

Despite the tourism so cheerfully recounted last post, I was in fact in China in 2017 for academic purposes. The formal cause was a conference at North-East Normal University in Changchun, by name the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. If I can be Aristotelian about this, then I suppose the material cause of this was that, one way or another, there are a reasonable number of Byzantine solidi and, maybe more interestingly, imitations of them, that have come to light in China, and this is one of the major research areas of Professor Lín Yīng of Sun-Yat Sen University, whom I had had the pleasure of moderating at a Leeds International Medieval Congress two years before.1 But she is not the only Byzantinist in China by quite some way; I suppose an ancient empire likes to know about its contemporaries… And a number of people with such interests hang out at North-East Normal, because it runs an Institute for Ancient Civilizations, which was the hosting organisation for this conference, under the particular auspices of its Vice-Director, Dr Sven Günther. In fact, North-East Normal also boasts a Medieval History Research Centre, and you’d think that they would be my obvious point of contact, but because, you see, the efficient cause was that Professor Lín knows me as a Byzantine numismatist, because when she met that’s what I was, professionally, and of course I have not completely left that identity behind.2 I guess if you come in through the door marked ‘Byzantinist’, you’re a Byzantinist, but if what that means is that (assuming we get to a stage where this is possible again) I get invited halfway across the world and shown round the local wonders, then I guess I can come up with a paper about Byzantine coins for you…

Gathering of delegates to the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Gathering of delegates, with yours truly awkwardly central

Now, ever since I hit the time buffers on this blog in 2017, I have been reporting conferences by listing the papers I went to and then sticking my other remarks below a cut for the interested reader to follow up if they wish. On this occasion, however, I want to write at least something about the actual experience of the conference first, because it had some important and impressive differences from the Western format to which I’m used. Firstly, I suppose, everything was paid for; I remember when that used to be possible in the UK, just, but it was a while back, certainly before this blog. One can get into arguments about where taxpayers’ money should be going, I guess, but it is salutary to realise that the answers aren’t necessarily fixed.3 However, the differences that really struck me could be grouped under two headings, those being tea and languages. And the greater of these, for me at least, might even be tea. For look: if you examine this photo…

Session at the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Session in progress

… you will observe that everyone, even the beardy foreigner in the pale jacket with his pen in his mouth close to the back of the middle of the picture, has a nice porcelain mug with a lid in front of them. When we entered the conference room those mugs had small piles of auspicious green leaves in them; before we started attendants went round and poured lately-boiled water onto those leaves and put the lids back on; and then, every hour or so thereafter, they came round again and topped them up, because of course for decent green tea you don’t need, or even want, boiling water, and it will sustain several infusions. Indeed, I understand that with some teas you just throw the first one out because what you’re really after is the subtleties that come out in the second one, but dear reader, I digress. During lunch new mugs were set out and we were set up again for the afternoon. When I compare this to the desperate scrabble between sessions for the inadequate coffee at most Western conferences, it is hard not to feel that we were guests of a more anciently civilised culture than our own, I tell you. The coffee breaks were still there, but the caffeine was now a vestigial part of them because what they were really for was to enable the conversations between papers that are actually the important part of the academic conference. So this all worked rather well.

And then languages. At this point I had no functional Chinese (and even now I can manage very little more than greetings and very basic questions about menus), and a good few of the speakers had no functional English. This is not to say that people here didn’t know languages: one professor gave a very rough greeting speech in English but was able to introduce one of the Western speakers in fluent Greek, I guess because that was what he had needed to learn for what he wanted to do in his career. In general, though, English was not the default second language, which was salutary and a bit challenging, and if that wasn’t enough, a couple of the papers were delivered in Mongolian, which is another thing again. So any two people did not have great odds of understanding each other. But, this didn’t matter too much, because the other thing that there were people doing was immediate, translated summarisation of each paper after it was given, Chinese into English, English into Chinese, Mongolian into both. Questions were also translated this way during discussion. This responsibility was distributed around so that no-one had to do more than two, it was timetabled into the sessions, and it meant that the language barrier, while still very present, could pretty easily be hurdled, or at least messages flung across it in mutually satisfactory fashion. I could go off into speculation about how this worked in previous eras when other people crossed into China – the importance of the intermediary became really obvious in this meeting – but I could probably again be accused of digression. After all, we were here to talk about coins. So what were people talking about? I will list them!

24th June 2017

  • Zhāng Qiáng, “Introduction”
  • Xú Jiālíng, “Welcome”
  • Claudia Sode, “Welcome”
  • Wàn Xiáng and Lín Yīng, “Trade Pattern of 1-4 c. CE Silk Road – A Preliminary Study Based on Kushan Coins”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Islamic Late Antiquity in Western Eurasia: Concepts, Transformation and Monetary Organisation”
  • Stefanos Kordosis, “Some Remarks on the Term ‘Fromo’ of a Late 7th-Early 8th c. Bactrian Coin Inscription ‘Fromo Kesaro’ (Caesar of Rome)”
  • Coffee

  • Sven Günther, “The Migration of Motifs as a Qualitative Approach to the Question of Connectivity in Late Antiquity”
  • Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Coins in Gold in the Mediterranean (5th-8th Centuries)”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Separated by the Past: Western Coinages from Pseudo-Imperial to Quasi-Independent, 5th to 7th c. AD”
  • Lunch

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Roman and Byzantine Coins and their Reproduction in Western Central Asia”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Transition of the Monetary Situation of Khurasan and Transoxiana between the Islamic and T’ang Empire between 600 and 800 A.D.”
  • Coffee

  • Lĭ Qiáng, “The Dynamics of the Studies on the Byzantine Coins and their Imitations discovered in China, 2007-2017”
  • Guō Yúnyan, “On the Byzantine Coins Unearthed in China”
  • Dinner

25th June 2017

  • Ankhbayar Batsuui, “Regarding a Coin”
  • Erdenebold Lkhagvasuren, “West-East Relations and Nomads: A Study on Coins Discovered in Shordon Bumbagar, Bayannur, Sum Mongolia”
  • Odbaatar Tserendorj, “Sassanid Period Silver Coins Collection at National Museum of Mongolia”
  • Yngve Karlsson, “Main Features of Sasanian Silver Coins, with Examples from Mongolian National Museum”
  • Coffee

  • Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins in India in Late Antiquity”
  • Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands found in Southeast Asia”
  • Li Jinxiu, “Silver Coin and Silver Trading Circles: the Differing Destinies of Persian Silver Coins in Tang Times”4
  • Lunch

  • Shi Yang-Xin, “Collection of Ancient Coins from the Silk Road in Xi’an Tang West Market Museum”5
  • Wang Yongsheng, “Silk Road Coinage: its Definition and Research Value”
  • Coffee

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Byzantine Influence on Sogdian Monetary Type”
  • Responses by Zhang Xushan, Stefan Heidemann, Aleksandr Naymark, Claudia Sode and Lín Yīng
  • Closing Ceremony and Farewell Drink

It’s harder than usual to write up this conference, because it was so frequently telling me things I had just not previously known. Lín’s article is a neat introduction to the problem that brought us together, but is focused quite reasonably on some particuar Silk Road tombs, and there was so much bigger a picture being put together here, by experts from zones and on zones thousands of miles apart and linked more by sharing an era than by anything else. So it seems best, rather than to comment on individual papers, to try to write some kind of synthesis of what, by the end, I thought I knew about what was going on with coinage eastwards of Byzantium and, for the most part, northwards of India, over the mostly-fifth to more-or-less-ninth centuries. Predictably, given the size of the zone and the number of actors in it, this turned out to be very confusing, but, to me at least, also really interesting, and it got added into my teaching very quickly once I came back. Continue reading

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

Gallery

Bolton Abbey Priory

This gallery contains 13 photos.

By way of a light break between the last post, arguably intended to start an argument, and the likely next one, intended to record a conference, here’s some pictures. At the end of April 2017, with a relative visiting, m’partner … Continue reading