Category Archives: numismatics

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453″
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death': new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

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Name in Print XVI

The teaching reading is still swamping me, I’m afraid, what with having so little spare time in which to find the hours for it, but, raising my head briefly, what do I find but that the third of my 2014 outputs has now emerged, taking the form of a paper in this rather handsome-looking volume.

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

When Mark Blackburn told us at the Fitzwilliam in 2009 that his long-running battle with lymphoma was now in its final stages, many plans emerged from the initial shock and sadness. One of them was this, a volume of essays which we knew, even then, short of a miracle he would not live to see but with which the editors, Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen, along with many others all wanted, nonetheless, to express somehow our personal debts and the great debt of the field of early medieval monetary and economic history to Mark’s vast energy, encouragement and scholarship. Now it exists, and while one obviously wishes he could have seen it, it more than fulfils its task: there are essays here by people in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and France and by people at all stages of their academic careers inside and outside the Academy (because that last is allowed in numismatics), twenty-five essays in all, covering Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Viking, Scandinavian, Carolingian, Byzantine and Spanish coinages, and there’s also me.


No, for once I am not just being self-deprecating in my announcement of a publication, I’ve just totted the contents up and I really am the only person in this volume not writing about coins, except in their absence, which is of course my numismatic speciality: instead my paper is about the supposed use of livestock as a currency equivalent in Northern Iberia in the early Middle Ages. I will admit that coins do get mentioned, but only to emphasise their absence. Still, this was a subject I came across during working on Medieval European Coinage 6 for Mark, I ranted about it in his office to his amusement and I think it would have amused him further to see it in print. I’m really pleased to be in this volume. I’ve only got two things forthcoming now, I need to pile more stuff into the queue! Happily there is an article in final revision on my active pile right now

Statistics, for the record: one draft only with two rounds of revisions, that draft submitted November 2012 for a final emergence in print October 2014, just short of two years. This is about average and it was a complex book to assemble considering how various the contributors’ employments and backgrounds are: I’ve changed jobs twice during its preparation and I’m not the only one either!

Full cite: Jonathan Jarrett, “Bovo Soldare: a sacred cow of Spanish economic history re-evaluated” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 187-204.

Announcing All That Glitters

Starting work at the Barber Institute in August meant learning to work in and outside of office hours again, and I’m still rebalancing my routine. It has also meant an even longer to-do list, not least since I am also still doing some teaching for History at Birmingham on my spare day. There are long and difficult jobs connected with the electronic catalogue of the coins and the numismatic library, as well as more immediate ones connected with the next exhibition. But it has also meant a bunch of exciting new research projects! In some ways this should have been expected, and indeed I came into the job with one particular problem I wanted to use the coin collection to address, which I’ll tell you about when I’m slightly further along. But in the meantime, we are about to start something quite big and I wanted to announce it. The project name is “All that Glitters: the Byzantine solidus 307-1092″, and it aims to carry out non-destructive scientific testing of the metal composition of the Byzantine gold coinage over that period, up to 300 coins in all depending on results.

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

The reason this has got so ambitious is that word ‘we’, because this is essentially the brainchild of Rebecca Darley, one of the curators of the current coin exhibition at the Barber as you may remember and now part of the Bilderfahrzeuge project based at the Warburg Institute in London. Rebecca is an energising collaborator who does not think small and has thus gathered me, as the man with the coins and the wider medieval background, and Robert Bracey of the British Museum, as a man with an X-ray flourescence spectrometer and experience using it on the money of ancient empires, into a suddenly-active attempt involving Birmingham University’s School of Chemistry and Bruker Industries Ltd., who make XRF machinery among many other things, to deepen the basis of Byzantine monetary history (and with that, it’s probably not too much to say, the monetary history of the early Middle Ages as a whole). Here is our synopsis, with some edits for context:

“The Byzantine Empire, which evolved from the eastern Roman Empire, issued coinage continuously for more than a thousand years. The gold solidus, a coin of 4·5 g and a notional 95-97% purity, was the backbone of this system from the reign of Emperor Constantine I (306-37) to the eleventh century, though it was debased steadily from the tenth century until its replacement in a coinage reform in 1092. Before that time, the reputation of the solidus was near-legendary and it has remained so in scholarship.” In fact, however, we have limited evidence as to the precise purity or composition of the early coinage prior to debasement.
Earlier metallurgical studies of Byzantine gold coinages concentrated mainly on the later period, and used the most sophisticated equipment available in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent developments in X-Ray Flourescence technology, in which Bruker Industries Ltd. have been at the forefront, now make it possible to evaluate non-destructively the composition of metal alloys with far greater sensitivity to a range of trace elements, and the ability to quantify very small changes in the proportions of different metals in an alloy and in detecting and identifying even minute quantities of trace elements. “These newly developed techniques have not, however, been applied to Byzantine gold coinage and the time is therefore ripe for a project which could not only offer new data on the Byzantine monetary economy but also explore the possibilities of XRF testing, and set standards of analysis for other currencies and precious-metal objects.
“The Barber Institute of Fine Arts contains the most important collection of Byzantine coins in Europe and its greatest strength is in the coinage of the sixth to eighth centuries. It is currently unpublished, though cataloguing is in progress, and it has never been subject to any metallurgic analysis. It therefore offers an entirely new source of data for a detailed examination of the gold coinage that underpinned the Byzantine economy. In light of increasing recognition by historians that the numerous crises experienced by the Empire were survived only because of the sophistication and resilience of the imperial monetary and taxation system (Haldon, 1990; Wickham, 2005; Brubaker and Haldon, 2011), this study has immediate relevance not just to the Middle Ages but also to wider questions about the impact of monetary stability on political balance.”

You see that we have plans, and as of last week, we now have permission from the Henry Barber Trust, who own the collections of the Barber Institute, to carry on and do Science! with their coins. At this point we’re still in meetings-and-planning stages but before the end of the year we will in fact be zapping solidi with X-rays and trying to get money from people to do so on a rather larger scale. We should be presenting preliminary results from the first phase of work as early as January. It’s all moving rather fast! Anyway. One of our pledges is to keep the world updated via our various blogs, but I rather thought you might be interested anyway. Now, when those results come in, you’ll have some idea of what they might lead to…

The references above decode as John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge 1990); Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005); and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: a history (Cambridge 2011). To those I should add the essential starting point for the scientific study of Byzantine coinage till now, Cécile Morrisson, C. Brenot, J. N. Barrandon, J. P. Callu, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé I : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance (Paris 1985).

Seminar CXLIII: turning coins into sources for the Islamic conquest of Persia

Back when I taught at Oxford, I was twice asked by students taking the General History I paper if they could do an essay on Sasanian Persia, and I had to tell them no. This was not because I knew nothing about it; that was true, but as anyone familiar with the Oxford tutorial system will probably know, doesn’t usually represent an impediment. What stopped me was that I had too much trouble putting together a reading list; aside from a couple of chapters in Cambridge Histories, one very quickly descended into pop-history retellings of the Shahnameh or single-article accounts of Sasanian policy told entirely from Roman sources, very few of even these were in UK publications so not usually available in Oxford and I couldn’t see any way of setting something up for students to frame an argument around.1 I now know a bit more about the field and suspect that in fact I could have done something, but there is still a dearth of work considering how important this massive polity was for more than four hundred years in jointing the West to the rest of the world and occasionally shaking it to its roots.

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

That dearth is most certainly down to a dearth of internal sources, and the few that there are, mainly epigraphic, being in languages like Pahlavi that no-one can learn outside a really big university. In this respect, then, Persia is to late antique history somewhat as Mercia used to be to Anglo-Saxon history: we can see that it’s important, but all the sources we read about it are written by its enemies and not sufficient to explain. Persia, however, has yet to receive its Frank Stenton. And the comparison works in another dimension, too, because one thing that Stenton did was to properly integrate the study of the coinage into Anglo-Saxon history, and coinage is one source of which the Persian empire has actually left us quite a lot.2

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Shiraz, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Nishapur (I think)Shiraz, showing Khusro’s bust right with legends either side and issue marks in the margin outside and a Zoroastrian fire temple on the reverse with its two attendants, in a triple border with crescents outside in each quarter, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

The Sasanian state minted a large and surprisingly consistent coinage of silver drachms, along with various other gold and copper issues of less panregional regularity. There’s lots of it left, and it continued not just up to the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 650s but beyond it, as the new Islamic rulers of the old state struck ‘Arab-Sasanian’ coins of basically similar kinds into the 690s. The devil here is in the word ‘basically’, of course; there are lots of variations and they’re really intriguing. Hardly anyone works on this, however, because if you add the obscurity of dead languages to the geek isolation of numismatics you have an area where few indeed care to tread. [Edit: a commentator has handily provided a list of the few below!] But, a person who does is Susan Tyler-Smith, and she came to Birmingham on 29th January as part of the schedule of supporting events for the Faith and Fortune exhibition at the Barber Institute, where she gave a lecture entitled, simply enough, “Faith and Fortune: Arab-Sasanian coinage”.

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, with almost no change except that (I am told) the local governor’s name in Arabic now occupies the right-hand legend and the one in the outside margin “La illah ila Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah”, ‘there is no God but Allah [and] Muhammad [is] the Prophet of Allah'; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

There is a lot we don’t know about these coinages: we’re not clear on a number of the mints or who controlled the designs, though they sometimes name governors and can thus be pinned to provinces and even sometimes dates. On the other hand we do see, as above, that while they developed Arabic outer legends on the obverses (the side with the face) right the way up to the full “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet”, as here, they do so around an unchanged coin type that not only names the last Shahanshah, Yazdigerd III (651) and may even show his portrait, though if not it’s Khusro II’s (591-628). That type, moreover, still carries a Zoroastrian fire altar with two attendants on the reverse, despite the orthodox Islamic position on such religions as it would be formulated. (Exactly the same continuity of types and portraits was going on with the bronze coinage of the ex-Byzantine provinces now under Islam, too, which is slightly better studied.3) The picture the coins give us, of an inclusive Islam keen to keep the public faces that people in its new lands knew and respected, is a rather different one from that of the mostly eighth- and ninth-century texts which tell us of non-stop triumphal and singly-religious conquest.4 It’s not that it’s any less Islamic—Sue started by telling us that one of these coins, from Marv in 685/686, is the first text we have using the name Muhammad—but that that Islam, as work on Egypt and Bactria, whence there is also contemporary documentation, has shown, was far keener to engage local populations on the terms they were used to than it would later become.5

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700, showing the dead Shahanshah’s bust right as before but paired with a Gopatshah, what the site I found this image on quite correctly calls a man-faced bull; the coin was sold at Baldwins in London some time back, whence the picture.

One can also do more concrete stuff with this material than ideology, however. The silver coin of the Persians was probably primarily a fiscal coinage, struck for tax payments, and the real work of money in the market, as in Byzantium, was done with copper-alloy coins of a much more local circulation. We know much less about these: they didn’t travel as far and they have been much less collected in the West, while their original areas of circulation have become and stayed difficult for outsiders to reach. They share the use of old images, and some very old ones, including Mesopotamian figures (said Sue) like the Gopatshah above; again, whatever signification these images still had was not worth losing in favour of starting a new-look régime until very nearly 700. Much could be done, however, with a better picture of where these local coinages came from, where they got to, what their striking authorities might have been and how if at all they adhered to standards, a picture of control and interrelation that might match or challenge that of the Egyptian evidence. Sue might be the only person in the UK, and alarmingly more widely, who could do this, but there is work like this to be done with both these and the Arab-Byzantine coinages and I hope, in the reasonably near future, that both Sue and I will be parts of a project to do it using the coins at the Barber Institute among others. This lecture was an excellent demonstration of how this could be done and how it could be explained to the non-expert, which set the standard of such an exercise enjoyably high.

1. I suppose that the place any such reading list would start is the relevant chapters of Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, volume 3: the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods (Cambridge 1983), 2 vols, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200929 and DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521246934, perhaps topped up with Ze’ev Rubin, “The Sasanid Monarchy” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14: Late Antiquity. Empire and Successors, 425-600 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 638-661, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521325912.025. After that, though, things get tricky…

2. I’m thinking here of Frank Merry Stenton, “The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings” in English Historical Review Vol. 33 (Oxford 1918), pp. 433-452, repr. in his Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris M. Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 48-66, but also that article’s reprise and the heavy use of coin evidence along with everything else in his Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford History of England 1 (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1947, 3rd edn. 1971).

3. I say this, but the basics are still catalogue publications on both fronts, books such as John Walker, A Catalogue of the Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum: A Catalogue of the Arab-Sassanian Coins (London 1941), Steven Album & Tony Goodwin, The pre-reform coinage of the early Islamic period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), Tony Goodwin, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, Studies in the Khalili Collection 4 (London 2005) and Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008). Recent work in the Arab-Byzantine series is collected in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (Oxford 2012), whereas there’s no such work to point to with the Arab-Sassanian stuff, really.

4. An account and critique in Hugh Kennedy,The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

5. For Egypt I’m thinking of Petra Sijpestein, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132; for Bactria there’s Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan (Oxford 2001 & London 2007), which is not to say that’s the easy way in, because there’s not one!

In Marca Hispanica XXV: la meva primera adreça publica en català

I wrote a few posts ago of having been able actually to talk to fellow scholar of the tenth-century Catalan coinage Xavier Sanahuja, and that is because over 4th-6th December 2013 I was very briefly in Barcelona, and my backlog has now got up to that point so I should tell you about it. The occasion was a very numismatic one, a launch party for two works. The first of these was the then-latest volume of the periodical Acta Numismàtica that I was just showing you pictures from, but the second was a rather weightier work, Medieval European Coinage 6, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula, by Miquel Crusafont, Anna Balaguer & Philip Grierson, at which point you may see where I came in.1 The occasion was put on (and the accommodation for myself and the other UK participant, Dr Elina Screen, general editor of the series, generously paid for) by the Societat Catalana d’Estudis Numismàtics, who publish the Acta, and it was a really nice occasion, but somewhat challenging because it involved me giving a speech. I thought that it would look pretty weak if I, the scholar of Catalonia, speaking in the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, already, didn’t do so in Catalan, but my Catalan isn’t very good.

Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013)

Cover of Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013)

There is a story I tell about my learning Catalan. I’ve never actually been taught either Catalan or Castilian (i el meu castellano és molt pitjor, cosa que no creu cap català!) When I first came up with an idea to work on this area, I was a Master’s student, and I took my idea to Professor Rosamond McKitterick, who was more or less in charge of me at that point. She told me to take it to Dr Peter Linehan and ask him if it was viable, and he said, if I recall, “Yes, I suppose so, if you can read Catalan. Can you?” And I replied, “I don’t know, but I’ll go and find out.” I went and looked through the first two things on the reading list he’d given me, one of them being Abadal’s Primers comtes catalans as I recall, and the other some earlier work of Abadal’s, and I found that what with several years of both Latin and French I could manage, with a dictionary to hand somewhere. When I came to write up the relevant essay, in fact, I realised that the second Abadal piece had actually been in Castilian, but by then it was too late!2

Joan gili's Catalan Grammar, 2nd edn.

As you can see, my guide to good Catalan was extremely second-hand… This is the second edition, it’s now in its nineteenth!

Anyway, I managed, and realised that Rosamond had been right that no-one else in the UK was using this brilliant mass of evidence, and here I still am, except when I’m doing something else. This does not equate to a speaking knowledge of a language, however! In fact, I made a bit more of an attempt to learn by means of picking up a copy of Joan Gili’s Catalan Grammar when it passed through the hands of the booksellers who then employed me, and that and a Routledge dictionary have held me together. Every trip out to Catalonia I make my grasp of the spoken language gets a bit better, too, but it’s still not good, and the fact that I learnt it from a grammar written in the 1940s means that people marvel at my last-century mannerisms while I don’t get half the colloquialisms, especially the periphrastic past tense using anar, which is really common but which Gili obviously didn’t like and mentions only in a footnote.3

Sala d'adreça in the Institut d'Estudis Catalans

It looks less of a challenge in this state than it did when it was full of learned Catalan scholars

So on this occasion I cheated. I didn’t mean to! I wrote a speech, in actual Catalan as far as I could, and passed it to Xavier to correct, and got back what was basically a rewrite, saying what I’d wanted to say but in almost none of my chosen words, and it was so close to the time by then that I just delivered that. I delivered it among the great and the good, though, as Joan Vilaseca has recorded: the occasion was led off by Professor Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, no less, and Xavier, Elina and the surviving authors also both spoke, as well as the President of the Institut and the head of the Consulat Britànic a Barcelona. But I did OK, I think, and I had to speak Catalan for real afterwards as almost everyone I’ve corresponded with in Barcelona was there, most notably Professor Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, to whom I owe a great deal of help, and of course Joan Vilaseca, loyal fellow of this blog and major contributor to the effort of making resources for studying Catalonia available online via I hadn’t expected to meet Joan—as he says in his report, he had heard about the occasion only that day—and it was great to meet him and put a face to the comments; thankyou, Joan, for coming out for it! And then there was an excellent dinner and late-night gin-and-tonic with numismatists in a cellar bar, making the whole endeavour seem much more underground and gritty than one usually expects, which is where we were discussing hoard provenance of transitional diners, because we know how to have a good time… But a good time it was, and it also gave me about twenty kilos of books to take back to Cambridge or Oxford and a day and a half in Catalonia to do something with, about the latter of which I’ll tell you post after next!

1. Full cite, because I’m still proud of it, Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013). This won’t be Philip’s last work, either, not bad for a man who died aged 96 eight years ago!

2. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biogràfies catalsn; serie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), still not a bad place to start, in fact, and probably idem, “El dominio carolingio en la Marca penínsular hispánica. Siglos IX y X” in Cuadernos de Historia. Anexos de la Revista «Hispania» Vol. 2 (Madrid 1968), pp. 38-49, transl. as “El domini carolíngi a la Marca Hispanica (segles IX i X)” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó which is why it’s worth mentioning in this post you see, Estudis i Documents 13 & 14 (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), 2 vols, I, pp. 139-152.

3. Joan Gili, Introductory Catalan Grammar, with a brief outline of the language and literature, a selection from Catalan writers, and a vocabulary (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1952, many more since), periphrastic future dismissed at p. 50 of the 2nd edn. n. 1, “very often in use”. That’s exactly the problem!

Coins of Borrell II?

Reverse of Barcelona diner of Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona, Girona and Osona (992-1018), now in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, GNC 113672

Reverse of Barcelona diner of Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona, Girona and Osona (992-1018), now in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, GNC 113672

In 2010 I published an article about the coinage of later tenth-century Catalonia that concluded, among other things, that we may not have any.1 You would think this is a thing it was possible to sure about, perhaps, but almost no medieval coins carry a date, so one dates the things by their issuing ruler. Where that’s not clear, neither is the date, and this is far from the only thing about early medieval Catalan coinage that’s not clear…

Transitional diner, probably of Barcelona, struck between 878 and 1018, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, their CM.345-2001

OK, this is an unusually rough example, but illustrative, I think… Transitional diner, probably of Barcelona, struck between 878 and 1018, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, their CM.345-2001, actual size 14 mm across

The things of which we can be more or less certain are these.

  1. When the Carolingian kings took over government in the area that is now Catalonia, they had coin struck at their normal standards at four mints, Barcelona, Girona, Castelló d’Empúries and a place identified as RODDA that could be either Roda de Ter or Roses, jury’s out; Roses has won general acceptance but seems a priori an odd choice given it’s no real distance from Castelló d’Empúries.2
  2. In 864 King Charles the Bald of the Western Franks, ruler of the Spanish March as it by then stood, held a council at Pîtres in France which laid down provisions for a coinage reform that seem not to have been followed in Catalonia; no coinage at the new standard is known from Catalan mints and pieces are known which seem to be degenerations of the earlier one.
  3. Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona, Girona and Osona (992-1018) struck a new issue of diners (the Catalan derivation of the Latin denarius that gives us French ‘denier’ and Castilian ‘dinero’, among others) in his own name, which we can therefore date to his reign.
  4. There are also several types of what are known as diners de transició, transitional diners, which must belong somewhere between points 2 and 43.

The transitional diners are characterised by legends that are basically illegible, often being no more than sequences of triangles or circles. They vary a lot in weight and size but are always less than regular Carolingian standards. They all have a small cross in a border on the centre of their obverse, with a junk legend around, but their reverse types vary. There are three known:

  1. a type that is just the obverse repeated with slightly different junk legends (cross type);
  2. a type bearing three circles arranged in a triangle within the central border;
  3. and the type above, with a strange device a bit like a schematised beehive. This is usually held to represent the tomb of Santa Eulàlia in Barcelona, which is handy because it gives us a sort of terminus post quem: Catalonia’s first real local saint’s cult began when her body was relocated by Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona, who ruled 862-890 and who moved her from the floor of Santa Maria del Mar to the cathedral that now bears her name, so if that’s what it is on the coin the coinage must postdate that.3 I am inclined to think it’s a bodge of the Carolingian Temple type myself, but I obviously just like to make things difficult…
Reverse of a Temple-type denier of Louis the Pious, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.112

Reverse of a Temple-type denier of Louis the Pious, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.112

The first substantial work on these coinages was done at the very beginning of the twentieth centuries and concluded little more than the above, but in 1999 Anna Balaguer published her thesis on Catalan medieval coinage, which argued among other things that these coinages were probably all from Barcelona, since the three circles device recurs on Ramon Borrell’s coinage (which is said to be from Barcelona) and the obverse types seem to be kindred.4 After that it became possible to rethink things a bit, not least because in 2005 a whole bunch extra of these transitional coins came onto the market, with a few more following in 2009 in such a way as to make it seem likely that someone had found a hoard and didn’t want to tell people.5 Xavier Sanahuja published an article in 2006 in which he attempted a new description of the transitional coinages using that data and argued that these were the remnants of a single hoard discovered in 1886 but not then fully catalogued. Someone had, he reckoned, been sitting on the rest and now it was coming to the surface, because they’d died or something.6 In 2008 Miquel Crusafont i Sabater took the state of knowledge thus far and produced a synthesis which argued the following things:

  1. the ‘Tomb’ type makes no sense till the tomb was found, but is obviously non-Carolingian, whereas Bishop Frodoí was a Frank and an appointee of Charles the Bald so would surely have struck coin in Charles’s name; the immediately succeeding bishop of Barcelona, Teuderic, therefore makes more sense (890-912?) for the Tomb type’s issuer.
  2. since the three-circles type is carried on in Ramon Borrell’s coinage, it is presumably the last of the three;
  3. the cross type therefore probably belongs between the two, since it can’t really be before or after;
  4. that means that we have three types for three comital reigns, Guifré II Borrell (898-911), Sunyer his brother (911-947) and Borrell II Sunyer’s son (945-993), so it’s easy enough to assign them one each, Tomb type to Guifré Borrell, cross type to Sunyer and circles type to Borrell.7

This has the advantage of simplicity, but involves more or less dismissing Sanahuja’s more cynical argument that since there was nothing in the 1886 hoard that need be dated after 925, all three of the Catalan types should probably therefore be considered to have been in circulation by then, in which case, because no similar hoard has come up from later, we just don’t have any Catalan coin from between 925 and 992×1018. That’s roughly how things stood when I got my 2010 article out, pitching a case I’d been making for a while that the coinage reform, from the diners de transició to the Carolingian-standard diners such as issued by Ramon Borrell, must have taken place under Borrell II, and probably in 981 or 982. That implies there ought to be a reformed coinage of Borrell’s, and we certainly don’t have any of that. I thought that this probably gave the edge to Sanahuja, and thus argued that we probably have no coin of Borrell’s at all.8 This presented a certain slight difficulty in as much as Miquel doesn’t agree with me—in fact, I’m not sure that anyone does—and I was at that point copy-editing him on the subject, but we have agreed to disagree and there it stands.9 Or so it did.

Five circles-type diners de transició, life-size (14 mm) in the centre and enlarged outside, reverse left and obverse right

Five circles-type diners de transició, life-size (14 mm) in the centre and enlarged outside, reverse left and obverse right, from M. Crusafont i Sabater, “Troballes monetàries XXVIII” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 43 (Barcelona 2013), pp. 249-260 at p. 253

The reason I am now telling you all this, however, is these things above, part of a collection of 12 diners de transició that Miquel has just published, which he had been allowed to photograph and study as they came through the market in Barcelona in the residue of the estate of a collector who had bought them in 2005 from a travelling bric-a-brac salesman.10 There are three Tomb-type diners and one of its halves, an òbol, two cross-type diners and one cross-type òbol (previously unknown) and these five circles-type diners. Miquel argues, cautiously, that this is not the same proportion of types as occurs in Xavier’s virtual hoard of 2006 and so is probably not yet more of the 1886 find making its way onto the market (though I have spoken to Xavier about this and he thinks it totally is, because like any of us he likes his own theory best and this hardly disproves it). But Miquel also has a go at the legends, and that’s very interesting. You’ll see from the above that the reverse legends are hardly more than triangles and wedges, but that the obverse ones seem also to include circles. Xavier also noticed this in 2006 and then argued that the obvious referent was King Eudes of the Western Franks (888-899), ODDO, become OOOO as lettered on the coins, which fits with his suggested early date for the coins. Miquel, however, with a scheme that demands these coins be nearly a century later than late, now ingeniously argues that the referent might be either of Emperor Otto I (936-973) or Otto II (973-997) of the Germans, the former of whom Borrell met in Rome in 970.

A manuscript drawing of Otto I, sadly only from about 1200, receiving the surrender of King Berengar II of Italy

A manuscript drawing of Otto I, sadly only from about 1200, receiving the surrender of King Berengar II of Italy. “Otto I Manuscriptum Mediolanense c 1200” by Artwork: Creators of the Chronicle of Bishop Otto of Freising; Photo: AndreasPraefckeOwn work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This would be pretty heavy, as they say. Though various scholars have argued for an increasing awareness of the new Holy Roman Empire in tenth-century Catalonia, it’s only ever rested on that 970 meeting in Rome and another Catalan count running into Otto II at a council there in 979, which is not really any more than coincidence.11 [Edit: see comments where Joan Vilaseca causes me to rediscover a third meeting, of Borrell’s sons with Otto III (997-1002), from which a charter may have resulted.]  Certainly neither Otto ever seems to have corresponded with the Catalan counts or in any way considered this area part of their kingdom. On the other hand, Borrell spent a lot of his rule looking for new, powerful but distant patrons to compensate for his decreasing wish for contact with the Frankish kings. I think, all the same, that this would be an unparalleled departure for his politics and since his charters on the subject invoke a king called Charles as the origin of his family’s power, it’s that name I’d expect to see on his coins until at least 985 (by which time, if I’m right, the coins would not have looked like these anyway).12 I think that means I don’t buy it, that these legends must refer to Eudes if they refer to anyone (which I’m not sure that they do), that if so Xavier’s early date is still more likely, that in that case he is probably also right that almost everything we have in this line is coming from that one hoard and that we therefore still don’t have coins of Borrell II. But if I’m wrong, I could be staring at a picture of them right now and have some rethinking to do!

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

2. See now Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 68-71.

3. The suggestion was first made by Miquel Crusafont in Numismática de la corona catalano-aragonesa medieval, 785-1516 (Barcelona 1982), p. 31; on the inventio see Joan Cabestany i Fort, “El culte de Santa Eulàlia a la Catedral de Barcelona (s. IX-X)” in Lambard: estudis d’art medieval Vol. 9 (Barcelona 1996), pp. 159-165.

4. Anna M. Balaguer, Història de la moneda dels comtats catalans (Barcelona 1999), pp. 64-67.

5. For the 2005 find see n. 6 below; the 2009 appearances were in Aureo y Calicó Auction 219 (2nd July 2009), Barcelona, lots 138 & 139 and Auction 220, 16th September 2009, Barcelona, lot 398.

6. X. Sanahuja, “La moneda de Barcelona al segle X segins les troballes Espanya-1 i Espanya-2 (925)” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 36 (Barcelona 2006), pp. 79-113.

7. M. Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals”, ibid. vol. 38 (2008), pp. 91-121.

8. See n. 1 above.

9. Crusafont, Balaguer & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, pp. 74-78.

10. M. Crusafont i Sabater, “Troballes monetàries XXVIII” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 43 (Barcelona 2013), pp. 249-260.

11. The 970 meeting is discussed, along with its evidence, in J. Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: false metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1-41; the 979 one is attested in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader & Manual Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LXI (Barcelona 2003), doc. no. 455.

12. See J. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1.2 (Turnhout: Brepols 2012), pp. 1-21, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

[This post originally went up on the 9th February, and I’ve now reached the point in my backlog where I first stubbed it as a draft so it can be set free to join the stream of posts. But! It has also lately been decided to extend the exhibition, which will now run until February 3rd 2015, it’s that successful. So if you haven’t already gone and seen, you still have time to do so. And who knows but what I may be behind the doors at the end of the gallery…]

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 3 February 2015

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014; image by BlindMice Design

One of the earliest signs that I’d arrived in Birmingham in some academic sense was an invitation to the private view of an exhibition currently running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage. This is less surprising than it sounds because it was being curated by two Ph. D. students of Professor Leslie Brubaker‘s, along with two other postgraduate students in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, one of the former of whom, Rebecca Darley, is an old friend of mine from my days at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (The other three are Daniel Reynolds, Ali Miynat and Maria Vrij.) Thus it was that my name got on the list as an early medievalist who knows something about coins, and this has all been good for connecting (or reconnecting) me to people at Birmingham whose paths I otherwise wouldn’t immediately cross. Also, the exhibition is really good.

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680x696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680×696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown; image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

People have been amazed by what four postgraduates have been able to do with this exhibition; certainly, it’s one of the best numismatic displays I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, you know. The scope runs from Emperor Constantine I, when the new Christian faith got its first representations on metal, through Byzantium’s seventh-century crises (a period noticeable, among other things, for the beards given emperors on the coinage, not the main point of the display here but one can’t help notice) and those of Sasanid Persia in the face of each other and Islam, through to the various attempts by Islamic rulers to make something of the fiscal systems they had inherited and the currencies on which those operated, running as late as the Artuqid dynasty in the twelfth century. The coins have been very carefully selected; every case has a point to make and makes it clearly.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632. Scholars are in dispute over whether Heraclius’s beard here should be described as `egregious’ (Jarrett) or `badger-smuggling’ (Darley). Image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

That does mean that the weight of text to object seems high, though the text is not dense to look at and of course the objects are small. The text is, admittedly, not simplistic: the audience is assumed to be able to handle complex ideas if they’re set out clearly, and the layout and design of one of the cases takes a little working out, but in both areas that is not least because we’re dealing with visual and abbreviated packages that represent complicated theology in highly compressed form and with systems of representation that affect and influence each other (one of the things that the exhibition makes very clear). Still, while the visitors to a public viewing may not be a fair sample—I did spend a while arguing with Rebecca over whether one caption should say “overstrike” or “double-strike”, after all—there seemed to be no problem getting the point on the day, and I gather that there have been many comments in the guestbook about how informative it is, so it may be that this is pitched about right, in fact.

Entry to exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Entry to the exhibition; photo by Daniel Reynolds, used with kind permission

Anyway, it is well worth a look if for some reason you’re in the area of my workplace: not only is it interesting and thought-provoking in itself, and stylishly designed, but it is a great opportunity to see the Barber displaying items drawn entirely from its own excellent coin collection, a collection which is in some respects the best in the UK but unjustly under-used and little-known. It’s a problem I recognise from the Fitzwilliam that a museum with strong holdings in fine art, especially paintings that are large, unique and often of immediately-recognisable content, winds up with doubts about the exhibition potential of objects that are small, mass-produced and whose details are obscure of reference and often have to be peered at, and which often seem to be roughly-made. I understand those doubts, but they are unfounded: medieval coins can be fascinating and their obscurities can be made clear. Rebecca, Dan, Ali and Maria have done a great job of showing how and you could go and see. (In fact, if you were to go on March 8th, between 2 and 4, you could hear, as there will then be an ‘In Focus’ session with the curators. Book ahead! But even if not that, please consider having a look.) It runs till the end of November 2014 beginning of February 2015.