Tag Archives: Leeds

Seminar CCXLIV: an East vs. West clerical normality contest

Today I am not on strike, because it is a Sunday, and thanks to the Working Time Directive I can blog if I like and no-one can tell me not to. I promised a few posts ago that I would do a proper write-up on a paper which Dr Maroula Perisanidi gave at the University of Leeds a long time ago, 16th November 2016 in fact, at the outset of what has proved to be a quite durable association with us, and before that association lapses I should at least manage to give m’colleague some blog space; besides which, it was an interesting paper. I think, in fact, it was a presentation of a topic which Maroula was even then moving away from—the book of it came out in 2019, but I have the impression that that was a long process—and this can serve as a plug for the book, therefore.1 Her title was “Clerical Marriage in A Comparative Perspective”.

Now a title like that raises one reaction that is perhaps natural to any enquiring mind, and another that is maybe only natural to a modern Catholic audience, which such an audience may indeed not realise is not natural to others. The first reaction would be, “where are we comparing?” and the second reaction would be, “but clergymen aren’t supposed to marry!” And this was exactly the point of the paper. Since the Church trying to prohibit clerical marriage is one of those things like monastic reform or plague outbreaks that can easily seem to have come round in a fairly frequent cycle during the Middle Ages, one could be forgiven for accepting a narrative that says it was always technically prohibited but that blind eyes were turned for long periods and then occasionally there was a back-to-basics campaign that got people into trouble.2 Thing is, that would be very much a Western narrative, which becomes very obvious when, as Maroula was doing, you compare somewhere like medieval England with Byzantium. There aren’t many people who can do that, but Maroula had spent some time becoming one of them, and what we got now was the fruits of that learning.

The famous unexplained scene from the Bayeux Tapestry “where a cleric and Æfgyva…” We have no idea who either were or whether the suggestive figure in the lower margin relates to them and their story. It’s actually quite hard to find pictures of medieval priests and their wives, but it’s probably easier than trying to find pictures of Byzantine and English churches meeting. Maroula’s poster for the seminar also opted for this image, which tells you that perhaps no search would find what I was looking for…

As my students often find, it’s very hard to know when the Greek Christian Church and the Latin one finally parted ways and became Orthodox and Catholic (rather than both being both); there’s about six different definitive dates of separation depending on what you count, but relatively few people would put them before, say, the mid-9th century, not least because not long before that you have Charlemagne trying to interfere in the imperial theological wrangling over icons, which you’d think he wouldn’t have bothered to do if he’d thought they weren’t the same Church over there.3 But still, there were divisions between Latin and Greek Christianities that went a way back even then, and this was then; from the 4th century onwards, about as early as organised Christianity can be called a single body (albeit by ignoring those groups already splintered), the Latin Church has either objected to the marriage of priests or been quiet about it, whereas the Greek one is basically cool with it. That is, of course, a massive over-simplification: both sides had variant views in play, many of which Maroula has found. But that general picture might still be fair.

What was it that the Western Church couldn’t take about clerical marriage? Interestingly, it shifted over time. To start with, the places we find rulings about this are mainly concerned with Church property falling into lay hands, either because of a priest having children to whom he wanted, naturally, to leave some kind of inheritance, or for some more immediately offended people, because of him supporting his wife on the offerings of the faithful. The Byzantine perspective was much more that the revenue from offerings was disposable, as long as the offerings themselves remained with the Church, and this meant that priests could, for example, be salaried; in the West, whether because of a later-developing cash economy or for some other reason, that wasn’t a popular solution. Byzantium was not blind to these concerns, but it kept them to bishops, who were supposed to be unmarried; a priest hoping for promotion needed either to be single and celibate or to agree on celibate separation from his wife. (Indeed, as became clear in questions, while priests could be married, they were not allowed to marry once priests, or even deacons, so marriage was a decision one presumably made very early in a Byzantine Church career.) Here, the different economic bases of the two societies do seem likely to be a major part of the reason for the differences, and there was probably more similarity than at first appears, especially in practice, but a difference does remain.

Mosaic depiction of Patriarch John Chrysostomos of Constantinople in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

John Chrysostom, salary-man? Perhaps the Patriarch of Constantinople isn’t the ideal example. This is the mosaic of him from inside Hagia Sofia, of which we have heard; image Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the property concern died down over time in the West, and mainly because it was replaced by a growing concern about clerical purity and pollution.4 Now this was not a new concern either—you can find it in that translation of Bede’s Letter to Egbert I did ages back, and indeed in everyone else’s, and that’s eighth-century, but it seems to have taken a more popular root during the so-called Gregorian Reform, at the extreme points of which you had papally-supported mobs in Milan throwing priests and whoever they found them in bed with out of upstairs windows and so on.5 The concern seems to have been that anyone having sex might, you know, enjoy it, thus committing fornication, or just not be virginally pure, and thus perhaps not be in a very close relationship with God, in which case, what assurance had anyone that that person could truly be possessed with the Holy Spirit, Whom one would expect not to hang about in such dirty premises? I trivialise, but if what this meant was that maybe all your absolutions were invalid so your sins were still unforgiven, or that your marriage wasn’t valid so your children were the product of adultery and you a damned fornicator, you can see how it could start to have major implications for both this world and the next. The weird thing is that all these hang-ups seem to be basically Western; as close as Byzantine legislation gets is to ask for abstinence from sex with their wives for a certain time before and after performing the liturgy, so that the priest’s mind would be fully on God and his intercession would thus reach its intended recipient. There was in fact more Byzantine concern about this in the fifth than the twelfth century, whereas the West seems to have gone the other way.

Now, if Maroula offered any explanation of this, my notes don’t record it, but just to observe the fact is to raise not just the question “why”, but even the very fact of difference. Whose was the ‘normal’ position? (Erm, as it were.) Well, neither side’s, presumably, however natural they may have felt their own position was. (It would be interesting to get a third point of comparison in, of course: does or did the Church of the East require clerical celibacy? Wikipedia suggests not. The modern Anglican one of course does not, even of bishops. If that’s the game we’re playing, the Catholics look like the odd ones out now, but of course it was not so obviously so in the Middle Ages, before Anglicans…) This is the great value of comparative history, anyway; if done right, it makes one look at what one thinks is usual differently and question it.6 This paper was an example of it done right.


1. It is Maroula Perisanidi, Clerical Continence in Twelfth-Century England and Byzantium: Property, Family, and Purity (London 2019), and what I don’t provide cites for in what follows I am guessing you will find in there.

2. Some kind of prize for anyone who can tell me where, long ago, I read some historian glibly referring to some phenomenon which, “like the rise of the middle class, seems to have begun in every period”, which I presumably assumed I would never forget so didn’t record…

3. See now Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia, PA, 2009).

4. I feel as if I should mention Albrecht Diem’s Das monastische Experiment: die Rolle der Keuschheit bei der Entstehung des westlichen Klosterwesens (Münster 2005) here, but to do more than mention it would require me actually to have read it, which I confess I have not, as yet.

5. See H. E. J. Cowdrey, “The Papacy, the Patarenes and the Church of Milan” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 18 (London 1968), pp. 25-48, reprinted in idem, Popes, Monks and Crusaders (London 1984), chapter V.

6. Impossible to say such a thing, of course, without citing Chris Wickham, Problems in Doing Comparative History, Reuter Lecture 2004 (Southampton 2005), repr. in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History: the legacy of Timothy Reuter (Turnhout 2009), pp. 5–28.

Chronicle VI: October-December 2016

University and College Union pickets at the University of Leeds

University and College Union pickets at the University of Leeds

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

Name in Print(?) XXIII

Sorry about the skipped week; marking got the better of me and family also arose, and while I couldn’t say I’ve yet got the better of the marking, this week I have no family commitments and have already worked to the limits of the Working Time Directive as befits the Action Short of Strike which I am currently undertaking, the upshot of all of which is that I have blogging time. I’ll try and manage two posts, partly to catch up but mainly because this one will only be short, and it is another publication notice!

Cover of a recent issue of the journal Northern History

Cover of a recent issue of the journal Northern History

I have been holding off on announcing this because I have been hoping to have a physical copy to flash before you, but I’m not, it turns out, entitled to any more than a PDF, as was the case with my last publication, and there is more in this queue, so I have stopped waiting. It is annoying that we are now in a world where we not only don’t get paid for what we publish, but actually have to buy it, but that is probably a reflection for another post. The people who have this time been so good as to publish me are a journal I hadn’t really expected to get into, Northern History, on pages 162 to 165 of whose combined first and second issue of volume 56 for 2019 you will find me reviewing Tony Abramson’s Coinage in the Northumbrian Landscape and Economy, c. 575-c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 641 (Oxford 2018).

Now, actually, when you know a bit more of the background, it is a bit less surprising to find me, a specialist in Catalan frontier politics of the centuries either side of A. D. 1000, in this journal of British history reviewing a work on Anglo-Saxon coinage of two to four centuries earlier. Firstly, I do have very limited form in this area; but secondly, Northern History is actually edited in my department. So what actually happened here is that a colleague with no-one obvious on whom to foist this task cornered me on the way down the corridor and called in a favour, and then a graduate student whose project I’d helped with pursued me for the copy until, getting on for a year late, I finally handed it in, and here we are. Also, I know the author of the book slightly, not least because he has also taught in my department, and I could go on. Now, as it happens, it was a hard review to write, because the book is masterly and maddening more or less in equal measure, much of which could be put down to the copy-editing, or lack of it, from Archaeopress, and that’s how come my review wound up taking up three-plus pages, but there’s no question that Tony Abramson knows a lot about the coinage. If you need to know what he knows, then you need the book and its associated datasets; if you need to know what he thinks about it, then my review may allow you to decide whether you need the book; but given I will apparently have to buy that review myself in order ever to hold it in my hand, I don’t feel too bad in suggesting that so must you if you want to know more!

Statistics, with a slightly different spin this time. I was asked to take this on in August 2018, but couldn’t clear time to read the book until May 2019; it then took me four months to do that, because of having reading time only on the train into and out of work. With that done, I had a text off to the editors almost immediately, and it was in proof a mere six days later, and out for download in its finished form eleven days after that! So I really can’t argue with that speed of publication, or really ever expect to beat it! And presumably the print version followed hard upon that, too, but I’ll have to let you know about that if ever I see one…


Full citation: Jonathan Jarrett, “TONY ABRAMSON, Coinage in the Northumbrian Landscape and Economy, c. 575–867, BAR British Series 841 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018. £59.00 xxi + 207 pp., inc. 161 figures, 13 graphs and 10 plates, plus 2 databases and 20 datasets online, ISBN 9781407316536)” in Northern History Vol. 56 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 162–165, DOI: 10.1080/0078172X.2019.1678288.

Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, reflected upon from a distance

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

Chronicle V: July-September 2016

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

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

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

Teaching

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

Other Efforts

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

Other People’s Research

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

My Own Research

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

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

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

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

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

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

Reverse of the same coin

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


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

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

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

Numismatic entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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