Tag Archives: Medieval Group

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.

A showcase of my new department (as of 2015)

Tomorrow there will be marking again, if I am to write here at all, it must be tonight… If that sounds a little hunted, I apologise, but the effect of my workload on my ability to blog sadly cannot be denied. At the end of last October I promised you about five posts; here is the first of them, in which I report on an afternoon spent in the bosom of my then-freshly new department, Leeds’s Institute for Medieval Studies, on a day when it was in some sense on display, and since it showed it up so well I thought it would be good to remark on it here, even after such a long time.

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, home of the IMS. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

There are in the IMS two long-running seminar series—most of the institutions within the IMS have a long and venerable pedigree by now—and one of these, Medieval Group, is slightly less formal than the other. Whereas the regular medieval history seminar is exactly what one would expect, the Medieval Group has members who are not part of the University and also does extra-curricular activities. Naturally enough that requires some publicity to get people to come, and on Saturday 24th October, 2015, there was therefore held the 22nd Annual Medieval Research Afternoon, and I was there and indeed part of the display.

The afternoon was broken into three parts, ‘Resources and Opportunities’, ‘Collaborations and Projects’, and ‘Research Presentations’. The first of these, maybe obviously, was intended to showcase the various medieval research things you can do in Leeds you can’t do elsewhere, and so we had short presentations from each of Elizabeth Linville, speaking on behalf of the Royal Armouries Museum, Lucy Moore, an ex-IMS student herself and speaking for Leeds Museums and Art Galleries for whom she now works (and indeed used to blog about coins), Rhiannon Lawrence-Francis, on behalf of Special Collections in the University of Leeds itself, and Dr Marta Cobb speaking for the International Medieval Congress, which among its other good works also provides a paid internship for one of our graduate students a year. We tend to have collaborative projects running with the Armouries because we have two staff members who work on, and supervise students in, medieval warfare, and so that was all very clear; we don’t have as much to do with the Museums and Art Galleries because they are cruelly overloaded, and indeed I was even then struggling to put something together with Lucy myself, but watch this space all the same, things are now afoot; and about some of the ways a medievalist might get working with Special Collections you have already heard. So all that made sense and was good and impressive.

‘Collaborations and Projects’ was more like normal paper presentations, so I’ll do it with the now-traditional bullet arrangement:

  • Rene Hernandez Vera and Mike Spence, ‘Digitising the Monastic Past’: this was a report on a project then just winding up to test the possibilities for digitising the very substantial archive of Fountains Abbey, which was the richest Cistercian abbey in England, which would be documents from 1146 till the 1300s, including both originals and their registrations in various record books. To me that sounded like the most interesting bit, the possibility of comparing the originals to what people thought worth preserving, but then I am a colossal charter geek as we know, and it may be that such a database would also serve people who just want to know more about Cistercian land management or the economic structures of pious intercession and so on, and of course of those we do have some famous ones
  • Romina Westphal, ‘Shedding Light on a New Science in the 12th Century: an iconographic study of the Hildesheim candlesticks’: this was a project on two small but intriguing candlesticks that now live in the Hildesheim Domschule. One of them is adorned with images of the three continents (as were then known) and the other with philosophical personifications. At this point Romina and her project boss, Dr Eva Frojmovic, had only just got hold of decent images of the objects and had from that managed to work out that the latter was indeed that, and not as it was previously thought to be images of the medieval school curriculum, the trivium, and further progress was soon expected.
  • Sophie Harwood and Iason Tzouriadis, ‘Leeds Postgraduate Culture and War Conference’: this was more of an advert than a paper, as the conference was then about to happen: entirely postgraduate-organised, but fully academic in its speakers, it’s now heading for its second iteration and is one of the more impressive things we do, I think, though it’s now bigger than just us.

Then there was tea and biscuits, because we are a civilised institution, and then it was the last part of the programme, which broke down like this:

  • Jonathan Jarrett, ‘Low Down and Edgy: Frontier and Settler Societies in Medieval Iberia and Beyond’
  • Pietro Delcorno, ‘Crossing the Alps with Dante: Preaching the Commedia in Fifteenth-Century Europe’
  • Venetia Bridges, ‘Interpreting Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages: Medieval and Modern Challenges’
  • Three speakers from three different schools in the University—while the IMS is in institutional terms part of the School of History, it was born as a more genuinely interdisciplinary cluster and it still has extensive collaborations with other schools. Thus, I spoke for History, as it were, Pietro for Languages (and specifically Italian) and Venetia for English. Long-term readers here may not struggle to guess what I was talking about, though you may justly wonder how I squeezed what was here five long blog posts into ten minutes’ talking; for those without that memory or time to read the blog posts, I basically suggested that all our current models for how medieval frontier societies developed have problems when used as generalisations and that we needed way more case-study data before we tried to develop decent new models, and I asked for people’s help. Pietro had been searching for evidence of people using Dante’s Divine Comedy in preaching, which it turns out is a thing that happened, but it happened especially in a sermon collection he’d found in which a pilgrim with a guardian angel followed Dante’s track and learned preaching points along the way, and of which he had found 15 manuscripts in total, making it a quite important way in which Dante came to be known across the Alps. Dante is quoted and cited in the gloss, so it was not an effort to appropriate; it was genuine use of him for spiritual understanding, which given how weird he is I found quite surprising. Lastly, Venetia described to us her then-forthcoming book on the various medieval romances about the fictionalised adventures of Alexander the Great, and since there is now a book you can read her publisher’s blurb, but it sounded like fun.

The Darial Gorge , on the border between modern Russia and Georgia

This at least links two of the papers? It is the Darial Gorge, on the border between modern Russia and Georgia, one of the places where it has been suggested were once the Iron Gates which texts like Venetia’s suggest that Alexander built to keep the monstrous peoples who lived beyond them away from civilisation. Not necessarily true, but impressive! “Darial-Gorge” by Original uploader was Not home at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I think that looking back on this the thing that now strikes me is how dynamic the IMS’s population has been in the time I’ve been there already. Of the speakers who spoke for the IMS on this occasion, only Marta, Michael Spence and myself are still there. OK, Marta and I are permanent staff and it’s three years plus on from the event, so that’s not surprising really, but it still strikes me. Rene Hernandez is now at the Universidad San Tomas in Colombia; Sophie Harwood is now teaching English in Berlin and still publishing; Romina taught for me one year and got an ongoing job in a museum in Germany just before the end of that; Iason was one of my postgraduate advisees, passed his doctorate in very good standing and is now “the assistant archivist and assistant curator for the Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers”, already; Pietro but lately flew from us to Central European University; and Venetia went to Bristol and is now at Durham. (Links are given above for all of them if you want them.) As I sat in the Le Patourel Room that day I thought I was watching a display of the department’s research power, but I think now that I was actually watching its potential as a professional springboard, and mostly these papers were the first small jump the diver takes to flex the board before making the big plunge…