Review: Dictionnaire de numismatique

Michel Amandry, Michel Dhénin, Michel Popoff, François Thierry and Christophe Vellet. Dictionnaire de numismatique. Paris: Larousse/Her, 2001. 620 pp., b/w illus. Hb. ISBN 2-03-505076-6. €42.

The twentieth century has seen a number of important dictionaries devoted to various aspects of the field of numismatics. However, the new Dictionnaire de numismatique is the first general numismatic dictionary to appear in the French language since M. Migne published his Dictionnaire de numismatique et de sigillographie religieuses in 1852. As such there could be no better team for its creation than the current authors, all curators of the collections maintained in the Cabinet des médailles de Bibliothèque nationale de France, one of the truly great European coin cabinets.

Although, as the dust jacket notes, the dictionary does provide a general overview of “les notions necessaries à la comprehension et aux plaisirs de la numismatique,” M. Amandry warns readers in his Foreword (p. vii) that the coverage of the work is not exhaustive; some items have been omitted by design and others out of a need to keep the book down to a reasonable page length. Thus, the authors have tried to focus the dictionary entries on five major areas: the mints and coinages of feudal and royal France, the most important monetary systems of the pre-modern world, the currencies of modern countries, technical numismatic terminology, and the great numismatists. The more than 5000 entries included in the dictionary range in length from encyclopaedic discussions of socio-cultural topics and geographical areas, such as “Greques (monnaies)” or “Dauphiné”, to brief definitions composed of a few sentences. The vast majority of the listings fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

A number of entries are worthy of special note for the extreme detail of the information that they include, although most of these include encyclopaedic discussion. The most obvious example is probably the entry for “États de l’Église”, which not only gives a brief overview of the coinage of the Papal States, but over the course of 22 pages lists every Papal issue (including full details of mint, metal and diameter) from Boniface VIII (1294-1303) to Pius IX (1846-1878) as well as the issues of the four Antipopes. The coinages of the twentieth century Popes are also listed in this manner under the entry “Vatican”. This style of entry is also used for “Espagne” where every issue from Charles V (1516-1556) to the Francist Period (1939-1975) is listed, “Milan”, where every coinage from Azzone Visconti (1329-1339) to Victor-Emanuel II (1861-1878) is listed, “Naples et Deux-Siciles (royaume de)”, where every issue from Charles I d’Anjou (1266-1285) to Ferdinand II (1830-1859) is listed, and “Portugal”, where the authors have indicated every coinage from Alphonse I (1128-1383) to the Carnation Revolution of 1974. The entry for “Saint Empire romain germanique” is also especially remarkable. Although it does not list every issue produced in the Holy Roman Empire (an immense task), it does provide the full details of membership for the ten administrative circles established by Maximilian I in 1512, which continued to form the basis for Imperial organization until the unification of the German state.

Recognizing the particular importance of their work to the French numismatic community, the authors have treated the coinages of medieval and early modern France with much more detail than they might have received in an English, German or Italian language numismatic dictionary. The encyclopaedic entries devoted to the duchies and counties of the French feudal period are especially remarkable for the detail of their information. Every region, from Anjou to Touraine, is represented with historical overviews of the various local rulers and their coinages, making these entries especially useful as points of departure for deeper research into the monetary history of medieval France. These listings account for a little more than half of all of the dictionary’s encyclopaedia-style entries, the remainder of which are devoted to the numismatic history of larger states from the middle ages to modern times (i.e. “Espagne”, “Chinoises (monnaies)”, etc.) or the periods of antiquity (i.e. “Greques (monnaies)”, “Romaines (monnaies)”, “Byzantines (monnaies)”, etc.).

Ancient and early medieval French subjects are very well represented through the encyclopaedic entries for “Gauloises (monnaies)”, “Merovingiennes (monnaies)” and “Carolingiennes (monnaies)”, and shorter listings for the Frankish kings (i.e. “Pépin le Bref”, “Charlemagne” etc.) as well as the numerous western European Celtic tribes and rulers (i.e. “Vercingetorix”, “Cadurqes”, “Atrébates” etc.) who issued coins. Unfortunately, entries dealing with the coinage of the contemporary British Celts, including the popular issues of the Eceni tribe and Cunobelin (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), are largely absent from the dictionary.

The early modern and modern periods of French numismatic history also receive a high level of treatment through the inclusion of entries for ancien regime institutions, such as the “Cour de Monnaies” and the “general provincial”, and modern institutions and developments, such as the “Banque de France”, the “Office Indochinois de Changes (OIC)”, “SEL (Système d’échange local)” and even the “trafic des piastres” scandal of the early 1950s. A further indication of the forethought of the editors is that the alphabetic mint-marks (“letter(s) d’atelier”) of the various French regional mints receive their own entries. For example, under “BB” we learn that this was the mark of Strasbourg from 1693 to 1870. Similarly, if we look under “G” we discover that this mark represented Poitiers from 1540 to 1772 and Geneva from 1799 to 1805. The usefulness of such information for students of French coinage virtually goes without saying.

Although there is certainly a special emphasis on French monetary and financial history throughout, the entries concerning pre-modern monetary systems and denominations, which make up the bulk of the dictionary, are impressively broad in their scope and interest. “Les systèmes monétaires anciens les plus importants,” such as the “denier”, the “ducat” and the “thaler”, are selected for extensive coverage, because of their international status or influence on later monetary developments. Such important coinages often receive a general description of their types and the circumstances of their introduction, followed by an exhaustive listing of their varieties. For example, under the denomination heading “ducat”, the reader can find all 14 varieties of the ducat, primarily differentiated by the saints who appear on their reverses. However, the authors do not limit themselves to the great coinages of Europe from antiquity to the early modern period, but also covering most coinages and currency used in different parts of the world at various times. The entries range from the well known and influential, such as the “wuzhu” of ancient China or the “dirhem” of the medieval Islamic states, to the obscure and ephemeral, such as the “card money” issued by the colonial authorities in French Canada in 1685 and the “blob” money of nineteenth century Ceylon. Larger encyclopaedic entries (i.e. “Romaines (monnaies)”, “Chinoises (monnaies)”, “Arabes (monnaies)” etc.) dealing with particular regions or periods offer an historical framework for the various individual denomination listings. Although most major areas are covered in this manner, an encyclopaedic entry would have been helpful for Africa, with its host of interesting local media of exchange, and perhaps the Americas. Nevertheless, the Dictionnaire de numismatique is truly a conucopiae of coin denominations, with something to interest both the specialist and the neophyte. The usefulness of the book as a reference is fairly obvious, but it is also enjoyable and educational to sit down with it, allow it open where it may, and simply read an entry or two.

Every modern country has its own listing in the dictionary with a short description of the various denominations currently used in each. The denominations themselves also receive brief entries identifying the country or countries in which they are used and providing the names for any fractional denominations. In some cases it might have been useful to expand these entries by one or two sentences in order to offer some insight into the historical importance of some of the modern denominational names. For example “pruta” is identified as the fraction of the Israeli lirah from 1949 to 1958, but there is no mention that the name was derived from the ancient Jewish prutah, a denomination struck in abundance by the Hasmonean kings and the factions of the First Revolt against Rome. Similarly, the entry for “kuna”, the main denomination of Croatia after 1994, fails to mention the origin of the name as a Slavic term for the marten pelts frequently used as a medium of exchange in the medieval period. Curiously, these very animal furs and their function in late medieval Slavic economies are described under the separate entry, “kouna”, without any cross-reference to the “kuna” listing.

The large number of technical terms for stylistic features (e.g. “cliché”, “encastrement” etc.) and the equipment used in coin production (e.g. “balancier”, “coin” etc.), as well as fiscal processes (e.g. “démonétisation”, “cours forcé” etc.), included in the dictionary also make the work an important handbook of French numismatic terminology. Although these entries, as well as the larger listings for “numismate” and “numismatiqe”, will be of use to anyone interested in the science of numismatics, they are particularly helpful to researchers, for whom French may not be their mother tongue. Technical numismatic terms are rarely treated well, if at all, in translation dictionaries or even standard French language dictionaries, thereby making the Dictionnaire de numismatique an invaluable reference when reading other numismatic books and articles written in French.

The entries devoted to important figures in numismatics are primarily limited to the great numismatic scholars and notable collectors of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Obvious for inclusion in this category are Ernest Babelon, Friedrich Imhoof-Blumer and Barclay Head. There is even an entry for “Cabinet (des médailles)” which provides an interesting history of the institution from the eighteenth century to modern times. The only non-European figure singled-out as one of the great numismatists is Fubao Ding, the father of the scientific study of Chinese coinage. To some degree these listings must reflect the personal heroes of the authors and therefore they should be forgiven for omitting figures that others might have included. For example, the present reviewer would have included the American, E.T. Newell, for his pioneering studies of Seleucid, Alexandrine and other Hellenistic coinages. However, greatness is always a subjective quality. Entries for the infamous counterfeiters, Carl Wilhelm Becker and Constantin Christodoulos, are also included because of the great impact that their forgeries have had on both museum and private collections.

In addition to the great numismatists, listings are provided for a few notable die engravers, such as Augustin Dupré, famous for the types used on the Libertas Americana medals and the Hercules types of the French Republic, Nicolas Briot, well-known for the design of crowns and half-crowns under Charles I of England, and a host of engravers from Greek Sicily who signed their dies in the fifth century BC. Again, the group could, and perhaps should have been, expanded to include a larger sample of the world’s great medallic artists. From an American perspective, surely Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the celebrated redesigner of the US eagle and double eagle, if not Ephraim Brasher, famous for his early doubloon designs, can reasonably be classed with the likes of Dupré and Briot. No doubt many others from different countries are also worthy of inclusion in this category of entries.

Over five hundred black and white photographs throughout the book admirably illustrate the various coins, paper money, and related objects described in the entries. Although most of the photographs depict individual pieces in some cases several examples of important or especially interesting denominations are shown together in order to illustrate their development over time or in different regions. The pictures (pp. 508-509) associated with the entry for “rouble” present a visual history of the denomination from its origin as a stamped silver ingot to a modern coin. Likewise, the illustrations (p. 455) for “piastre” show the various forms of the denomination in different regions and periods including the Papal States of the sixteenth century, the Spanish American colonies of the seventeenth century and British Cyprus and the Ottoman Empire of the nineteenth century. Similar groups of photographs used to illustrate the development of denominations are provided with the entries for “denier”, “ducat”, “états de l’église”, “florin”, “franc”, “hardi”, “imitations”, “klippe”, “pistole” and “thaler”. This sort of visual organization served as an inspiration for some of the displays in the American Numismatic Society’s current Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars exhibit. It should be added that not only do the images in Dictionnaire de numismatique provide attractive examples of the items described in the text, but they also represent a tantalizing sample of the fine material contained in the holdings of the Cabinet des médailles de Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Despite the omissions that are almost unavoidable in a work of this kind, Dictionnaire de numismatique admirably fills the need for an up-to-date French language general numismatic dictionary and offers something for everyone, whether a student of the money of feudal France, an enthusiast of ancient Roman coins, or a collector of modern currency. The work does what any good dictionary should do: While informing the reader through its entries, it also instils a desire to learn even more. There can be very little doubt that Dictionnaire de numismatique has accomplished the goals set for it by the authors and that they have indeed rendered a valuable service to a large public of “étudiants, de chercheurs, de collectioneurs, de passionnés d’histoire (p. vii).” It is hoped by this reviewer that through works of this kind even some members of the general public, who fall into none of the above categories, may find some small “passion de numismatique” in themselves, not unlike that which burns inside all of us.

—Oliver D. Hoover