All posts by David Yoon

Where Is It From?

There are many ways to describe where a coin is from. One by reference to the place of minting (e.g., Kese). If this is known, it offers a specific, relatively unambiguous location that allows a dot to be placed on a map without too much thought. This option is often favored in ancient numismatics.

Another way is to refer to the political entity by whose authority the coin was produced (e.g., the French Territory of Afars and Issas). This tends to be the favored way of describing modern coinages. It is more easily known than place of minting, and often more specific in a modern context, but not always unambiguous.

However, both of these methods sometimes result in highly specific references to historical geography that can be obscure to the nonspecialist. Thus, a third way of referring to places is very often combined with either of the first two, which is to use terms that group-specific locations into wider regional terms (e.g., Hispania Citerior or East Africa). Unlike the first two kinds of locational references, which are relatively objective if sometimes debatable or uncertain, these regional groupings are purely subjective. In ancient numismatics, the subjectivity tends to be shared among researchers due to the cultural homogeneity of the field—so much so that the subjectivity is sometimes forgotten—but for later time periods there are many different traditions of thinking about numismatic geography.

Consider, for example, a coin minted at Ensisheim for the Landgraviate of Upper Alsace, in the name of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Further Austria.

Silver quarter thaler of Upper Alsace, Ferdinand II, 1564–1595.ANS 1918.999.243

The minting location (Ensisheim) and the political entity (Landgraviate of Upper Alsace) are both clear enough, but for larger groupings some scholars would call it a French local coin, others would call it a coin of the pre-Unification German states, and still others would call it an Austrian coin. Upper Alsace, including the town of Ensisheim, is presently within France, but in the 1500s it was considered part of Germany, and it was ruled by a branch of the Habsburg family that considered it to be a distant part of their Austrian-centered domains (i.e., Further Austria). So all of these larger groupings are true descriptions, but different intellectual traditions emphasize one choice over others within the universe of possibilities.

Historical inertia can have the same effect as cultural difference. At the ANS, some of the arrangement of the collection goes back to the period from 1913 to 1919, when Howland Wood devised a system of storing the coins in steel cabinets. At that time, mostly before the Treaty of Versailles, Wood thought of Austria-Hungary as a coherent region of Europe, and the various territories of then-Austria were all stored together. And when the ANS collection was originally entered into a database in the 1980s, this Austria block was mostly catalogued as belonging to the general region of Austria.

The effects of this can be seen in another coin, minted at Jáchymov (formerly Sankt Joachimsthal) for the Count of Schlick.

Silver thaler of Stephen, Count of Schlick, and his brothers, 1525. ANS 1960.111.172, purchase.

Again, the minting location and the political authority are unambiguous, but there are many ways to group them regionally. One could refer to Bohemia, since the lands of the Counts of Schlick were within the kingdom of Bohemia. The modern country is the Czech Republic, which would be another way to describe it. And from 1526 to 1918, Bohemia was ruled by the Habsburgs, and it was considered a part of Austria from 1804 to 1918. Although Bohemia was not yet part of the Habsburg lands in 1525, this coin was described as Austrian in the ANS database, simply because the arrangement of the collection goes back in part to the time when Bohemia was in Austria.

Howland Wood’s subjective geography of the past was different from the mental maps most people use today, and French numismatists may have a different mental map of the past from German numismatists. We can safely assume that the subjective perception of geography will continue to evolve, as interests and priorities and mental associations change, and therefore the terminology for geographic descriptions in numismatics will also continue to evolve.

Coins with Two-Sided Legends

In principle, the two sides of a coin are coequal. However, descriptions of coins inevitably place one side before the other, because language—whether spoken or written—has a one-dimensional flow in time. Numismatists often use this directionality to attribute some sort of priority to the obverse, the side that is described first.

Many—probably most—coins do not have any inherent directionality in the images or legends on their two sides. There may be some difference in the perceived importance or generality of their information, but each side may convey its information independently of the other. Thus, arbitrary conventions exist for defining obverse and reverse, so that numismatists can decide which side gets described first. For ancient Greek coins, the obverse is the side bearing the impression of the anvil die. For Islamic coins, the obverse is the side bearing the Islamic statement of faith. For Chinese coins of the Qing dynasty, the obverse is the side with text in the Chinese language.

For some coins, however, there is an inherent directionality to the relationship of the two sides, so that an arbitrary convention is not needed. This is mostly provided by the aforementioned directional flow of language.

In ancient coins this is rare. To the extent that it occurs, it mostly takes the form of informational hierarchy, where a statement on the first side of the coin provides necessary context for understanding the statement on the second. Thus, for example, the statement “P M Tr P Cos III” (a list of titles: pontifex maximus with tribunician power, consul three times) on a coin of Hadrian can only be understood as following the statement of Hadrian’s name on the other side, making the former side necessarily the reverse and the latter side the obverse.

Gold aureus of Rome minted under Hadrian, 119–122 (ANS 1944.100.44803, bequest of Edward T. Newell).

In medieval and early modern Europe, however, there are coins with legends that necessarily form a single grammatical unit spanning the two sides of the coin. As early as the sixth century there are coins where the legend forms a single syntactic unit as seen either from use of noun cases or, as seen here, a subject-verb-object sentence structure: “Rex Liuvigildus / cum D[e]o opt[i]nuit Spali” (King Leovigild with God took Ispali).

Gold tremissis of the Visigothic kingdom minted under Leovigild at Ispali, ca. 584 (ANS 2016.29.10, gift of the Edlow Family Fund).

Later in the Middle Ages, the long lists of titles belonging to many rulers meant that even in abbreviated form, they needed both sides of the coin to convey just to describe themselves. On this Castilian coin, the two sides obviously form a single grammatical constituent: “F(erdinandus) Rex Castelle / et Legionis” (Ferdinand king of Castile and León). The “et Legionis” necessarily follows the “Rex Castelle”.

Billon dinero noven of Castile and León minted under Ferdinand IV at Burgos, 1295–1312 (ANS 2017.19.339, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

This trend became particularly pronounced in the early modern period, when even picking a few of the most relevant titles held by a ruler would amount to a long string of text. On a coin from Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands, for example, the brief and selective legend reads Carol(us) II D(ei) G(ratia) Hisp(aniarum) et Indiar(um) Rex / Arch(idux) Aus(triae) Dux Burg(undiae) C(omes) Fl(andriae) (Charles II, by grace of God king of the Spains and the Indies, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, count of Flanders). Even heavily abbreviated, it takes up the legend space on both sides of the coin.

Copper liard of the county of Flanders minted under Charles II of Spain (Charles IV of Flanders), 1692 (ANS 1914.148.55, purchase).

For coins like these, the directionality is inherent in the design of the coin. Regardless of which side was struck with which die, regardless of which side has a picture of a person on it, the side where the legend starts is inherently prior to the side where the legend ends. In this case, unlike others, no arbitrary convention is needed to identify obverse and reverse.

The Allan Evans Papers

The many treasures of the American Numismatic Society’s archives include not only the Society’s own history and papers documenting the activities of many of its former staff and officers. There are also resources for researchers, many of which document the activities of numismatic collectors or dealers, but some of which are of scholarly interest. The Allan Evans papers are an example of a research resource of great interest to numismatists, even though it is not the work of a numismatist.

In the late 1930s, the Mediaeval Academy of America sponsored a research project to be carried out at Harvard University by Allan Evans, assisted by Florence Edler de Roover. The project was to compile evidence on the relative values of late medieval coins from primary sources of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to provide a guide for historians seeking to understand monetary transactions in the documents of that period.

The researchers gathered material about the alloys, weights, and values of coins from merchant manuals, arithmetic textbooks, and other sources, assembling 35-mm film images and photostats of their sources. The core of the collection consists of excerpts from around 50 manuscript sources, together with extensive notes on coinage systems and monetary systems. The primary focus of the source material is Italy, especially Florence, but because of the wide-ranging connections of Florentine businesses such as the Medici family, the coins discussed range over most of Europe. Evans and Edler prepared most of a manuscript on the topic, but in 1940 the work came to a halt when Evans was recruited by the State Department as an intelligence analyst.

Box of films containing the Allan Evans papers.
Sample of a page-spread from a film of the Allan Evans papers.
Sample page from the Allan Evans papers.

In 1951, after Evans had decided not to return to academia, he turned over the materials to Edler, whose husband Raymond de Roover made use of them in his work. After Raymond de Roover died in 1972, Florence Edler de Roover turned over the materials to Robert Lopez for the Mediaeval Academy. Concluding that the project could not be published as is, but that the work should be made available to interested scholars, Lopez and Paul Meyvaert offered all the materials from the project to the ANS in 1976. Some additional material that Evans had sent to David Herlihy was given to the ANS by Reinhold Mueller in 1985.

Peter Spufford published a description of this collection and its history in his essay “Late Medieval Merchants Notebooks”, published in the book Kaufmannsbücher un Handelspraktiken vom Spätmittelalter bis zum beginnenden 20. Jahrhundert (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2002). The collection attracts occasional visitors, but Spufford’s hope that the project could be completed and published in some form turned out to be over-optimistic. Given the advance of scholarship on related topics since the 1930s, the original concept is by now obsolete, although the source materials remain as relevant and useful as always.

Public and Private in Coin Production

There is a commonly encountered conventional distinction between coins and tokens such that coins are produced and issued by governments as legal tender, whereas tokens are produced and issued by private businesses and derive their value only from their redemption by the issuer. This distinction is useful for many purposes, but like most definitions, it runs into problems in situations where the real world turns out to be more complicated than the unstated assumptions that underlie the distinction.

One of these assumptions is that official money is actually produced and issued by governments. Leaving aside the very substantial problem of banknotes and other forms of non-metallic money, this assumption fits fairly well with the experience of coinage in twentieth-century practice in major economies, which of course is the formative experience of many recent numismatic writers, but it is not universally true historically.

In late medieval and early modern Europe, the applicability of this assumption to the way minting worked is ambiguous at best. For the most part, minting operations were farmed out to entrepreneurs, much like taxation and military recruitment generally were. The persons leasing minting operations would pay part of the proceeds to the government as seigniorage and keep the rest as their own profits. Thus, even though minting was carried out in the name of the state, authorized by a government contract, and often monitored by government officials, there is room for debate as to whether the production of coins can really be said to have been done by the government.

This silver penny of Edward the Confessor of England was issued by a moneyer named Wulfric (ANS 1967.182.28, bequest of Douglas P. Dickie). Anglo-Saxon moneyers minted at their own cost and to their own profit, as long as they were officially recognized, paid certain fees to the king, and conformed to royal coinage regulations.

The issuing of coins is even more ambiguous, because coins were not necessarily produced for distribution by the government at all. For the most part, mints produced coins, for a fee, when people brought bullion to them. Coins were thus issued by the minting entrepreneur to mint customers based on demand, without any involvement of treasury officials.

This system minimized the capital requirements for the government, but inevitably the reliance on private entrepreneurs carried a large cost in terms of corruption, malfeasance, and inefficiency, in addition to the private profits taken from the minting fees. Thus, the most centralized states, such as late medieval Venice and Florence, as well as England under Henry VIII, sought to control minting directly. Nevertheless, not all kinds of coins were equally worth controlling.

In seventeenth-century England, for example, silver and gold coins were produced by the government, albeit still on the basis of customer demand. However, the need for small change was met by medieval-style farming out, in this case by granting contractors such as Lord Harington and the Duke of Lennox the right to produce and issue copper farthings in the king’s name in exchange for a hefty fee to the Crown. Although everyone agrees that the silver sixpences of Charles I are coins, writers disagree on whether to call the copper farthings coins or tokens, because they were made as official coinage by royal authority, but they were produced and issued as a private business venture.

Bimetallic (copper and brass) farthing of Charles I of England, produced and issued by Lord Maltravers under royal patent (ANS 1978.9.126, gift of Ambassador and Mrs. R. H. Norweb).

The contracting out of coin production is not limited by borders. Already in the early modern period, and increasingly in more recent times, small states do not necessarily wish to make the substantial capital investments needed for a modern mint. Instead, the production of coins is contracted out to enterprises in other states. These mints may be private or locally public, but either way they are acting as private businesses in relation to the outsourcing government.

Silver thaler of the county of Stolberg-Königstein, produced in the free imperial city of Augsburg, more than 250 kilometers distant (ANS 2012.58.6, purchase).
Silver commemorative 5 lari of the Republic of Georgia, produced by the Japan Mint as an outside contractor (ANS 2018.22.1, gift of Mary Lannin).

The lesson here is not that it is correct or incorrect to refer to certain items as coins or as tokens. Rather, it is that a sharp distinction that is clear and effective for the United States or the United Kingdom in the twentieth century is not always so clear for monetary systems that do not work exactly the same way. Definitions are tools, not facts, and like socket wrenches or screwdrivers, not all definitions are a good fit for every situation.

The Denier Tournois

One manifestation of the centralization of states is the standardization of measures, and no system of measurement is of more concern to a state than that of money. Standardization can be a complicated and difficult process, though, because it is most advantageous for those whose local system is adopted as the general standard. The long struggle of many generations of French kings to create a centralized state in the Middle Ages provides an interesting example of the process.

Charlemagne had established a unified system of coinage for much of western Europe, including France, in the late 700s, based on the silver denier. The Carolingian monetary system also provided the system of account—deniers, sous, and livres—that lasted into the modern era.

A late Carolingian denier issued by the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours (ANS 1960.87.4).

During the feudal era, however, as political power—and with it control over coinage—fragmented, the standards of different localities diverged. From the denier provinois of the Counts of Champagne and the denier angevin of the Counts of Anjou to the denier tolosain of the Counts of Toulouse and the denier melgorien of the Counts of Melgueil, there were many different monetary standards in twelfth-century France.

A denier provinois of the eleventh or twelfth century from Provins in Champagne (ANS 1923.82.19, gift of Edward T. Newell).
A denier melgorien of the twelfth or thirteenth century from the County of Melgueil or Bishopric of Maguelone (ANS 1967.182.199, bequest of Douglas P. Dickie).

When King Philip II of France transformed the French monarchy into the dominant political force throughout France in the decades around 1200, monetary standardization was an important part of his policies. In the abstract, one might have expected him to make the denier parisis—the coinage established as the standard of the Paris region by his father, Louis VII—into a national standard. The reality is both messier and more interesting.

When Philip II was crowned in 1179, the most important ruler in France was Henry of Anjou—who, apart from being King of England, was also Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, and thus overlord of the western half of France. Some of the other regional lords, such as the Counts of Champagne and of Toulouse, were also more powerful than their theoretical suzerain, the king. There were several local monetary standards in the Angevin half of France, of which one of the most prominent was the denier tournois of the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours.

A denier tournois of the eleventh or twelfth century from the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours (ANS 1916.224.35).

Through a combination of deft diplomacy and military successes, between 1193 and 1214 Philip managed to take the majority of Angevin France from Henry’s sons Richard and John, including Tours. The vastly increased royal domain now contained many coinages again, and much of it was not accustomed to the denier parisis. Philip’s solution was to establish a dual standard for the kingdom: the denier parisis and the denier tournois were both produced as royal coinages to circulate throughout France.

A denier tournois of the thirteenth century of Louis VIII or Louis IX of France (ANS 1942.23.93).

In the long run, the denier tournois, already widely used in a large part of France, proved to be a more standard than the denier parisis, which was only used in northeastern France. The relationship of the two standards was fixed such that 1 denier tournois was always equal to 0.8 deniers parisis. Minting of the denier parisis as a physical coin ceased in the fourteenth century, but the denier, sou, and livre parisis continued in use as a system of money of account in the Paris area until the seventeenth century. In the rest of France, however, the denier, sou, and livre tournois had become the general standard system of money of account. The physical coins of this system included the denier tournois and the double tournois, valued at 2 deniers.

A double tournois of Henry IV dated 1599 (ANS 1928.59.8, gift of Mary T. Cockcroft).

As Louis XIV continued the centralization of the French state in the seventeenth century, the dominance of the tournois system made it possible to impose a single monetary standard on the entire kingdom. His government ended the use of the parisis system in 1667, thus completing Philip II’s monetary standardization by making the system of the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours, once part of Angevin France, the official national standard.

Banknote of the Banque Royale for 100 livres tournois, 1 January 1720 (ANS 1992.23.1).

Coins of the Reapers’ War

It is often said that the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469 created Spain as a unified country. This is, like most historical generalizations, an oversimplification. It is even a historical accident that the crowns of Castile and Aragon remained together, simply because Ferdinand had no surviving son by his second wife. For more than two centuries after Isabella and Ferdinand, the Spanish kingdoms—Castile, Navarre, the several realms held by the kings of Aragon, and also Portugal after 1580—continued to have separate parliaments, administrations, legal systems, and monetary systems.

The separate institutions caused friction in times of stress, when the crown could more easily extract taxes and soldiers from Castile than from regions with stronger local governments and more legal restrictions on royal power. The pressure of simultaneous wars against France, Sweden, and the Netherlands in the 1630s induced King Philip IV’s (Castilian) chief minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares, to try to impose new obligations on the other regions. This provoked open revolt in Catalonia, the region with the strongest tradition of local self-government and limitations on royal authority, and in Portugal, which had a long history of separate independence.

The uprising in Catalonia resulted in a long war, sometimes called the Reapers’ War (Guerra dels Segadors). Like a number of other wars of the seventeenth century, this conflict presaged the developing supersession of medieval-style political localism by large nation-states.

The original theoretical basis of the revolt lay in the traditional rights claimed by the Catalan counties and cities relative to their overlords. Their goal was to protect their rights and privileges against the centralizing wishes of the royal government in Madrid. However, when political dissent turned into warfare, it became necessary to subordinate some of this autonomy for the sake of military effectiveness. The difficulty of balancing these goals can be seen in the Catalan coins of the war.

In theory, all of Catalonia used the same monetary system—the lliura, sou, and diner of Barcelona—and most of the circulating coins for this system were issued by Barcelona. However, many other localities had the right to strike their own minor coins on the standards of Barcelona, and in Perpignan the local coinage diverged somewhat from that of Barcelona.

When they suddenly faced the large costs of recruiting, supplying, and paying an army to fight the king, many localities started to issue their own coins. At first, retaining some hope that resistance would force the king’s government to settle the dispute by confirming their rights, these coins named Philip IV as sovereign.

Billon sisè of Barcelona issued by authority of the Generalitat de Catalunya but in the name of Philip IV, 1641 (ANS 2015.30.144, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

However, there was never much chance that Olivares would compromise, and a much larger number of coins were issued in 1641 and 1642 in the name of the Principality of Catalonia, effectively declaring itself to be an independent state.

Billon sisè of Terrassa in the name of the Principality of Catalonia, 1642 (ANS 2015.30.313, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

Although regional coalitions of towns and nobles often challenged kings in the Middle Ages, by the seventeenth century this was becoming more difficult. The Catalans on their own could not defeat Castile if the royal forces were concentrated against them. Therefore, one of the first priorities of their regime was to obtain assistance from France, a similarly powerful neighbor already at war with Philip IV.

The price for French assistance was recognition of the French king as Count of Barcelona (and thus ruler of Catalonia), along with installation of a French viceroy to lead the war effort in Barcelona. Before long, punches with images of the French king were sent from Paris to be used on the Catalan coins.

Billon sisè of Girona in the name of Louis XIII of France as Count of Barcelona, 1642 (ANS 2015.30.246, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

Thus, in the end, the Catalans were faced with a choice between two centralizing monarchies. The autonomous localities of Catalonia were an impediment to French power, and the authorities in Barcelona wished to monopolize profitable aspects of administration such as minting. Most of the local mints in Catalonia were closed soon after 1642, eventually leaving only Barcelona and Perpignan.

Copper diner of Barcelona in the name of Louis XIV of France as Count of Barcelona, 1648 (ANS 2015.30.163, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

In the end, control of Catalonia seemed more vital to the administration in Madrid than to the one in Paris. Despite being overstretched by multiple crises, the government concentrated as much force as it could on this front. In 1652, Philip IV’s armies captured Barcelona and, with it, most of Catalonia. In the final peace settlement of 1659, Louis XIV retained the portion of Catalonia north of the Pyrenees, and promptly abolished many of its local privileges.

These coins show the rise of modernity not only in the changing practicalities of political scale. Technologically as well, they straddle the division between medieval and modern methods. Although most Spanish mints in the 1640s still struck coins by hand using a hammer, roller presses were used at the royal mint of Segovia (in Castile) and at the mint of Barcelona (in Catalonia). The small roller presses in Catalonia, operated by muscle power, were unable to strike large coins, with the result that the large silver coins (5 rals) of the Catalans were all struck by hand, while their low-denomination billon or copper coins (sisens or diners) were made on the roller presses.

Silver 5 rals of a minor Catalan locality, possibly Manresa, Balaguer, or Cervera, struck by hand (ANS 2015.30.327, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).
Billon sisè of Besalú, mistakenly cut off-center, showing how it was struck on a strip of alloy using a roller press (ANS 2015.30.215, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

Thus, the coins of the Reapers’ War can be seen as standing on the threshold of modernity, in more than one way.

Further reading: for more on the historical background, see J. H. Elliott, The Revolt of the Catalans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); for the coins discussed here, see M. Crusafont, Història de la moneda de la Guerra dels Segadors (Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 2001).

The Principality of Arches

A small group of coins currently in our photography queue raise some interesting issues regarding what constitutes a country that can issue coins. These are coins of the Principality of Arches, located in what is now eastern France, issued in the 1600s.

The Principality of Arches was not a relic of medieval feudalism; it was a new creation of the seventeenth century. However, the circumstances that allowed its creation owed much to the late medieval and early modern formalization of feudalism into written law. As legal scholars struggled to integrate feudal customs with the tradition of Roman written law, they created rigid categories and sharp distinctions that had not existed before. These new legal concepts in turn affected the ways that law and government worked in late medieval and early modern Europe, by turning small quirks into major exceptions to rules.

Charles Gonzaga was a French nobleman, born in 1580, the son of Ludovico Gonzaga (a junior member of the ducal family of Mantua in Italy) and Henriette de La Marck (heiress of the duchies of Nevers and Rethel in France). Upon his father’s death in 1595, Charles became the duke of both Nevers and Rethel, making him one of the foremost aristocrats in France.

Charles Gonzaga, duke of Nevers, Rethel, and Mantua.

This was a time of increasing royal power and centralization in France. The aristocracy were still wealthy and prestigious, but they no longer wielded the sort of power they had had in the Middle Ages—or that their contemporaries in the German and Italian states still had. However, Charles Gonzaga saw a way that he could combine his status in France with the trappings of governmental power.

The duchy of Rethel was located along the eastern border of France. One of its dependencies was the lordship of Arches, which was in the Holy Roman Empire, just across the border. Arches had been acquired by a count of Rethel back in the thirteenth century, when nation-states and national borders were not yet significant problems and it was not unusual for a feudal baron to hold land from more than one suzerain.

By the early seventeenth century, the formalization of law and government aimed at removing ambiguities and clarifying powers and obligations. In France, the monarchy was asserting supremacy with increasing effectiveness; in the Empire, it was acknowledged that the territorial lords had effective sovereignty. Charles Gonzaga, with his mixed heritage from imperial Italy and royal France, saw an opportunity to manipulate this difference in local disambiguations.

Historically, Arches had never amounted to much politically, but because it had long been subject to French Rethel, it was not subject to any lord within the Empire other than the emperor himself. That made it, in terms of the emerging consensus of imperial law, arguably a sovereign principality. So, in 1606, Charles began the construction of a new city in his small patch of imperial territory in Arches; with typical modesty he named it Charleville after himself. He made this city the capital of a new principality of Arches.

The Place Ducale, the central square in Charleville, built between 1606 and 1624.

Governing the land of Arches may not have been particularly rewarding in itself, but his new principality gave Charles the many rights of a sovereign ruler. He remained a subject of the French king when he was at Fontainebleau, but in Charleville he had the status of a sovereign state in international law. The minting of coinage was one of many forms this took: a way of making money in more than one sense, as well as an opportunity to display his importance.

As it turned out, he would have obtained this status regardless. A couple of decades later, in 1627, the death of his last surviving cousin of a more senior branch of the Gonzaga family left Charles as the heir to the duchy of Mantua, a far more important principality of the Empire. Even so, when his grandson Charles II sold Nevers and Rethel to the French chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1657, he retained Arches along with Mantua.

Coins and Linguistics

It is well known that numismatics is closely connected with history, archaeology, art history, and economics. However, coins can be used as evidence in many other areas as well. One of them is linguistics.

For some ancient languages, like the Iberian language of eastern Spain, coins represent a substantial (though not necessarily very informative) proportion of the surviving textual evidence.

ANS 2013.65.12

A coin of Saiti (modern Xàtiva in eastern Spain) with legend in Iberian (ANS 2013.65.12). Coins provided important evidence for the decipherment of the Iberian writing system.

Occasionally, coins can even shed light on languages that are better documented. Although languages are constantly changing, standard literary forms are often much slower to change and do not necessarily reflect ordinary speech patterns.

Like other texts of official nature, coin legends also tend to reflect literary standards rather than current spoken language. However, coin legends are not always composed by individuals with a literary education, and in times of rapid linguistic change they can sometimes reveal developments that are obscured in other kinds of texts.

One example is the coins of Visigothic Spain. They were made at a time when the spoken Latin of the Roman Empire was evolving into the Romance languages. And they were also made at a time when training in the norms of classical Latin was decreasing; although literary figures like Isidore of Seville still wrote classical Latin, such skills were becoming rare.

Classical Latin had an elaborate system of noun cases, meaning that nouns took slightly different forms depending on their functional relationship to the main verb of the sentence. Latin had five main cases: nominative for the subject of the sentence, accusative (direct object), genitive (possessive), dative (indirect object), and ablative (for adverbial functions). There were also two functions with poorly differentiated forms: the vocative (for direct address) and locative (for specifying location).

However, this system disappeared during the early Middle Ages. By the time the earliest known Old Spanish texts were written in the late tenth century, the language had no noun cases at all (although pronouns still had cases, like in modern English). Thus, linguists have looked at earlier inscriptions to find information on when and how the change happened.

One hypothesis is that there was a transitional period in which some of the case distinctions had broken down but two or maybe three noun cases were still used. In a different Romance-language area, this can be seen in medieval Old French, which retained a two-case (nominative case for the subject and oblique case for everything else) system. As it happens, Visigothic coins provide some of the best evidence for such a transitional period in Spain.

From the last years of Leovigild (569–586) until the last Visigothic coins around 714, the predominant structure of Visigothic coin legends was to place the name and title of the king on the obverse, and on the reverse a laudatory adjective for the king plus the name of the mint.

ANS 2016.29.82

This coin of Sisenand (631–636) from Medina Sidonia has his name SISENANDVS and title REX (king, using the cross at 12:00 as both starting punctuation and the final X in REX) on the obverse; the reverse has the king’s epithet PIVS (the pious, or holy) and the mint ASIDONA.

The name, title, and laudatory epithet for the king are all in the nominative case, as would be normal in Classical Latin. The name of the mint, however, takes a different form. Functionally, it would make sense for it to be a Latin ablative (“from …”) or locative (“at …”), but on Visigothic coins the form does not correspond to a single Latin case.

The spelling of the place names is decidedly non-Classical, and they are also clearly not in the nominative case, where this can be determined. For example, the Latin name of Medina Sidonia was Asido in the nominative, Asidonem in the accusative, Asidone in the ablative. However, the final -m of the accusative case had been a silent letter for centuries, and as Classical literary education faded, so did knowledge of when to write the silent -m.

Most of the place names could equally well be a Latin ablative or else a Latin accusative where the silent -m has been omitted. Some place names, however, are plural in form, and those would be easily distinguishable in Classical form. Some of them are clearly accusative in form; others appear to be ablative in form.

ANS 2016.29.62

This coin of Suinthila (621–631) has the mint name NANDOLAS, which would appear to be a local tribal name in the accusative plural.

ANS 2016.29.46

This coin of Witteric (603–610) has the mint name GEORRES, which is the name of a local tribe in the ablative plural. In Classical Latin the tribe was called the Gigurri in the nominative or Gigurris in the ablative, but the spelling on the coin reflects the likely seventh-century pronunciation.

The indifferent use of accusative or ablative forms for what would previously have been an ablative/locative function suggests that by that time the accusative and ablative cases (and possibly others) had merged together into an oblique (or objective) case. In other words, the coins provide evidence that is otherwise mostly absent for a transitional stage in the loss of the Latin case system as the spoken language evolved toward what is now Spanish.

Further reading: For more on this topic, see P. A. Gaeng, A Study of Nominal Inflection in Latin Inscriptions (Chapel Hill: Department of Romance Studies, University of North Carolina, 1977); and J. A. Correa Rodríguez, “El latín de las monedas visigodas,” in Latin vulgaire – Latin tardif VII, ed. C. Arias Abellán (Seville: Universidad de Sevilla, 2006), 219–41.

Pick a Number, Any Number

Kings Louis XII (left) and Louis XIII (right)
Kings Louis XII (left) and Louis XIII (right).

Think of the many French kings named Louis, the many Byzantine emperors named Constantine, and so on—where personal names are commonly repeated, it would be difficult to keep track of the rulers without the use of regnal numbers. Remembering which one was Louis XII and which one was Louis XIII is not always easy, but it would be worse without those ordinal numbers to assist memory.

Nevertheless, people have often managed without this assistance. In the ancient world, the many kings named Ptolemy or Antiochus were differentiated by the epithets they chose (or the nicknames that were given to them). The regnal numbers that we use for them now are a modern creation, reflecting the consensus view of historians as to how to count them. In Europe, regnal numbers seem to have begun to be used in the 1100s, although their use was patchy and inconsistent for centuries. Clearly a need was felt in medieval Europe for this method of distinguishing rulers of the same name. However, the actual usage of regnal numbers in medieval and early modern Europe presents many complications, so that the regnal numbers sometimes cause confusion more than they reduce it.

In some cultural traditions, sovereignty is inherent in the community. In other cultural traditions, sovereignty is inherent in the person of the ruler. Medieval and early modern Europe was unusual in that it followed both of these systems at the same time, with all the potential for contradictions and conflicts this entails. Rulers generally claimed to hold power “by grace of God” and by inheritance, but they were also considered to hold power by a sort of social contract with the people they ruled, in which the ruler was obliged to uphold the traditional laws and customs of governance. These laws and customs were specific to each political body, so a person who ruled several different political units not only held several different titles but may well have had to swear different oaths to different assemblies to uphold different sets of laws. And this continued political and legal identity of separate communities, even if they shared the same ruler, meant that one ruler might have more than one regnal number.

For an example of how this worked, consider Henri de Bourbon, known today as King Henry IV of France. In the official numbering of kings of France, he is the fourth one named Henry. Simple, right? However, before he became king of France, he was already king of Navarre, a small state in the Pyrenees. And in Navarre, he was only the third King Henry. Moreover, along with Navarre he had also inherited the lordship of Béarn, where he was only the second Lord Henry. Thus, coins of this one individual, depending on where and when they were minted, may refer to him as Henry II, Henry III, or Henry IV.

Regnal-1a

images: 2015.30.1042.obv.300.jpg, 2015.30.1042.rev.300.jpg Teston of Henry II of Béarn, 1573.
Fig. 1: Teston of Henry II of Béarn, 1573. ANS 2015.30.1042.

Regnal-2a

 images: 2015.30.1071.obv.300.jpg, 2015.30.1071.rev.300.jpg Quarter écu of Henry III of Navarre, 1589.

Fig. 2: Quarter écu of Henry III of Navarre, 1589. ANS 2015.30.1071.

©American Numismatic Society [#Beginning of Shooting Data Section] Nikon D1X 2007/08/20 12:09:23.3 JPEG (8-bit) Fine Image Size: Medium (2000 x 1312) Color Lens: 105mm F/2.8 Focal Length: 105mm Exposure Mode: Manual Metering Mode: Multi-Pattern 1/10 sec - F/16 Exposure Comp.: 0 EV Sensitivity: ISO 125 Optimize Image: White Balance: Preset 1 AF Mode: Manual Flash Sync Mode: Flash Mode: Auto Flash Comp: Color Mode: Mode II (Adobe RGB) Tone Comp.: More Contrast Hue Adjustment: 0° Saturation: Sharpening: Normal Image Comment: Long Exposure NR: [#End of Shooting Data Section]
 images: 1928.59.8.obv.300.jpg, 1928.59.8.rev.300.jpg Double tournois of Henry IV of France, 1599.

Fig. 3: Double tournois of Henry IV of France, 1599. ANS 1928.59.8.

And it can get more complicated than that. Even for France, the numbering depends on whom you count. Inheritance disputes (and election disputes, for elected rulers such as Popes and Holy Roman Emperors) can complicate the counting. Kings Henry IV and Henry V of England claimed the French throne, and Henry VI of England was actually crowned as King Henry II of France in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris when he was a child. However, because they eventually lost the Hundred Years’ War, they are not counted in the numbering of French kings, and Henri de Bourbon is considered Henry IV, not Henry V.

Regnal-4a

Fig. 4: This salut d'or of France from the Rouen mint was issued in the name of Henry VI of England in his role as the other Henry II of France. ANS 0000.999.32322.
Fig. 4: This salut d’or of France from the Rouen mint was issued in the name of Henry VI of England in his role as the other Henry II of France. ANS 0000.999.32322.

The regnal numbers that rulers choose for themselves are not always based on strictly historical arithmetic. While trying to improve internal consistency in the ANS curatorial database, I recently discovered that the same king is called both Frederick II and Frederick III of Sicily. The reason for this goes back to his great-grandfather, the previous Frederick, who was King Frederick I of Sicily but also the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. He was best remembered by the latter, more prestigious title, so when his great-grandson Frederick of Aragon became king of Sicily, he chose to call himself Fridericus Tertius (Frederick III), even though he was only the second king of Sicily named Frederick. Should historians correct what they might consider to be an error, or should they use the designation that Frederick himself used in his documents and on his coinage?

This problem is even more acute with the kings of Sweden. In the Middle Ages, Swedish kings were distinguished by nicknames or patronyms; the use of regnal numbers there only began in the fifteenth century. When Gustav Vasa’s son Eric became king in 1560, a then-recent historical work was consulted to determine his regnal number: the Historia de Omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque Regibus, a book that filled the unseemly gap between the Biblical past and recorded medieval history by inventing a considerable number of kings. Based on the number of previous Erics in that book, Eric called himself Eric XIV. For modern historians, Eric XIV was perhaps the ninth or tenth king of Sweden named Eric, but much of the official numeration of Swedish kings from 1560 to the present would have to be revised to reflect modern skepticism of these invented kings, so the semi-fictitious numbering has prevailed.

Regnal-5a

Fig. 5: Although difficult to read, this skilling from 1562 gives Eric XIV's artificially high regnal number. ANS 1929.137.1.
Fig. 5: Although difficult to read, this skilling from 1562 gives Eric XIV’s artificially high regnal number. ANS 1929.137.1.

Thus, even an apparently simple matter such as numbering rulers in order turns out, on closer inspection to be filled with complications. The coins of late medieval and early modern Europe offer many opportunities for confusion in this regard.

The Lifetime in Circulation of Visigothic Coins

Individual coins are not very informative, but when significant numbers of coins and their find contexts can be compared, they can tell us a lot about the people who used them. Coin hoards are one of the more important sources of information for numismatists, although they can be tricky to interpret. One topic that hoards can shed some light on is how long coins remained in circulation, a question that is critical for understanding how people used coins and how many coins were in circulation for them to use.

The economy of the Visigothic kingdom in early medieval Spain, Portugal, and France (late fifth to early eighth centuries) is poorly documented in textual sources, so archaeological evidence (including coin finds) is essential. There was a substantial gold coinage, clearly under royal regulation from the late sixth to early eighth centuries, but how these coins were used within the economy remains a matter of debate. Looking at the relative ages of the coins found together in hoards is one clue.

This coin of Sisenand (631–636) was one of the latest coins included in the La Capilla hoard, which was buried in the mid-630s. It shows hardly any wear from circulation. ANS 2016.29.86.
This coin of Sisenand (631–636) was one of the latest coins included in the La Capilla hoard, which was buried in the mid-630s. It shows hardly any wear from circulation. ANS 2016.29.86.

Coin hoards can be formed in many ways. They may contain a group of coins representing what was in circulation at the time. However, they may reflect some unrepresentative selection process, such as a packet of newly minted coins just paid out by the government, or a group of better-quality coins picked from circulation to be saved. Thus, it is important to look at the structure of hoards before leaping to conclusions.

As it happens, most Visigothic coin hoards show a profile suggesting that they were drawn from general circulation. Normally the coins span a range of twenty or thirty years, but the majority of them come from the two reigns closest to the closing of the hoard, with the numbers from earlier reigns diminishing rapidly. Sometimes a hoard contains an outlier or two, older coins that somehow re-entered circulation, much like the occasional wheat-ear cent or buffalo nickel that turns up in circulation in the United States today. But overall, the statistical pattern is quite consistent.

From this evidence, we can conclude that Visigothic coins circulated for a limited span of time, perhaps around ten years on average, with most coins having left circulation before they were twenty years old. However, coins seem mostly to have left circulation gradually, perhaps to be melted down for other uses or for striking new coins; there is only evidence for one wholesale withdrawal and replacement of coins. Near the beginning of the Visigothic regal coinage, in the early 580s, it appears that all earlier coins were removed from circulation as part of a reform of coinage standards.

There was one other significant coinage reform during the period in question, around the early 650s. No withdrawal of coinage at that time is visible in the evidence, but unfortunately there is no hoard from the 660s, when it would have been most visible. The evidence does make clear, however, that the continual reductions in weight and fineness that were occurring at most other times were not associated with large-scale withdrawal and replacement of coins.

A tendency for older coins with higher gold content to be removed from circulation, as predicted by Gresham’s Law, is likely to be an important contributing reason for the relatively short lifespan of Visigothic coins, but it is also clear that coins of significantly different fineness could and did circulate together.

This coin of Reccared I (586–601) may be the oldest known coin from the La Capilla hoard. It contained about 20% more gold than the latest coins in the hoard, those of Sisenand (631–636). However, it has only limited wear from circulation, suggesting that it was not in active use most of the time during the four decades or so between minting and burial. ANS 2015.48.46.
This coin of Reccared I (586–601) may be the oldest known coin from the La Capilla hoard. It contained about 20% more gold than the latest coins in the hoard, those of Sisenand (631–636). However, it has only limited wear from circulation, suggesting that it was not in active use most of the time during the four decades or so between minting and burial. ANS 2015.48.46.

In summary, a brief look at one aspect of Visigothic coin hoards has told us some very useful things about the monetary system. The hoards show that coins could circulate for decades, even as standards of weight and fineness changed, unless there was a complete replacement of the coinage. However, they also show that coins had a relatively short lifetime in circulation, compared to some coinages in other times and places. Most likely older coins were frequently picked out of circulation and melted down due to their higher gold content, keeping the circulating population relatively young.

List of hoards with 20 or more recorded Visigothic regal coins, with median (50th percentile) and 95th percentile dates:

  • Mérida (20 coins, ca. 582?): all 20 coins from Leovigild, Cross-on-Steps series (ca. 581–584?).
  • La Capilla (ca. 1000 coins of which 765 recorded, ca. 631–636): median Suinthila (621–631), 95th percentile Sisebut (610–ca. 620).
  • Vega Baja de Toledo (31 coins, ca. 636–639): median Sisenand (631–636), 95th percentile Suinthila (621–631).
  • Córdoba (46 coins, ca. 642): median Chintila (636–639), 95th percentile Suinthila (621–631).
  • La Grassa (ca. 800 coins of which 175 recorded, ca. 653): median Tulga (639–642), 95th percentile Sisebut (610–ca. 620).
  • Zaragoza (35 coins, ca. 695–702): median Egica sole reign (687–ca. 695), 95th percentile Reccesuinth (653–672).
  • Abusejo (111 coins, ca. 702–710): median Egica and Wittiza (ca. 695–702), 95th percentile Wamba (672–680).

Also, note the very large Fuentes de Andalucia hoard (ca. 4000 coins, ca. 625), which was not recorded, but a large majority of the coins were apparently from Suinthila (621–631) and Sisebut (610–ca. 620). For more details on these hoards, see R. Pliego, La moneda visigoda (Seville: University of Seville, 2009), ch. 9.