All posts by David Yoon

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.

Curatorial Intern Kara Woodley

One of the ways that the ANS teaches students about numismatics is through student internships, where a student gets to learn about our work by participating in it. This semester, we have been lucky to have Kara Woodley from Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, working with our curatorial department.

Kara Woodley cataloguing a token.
Kara Woodley cataloguing a token.

Kara is a senior completing a double major in art history and history. For her two senior theses she is writing about Ireland during the struggle for independence in the early twentieth century. As part of her art history degree, she was required to complete an internship to gain practical experience. Prof. Megan Cifarelli suggested the ANS as a possibility that might be a good choice for a student with more interest in history than in the contemporary art scene.

Kara has worked on a few different tasks at the ANS, but the majority of her time has been devoted to entering our nineteenth-century Irish tokens into our curatorial database. Although these tokens have been acquired since the founding of the Society (some of them were donated in our first year, 1858!), hardly any of them had been entered into the computer yet.

ANS 1858.4.14

1858.4.14.rev.300

Armed with the standard references on the topic, Kara has been going through the tokens one by one, creating full database records for them. One of the tokens that she found interesting in relation to her academic research is a token or medalet commemorating Daniel O’Connell, an early nineteenth-century campaigner for Catholic Emancipation and repeal of the 1801 Act of Union. This piece is pierced for suspension, and the box has a note on the back saying that it was worn at an election meeting in 1865.

ANS 1932.999.1162.
ANS 1932.999.1162.

1932.999.1162.rev.300

Another piece she found interesting is a token issued by the banker William Hodgins in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary. This token is typically catalogued among Australian tokens, despite its reference to Ireland. Although originally produced for use in Ireland, large quantities of this token were apparently shipped to Australia, where they helped make up for a scarcity of official coinage.

ANS 0000.999.57452
ANS 0000.999.57452

0000.999.57452.rev.300

During her internship Kara has been learning how museums work behind the scenes; in particular, about the processes involved in how a small staff manages a very large collection. She hopes this will be useful in her future career as an art historian, especially if she ends up working in a museum setting.

Next year Kara will be going to graduate school at Trinity College, Dublin, where she plans to specialize in Irish art of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Italian Emergency Money of the 1970s

This guest post by our curatorial intern Taylor Hartley describes one of the projects she has been helping us with over the past several months.

Since last November I have been working on a project here at the ANS to catalogue a group of Italian miniassegni from the late 1970s that was donated by our late benefactor Sidney W. Harl in 2001. Miniassegni or “mini-checks” are coupons or promissory notes made to replace small-denomination coins during a shortage of 50 and 100 lira coins, which were the approximate equivalent of American nickels and dimes.

The shortage of 50 and 100 lira coins lasted from 1975 to 1979. Its causes are famously mythologized. Some said the coins were used as buttons in Japan, others that the shortage was caused by trade union strikes. In his book Europe, Europe, Hans Magnus Enzensberger suggests that it was actually caused because the Italian government abandoned their plans for a new mint and the old one simply could not produce enough coins to meet demand.

When the shortage of small-denomination coins began in 1975, vendors started by giving small items instead of change. Candy, grapes, stamps, phone tokens, and even chicken livers were given to customers when there was no way to make change. One café owner in Rome wrote handwritten notes for his customers as credit for their next order.

After the shortage stretched on for a while, stores began to issue little coupons or checks of their own that ranged from 50 to 350 lire. Then banks started issuing miniassegni that could be collected and then exchanged for larger bills.

2001.34.83.obv

The ANS collection mostly consists of the notes issued by banks, but they also have a number of “buoni d’acquisto,” the notes issued by shops. My favorite of these is one issued in 1976 by a stamp and coin shop in Moncalieri.

2001.34.152.obv

The miniassegni were almost instantly adored by collectors. During the shortage many catalogues were published to help collectors and to assign value to the rare ones.

miniassegni-catalogues

At one point, coin dealers in Italy were selling more miniassegni than Roman coins. They even gained some popularity in the United States. Boys’ Life Magazine published a letter about them in their coin and stamp collecting section in March 1978. Collecting miniassegni was something of a craze, like tulips or Beanie Babies were in their time.

I can see why they were so popular. Their endless variety and bright colors make them intriguing and highly collectible. Some just look like small bank checks, but others, like these designed by the paper shop of Guerzoni Livio were colorful and beautiful.

guerzoni-collage

Still more have a homemade charm to them, like this small one from La Spezia.

2001.34.14.obv

Some had local monuments on them, like the Navina Arch in Moncalieri. The miniassegni from the Bank of Sicily even hearken back to Sicily’s rich numismatic history with a picture of the famous coin of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins.

2001.34.278.obv

2001.34.278.rev

They are as friendly and fun as Monopoly money, but they were accepted as cash.

After their initial popularity during the coin shortage, the demand for miniassegni as collectibles dropped off. Their values dropped quickly after life returned to normal and there was once again enough change to go around. But they deserve some attention. I have had so much fun learning about the miniassegni through the process of cataloguing this collection. They are memories of an interesting period of recent Italian history when no one had change to spare, and everyone collected and spent little colorful slips of paper instead.

—Taylor Hartley

Ask a Curator: Object Numbers

This is part an ongoing series that answers your questions about our collections. If there’s something you would like to know about, please use the ‘Contact’ form or email us directly here.

A reader asked:

“In a blog post a few weeks back, you demonstrated how object numbers were created when coins were accessioned into the collection using a combination of date, lot, and item numbers. So why do so many of the objects in the database have numbers that begin with 0000.999.####?” 

As we catalogue our collection, we try to identify how each object came to the ANS, but we don’t always have enough information. There are two main clues we use; one is the notes written on the back of the box and the other is the set of ledger books in which accessions have been recorded since 1858.

boxes2

These three boxes, from a group of French jetons that have not yet been catalogued, show the range of possibilities. The one on the left identifies the accession as 1940.176 and adds that it was a gift of Alexandre Orlowski in November 1940. The one in the center says only that it was purchased in May 1934, but it is usually possible to identify the specific accession by looking in the accession ledger book for purchases during that month. The box on the right says nothing at all about the origin of the object.

ANS 1933.126.9
ANS 1933.126.9

Earlier this year I had occasion to catalogue the Society’s holdings of Swedish plate money. Because these cumbersome slabs of copper are mostly too large to fit in our boxes, most of them had no indication at all of their origin. Thus, they presented the same problem as the blank box.

By searching our accession database (a digital version of the ledger books, painstakingly typed into a computer by George Cuhaj in 1981), I was able to identify accession records for plate money, and in many cases I was able to match up the examples in our trays with particular accession records. However, not all accession listings in the ledger book describe the objects in enough detail to identify them. For the plate money, I had three such accessions: 1916.192, “Sweden, 4 plate money” (among other things); 1923.150, “8 Sweden plate money” (among many other things); and 1929.103, “2256 Swedish coins”.

Thus, I was left with a residue of 22 pieces of plate money that had no attached notes and could have come from any of these three accessions. In this situation, our practice is to assign an accession number beginning “0000.999” to indicate that we do not know when or from whom it came into our collection.

ANS 0000.999.56881
ANS 0000.999.56881

—David Yoon