Category Archives: France

The Franc: A Coin, A Currency, and Orphan

The Franc is one of the oldest and most widespread currency units in the world, currently the official currency of 25 states or autonomous territories. However, the Franc was never intended to become the name of a currency until the French kingdom issued a specific gold piece to gather the massive ransom needed to free King John II the Good, prisoner of the English since the disastrous Battle of Poitiers in 1356. He was depicted in full armor on a horse, with the legend Johannes Dei Gracia Francoru(m) Rex. From “Francoru(m)” came “Franc”. This famed coin is called the Franc à cheval (1905.57.35 and 1966.163.48).

Born in a 14th-century disaster, the Franc carries another unusual quality: it derives its name from the name of the people and nation who minted it. To this day, the Afghani and the Boliviano are the only other eponymous currencies, possibly with the Euro. “Franc” probably derived from old Germanic, meaning “spear”, or possibly “bold”, then came to designate a confederacy of tribes who put pressure on the Roman Empire’s northeastern border. Once they settled in Gaul in the 5th century, the word “Francia”, later “France”, came to name the country inhabited by the Franks. It then accrued the wider meaning of “free person” as well as straightforwardness, hence “franchise”, “enfranchised” or “frank” in English, since the kingdom’s laws forbade slavery on its soil. This is how, much later, Sally Hemmings, a black slave owned by Thomas Jefferson and mother to his children, became technically a free woman during her stay in Paris, until Jefferson convinced her to return to the US.

The Franc’s bigger history takes off with the French Revolution. On April 7 and August 15, 1795, in the midst of the assignats crisis (0000.999.56432), as disorderly deficits and money printing had led to rampant inflation and monetary dislocation, the French Parliament created a Republican currency defined by 4.5 g of pure silver, the Franc, and decimalization was implemented at the same time, inspired by the newly established United States monetary system.

The famous 5-Franc coin, (1911.105.844) conceived by Augustin Dupré with Hercules holding liberty and equality, would inspire later French coinage design. Dupré is the same engraver who had created the 1783 Libertas Americana medal, commissioned by Benjamin Franklin (1964.67.1), which in turn inspired the Large Cent design (1977.203.1 and 1948.143.81).

With the wars of the Revolution and Napoleonic period in the later 18th and early 19th century, the Franc was by then poised to expand its influence (1966.164.324, 0000.999.34906, 1920.147.329, 1920.147.559, 1966.164.465, 1916.999.216, 1923.999.248).

After Napoleon’s final defeat, the Franc withdrew back to the France, mirroring the country’s troubled political history—3 more revolutions, 5 Republics, 2 monarchies, 1 empire, the collaborationist Etat français between 1940 and 1944, and few coups d’Eta (1957.117.9, 1957.172.2000, 1929.77.29, 1897.28.7, 1946.71.5, 1992.117.4974–5).

During this period, the Franc initiated a second period of geographic diversification as the 2nd French colonial Empire expanded across Africa, South-East Asia, and the Pacific. (examples of colonial currencies). (large group of colonial banknotes+1917.216.5102)

Examples of colonial franc notes.

Obviously, most of these pieces reflect the sense of European superiority that sustained the colonial project, highlighting the civilizing mission France was supposedly undertaking in its overseas territories. At about the same time, the Union Latine, an attempt at anchoring a wide range of currencies to the same gold standard, led to the Franc being used as a parallel currency unit in unexpected European countries like the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, or the Kingdoms of Denmark, and of Sweden (Union Latine coin). (1929.103.14684)

In the wake of WWI, the end of gold convertibility, the great inflation of the 1920s, the economic depression in the 1930s, and then WWII, the Franc sustained multiple debasements. What had been a gold or a silver coin had become a worthless piece of base metal by the 1950s, until Charles de Gaulle reformed the Franc in 1958 (selection of 1920s-1940s pieces) (1947.2.686, 1980.109.1067, 1920.74.8, 1950.135.173, 1963.57.27, 1981.30.140, 1981.30.143).

ANS 1920.74.8

In the 1970s, after the collapse of the dollar-gold exchange standard, silver was abandoned and coins went back to their fiduciary character (1983.121.1).

The weirdest part of the Franc’s long history is that it has become an orphan: used today in Africa and the Pacific mostly, its mother country has abandoned it to merge into the Eurozone (1967.126.9, 1978.223.1, 1992.117.6807, 1992.117.6843).

Switzerland and Lichtenstein are now the last European countries using a Franc (0000.999.53004 and 1977.158.1414), while the Franc thrives, far away from the kings who created it (1905.57.35).

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).

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.