Category Archives: Medieval

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 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.


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.


 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.


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.


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 Secret Chord: Harps and Lyres on Ancient and Modern Coins

Last month, on November 7, 2016, the internationally acclaimed Canadian artist Leonard Cohen died of cancer. He was regarded as a man of many talents, who painted, wrote novels, poetry, and the songs for which he was best known. He was a man of art, culture, and ideas, who appreciated the value of both Manhattan and Berlin.

Within the large oeuvre left behind by Cohen, the song Hallelujah stands out for its great popularity and the life of its own that it has taken on in the hands of the many other musicians (now more than 300 in multiple languages according to Wikipedia) who have played and modified its lyrics since it was first released in 1984. However, all versions begin with Cohen’s original lament “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do you?” and this has prompted the topic for this edition of the ANS blog. Regardless of whether a numismatist does care for music (Cohen’s or anyone else’s) or not, David’s secret chord and those of other lyric poets have made an impact on coins from antiquity up to modern times.

Fig. 1: ANS 1927.38.76

David is depicted playing his chord on the enigmatic Irish St. Patrick coinage of the seventeenth century, some of which was carried off to New Jersey to serve as halfpence in the cash-starved colony. Its production in two denominations (or one that was later reduced in weight?), date of issue, meaning of its iconography, and the circumstances of its arrival in New Jersey have captured the imagination of Colonial American numismatists for decades and even became the topic for an ANS Coinage of the Americas Conference in 2006. The famous king also plays on contemporary coins of Nuremberg and the Papal States, as well as on psalmenpfennige (medallic awards for the completion of Protestant religious education, which included the memorization of Psalms—the Biblical songs attributed to David).

Fig. 2: ANS 1954.203.63

Harps appear without players on English silver coins struck for use in Ireland in the sixteenth century, but it is not clear whether any reference to King David was intended in this heraldic emblem or whether the instrument alluded only to contemporary Irish culture, which held its native harpers in high esteem. David’s harp (indicated by the winged female column symbolizing the unearthly beauty of its music), occurs on English halfpence produced for Ireland English halfpence produced for Ireland in the eighteenth century—perhaps not coincidentally after more than 100 years of repressive policies had all but crushed the native tradition of harping in Ireland. A pointedly Celtic harp (Irish cláirseach) has been used on all Irish coins, including the current euro, since the creation of the Irish Free State (Republic of Ireland after 1948) in 1922.

Fig. 3: ANS 1944.100.63061

Although it is regularly described and depicted as a harp in medieval and modern texts and artworks, David’s stringed instrument was actually a form of lyre known in Hebrew as the kinnor. A related instrument, the nebel was regularly played as part of celebratory worship in the Jerusalem Temple. The connection of these instruments to the Temple and to David lies behind their prominent depiction on coins struck by Jewish rebels against Rome during the disastrous Bar Kokhba War (AD 132-136). This bloody conflict erupted when the emperor Hadrian sought to refound Jerusalem (already destroyed by Titus in AD 70) as a pagan city. The kinnor and nebel of the Bar Kokhba coins had a dual purpose. They evoked the longing memory of days when the Temple still stood and great Jewish kings ruled the land while casting Simon bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolt, as a Messianic figure who might lead his people to victory and restore the Temple.

Fig. 4: ANS 1944.100.41956

The chelys (Latin testudo) and kithara of the Greeks and Romans appear to have been the rough equivalents of the kinnor and nebel, respectively. The former, which included a sound box made from a tortoise shell or wood formed into the shape of a shell, was said to have been discovered by the god Hermes. While traveling along a riverbank, he was attracted by a beautiful sound and when he went to investigate he found that the wind was blowing tendons that had been stretched across a tortoise shell. From this he fashioned the first chelys to be played by gods and men. The kithara, however, was a more elevated instrument of wooden construction associated with Apollo and the Muses as patrons of culture and the arts. Indeed, music lessons on the kithara or chelys were a staple of state education programs for citizens of the ancient Greek cities. The important role of music in Greek education is underlined by coins of the Bithynian king Prusias II that depict Chiron, the centaur tutor of Herakles, playing a kithara. The instrument is the only element of the type that allows the viewer to identify the subject as the educator Chiron and not some other centaur.

Fig. 5: ANS 1967.152.280

Apollo is a ubiquitous deity on Greek coins struck in the Classical and Hellenistic periods and even under the Roman Empire, who often appears in his role as Kitharoidos—the kithara player. His kithara is also depicted on coins, often paired with the head of its divine player or by itself, as on early coins of Delos, the island of Apollo’s birth. Less commonly, even great human lyric poets or the Muses who inspired them to greatness appear on Greek and Roman coins. Sappho is shown playing a kithara on coins of Mytilene in the Roman period as a means of advertising the cultural importance of the city while Terpsichore, Kalliope, and Erato, the respective Muses of choral song, epic poetry, and love poetry appear holding a kithara (Kalliope) or chelys (Terpsichore and Kalliope) on coins of the Roman Republican moneyer Q. Pomponius Musa as an extended pun on his cognomen Musa.

Fig. 6: ANS 1944.100.2329

While Leonard Cohen attributes a single secret chord to David in his song, the numerous symbolic uses to which harps, lyres, and their players were put on coins of ancient and more modern times would seem to suggest that through the ages there were in fact many such chords aimed at pleasing the mortal as well as the divine.