Tag Archives: castile

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.

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).