Tag Archives: medieval

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.

Denari Provisini of the Roman Commune

This is the third in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

The denaro provisino was one of the most widespread issues in Central Italy during the Late Middle Ages. Minted by Rome between 1186 and 1398, these small silver coins were characterized by a comb surmounted by an ‘S’ and symbols on the obverse. The reverse featured a cross surrounded by symbols in combinations that varied over time. Since the provisino is one of the very few informative artifacts from the Roman Middle, and they give us a better understanding of the economic history of Rome in this period.

Wikipedia

The design of the provisino was based on the type minted in Provins for the Counts of Champagne (NE France), which was known as denier provinois.  The wool comb on the reverse of this denier showed a wool comb, a reference to one of the main industries in Provins. It was circulating widely in Central Italy by the mid-12th century and the Roman mint simply copied it because it was an established type.

Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300, Archivio de Stato
Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300,
Archivio de Stato

Although the Roman provisino never changed its basic type, the shape of the comb and other elements changed over the years. These changes in design allow us to reconstruct a relative chronology for the issue. The ANS collection holds two examples of provisini. The first  was minted between the very last years of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. This dating of the coin comes courtesy of metallurgical analysis carried out by Angelo Finetti in the Istituto di Scienza della Terra of Perugia University in 2000. Many examples of the type were also found in excavations conducted by the École Française de Rome at the fortified settlement of Caprignano (Casperia, prov. Rieti) in strata immediately antedating the destruction of the place in 1307.

ANS, 1939.156.5
ANS, 1939.156.5

In this period the obverse of the provisino showed a wool comb surmounted by an ‘S’, a clear reference to the Roman Senate, between a star and crescent. The legend reads +SENAT’P.Q.R. (Senat[us] P[opolus]q[ue] R[omanus]). The reverse has the legend +ROMA.CAPVD.M’ (Roma Capud M[undi]) with a cross surrounded by symbols. Three variants have been recognized, based around the different symbols in the quarters around the cross:

  • Cross with two pellets in the 1st and 4th quarters
  • Cross with misshapened omega and star in 2nd and 3rd quarters
  • Plain cross

The coin above is of the second variant. The metrological evidence indicates that these were struck in large quantities over a relatively short period of time. The most likely occasion was the First Jubilee of 1300, which was accompanied by a massive building program. This, together with the presence of numerous pilgrims and others into Rome, would certainly have created a great need for petty cash. While these coins are hardly attractive to modern eyes, they offer a window into a forgotten era of the history of Rome.

For more examples of provisini held by Italian museums, see the online database of the Capitoline Museum.

Mariele Valci