Coins and Coinage

Coins and Coinage
   An important method of exchange, coins were minted by the Roman emperors and the various barbarian kings that succeeded them. Coins were minted in gold, silver, and bronze, and their values and uses varied from time to time and place to place. They were used as a medium of exchange between kingdoms, bishoprics, duchies, and counties. Control of the coinage was a great concern for the barbarian rulers of the early Middle Ages, as it had been of the emperors, but the successor kings had less success that their imperial predecessors. Later kings, however, did manage to assume greater control of the coinage and instituted important reforms to make their coins more stable and useful. The gold coin continued to be the standard, but its use was limited to large-scale exchange; it was not used for local commerce. The introduction of the silver coin by Carolingian monarchs and others facilitated local trade and contributed to, and reveals the existence of, economic growth.
   The Romans, as in many other areas, established important precedents for the Germanic successor kingdoms in terms of coins and coinage. The Germanic successor kings learned much from the Romans about coinage, which underwent important reforms during the reigns of Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine. Although he met with little success in his efforts to institute a major reform of the coin because of a lack of precious metals, Diocletian did introduced new copper and silver coins. He also established a significant change in the production of coins by bringing a number of regional mints under imperial control. His reforms strengthened the coin and made its value, which had suffered a dramatic political and economic collapse in the generations before Diocletian's reign, more uniform across the empire.
   Even more significant for the future of Roman, Byzantine, and German coinage was the reform of Constantine, who introduced a coin that became the standard for centuries to come. Building upon Diocletian's efforts, Constantine produced a new gold coin, the solidus, which retained its value and purity well into the Middle Ages; it was minted at 72 coins to the pound of gold. This coin was an important tool of the government, which used it to pay the soldiers' salaries, and archeological discoveries reveal that it was widely circulated. Another popular and commonly used coin was the triens or tremissis, which was based on the solidus. The triens valued at one third of the solidus and was originally minted in gold and later minted in a mixture of gold and silver. The Romans also used coins of bronze and, for a time in the second half of the fourth century, silver. The bronze coins were plentiful, but often debased in value. Roman coinage is noted for its symbolism, consisting of striking images of the emperors as well as Christian symbols, which thus conveyed the central political and religious ideologies of the empire.
   The various Germanic kings who assumed control over parts of the Western Empire inherited the tradition of coinage from the Romans, even though their coins lacked the stability and uniformity of the Roman precedents. These kings not only inherited the practice of coinage from the Romans, but until the sixth century they continued to mint coins in the name of the emperor, now resident in Constantinople. Among the various peoples that took control of the Western Empire, the Vandals and Ostrogoths most closely adhered to imperial traditions, minting in gold, silver, and bronze, and issuing their version of the triens. The Vandal kings who issued coins include Gunthamund (r. 484-496) and Hilderic (r. 523-530), who issued silver and bronze coins with their own names on the coins but using imperial models, and the greatest of Vandal kings, Gaiseric (428-477), who may have issued gold coins.
   The Ostrogoths of Italy minted coins that imitated imperial models most closely, and Theodoric issued some fine coins based on Roman models. Other Germanic rulers of Italy also minted coins in imitation of their imperial predecessors. Odovacar minted coins in silver and bronze, and the Lombards issued highly imitative coins until the reforms of Cuncipert (r. 680-688 coruler, 688-700) established a uniquely Lombard version. In Spain, Visigothic kings, beginning with Leovigild, minted coins, issuing a thin, gold version of the triens, and they came to include their own names and the name of the town in which the coin was struck. The most important Spanish mints until the early eighth-century Islamic invasion were in Córdoba, Seville, Tarragona, and Toledo. The coins themselves in the sixth and seventh centuries were of relatively high value and used primarily for large-scale trade and government purposes; they were generally not used in local commerce, which contributed to the development of a barter economy at the local level.
   The history of coinage in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England followed a different path than that in the early continental Germanic kingdoms. In Roman Britain, coins were minted into the fourth century at London, but in the later fourth century the mint was closed down, and Britain depended upon mints in Gaul. In 395, the mints supplying Britain were closed, and no coins were imported for the next two centuries. By the seventh century, however, Merovingian coins began to appear in England and became the model for the thrymas, the Anglo-Saxon version of the triens. The solidus was also minted, but neither coin was minted in great number or had circulation beyond the kingdom of Kent. As the gold supply rapidly dwindled, Anglo-Saxon kings turned to a thick silver coin, the sceattas, which was very similar to Frankish issues on the continent. Further reforms of the coinage were undertaken in the eighth and ninth centuries by various Anglo-Saxon kings. Inspired by the Carolingian coins of Pippin III the Short, Offa of Mercia produced a silver coin that became the basis of the later English penny. Brilliantly decorated in an innovative style, the penny bore the image of Offa and his wife, Cynethryth, and other patterns not dependent on Roman models. Offa's penny, which came to be valued at 12 to the shilling and 240 to the pound, was copied by the rulers of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as well as the Viking conquerors of the ninth and tenth centuries.
   In the Frankish lands, Merovingian and Carolingian kings issued a number of coins and introduced important reforms of the coin. Merovingian kings, beginning with Clovis (r. 481-511), minted coins based on late Roman and Byzantine models. Clovis and his successors issued both the solidus and triens; the former was the standard coin, but the latter was more common. Merovingian coins were mainly minted in gold, but issues in silver and copper existed in small numbers. The Salic law, for example, lists fines that describe a silver coin, the denarius, forty of which equaled a solidus. The coins were originally issued with the image of a current or previous emperor and the Byzantine symbol of victory, but by the mid-sixth century Merovingian kings had begun to impress their own names on their coins, rather than that of the emperor. Merovingian coinage increasingly diverged from late Roman imperial models after the mid-sixth century, and the coin itself was increasingly debased, in part because of the proliferation of mints and the lack of control over them exercised by the kings. By the end of the Merovingian dynasty in the eighth century, the gold coinage was virtually replaced by a silver coinage.
   Frankish coinage underwent a major reform just as Frankish society did in the mid-eighth century, as a new dynasty, the Carolingian, took the throne. The first Carolingian king, Pippin the Short, reasserted royal control over the numerous mints in the kingdom, eliminated private mints, reduced the number of mints in the kingdom, and made the production of coinage solely a royal right. He also replaced the much debased gold coinage with a new silver coin, the denarius, and struck them with the king's name. Even greater and more influential reforms of the coinage were undertaken by Pippin's son, Charlemagne. In the 790s, Charlemagne reformed the coinage throughout the realm and increased the weight of the coin. The basic coin was the denarius, or penny; it was of pure silver and measured roughly three-quarters of an inch in diameter, with a weight of 1.7 grams. The coins were struck in some fifty mints in such towns as Aachen, Cologne, and Mainz and bore one of three designs: a stylized version of the king's name in Latin (Carolus), a temple, and, rarely, a portrait. Charlemagne also developed an accounting system for the coinage in which twelve pennies equaled a solidus or shilling and twenty shillings equaled a libra, or pound. His coin and accounting system remained the basis for European coinage until the thirteenth century.
   Although it remained the standard, Charlemagne's coinage suffered somewhat during the ninth century. During the reign of Louis the Pious a small number of private mints appeared, and later Carolingian kings granted the right to mint to archbishops and other ecclesiastical leaders. And in Italy, even in Charlemagne's time, the coinage was not always consistent with Carolingian models. It was during the reign of Charlemagne's good friend, Pope Hadrian I, that the papacy began to strike coins. Papal coins followed Roman and Byzantine imperial models, but after Charlemagne's first visit to Rome included the Carolingian king or emperor's name along with the papal monogram. Papal and Carolingian symbols appeared together until 904, when only the name of the pope appeared on the coin.
   See also
 ♦ Blackburn, Mark A. S., ed. Anglo-Saxon Monetary History: Essays in Memory of Michael Dolley. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1986.
 ♦ Bursche, Aleksander. Later Roman-Barbarian Contacts in Central Europe: Numismatic Evidence. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1996.
 ♦ Dolley, Reginald H. Michael ed. Anglo-Saxon Coins: Studies Presented to F. M. Stenton. London: Methuen, 1961.
 ♦ Grierson, Philip, and Mark Blackburn. Medieval European Coinage. Vol. 1, The Early Middle Ages (5th-10th Centuries). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
 ♦ Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Morrison, Karl F., and Henry Grunthal. Carolingian Coinage. New York: American Numismatic Society, 1967.
 ♦ Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne. Trans. Bernard Miall. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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