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The Art of Reading In The Middle Ages

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In the Middle Ages, coins were used to measure how much things were worth.They were also used as tokens of personal and territorial identity, of security and of collective memory. Coins were used for buying and selling goods and calculating wealth, but they were also used for expressing ideas of faith, power and authority. Coins were a very important part of the medieval visual world.

The earliest coins were worth as much as the substance that they were made out of. They could be made out of gold, silver, bronze, or of a mix of different metals (Gold coins were, of course, the most valuable). With time, signs and symbols began to appear, and just like with written language, they expressed the coin's origin, value and authority.In fact, for the ancient Greeks, money was similar to language: The Greek word Sēmē means both "word" and "coin".Words and symbols guaranteed that with a certain coin one could exchange very different things such as wheat and fish for fabric and beer.

Coins were (and still are) very important in organising human activities.They were produced by the thousands, and their design had to be clear, easily copied and easily recognisable; familiarity was usually more important than variety. For most people, coins may have been the only image of political authority that they were likely to see, and probably the only writing as well.Both the image and the text guaranteed the value and authenticity of a certain coin, and being able to recognise one was just as important as being able to read the other.

Coins were emitted by rulers (kings, lords and bishops), and produced in mints, workshops that cut and stamped them out of sheets of metal with iron or steel punches. Mints were usually located in centres of power, cities along rivers and frontiers, often marking where one territory began and where another ended.

Click on the arrows to discover the different parts of the coin!

Medieval coins were very similar to the coins that we still use today, they had:- A front side or obverse (This is the “heads” you call when you flip a coin!) - A back side or reverse (The "tails") - An edge or border, usually full of ridges- A rim, the part of the edge that is slightly raised so that the image doesn’t wear down- A relief, usually an image of a king, ruler or city authority, a cross, architecture or a symbolic animal- A legend, inscription with the name of the ruler or of the territory the coin belongs to (Which in Europe, was usually expressed in Latin) - A mint mark, if present, indicates in which workshop the coin was minted

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Byzantine coin

New coins closely copied both Roman and Byzantine imperial tradition, but with more stylized heads, animals and abstract patterns that we often find in early medieval manuscripts.

It was believed that the more similar they looked to old imperial coins, the more powerful and valuable they were. These early medieval workshops were scattered, and produced coins of varying form and weight.

Coins have been around since the 7th century before our era. In the late Roman Empire, they were produced by the ruling authorities, with identifying inscriptions and images. They also had crosses, saints and religious invocations that linked them to the Christian tradition. Roman coins continued to be used after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Between the 10th and 12th centuries, counts, dukes, bishops and abbots started receiving the right to emit their own coins.With their coins, these ruling authorities often sought to represent their identity or their history. These coins were meant to promote a certain sense of economic and political community.

Carolingian denarius

The denarius became the model for the German pfennig, the English penny, and the French denier.

In the second half of the 8th century AD, the Carolingian dynasty created a standard mint system, issuing a new silver coin called denarius.The denarius was used all over Europe, and it had very simple and distinctive graphics: The royal monograms, the word REX (king), a mint mark and Christian symbols like the cross, the bishop’s staff, a temple, a ship, or the image of the ruler.

In this coin, Saint Stephen answers to his calling. His arms are open and he looks up to the hand of God.

Sometimes, a coin could rewrite history and sometimes it could tell a whole story...In the 12th century, the episcopal city of Halberstadt was worried that it was losing its importance, so it decided to buy the relics of Saint Stephen. Saint Stephen’s relics were meant to bring back the city's ancient glory, so two of its bishops, Ulrich I and Gero, decided to issue a series of coins that would tell the Saint's story:

This last coin shows the bishop holding the book of gospels under the city gates. Above him is Saint Stephen, looking over the city because he is now its patron saint.

This coin depicts the saint lying in his tomb with a set of stones hovering over him, his soul ascends towards the sky where two angels await him.

In this coin, a bishop kneels (with his crosier in hand) before Saint Stephen (to the right holding a book). Both are surrounded by the stones that represent the way the saint died.

This coin shows the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, with a group of characters throwing rocks at him.

Kings started to closely organise and control what coins were produced, where they were minted, in what quantities, of what value and what they looked like.

The Florentine florin was so important that it became standardised all over Europe. It depicted Saint John the Baptist on one side and a fleur-de-lys on the other. All cities emitted the florin by copying this model. However, some places changed both the saint and the symbol in order to link the coin to their territory’s specific circumstances.

The Halberstadt coins show us that looking at images was just another way of reading in the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, towns and markets started growing and people wanted to be able to buy more things. Markets became international and the silver denarius came into contact with more powerful coins: the Byzantine solidi, the Arabian dinars, the Spanish maravedis and Sicilian augustali.It was time to make larger and more valuable silver and gold coins such as the grosso, the florin and the ducat.

Click and drag the coins to reveal the drawing underneath!

We know, for example, that in the 14th century, England emitted a coin called the noble, which pictured a small ship bearing the king. This image was meant to remind the holder of the naval victories that England was having in their ongoing war with France, the Hundred Years War. Around the same time, France emitted the Ecu (meaning shield). It depicted the king of France holding a shield while sitting on an elaborate gothic throne. This coin was meant to remind the coin's holder of the power of the French monarchy.

There came to be so many different types of coins, that one had to recur to a money changer to find out how much their money was worth and exchange one coin for another.Changers had registers with detailed drawings of each coin in circulation.Each coin was accompanied by a description that mentioned its weight, its title and its worth. These books give us valuable information on what coins were circulating around Europe in the Middle Ages.

So many different coins went into circulation that most people needed a money changer to know how much each coin was worth and whether or not it was authentic.

Click and drag the coins to reveal the drawing underneath!

The battle between British and French coins continued until the death of Edward III in 1377 and the emission of his last coin, the guyennois. This new coin depicted King Edward as a knight, fully armed and stealthily entering through a gothic gate as if seiging a city.This coin was emitted in response to the franc à cheval that depicted the French king gallantly riding into battle on a horse dressed with the fleur-de-lys, the symbol of the French crown.

As the Hundred Years War continued, the French crown issued a gold coin with the image of a lamb. So, in Aquitaine (where most of the fighting between the French and the British was taking place) England emitted another coin as an act of defiance: Edward III responded by creating a gold coin with the Plantagenet heraldic animal, the leopard.

Kings knew that coins could be read and interpreted by everyday people, and that they could act as a link between the state and the community. Coins were great propaganda, because they could be used to tell about important events: fairs, wars, incursions, coronations and deaths. In fact, coins can tell us a lot about the time they were emitted, a country’s economy, commercial routes and circulation of people, their language and their beliefs.

Coins traveled very far. Pilgrims travelled all over Europe to visit shrines and relics, and they would carry gold and silver coins that they could exchange for local currency with the help of money exchangers.Some coins were worth so little that they weren’t exchangeable outside of certain local markets, small towns and villages. It didn't make sense to travel with these coins to foreign lands; however, these low-value coins have been found in pilgrimage sites all over Europe.

These coins were purposefully brought along as small offerings bearing the image of one’s country and community. They were a token of identity and memory, that could be left behind and forever connect the pilgrim to the shrine or to the saint it belonged to. They were more like little medals than actual coins.

Medieval coins show us that communication through both text and image was not restricted to books. Coins represented the authority of the issuer and of the territory where they came from. Within medieval coins text and image were connected: images were accompanied by legends and signs of origin and belonging. Coins are tiny historical monuments, material witnesses of how medieval people thought and how they recognised and understood the world.



Creator: Paloma Pucci

To further explore the coins featured in this activity: This interactive activity has been created as part of the ARMA (The Art of Reading in the Middle Ages) project, the aim of which is to engage a variety of audiences by publishing content using digitised manuscript and coin collections from libraries and museums across Europe, and using them to create educational and editorial content.

The Art of Reading In The Middle Ages