A new look on Merovingian coinage

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April 6, 2017 – Why write a book about Merovingian coinage, when according to popular belief it was so rare? Moreover, why limit this book to the age of silver (ca 670-750)? In fact, these coins are now known in significant numbers. If for instance we consider only the coins minted in Touraine (that is to say, the département of Indre-et-Loire), this catalogue lists more than 250 coins, including 25 bracteate oboles (half deniers), all of them illustrated. This figure includes more than 130 deniers of a type which was undoubtedly minted in Touraine. In addition, over 100 deniers bearing a large globule and a pentalpha include a number definitely struck in or near Tours, since they bear the mint name Saint Martin, although it is uncertain whether this refers to Tours or Chinon. The latter type is the only one for which oboles are known. Another 50 or so deniers which were not minted in Touraine but which have previously been attributed to the region have also been included in the study, and a number of these reassigned to Quentovic, Maastricht or Troyes.

Philippe Schiesser, Monnaies et circulation monétaire mérovingiennes (vers 670-vers 750). Les monnayages d’argent de Touraine. RTSENA 7. Sena 2017. A4, Paperback, 240 p. 40 euros (France), 45 euros (abroad).

The study examines all the known coin finds from this period in Touraine, including not only deniers and oboles but also contemporary foreign coins (sceattas and thrymsas represent 4.3% of the single finds). Nearly a hundred single finds are listed, as well as the 45 coins in the Savonnières hoard, giving an overall total for the county of 132 deniers and 7 oboles (7.5% of the single finds).

It is thus no longer possible to consider Merovingian silver coins as rare or unusual. They are found in large numbers of various different types, and the list of surviving specimens continues to grow.

The historical context of the region is also discussed, together with the issue of who minted coinage at this time. The range of authorities and their distribution across the whole of the region will become clear, even if fewer places are named on the coins than in the preceding period, when the coins being minted were gold. 

The minting of coins in Touraine seems to follow a pattern that can also be observed in other mints. The coins brought together here reveal that there was an important visual continuity between the various successive types. It was evidently judged desirable not to alarm the public by dramatic changes, and instead to facilitate the circulation of new types by retaining stylistic similarity. The earliest silver coins are the ‘large deniers’ (16-17 mm). They belong to a series marking the transition from gold to silver: the same phenomenon can be seen at, for example, Reims. Coins of one and the same type are found in both metals, and in certain cases they are even from the same moneyer or in the same style. One of the types bears a complex monogram which is also found on a denier of standard size (11-12 mm) in the name of the same moneyer. The monogram subsequently becomes simpler and is used across the different mints of the region, such as for example Amboise and Bourgueil. The introduction of the type bearing a large globule in a beaded circle and pentalpha seems to mark a break with tradition. Nonetheless, it is present in the Savonnières hoard among others, and it is only the disappearance of the portrait which is truly novel. The transition from Merovingian to royal Carolingian coinage at Tours is marked by stylistic continuity in the form of the retention of the type with a large globule in a beaded circle. Again, the same phenomenon can be observed at other mints. 

The links between the different coinage types allow us to establish a relative chronology. The Touraine types are found in large numbers in certain hoards but not at all in others, without this apparently corresponding to any clear logic. It is therefore not possible to establish an absolute chronology. 

The geographical distribution of the finds in Touraine clearly shows continuity in the use of coin in secondary Roman settlements. Only a small number of coin finds are recorded in the capital city, Tours, even though it was the primary mint at this time. A larger number of finds are known along the Loire and the Vienne, and there is a significant concentration in the area between these two rivers.

The large number of coins, and particularly the fact that for so many both the mint and the find spot are known, makes it possible to plot monetary circulation at the time. Around half of the Merovingian silver coins were found less than a hundred kilometres from where they were minted, and almost all the coins ended up within three hundred and fifty kilometres of their mint, irrespective of whether they were minted or discovered in Touraine. This brings out the fact that there were three principal currency pools during this period. One consisted of central Gaul, including Touraine. The second was in the north, where Frisian, British and Merovingian sceattas circulated, and the third corresponds to the patriciate of Provence. Circulation was thus apparently predominantly regional. 

This makes it easier to understand how the type bearing a large globule in a pelleted circle and a pentalpha could have been minted in at least two different cities. It benefitted from the limited circulation within these currency pools, which made it easier for this easily recognisable type to be accepted. Touraine lay at the heart of the central Gaul zone. It is the only region in which mints are known to have struck bracteate Merovingian oboles (at Touraine, Melle, Poitiers, Bourges, and perhaps also Orléans). From the Carolingian period bracteate oboles are known from Melle, Angers and Saint-Maixent (Deux-Sèvres). The distribution map of finds of Merovingian deniers from Rennes and Paris, together with French hoards, confirm the existence of this regional currency pool in central Gaul, which included Neustria and northern Aquitaine. Where this zone ended to the south is unclear. The Plassac hoard seems an isolated case, and only two or three deniers are known from Bordeaux. However, Melle and Poitiers undoubtedly formed part of this central Gaul pool.

Another currency pool, further to the north, is that of the sceattas, effectively another name for deniers. The border between the zone where sceattas dominated the currency and that where central Gaulish deniers were in circulation was, according to Michael Metcalf and Wybrand Op den Velde, ‘an imaginary line between Le Havre and Liège / Maastricht’. This line takes into account the location of the northernmost Merovingian mints, and is just under three hundred and fifty kilometres north of Tours. The reattribution of certain sceattas to Quentovic means that this zone included the whole of northern France.

The patriciate of Provence appears to have formed a third currency pool, in which no bracteate oboles were minted. The Nice-Cimiez hoard, like that from Savonnières, gives the impression of limited regional circulation, in that it is almost exclusively composed of coins minted in the Provencal patriciate. Coins of the Marseille mint alone account for over three-quarters of the hoard. 

Certain circulation patterns are apparent within the central Gaul currency pool. Coins from Aquitaine, struck from silver mined in Melle, follow the river Vienne northwards and feed into Touraine. Meanwhile coins from Touraine make few inroads into Aquitaine and are primarily found to the north, that is, in Neustria and the Loire valley. Some specimens even travelled as far as England and northern Germany. Distribution maps show clear signs of a flow of coin from the south to the north, following the rivers.

The very large number of coin finds and various references to payments in silver show that coinage was used to a greater extent in this period than has generally been recognised. The minting of oboles, half pennies, also demonstrates the need to have a lower denomination currency for everyday transactions. There was undoubtedly a significant monetary economy during the first half of the 8th century, at least in the region where oboles were being minted, near the mine at Melle, in the heart of the central Gaulish currency zone.

This volume thus profoundly changes the traditional picture of the coinage and level of monetization of the Merovingian age of silver (ca 670-750).

For more information on the book go to the website of the publishing association Sena.