Collecting Medieval Coins

Coin collectors usually think of medieval coins as the hand-hammered, paper-thin coins of Europe, although this is a narrow view of what is available to be collected. Both medieval Byzantine and Islamic coins are available as well. The Byzantine Empire began its life as the Eastern Roman Empire and for that reason is typically treated as an area of ancient collecting. Islamic coinage is typically ignored as a separate collecting area. Many issues of India from the same period are also considered medieval coins.

In general, medieval coinage begins with the fall of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476 and continues until each individual coin-issuing entity began to use machines rather than manpower alone to produce its coinage.

Medieval Coin History

Silver rather than gold coins dominate the medieval period of European numismatics. However, Islamic and Byzantine coins are dominated by gold. Medieval European coin collecting is not a particularly popular area since most of the coins appear to be very similar until studied closely. They are unattractive crudely struck paper-thin coins often merely depicting a cross on one or both sides.

Medieval Coin Theme Collecting

Most collectors of medieval European coins collect deniers of various rulers. The English and French coinage systems were sufficiently organized that collecting a sample coin of each ruler is a possible collecting theme, but many collectors concentrate on the more famous personalities in whose name coins were struck. These include Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa.

Collectors typically collect Byzantine coins in a similar manner to how Roman coins are collected—attempting to assemble a set of coins in which each piece represents a different ruler.

Medieval Coin Denominations

Gold coins typically encountered are the solidus, semissis (half solidus), and tremissis (third solidus). Silver coins are the miliarense (1/12 solidus) and its half, the siliqua. Although there are a number of small denomination bronze or copper coins, the most commonly encountered coins will be the follies (180 to the gold solidus) and the nummus (7,200 to the gold solidus). This coinage system was used in the later Roman Empire, then in the Byzantine Empire, with parts of the system being borrowed for use in other medieval European countries as they evolved.

Although there were many coin denominations issued during the medieval period of European coinage, the most commonly encountered are the following.

  • Bracteates: These paper-thin silver coins have an image on one side that is struck through so as to show the same image in retrograde on the other side.

  • Deniers: This is a small silver coin known in some countries as the pfennig, penny, and the like. This is the basic coin of the medieval coinage system.

  • Obols: This is a half denier.

  • Groschen: These large silver coins appeared late in the medieval period, following the discovery of significant silver deposits.

  • Talers: Praguer groschen of 12 pfennig value introduced in 1300.

Medieval Coin Identification

The most commonly encountered coin is the silver denier, based on the Roman coin denomination the denarius. These medieval coins typically include Gothic or similar character inscriptions that are often in Latin. Since many of them are abbreviated due to the small diameter of the coins, it's very challenging to read them.

On occasion the iconography/heraldic devices can assist in identifying such coins, but it takes practice coupled with the use of several specialized books on the subject for the average collector.

Medieval Coin Dating

We take it for granted today that our coins carry the year in which they were produced, but this wasn't always so. It is generally accepted that the first modern Christian dated coin in Europe is an obscure issue of Valdemar II of Denmark dated 1234. Dating of coins didn't become commonplace until after 1501, so all Christian dated coins prior to this are collectible. The most commonly encountered coins will likely be those of Saxony. Many early Christian dated coins prior to 1501 are known from only a few examples, however this isn't a popularly collected field, so coin prices are very reasonable.

Many Byzantine coins can be dated by the regnal year (year of the reign of the emperor named on the coin) expressed in Roman or Greek numerals. Mint marks and even the individual mint shop within the mint can often be identified as well.

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