The Mysteries of ‘Feudal’ Coinage

At the intersection of my work on ideology and the legitimation of power and my training as, in part, an historian of Anglo-Saxon England is a conviction that I should be getting more out of the coinage evidence than I am. Anglo-Saxonists, after all, have very sexy money. Check this out, for example.

This is the so-called Agnus Dei coinage of King Æthelred the Unready, issued in around 1009. There aren’t a lot of these, and it seems likely that they were issued originally as a part of a royally-sponsored programme of penitence and supplication intended to propitiate God and free England from Viking raids. It’s rare to be able to connect programmatic texts and objects in this way, and it’s a fascinating sign of a broad-spectrum ideological offensive which is hard to parallel from my material. (Although, there is one and it is on my agenda to talk about it at some point…)

Doing this with the tenth century is, as you might imagine, difficult. First, finding the material is difficult. There’s no central database, or even a particularly recent book, which can help you orient yourself.  Second, though, there’s a pre-existing narrative around this material which runs roughly as follows. Under the Good Carolingians, the kings control the coinage and this is Strong Government and is Proper. After around 870 or so, the Bad Carolingians mess everything up by being Weak, and so they lose control of the centrally-regulated coinage and by the tenth century Feudal Aristocrats are minting their own coins to show that they are the real kings now.

So far, so eye-rollingly nineteenth century, but this is still more-or-less what very respected numismatists are saying. Simon Coupland has recently highlighted a very peculiar issue from Langres, datable to c. 910 or so.

coins of langres
Image is Coupland, ‘Seven Recent Carolingian Hoards’, as linked above, plate 52 nos 11 and 12.

Coupland describes these coins as ‘a symbol of the increasing power and ambition of regional magnates at a time when Carolingian royal power was weakened’, and this can’t be right because as we’ve been seeing, the church of Langres has spent the best part of thirty years bedded in tightly to the royal centre. Even if – if! – that’s changing as Burgundy falls increasingly under the sway of Richard the Justiciar, it’s still what basically everyone there is used to. Charles the Simple was specially-commissioned by the pope to intervene in the election of the bishop who issued these coins in 900 (as we will see on Charter a Week in a month or so), and that bishop also received a royal diploma in 907. Now, I don’t have a better argument for these odd little coins – maybe a celebration of a Frankish victory against Vikings – but Coupland’s doesn’t make sense in the context of the late Carolingian world. And so they remain an enigma…

Or take this other coin which has been annoying me, an issue of Duke William of Aquitaine (either William the Pious or William the Younger) from Brioude.

AUVERGNE - GUILLAUME II ET SES SUCCESSEURS Denier TTB
(Source)

This money always gets mentioned because it’s the first time a non-royal lay ruler takes the king’s name off the coins and puts their own on them. It’s even on the Wikipedia page. And you’d have thought this would be a big deal perhaps requiring some kind of expansive ideological statement, but no: the designs are generic and William claims no title for himself more exalted than ‘count’. This is strange, because if there’s one place I’d expect coinage to function as a way to communicate a magnate’s specifically quasi-royal authority, it’d be Aquitaine… The significance must therefore be quite simply the fact that William did it, and that’s not nothing, but I’m still puzzled why, at the least, he didn’t claim to be dux. Not least, that’d surely require the die-cutter to make fewer changes…

The non-royal coinages of the tenth century, in general, puzzle me more for the reason the Brioude coins do than the Langres mystery. It does seem, in general, that coinage should say something about the authority of those in whose name it is issued. And yet, in tenth-century Gaul, it only occasionally does in any clearly-readable way. I continue to work on this problem, but as of 2019, it continues to puzzle me…

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