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The gold coin of Kent (ut aureum illud nomisma, quod eo de Cantia)


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In his famous work, "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum", or "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People", written around 730 (ironically long before there was a unified "England" or concept of nationhood), the Venerable Bede relates a number of stories, but one minor one has a small connection to coins.  In the story, a hagiographic account of an early Christian saint, he describes a certain holy woman named Earcongota.  This woman was the daughter of the king of Kent, Eorcenberht (reigned 640-665).  She was sent to a monastery in France, and while she may not have had the life she desired, she also may have lived a better life than most medieval princesses.  Little fact is known of her, but Bede remembers her as a holy woman who performed miracles.  Standard fare for early medieval saints.  But an interesting passage stands out for the student of numismatics.  Earcongota was reaching the end of her life and had a vision.  She saw men clad in white coming to her abbey, and when they were asked why they had come, these men replied that they had been sent to take the gold coin that had been sent from Kent.

The gold coin, of course, is a metaphor, for Earcongota herself, a Kentish princess, and the men in white would presumably be otherworldly.  But while gold is precious, the specific referral to a gold coin from Kent (ut aureum illud nomisma, quod eo de Cantia) rather than anything else made of precious metal, suggests that such a specific item would have been known to a contemporary of Bede himself.  Bede did not live in Kent, but rather in the north of England in what was known as Northumbria.  Kent and Northumbria were separate kingdoms, but trade between the kingdoms led to general acceptance of currency outside of the borders.  As these events (Earcongota's life and death and the coinage) fell within his lifetime, Bede himself would probably have been aware of such a gold coin that was made in Kent.

The first coins of Saxon England were indeed made of gold, produced in the late 6th century, and were imitations of Roman coins.  A particularly significant piece names a bishop- Liudhard, who was the personal bishop to Queen Bertha of Kent, a Frankish princess, and wife of Aethelberht, king of Kent.  This unique coin, mounted for suspension and probably more appropriately called a medalet rather than a coin, is in the British Museum.  It is believed that Aethelberht and Bertha's son, Eadbald, introduced the circulating gold coinage of Kent some time in the 620s.

The early coinage of Kent was in the form of gold tremisses, called thrymsas.  It is frequently divided into phases, but this division is tricky.  It is generally based on the gold purity and a very limited hoard evidence, but this too is problematic, something I will try to dig into later.  The gold debasement tends to follow the Frankish coinage, though perhaps too much reliance is placed on this parallel evidence.  However, for continuity with the literature, I will present the current understanding:

Phase 1 (590-630)
Higher weight solidus-type coins and a few early high gold purity tremissis-type coins (thrymsas)

Phase 2 (630-650)
Higher purity gold tremissis-type coins (thrymsas)

Phase 3 (650-675)
Lower purity gold tremissis-type coins (thrymsas)

Phase 4 (680-750)
Silver siliqua-type coins (sceattas)

Immediately after the words come to the page, there are obvious problems.  The nomenclature of sceattas, thrymsas, etc. are not contemporary.  There were transitional periods such as between 675-680 where the same types were being manufactured in both gold and silver.  Coins made outside of Kent, such as those from East Anglia and Northumbria, may not have followed the same phases of production.  Certain varieties, produced from the same die pairs even, can vary greatly in their gold content.  Only one major hoard of these coins is known, found nearly 200 years ago, and while study of the Crondall hoard is critical to the understanding of these coins, it has perhaps overly skewed our view on the potential origin and dating of the different varieties.

But these limitations in the understanding do not limit the scholar and collector interest in these coins.  English tremisses (thrymsas), sometimes called gold shillings are popular and ever more expensive to collect.  They are found occasionally by metal detectorists, but remain overall very rare, with only a few hundred total known, with most being museum specimens.  The majority of those known are also of the later debased coinage, while the earlier examples are often extremely rare, most with less than 10 known per variety, and some unique.

Here is an example of one of the more common types, and a later variety.  The so-called "two emperor" type, coping old Roman designs of the late 4th century.

thrymsa-2c.jpg.21a5e243399391b0d8c6ddb1dc2f3fef.jpg

 

This coin falls into the 3rd phase of early Saxon coin production, from 650-675, that of the pale gold types, and with a fairly numerous amount of specimens (probably 50+) and many different dies known, this type might have been produced for a number of years.  Some of this type were even made in nearly pure silver.

Most likely, the two-emperor thrymsa, or a similar contemporary type, would have been the one referred to by Bede, as the "gold coin of Kent" metaphor.

By the time that Venerable Bede was writing, the gold coinage in England was extinguished, in favor of the silver sceatta, in both Kent and Northumbria.  But it was in living memory, much like 90% United States silver coinage remains in our memory, and Bede invokes its legacy as a reminder of something precious.

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Wow, Wow, Wow, and a few more of those, @Nap.  A mind-blowing example ...but I still needed the 'heart eyes' imogee. 

It's kind of amazing that, granted that this interval was well before the broader shift in western Europe from gold to silver, anything resembling a continuation of the tremissis was still being issued as late as this.  (For comparison, here's my sole Aksumite /Axumite example, of Kaleb, who fl. c. 525.  Thank you, effectively at the opposite end of the operative landscape, where the original denomination was concerned.)

image.jpeg.292d899c065d0e3e3dabb3997b0c7486.jpeg

But from here, it's no less compelling that a iconic issue of AElfred of Wessex continued the reverse motif.  --Betting moneyI don't have tht you knew of this already.  And, Promise you, this is Not Mine!

http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/4.-Two-Emperors-c-Portable-Antiquities-Scheme.jpg

 

Edited by JeandAcre
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This kind of post allows me to get out some of the best coins in my collection...again 😁

Pale Gold Phase ‘Two Emperors’ Thrymsa, 645-675image.png.a620ee0e193b7c93c9d94f46993f61f9.pngKent. Gold, 13mm, 1.19g. Diademed and draped bust right; pseudo legend around. Two small busts facing; above, Victory with wings enfolding the figures; pellet to each side of Victory’s head (SCBC 767). Ex Jeroen de Wilde.

This is the style of Roman coin that was copied...

Magnus Maximus Solidus, 383-388image.png.d057719a4093381b29547c77f0346eed.pngAugusta/London. Gold, 21mm, 4.59g, 6h. Rosette-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust of Magnus Maximus right, seen from front; D N MAG MA-XIMVS P F AVG. Magnus Maximus and Theodosius I seated facing on double throne, jointly holding globe between them; half-length figure of Victory above facing between, vertical palm branch under throne; VICTOR-IA AVGG; AVGOB in exergue (RIC IX, 2b; Biaggi 2312 (this coin)). Ex Leo Biaggi de Blasys. NGC #6057866-002.

This is one of the transitional coins between thrymsa and sceatta...

Vanimundus Type 55, Variety VaB II Transitional Thrymsa, 675-760image.png.8b3f01b159b3f45fa42140278c03fcb7.pngLondon/Essex. Silver, 0.61g. Bust right, crested helmet, holding sceptre over shoulder; OT[ ] helm. Cross pattée in double beaded inner circle; [ ]MV[ ] (Vanimundus, moneyer) (S 772; SCBI 69, 28 this coin). Ex Tony Abramson; found at Debenham, Suffolk, early 2008, EMC 2009.0024.

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Awesome continuation of the theme, @John Conduitt.  I don't remember ever seeing an example of the actual Roman prototype.  Now it's making that much more sense that the Anglo-Saxons initiated the imitations in gold.  ...Wouldn't we like to know about the kinds of Roman hoards that were being found from the 6th-8th centuries!

By the same coin token, @Nap, I need to thank you for your valuable historical context, and your brilliantly and, for some of us, very helpfully concise explication of the major phases of mintage involved.  ...One detail that might warrant comment is the beginning of your OP:

"In his famous work, "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum", or "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People", written around 730 (ironically long before there was a unified "England" or concept of nationhood) (....)"

As you note, 'Anglorum' refers, specifially, to the English people.  With apologies for not citing the details, I've noticed that, in much later, roughly contemporaneous royal issues of Angevin England and Capetian France, the king's title (sometimes unabbreviated) is (...sometimes implicitly) 'Rex Anglorum' or 'Rex Francorum.'  This happens as late as the earlier 13th century.  It's only later that 'Angl(orum)' and 'Francorum' morph into the more substantive 'Anglie' and Francie,' referring to the country as a more or (esp. in France's case) less unitary political entity.  It's as though it was only as late as this that even the kings involved felt confident enough to assert both of the dynamics --political and ethnic cohesion-- that you so perceptively identify.  (Sorry, but, from the other side of the world, I don't get to talk with people on your level every day.)

Inviting speculation that when St. Bede, writing from from Northumbria (settled mainly by Angles), gave that title to his magnum opus, he was merely extrapolating his own ethnicity to the entire island --as a matter of rhetorical convenience, more than anything more substantive.  

...Precisely as you said.  But I also have to wonder how the (revisionism alert:) Anglo-Saxons perceived themselves, collectively, in historical 'real time.'  And, for that matter, how rapidly they pursued their own communal socio-cultural and genetic cohesion.  

One more random thing to throw out is that, once the smoke started to clear from the Viking settlement of the Danelaw, around the 10th century, Old English and Old Norse were still close enough to be mutually intelligable. 

I guess where I'm going here is that, where demographics were concerned, the full range of dynamics were substantively different from what's easy to even characterize with modern categories.

If this went on too long, and too redundantly, just, Please, don't throw anything too ripe!

Edited by JeandAcre
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6 hours ago, JeandAcre said:

As you note, 'Anglorum' refers, specifially, to the English people.  With apologies for not citing the details, I've noticed that, in much later, roughly contemporaneous royal issues of Angevin England and Capetian France, the king's title (sometimes unabbreviated) is (...sometimes implicitly) 'Rex Anglorum' or 'Rex Francorum.'  This happens as late as the earlier 13th century.  It's only later that 'Angl(orum)' and 'Francorum' morph into the more substantive 'Anglie' and Francie,' referring to the country as a more or (esp. in France's case) less unitary political entity.  It's as though it was only as late as this that even the kings involved felt confident enough to assert both of the dynamics --political and ethnic cohesion-- that you so perceptively identify.  (Sorry, but, from the other side of the world, I don't get to talk with people on your level every day.)

Inviting speculation that when St. Bede, writing from from Northumbria (settled mainly by Angles), gave that title to his magnum opus, he was merely extrapolating his own ethnicity to the entire island --as a matter of rhetorical convenience, more than anything more substantive.  

...Precisely as you said.  But I also have to wonder how the (revisionism alert:) Anglo-Saxons perceived themselves, collectively, in historical 'real time.'  And, for that matter, how rapidly they pursued their own communal socio-cultural and genetic cohesion.  

One more random thing to throw out is that, once the smoke started to clear from the Viking settlement of the Danelaw, around the 10th century, Old English and Old Norse were still close enough to be mutually intelligable. 

I guess where I'm going here is that, where demographics were concerned, the full range of dynamics were substantively different from what's easy to even characterize with modern categories.

If this went on too long, and too redundantly, just, Please, don't throw anything too ripe!

 

Great point.  The Northumbrians would have seen themselves as Anglians, and the modern shorthand calling all Anglo-Saxon people "Saxons" would have felt horribly out of place in Northumbria, or Mercia for that matter.

In the 8th century Offa would style himself "Rex Anglorum".

In the early 9th century, Ecgberht, and Aethelwulf of Wessex styled themselves "Rex Saxoniorum" on their coins.  They did not call themselves "Rex Anglorum".  Even the forward-thinking Alfred did not style himself as "Rex Angolorum", although I believe he may have used "Rex Anglorum et Saxonum", suggesting an inherent difference in the populations.  But this difference was likely political, rather than ethnic.

The word 'England', is of course related to 'Anglia'.  Saxons and Saxony ultimately were used to describe completely different things.

Some of these words are modern constructs, and I think people today put way too much emphasis on historic and current names for people that are different.  A person who lived from 1000-1070 would not have considered themselves an Anglo-Saxon, then an Anglo-Scandinavian, then an Anglo-Saxon again, and then a Norman, just because the leadership at the top changed a few times.

Bede's description of the history of the "Anglorum" refers to not just the people descended from the Anglian tribes (Northumbrians, Mercians), but to all people of Germanic and Celtic descent living on the island of Britain.  However Bede has much more source material available about his local folks than those elsewhere, and he's also human so there's a northern bias.

I have heard about the language similarities between contemporary Old English and Old Norse, and while I studied Old English some years ago, I have no experience with Old Norse.

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Presumably, ethnicity wasn't even discernable by 800, let alone 1000. By then, Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes had been arriving for 600 years - longer than emigration to the US today. The Vikings arrived in the 700s, and plenty of Merovingians crossed the Channel before that. I would guess even cultural differences would've been regional rather than ethnic, and different to the originating countries. Just as it is today.

Why 'England' caught on, I have no idea. Perhaps it was entirely due to Bede, who may not even have given it much thought. There may not have been a word for the English, because few people wrote about it before him. Even later monarchs referred to themselves as kings of 'England, Scotland, France and Ireland', without coming up with a term for all of them. Wales doesn't even get a mention, being assumed to be under England. Indeed, a couple of hundred years ago, it was normal to talk of England when you meant Britain.

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It's nothing short of gratifying to see both of you guys so engaged in my digressive ramblings, on such intelligent and informed levels.  I knew I liked this forum, but this takes it to a different level.  Many thanks for your insights!

(Edit:) @Nap, I'm on your page where Old English and Old Norse are concerned; all I could cite would be secondary sources.  But along the same lines, it's also fun that the same is reputedly true of Welsh and Breton.

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