Roman coins, Frankish imitations

The story of Europe’s medieval period is really the narrative of how a heavily forested, cold place gradually caught up with the habits and inventions of the Mediterranean cultures, and at last began to pass them. All but the fringes of the region knew from the start what they were trying to catch up with: Rome, with its roads, coins, letters, legions, forts, medicine, and chemistry. The coins of Rome came with the first legions and stayed around for a long time, so from the start, most of Europe used coins.

In the far north, gold and silver were valued only as personal decoration. Precious metals went into finger and arm rings, which were presented to successful fighters. These rings went into heavy locked chests, hoarded for later use in trade, as ransom, or to recycle into rewards for younger warriors. Ordinary trade didn’t use money in the far north, though Roman coins were of interest as trade items. Sometimes, the northerners drilled holes in Roman coins and strung them into necklaces. Mostly they added Roman silver and gold to their hoards. It took a long time for the far north to accept coins as pieces to trade off freely for things like cattle or boats.

In the Frankish heartland of early medieval Europe, Roman coins provided a model to the Merovingian kings. Unfortunately, it was many centuries until Europeans had the metalworking skill to equal Roman coins. Early medieval coins were clumsy, childlike imitations.

Roman and Greek coins were made from blank bronze, silver, or gold disks, called planchets. These disks were heated and struck while hot, so that the metal took a clear impression before cooling. Stamping dies were well-carved, with high relief and precision in their letters and images. When a coin cooled, its impression remained through centuries of handling.

Early Europe tried to imitate the coins, but it seems unlikely that they had the opportunity to learn the technique from Romans. Instead of starting with blank disks, they started with a large sheet of silver. Their stamping dies were made of iron, and the designs and letters had low relief and poor uniformity and accuracy. Letters often came out backwards, and they were hard to read since they had been stamped into the die with cutters made of set shapes like curves, bars and wedges. Images of kingsheads were simple and clumsy compared to Greek and Roman bas-relief art.

Coins from the Dark Ages typically bulged on one side, as the die had tipped a little when being struck with a hammer. Cold silver took little impression from the stamping process, and ordinary handling quickly wore it down. These early coins were often cut irregularly, too. Some of the original sheet of metal sticks out beyond where the stamp struck it.

Here are some samples of Merovingian Frankish coins.

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