Charlemagne’s silver penny, the denarius or denier, set the norm for European money. When his empire split into pieces, which eventually became Germany and France, both continued to mint coins similar to the denier for several centuries. Silver deposits discovered in Germany, in the 15th century, led to minting a new coin, the taler, to compete with late medieval Italian coins. (which will be discussed in the following entry)
England’s coins were much the same; under Norman rule, coins were more standardized than in Anglo-Saxon times. Large regional towns minted coins by collecting old ones and recasting them. In 1247, King Henry III commissioned a new coin design that had central cross with arms extending right out to the edge of the coin. This way, people could tell that a coin had been shaved or clipped. His successor Edward I tried to solve another problem: so many people cut coins in halves or quarters, that he tried issuing coins to half-penny and farthing-penny values.
The late medieval English kings had relatively strong control of their territories, so their coins were standardized. By the end of the Middle Ages, the English currency started (at the top) with the noble, a new gold coin introduced by Edward III. The coins discussed in this article are mostly silver; I’ll cover gold in the next. Most of Europe never saw gold; it was in use at the merchant level for large purchases, not in average households. The largest English coin in ordinary use was the shilling (24 pennies), the groat (four pennies), the penny itself, and then half-pennies and farthings (quarter-pennies), now issued as cheap coins to discourage cutting.
The Crusader kingdoms of Antioch and Edessa minted their own coins, but not ones of great value. Their standard coin was copper, and since they were in the Holy Land, their coins often bore images of saints and crosses. One coin had St. George, who was at once the patron saint of England and a regional hero. The historical George had been born to Christians in 3rd century Palestine; the dragon-slaying was supposed to have taken place in Libya. When the Crusader kingdoms came to an end, Crusaders still ruled and minted coins in places like Cyprus, Malta and Sicily. By the later medieval years, their coins pragmatically contained some Arabic script.
In Muslim Spain, where the Norman Sicilian coins traded freely, coins never carried portraits of the king. Muslim art was not supposed to portray a person’s face. Their pottery art sometimes broke that rule, but coins did not. The Almohad dynasty, who were later Berber immigrants from Morocco, struck square coins. When the Muslims were entirely conquered at the close of the medieval period, Ferdinand and Isabella issued a coin with both of their portraits, signifying the united rule of the north’s two largest kingdoms.
Before moving on to the significant gold coins of the period, there’s one last odd silver coin to mention. The territory of Russia had been colonized by Vikings, who had some difficulty adapting to the idea of gold and silver freely traded, not hoarded. After Kiev became part of Byzantine Christianity, the prince minted coins, but in the remote places, these still did not have much popularity. Most silver was traded in the form of a standardized bar, the grivna. It was often hexagonal!
next: Byzantine and Italian gold coins