The Australian Numismatic Society


Gold coinage of Europe before 1300AD.

In the “middle” middle ages, say 11th to 13th centuries, the coinage metal of Europe was silver. Gold coinage was very rare, as gold itself was not at that stage mined in Europe in anything like the quantities required for a coinage.

Virtually all gold coins, except unique royal presentation pieces, in use in Europe was Islamic, or derived from Islamic gold.  The coinage of the world of Islam was almost exclusively gold, with very little silver available. Gold was mined extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, in the region later called Guinea, mainly from alluvial deposits along the banks of the Niger. From here it would make the journey across the Sahara as gold dust, by camel train, and end up in Morocco, where it would be dispersed to the dar-al-islam. The closer European states were to the world of Islam, the more used they were to a gold coinage close by.  It was in Spain that the reviving Northern Christian kingdoms would be closest to al-Andulus and a thriving gold coinage of dinars and doblers (double dinars). Also the crusader territories of the middle east would also experience the circulation of dinars from Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. Sicily itself was Arabic for three centuries, and the Norman conquerors noted the Fatimid quarter dinars in use and produced taris to emulate them, not only on the island, but also in their territories on the Italian mainland, notably in Amalfi, Salerno and Calabria. Virtually none of this penetrated north of the Alps.

As the European economies grew, the efficacy of gold as a medium of high value exchange was appreciated, if for no other reason than to cut down the volume and weight of silver required for say land purchase.

It is no surprise that those states closest to Islam minted their own gold coins in imitation of Islamic coinage, to ensure acceptability.

In Iberia, the military success of the Christian kingdoms, as part of the “reconquista”, meant that the latter increasingly ruled over Moslem subjects used to a gold currency. In the reign of Berenguer Ramon I(1018-1035), count of  Barcelona, a gold coin called a mancus was minted, in imitation of a dinar of the islamic dynasy of the Hamudids. The legends were mostly “blundered”, with the die cutters not being literate in arabic. The type was continued under the count’s son Ramon Berenguer I (1035-1076), imitating dinars of Yahya al-Mutali of Ceuta.  These coins cannot really be considered as european-style coins, as their designs and legends were arabic, even though there are some with part latin inscriptions. These coins are collectable today, even though there are some very rare types.

After the period of the mancus, gold was not minted in the county, or in fact the crown of Aragon in Spain till (almost) the 14th century (see later).

In 1157, the reigning king of the union of the kingdoms of Castille and Leon, Alphonso VII died, and the kingdoms were separated under two of his sons. Fernando II (1157-1188) ruled Leon, while Sancho III (1157-1158) and then his son Alphonso VIII (1158-1214) ruled in Castille. Alphonso married an English princess Eleanor Plantagenet, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and sister of  Kings Richard the lion heart and John. In Leon, a gold coin was issued following Islamic weight, but of entirely European design. It featured a bust of the king,crowned and holding a sceptre, with a latin inscription Fernandus dei gratia rex, and on the reverse a lion under which is inscribed Leo, and on the outer legend, abbreviated, is the liturgical  phrase “in nomine patris, filio, at spiritu sanctu.” i.e. “in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit”. The coin was called a maravedi d’oro and weighed 3.85g.  It is exceedingly rare today. The son Alphonso IX (1188-1230) continued the type with his portrait and legend. These are equally rare. In Castille, a hybrid gold coin was introduced by Alphonso VIII, called the morabitino, imitating, in part the almoravid dinar, with the latin abbreviation ALF in the field and a large cross on the design, but with all other inscriptions in good arabic. Rather than quotations from the Q’oran, it proclaimed Alphonso as the imam of the Christians, as well as other Christian sentiments. Unusually for the period, yearly dates were placed on the coins, in the Spanish system of Safar, which date from the period of the official incorporation of Spain into the Roman empire under Augustus, in 38BC. To convert the date of Safar into AD, subtract 38. Thus the fateful year 1212AD, when the combined Christian armies, led by Aphonso VIII and Pere (Peter) I of Aragon defeated a Moorish army on the plains of Tolosa (las navas de Toloso), thus ensuring the eventual complete re-conquest of Spain, is the year of Safar 1250. The morabitinos were minted in Toledo, and while scarce and expensive are collectable, even by date if you wish. They were continued under Alphonso’s son Enrique (Henry) I (1214-1217). Henry was only 10 when he came to the throne and too young to leave any children when he died. Fernando III (1217-1252), the son of  the Castilian princess Berenguela, wife of the king of Leon, succeded to Castille, and in 1230 when his father Alphonso IX died, to Leon, thus permanently uniting the kingdoms. Fernando was a great warrior, but did not mint any gold coins. It was left to his son Alphonso X (1252-1284), nicknamed the wise, to begin a series of Castilian-Leonese gold coins including a dobla, half dobla and quarter dobla, each featuring the recognisable emblems of lions and castles signifying Leon and Castille respectively. The inscriptions in latin were Alfonsus dei gracia rex castelle (or legionis) depending on whether the emblem on the relevant coin side was a castle or a lion. These coins are all very rare and difficult to collect, but not impossible, given a large budget. Under his son, Sancho IV (1284-1295) a very rare gold dobla was issued of a design harking back to the early ones of Leon. It is not collectable, being too rare. His son Fernando IV (1295-1312) issued an extremely rare 10 dobla gold piece, weighing almost 45 grams. Museum stuff only.

The 14th century kings developed the designs of the gold coins further, in some cases spectacularly. Most are still rare, but there are some collectable more common ones.

In neighbouring Portugal in the 12th century the county had become a kingdom following the southern conquests at the time of the 2nd crusade, especially with the capture of Lisbon from the Moors. Under Sancho I (1185-1211) a new gold coin was issued called a morabitino, following the weight standards of the Moors. However it was European in design. It weighed between 3.5-4 grams and featured an obverse design of the king mounted on a horse, and legend SANCIUS REX PORTUGALIS or abbreviations thereof. On the reverse if had the design of the 5 Moorish shields captured in the battle of Ourique, which were to become the national shield of Portugal, and the reverse legend was the same as the corresponding Leonese morabitino, namely abbreviations of IN NOMINE PATRI ET FILI ET SANCTU SPIRITU. All inscription is in Latin, with no Arabic in sight. These and the corresponding Leonese coins can claim the distinction of being the first of the European gold coins of the modern era.. It is not known exactly which was the first to be issued. Sancho’s son Alphonso II (1211-1223) continued to mint morabitini under his name, but these are very rare, while those of his father  are less so, but still very expensive to purchase and do not come up for auction frequently. No further gold coins were minted in Portugal for around 200 years. It is only with the cruzado in the 15th century that gold became regular in Portugal, using gold from Guinea to which the Portuguese explorations had opened the sea route.

The island of Sicily (Silliqia) had been under Arabic rule since the Byzantines had been ousted in the early 10th century. Under the Arabs, Palermo (al-Balam) was founded and became a great city. The emirs of Sicily used gold quarter dinars initially of Fatamid design, but also with unique Sicilian designs. These coins were called roba’i. When the Normans conquered Sicily in the 11th century, the conquerers adopted these coins, called then taris and added Christian legends and latin script. Many of the early Norman issues still had arabic inscriptions as well. Similar designs applied in the Southern Italian mainland. Under the German successors to the Norman rulers in the 12th century, the taris became quite christianised. Their alloy was that of the natural African gold, although some were further debased. They were quite variable in weight and traded by weight.

The most powerful of the Sicilian German kings was Frederick II, the son of the emperor Henry VI Hohenstauffen and his wife Constance of Hauteville, a daughter of Roger II, Norman king of Sicily. Frederick II, nicknamed “stupor mundi”, the wonder of the world, was a very interesting character, well educated, multilingual and a supporter of the arts and sciences. He was elected Holy Roman Emperor. He kept an Arab harem and a zoo. He decided to issue a new gold coin, around 1231AD, called the augustale, modelled on the aureus of ancient Rome. It weighed 5.3g. He also minted a scare half augustale of the same design. The coin  features, in high relief a laureate profile head and toga-draped shoulders portrait of the emperor facing right, with inscription CESAR AUG IMP ROM and on the obverse an imperial eagle, with inscription FRIDERICUS.  The gold used was African gold, without further refinement (ie about 20.5 carat).  After Frederick died in 1250, the Pope, always an enemy of Frederick, saw his chance to assert his suzerainty over the Kingdom of Sicily. He searched for a trustworthy candidate to whom he could award the kingdom, and settled on Charles of Anjou, Louis IX of France’s youngest brother. Charles travelled to Rome, where he was made senator, and with an army defeated and killed King Manfred, Fredrick’s illegitimate son at the battle of Benevento in 1266. Charles minted a successor to the Augustale, called a Reale d'oro. Its design is nowhere near as elegant as its predecessor, but it is quite scarce. It was minted in Brindisi, Messina and Barletta. It features a portrait (caricature) of Charles on the obverse and an Angevin shield on the reverse. Under the rule of the Angevin;s the Island of Sicily revolted in an episode called “The Sicilian Vespers”. Peter II of Aragon, count of Barcelona had married Constance, a daughter of Manfred, and the Catalonian fleet aided the Sicilians in their battles with Charles. Peter became king of Sicily, while all the mainland possessions of the kingdom remained with Charles of Anjou. Reales were no longer minted. Instead, a new gold coin was minted for the mainland, in Charles capital of Naples, while another very different type was minted by Peter and Constance, for the island. Charles was very particular about his new coin and personally approved the design. He wanted it better than the previous reales. The new saluto d'oro turned out to be one of the most beautiful and desireable of all medieval gold coins. While not all that uncommon, perfect examples fetch a premium in the market. The design features a delighful representation of the annunciation of the imminent birth ot the Christ-child, with a winged angel and Mary on either side of a vase containing a lily. The legend reads AVE PLENA GRACIA DOMINUS TECUM. The obverse features a shield divided vertically between Jerusalem (cross and crosslets) on the left and Anjou (lilies of France) on the right. The type was continued by his son.

The Pierrale d'oro or Agostar of Peter and Constance for the island features an imperial eagle on the Constance side and the shield of Aragon on the Peter side. Each side has a double legend. There are versions where the eagle is either bare headed and crowned. The type was continued by Peter's successor James. These then are all the gold coin types of Southern Italy minted before 1300AD.

In the north, the banking and mercantile states of Florence, Genoa and Venice were finding that for doing business a gold coinage was becoming essential. Genoa, in 1252 can lay claim to be the first city to issue a gold coinage in 400 years, with the minting of the Genovino d'oro. This coin is not so common today, because it really did not catch on outside the Genoese state. A few months later, Florence issued its Fiorino d'oro or Florin of similar weight as the Genovino. The strength of its banking empire ensured that the coin was widely used and imitated throuout Western Europe. This became the first internationally acceptable gold coin of Europe. Romantics wanted the modern euro to be called a florin. Its design featured a lily of Florence on the obverse and St John the Baptist robed in furs on the reverse. The florin is widely avaiable as a collectable today, but not cheaply. From about 1300AD a system of mintmarks allows the dating of florins to a half year (semester), and some collectors collect by mintmark.

It took the Venetians till 1284 to begin their ducat, under the reign of the Doge Giovanni Dandolo. Thye same weight as the Florin and Genovino, it depicted the doge kneeling before St Mark, the patron saint of Venice, with the other side showing a full length effigy of Christ in a mandorla with stars. This distinctive design was mionted virtually unchanged (except for the name of the Doge) for 500 years, till The Republic of Venice surrended to the forces of Napoleon. The first ducat, with the name of Giovanni Dandolo is very rare and fetches a high price at auction, but most of the others are relatively cheap at little more than bullion, The ducat is probably the most comon of medieval gold coins.

Countries in Northern Europe, with a very few exceptions, issued no gold coins before 1300AD.

Certainly there were none from Germany, Scandinavia, Bohemia, Hungary, Serbia. In England however, an experiment in gold coinage was attempted in 1259, when, in the reign of Henry III a coin called a gold penny (of 20 silver pennies)as briefly issued. This coin is highly desireable as a collectable, but only about 8 have survived, and most are in museums.  It depicts king Henry, crowned,  sitting on a throne holding sceptre and orb. The reverse is a cross with with a rose and pellets in each corner, in an extension to the  design of the long cross silver penny. Even of one turned up at auction in England and you could buy it, you would not be allowed to export it. The gold penny in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is actually owned by an American doctor, but he can only visit it in England.

France also has its rarety. Right at the end of his reign, in 1270, King Louis IX (afterward St Louis), caused a gold coin called an ecu d'or to be produced. It is as rare as the Henry gold penny, with only a handful surviving. Most, if not all are in French museums, the BN in particular. It has a shield of lilies in a gothic border as its obverse design, and a floriated cross with fleur de lis on the reverse. Its reverse legend became the standard for French gold coins for centuries, namely XPS VINCIT XPS REGNAT XPS IMPERAT.

No gold coins were issued by Louis' sucessor Philippe III, but his successor, Philipe IV le Bel, issued a series of six different gold coin designs, 2 before 1300 and 4 after. The first of these, issued in August 1290AD is called the petit royal d'or. It is the weight of a florin, and clearly intended to trade equally with the florin. It is very rare today. Its design shows the king seated on a chair with lion heads carved at the ends of the arms. The kign is crowned and hods a sceptre and orb. The reverse shows a floriated cross, with lis in the angles. In January 1296, a double florin weight cain was minted, the masse d'or. This is equally scarce and very desireable. It also shows the king on a throne with floriated cross reverse, except that the borders and design is totally different from the royal. These coins fetch quite large sums at auction when they appear, quite infrequently.<>

The above sumarises all regular issues of European gold coins known to the author, minted before 1300AD. These set the standard and underly all the gold issued in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries and into the renaissance and modern times.

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16th June 2012