Coining technology – Part 2, Middle Ages – from barbaric imitations to a penny.

Degradation of the Roman coinage coincided with the political and economic crisis of the Western Roman Empire in the V century AD. After the Rome’s fall money circulation was on the decline. The invaders used the stolen Roman coins, before its resource was not exhausted, and numerous barbarian kingdoms faced with the lack of funds.

Having started to mint their own money, barbaric states tried to copy samples of Roman and Byzantine coins. Due to the lag in the level of technical and aesthetic development of the conquerors, the first coins of the Westgoths, Langobards, Franks and Anglo-Saxons were extremely tentative, crude, primitive and sloppy decorated. They depicted stylized heads and figures of people and animals, abstract or floral patterns. The legends of the first coins often imitated the inscriptions on the Roman denarius and represented a disjointed set of letter-like signs, monograms and abbreviations. Under the conditions of economical and political fragmentation the circulation of money was decentralized. The coins were irregularly minted in scattered workshops and were made of the treasury, monastery or private silver. There was no unified standard even in separate kingdoms, and the coins of different form and weight hampered the primitive foreign and domestic trade.


Denarius VI-VII centuries

Founder of the new Carolingian Dynasty — Pepin I Short (751-768) issued the new coins — «novus denarius», or a new denarius. It was under his rule, that the first attempts to unify the mint were taken. The coins were minted on a thin mug of high-grade silver weighing about 1.5 grams. Later these coins served as a model for pfennig coinage in Germany, penny — in England, denier — in France, and later served as an example in the whole Europe. Under the rule of Carolingians the new denarius was approved as a universal currency that met the needs of the early underdeveloped feudal trade. The strengthening of its prestige was due to the awakening of the economic life in the cities, the growth of trade. But the rise of trade and cash flow, the rise of the external economic relations required increasing the amount of the mintage.

During the reign of Charlemagne, a full-fledged denarius weighing approximately 2 grams of silver was released. It was minted on the base of the heavier «Carolingian» pound. It was decided to mint 240 denarius out of one libra of silver. In those years, the coins regained the political role of the popularization of the royal power. Together with the royal monograms and the word REX and Christian symbols the coins depicted toponyms, abbreviations of the mints and names of those responsible for the mintage. The legends were in a circle, making a cross, in one or more rows. The most popular images were: the head of the king, a cross, a stylized temple, a portal, the gates of the city, a blessing hand, the pastor’s crook, the eagle, the ship, and other.

Denarius IX-XI centuries

 Medieval denarius begins to be widely spread in XI century. This coin begins to be massed produced in Germany and England. The first denarius were minted from silver, thus they quickly gained the trust of the population, and were actively used in trade throughout medieval Europe. But gradually, the part of the precious metal in the coin was reduced, and soon denarius (denier) became a billion in some countries by the XII century. Both Crown and feudal coins were damaged. Therefore the market value of the coin was always different and spontaneously established on contract basis in the markets and fairs. Denarius of full value settled among the population, and the coins of low weight and low standard remained in circulation. The kings, secular and spiritual lords, cities, tenants of the mints, counterfeiters were involved in the deterioration of the coins.

The mints were also interested in the deterioration of the coins. The easiest way to derive benefit was to worsen the monetary foot. The weight of the coin remained unchanged, but due to the increase of the quantity of alloy in the coin the standard of silver decreased. And a certain amount of silver gave more silver coins than it was supposed to give according to the Mint charter. Another method involved decreasing the weight of the coin. To hide it, the mint masters saved the usual diameter of the coin, and only reduced the thickness. Sometimes, on the contrary, to mislead the public the denarius of low weight were minted with a greater diameter. This ongoing trend of minting the coins of low weight and increasing their diameter led to the emergence of broad German bracteates coins in the end of XII century.

In accordance with the requirements of the market the volume of coinage was several times increased in the XII century. The new mints were opened, the skills of the mint-workers became better and better, the equipment for minting was more perfect. In addition, the increase in the number of coin shops and the intensity of their work was supported by a popular practice in the years – the coins were reminted every few years due to their rapid deterioration. The coins were often reminted right before the opening of the big trade fairs. Bracteates made the recoining cheaper and quicker. Short life of these coins was compensated with their simplicity and high speed of the coinage. So these coins were originally issued for a short period of time, mainly to meet the needs of the local market. As a rule, to cover the costs of recoining, each time the money became lighter and lost its value. Bracteates were widely used in Germany, along with traditional denars and obols.

Medieval bracteates

Bracteates represents a very thin silver plate with unilateral stamped image. On the reverse, they have a negative image of the obverse. The weight of such coins ranges from 1 to 0.11g, the maximum of its diameter reaches 45-51 mm, 12 mm minimum.

Manufacturing technology of the bracteates was gradually simplified. The intermediate coin between the bilateral denarius and bracteates is so-called thin penny or half-brakteates. This type of a coin appeared by itself. The weight of the denarius was constantly decreasing, and the diameter of the coin remained unchanged. Because of this the circle of coins had become so thin that the image on the obverse and reverse appeared on opposite sides, thereby distorting each other.

The solution was found in the one-sided mintage. Round pieces of the required weight were cut out of a thin sheet of flattened metal. In order to make the silver foil coin acquire its stiffness and gain the ability to keep its shape, the print had to have a fairly high relief. First of all, this required a stamp, with deep relief. To prevent the piece from breaking during the coinage, some pliable base like lead, tin, felt or leather was put under the metallic circle. The result was a coin with a very dimensional image, the lines of which served as ribs, prolonging the short life of bracteates.

Stamp for minting bracteates

 Many samples of these original coins became excellent masterpieces of small plastic of the Romanesque style. However, over time, the exquisite compositions we replaced by the plain and rough images. The degradation of bracteates reached its extreme degree when to speed up the mintage process they were minted in «bundles», when several pieces were put under the stamp in one time.

Originally bracteates were a dead-end brunch in the money development from both economical and technological points of view. By the mid-15th century they were finally driven out of circulation and replaced with the full-bodied two-sided coins.


Medieval miniatures depicting the masters producing the pieces and minting coins.


In the XIII century the coins were still minted by hand with iron or steel stamps. For making the picture of the stamp was used widely spread prefabricated punches.

Due to the growth of skills of the artists and engravers, mostly the professional goldsmiths, the quality of design of the coins increased significantly. Legends got neatness; letters lost former angularity and gradually began to look like handwritten letters.

The technology of mintage consisted of several basic steps:

1. Initially, it was necessary to make tsans. An alloy of silver of necessary weight and standard was prepared, which then was poured into a mold. Rectangular silver bar was annealed in a furnace for better ductility and then was taken for manufacturing the plates…

2. The bar had to be forged and annealed repeatedly until it acquired the desired thickness. Then the plate was polished and bleached.

3. Square plates were cut out from a sheet of silver, which then were truncated to form the coin, additionally adjusted, weighed and re-annealed.

4. Having passed all the previous stages, finished work pieces arrived on coinage. Low relief and legends did not require heating the coin before the mintage, so the main technological difference between the production of the medieval coins from the Roman coinage is the cold way of the mintage.

Iron stamps of the coins of Edward I (1272-1307) and his silver penny minted in London

Lower stamp had a sharp thorn, with which it was attached to the massive wooden deck.  The coin work piece was put at the end of the lower stamp and the upper stamp that was in the master’s hands was attached to the top. In German literature this type of coinage was called «minting with a fist» (Pragen mit der Faust). To produce even a small coin the master had to put considerable physical effort. Because of the mass production and the manual labor there was a very high level of fine waste. Due to the master’s fatigue or inattention, the piece did not always lay flat on the bottom stamp or slid off at the blow, what was the cause of the displaced image on the large number of coins. Sometimes there wasn’t enough force for all the details to be stroke. Re-stamping was done and the contours of the figure and the letters were usually shifted comparing to the first image.

Development of foreign trade increased the volume of trade and cash flow. The constant loss of weight and fineness of the denarius in XII century led to the fact that it became a minor coin to serve a small-scale circulation of the local market. Gradually, silver ingots of various samples and weights along with the golden coins started to play the role of international money. The coins were minted in several countries: Byzantine solidi (Besant), Arabian dinars, Sicilian avgustaly, Spanish maravedis.

Development of domestic and foreign trade didn’t fit the denarius monetary system. It was a low-standard coin with a week purchasing power. Increase in the volume of trade led to the increase in the quantity of money, devalued denarius that led to voluminous amounts of payments and slowed down the trade. Infrequent gold coins that were in circulation and had a very high purchasing power, didn’t solve the problems of the money market. The market that was in dire need of current coins that would be more valuable than denarius, but less than the golden coins. The necessity of the appearance of the new more valuable coins was evident in the European monetary system.

The depreciation of denarius hampered domestic and foreign trade. The government took numerous attempts to recover the situation and to increase its purchasing power of the coin. First significant steps in this direction were made by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who determined the clear weight and purity of Milan denarius. The coin of 660 hallmarks, weighing about 0.8 grams was called «imperial», according to the monogram «IPTR» that stood for the title of Frederick. Silver in these coins was almost 3 times cleaner than in their fellows: Venice or Verona coins, nicknamed «Piccolo» for their small size and low standard. Having won a temporary trust, the new coins became a reliable regional currency.

Inspired by the experience of Milan other Italian cities tried to create a more reliable coin than denarius that was weakened by the unskillful monetary policy. As a result in 1172 in Genoa a new premium coin appeared. It was called «denarius grossus» or — «grosso». Genoese «Gross» was worth four denarius and weighed about one and a half grams. This type of coin was to replace denarius that was definitively discredited in international trade and to become the main currency in Europe, along with the golden florin.

The main objective of the new issue was to increase the purchasing power of the new silver coin, by increasing the content of the pure silver. Therefore, the first Grossos weighed almost as much as the thin denarius. But, after Genoa, the high standard coins of increased weight were also minted in Florence, Siena, Pisa and other Italian cities.

But the first full valued penny can be considered the coin minted in 1202 in Venice. The new coin of pure silver weighed 2.2 grams and was equal to twelve old denarius. That was the Venetian Matapan that became the first monetary unit used in international trade, after five hundred years of unchallenged dominance of denarius.

Genoese and Venetian (Matapan) Grosso

The monetary reform of King Louis IX, held in 1266 started the wide spread of the new coin across the European continent. According to the Italian example the city of Tour released a new coin of 958 standards that was made out of twelve denarius (denier), weighed 4.22 grams. The new coin received its name due to the mintage place and was called «gros tournois» or turnos. Very quickly, this coin gained recognition in France and abroad, and became not only a model for direct copying and imitation in the coinage of other states, but also was used in the international trade as a generally accepted means of payment.

Expanding markets and depreciation of denarius was not the only cause of a major denomination in the XIII century. The second important factor was the improvement of Mines and the emergence of new mines. Thus, the discovery of rich silver copies of Bohemia in Kutna Hora was a good stimulus and a raw materials base for the mintage of one of the most popular coins of the late middle Ages — Prague penny. In 1300, the Czech King Wenceslas II banned the circulation of silver bullions, denarius, bracteates, and used it only in the new coin of 938 standards weighing 3.7 grams. Although the new coin was minted in Bohemia’s «industrial capital» — Kutna Hora, it inherited its name from the Prague hryvnia. Wenceslas gained success with his reforms not only because of the richest silver funds, but also thanks to the invited Italian bankers who ensured the control of the government over the money market. And even without the coercive and restrictive measures, the new money was recognized as a national currency in many countries of Central and Eastern Europe for the next 250 years.

Gros turnua (1266-1270) King Louis IX and Prague penny (1300-1305) King Wenceslas II


The new Czech coin was remarkably different from the early medieval denarius and even the pennies of the other countries. It had its elegant design and craftsmanship stamp. The external look of the coin was designed by the Italian chasers. But despite the fact that the size of coins had markedly increased, the mintage was still made by hand by the caulking hammer.

The manufacturing technology of the stamp also didn’t see any significant changes although the masters reached significant progress in the artistic field. The masterly production and usage of punches gave the picture its sharp, expressive and conclusive look. It was the usage of prefabricated tools that ensured the uniformity of output mint products, their common pattern and style. Besides, this tool made the process of manufacturing cheaper and faster.

Detail of a penny with the coat of arms of Bohemia

Using simple tools the engravers produced small steel punch-letters for most letters of the Latin alphabet that could compete in their beauty with the best examples of calligraphy of the time. These punch-letters were the size of 2-3 mm.

Two letters «S», minted with a single punch, with a characteristic defect


Using the similarity of the inscription of some letters, the stamp engraver made several letters at a time, thus saving time and effort, and not damaging the general style of the legend.

The letter «N», «M», «I», struck with one punch


Using pre-made punches of the letters the chasers made the prior markings and put the mirrored text of the legend on the surface of the stamp. According the technology the marking was removed after the final polishing of the stamp. However, when this procedure was passed, or the line marking was too deep the surface of the coin had uncleared «scaffoldings» that spoiled the look of the coin.


Detail of the turnua legend with the signs of the not removed marking


The process of creating a mint punch was the most difficult step in the production of coins. Only experienced craftsmen, members of the guild of engravers were allowed to do it. To prevent unauthorized usage the worn out tool was always destroyed. And the lifetime of the punches was very short. Despite the hardening of the working surface of the punch, it was quickly worn out. The inaccurate setting of the tool cleaved or rounded the edges; the images quickly became clogged and lost sharpness. Not all the punches were worn out at the same time. The upper punch was always the first to be out of order – the hammer was always striking it, causing the metal to change its properties, and the tool to deform: the rod of the punch was gradually swelling and curving, the metal was wrapping, forming a wide hat, which didn’t give the master a chance to see the sample and the lower punch. The exact specifications of the Venetian mint remained till nowadays. According to these documents, the upper punch used to make a penny, could bear 17,000 strokes and the lower punch — 36000. Knowing the fact that the Venetian Mint manufactured the average of 20 000 coins a day, we can imagine how often the punches were changed.

The system of French Mint, engraving of the XV century


The first pennies, known for their high standards, deserved the reputation of reliable means of payment, and under various names appeared in all the European countries. But the law of Copernicus-Gresham says: “the worst money drives out of circulation the best money”. The penny also had this fate. Once being the largest denomination it became an equivalent of the smallest coin. Penny’s progressive deterioration, which was done by the kings and petty officials, led to the fact that by the end of XV century there was a strong necessity of a new currency that could meet the economic needs of the New Time.

Vladimir Khomutov



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