Saturday, May 31, 2014

Using coins in early medieval France

Gregory de Tours tells of a poor fisherman who wants wine. When a saint miraculously sends him a large fish, he goes at once and trades it for wine.

The fact that he does not sell the fish and use the money to buy wine, but barters the fish for it, corresponds with the “Dark Ages” view of the early medieval period, in which all infrastructure collapsed and people lived in self-sufficient enclaves. As Metcalf puts it:
a later school of historians, …- have tended to see the early middle ages in north-western Europe as an age of local self-sufficiency, with only limited monetization of the economy, and in which coinage was mainly used for the purchase of luxury goods by the ruling class, and (in the extreme case) for gift-exchange and similar ritual functions. On a broad perspective this state of affairs persisted (they assert) until the beginnings of recovery from the Viking assaults upon north-western Europe.
But of course the picture is far more complex and a variety of coinage has survived from this period. Its existence in itself does not tell us how it was used; but there is also good reason to believe that it circulated and was an integral part of the economy. Whether it was the main medium of trade is another question, one too large to more than survey here.

Addressing it raises a number of questions:
  • What coins existed and when?
  • What were they intended for (trade, taxes, charity, etc.)?
  • How widely did they circulate?
  • Who used them and for what?
  • How did they obtain them?
  • How essential were they to daily trade?
  • What do they say about international trade?
  • Where did the metal come from?
If research continues on all these points, none can be answered completely or with certainty. But enough information, or sometimes informed speculation, exists to take us beyond a simple “Dark Ages” view of the period.

Early medieval coinage

The first coinage in medieval France, as in much of the Western world, was Roman. Bear in mind that even after the Franks took over Gaul (and ultimately displaced other Germanic groups there) they ruled a country which had been part of Rome and which for a long time remained Roman in many ways. This was more true in the Gallo-Roman south, but it also held true for much in the north. The Franks themselves were certainly familiar with Roman coinage; they had long been clients of Rome and had no doubt been paid in Roman currency.

Even as they began to make their mark on their new domains, they looked to Byzantium – that is, the Eastern Roman Empire – for models. Though the Byzantines were Greeks, it is important in considering their relationships with the Franks to know that, after the fall of Rome itself, they represented the continuation of the Roman Empire. One result was that even as the Franks and others began to strike their own coins, they not only imitated Byzantine coins, but, in doing so, even closely tracked the changes in emperors.

The French numismatist Lafaurie, whose work is central to these studies, writes of:
the transformation of imperial coinage, which had been the unique modern means of exchange for five centuries, into a multitude of local currencies specific to these populations which occupied the empire's land and organized, in the conquered domains, their administration. Thus are born the mintings of the Ostrogoths in Italy, those of the Burgundians, of the Franks or the Visigoths in Gaul and the Suevi in Spain. In the same period the Vandals struck coins in Africa and from the seventh century on Arabs imitated the Byzantine types and created a typologically original coinage from the start of the eighth century.
... This world of a millennial monetary tradition will in effect produce an autonomous coinage which will take almost a century to definitely separate itself from its Byzantine prototypes.
In Gaul, these “national” coinages begin to appear in the sixth century in the parts of Gaul occupied by different Germanic groups. For the first three-quarters of a century (and later in Provence and the valley of the Rhone) the names of Byzantine emperors on solidi and tremisses (a third of a solidus) are specific enough to establish a chronology, until the reign of Clothar II (reigned 613-629).

For much of the sixth century, Byzantine coins and local coins circulated together in the north; in the south (which was closer to the Eastern trade of Marseille) the former were dominant. By the seventh and eight centuries, these disappeared within Gaul, probably first because they were melted down for use in local coinage, but possibly too because of a decline in trade.

Aside from Byzantine gold, there was copper, largely minted in Carthage (in north Africa). Other non-Merovingian coins in circulation were Visigothic tremisses and Anglo-Saxon thrymsas.

At the end of the sixth century, numerous local types began to appear. Adelson estimates that minting of pseudo-imperial coinage probably began around 574, but had ended by 616. Two of the major mints, at Marseille and Arles, probably opened after 580. Metcalf: "During the 'long century', 561-674, and more particularly from the 590s onwards, tremisses were issued at an exceptionally large number of places in Gaul." He presents these as high-value coins: “A tremissis had a substantial purchasing power. Comparisons with today are rather meaningless, but one might say, very approximately, that a tremissis was worth some tens of euros, or even as much as a hundred euros.” At the same time, it represented a third of the value of the solidus, so that its increased use suggests a general devaluation which ultimately made silver the preferable option.

Though Byzantine coinage included low-value copper pieces, the dominant metal in coinage in Gaul long became gold. One reason for this, says Adelson, is that the Germanic groups had come to distrust silver coinage under the Romans. He also writes that “in the areas conquered by the barbarians it was not the solidus that was the principal coin but the triens [a tremissis], which was only one-third of the Byzantine pieces.”

All this changed in 675, when, with the denarius (denier), silver replaced gold and would, for seven centuries, remain the base of Frankish coinage. 

Coins in texts

Metcalf writes that “the documentary evidence,.. is virtually silent on the subject [of monetary trade] - a silence which has unfortunately been construed as negative evidence.” This is largely the case, making the evidence of archeology and numismatics disproportionately important in this case. Still, some references to coinage do appear in written texts.

In describing the early Germans, Tacitus writes: “There are proportionate punishments for lighter crimes, the offender being fined so many sheep or cattle upon conviction.” But by the time the Franks wrote down their laws, probably very near the start of their reign in Gaul, these payments in kind had become monetary and Salic law is largely an inventory of compensations to be paid either in solidii (Roman gold) or the equivalent in denarii (Frankish silver). Subsequent laws for other Germanic groups – the Bavarian law, the Ripuarian law, the Alamannic law, the Frisian law, etc. – also specify amounts, often in the same coins, sometimes in tremisses (alternately, triens). Since these laws were issued at different points under Frankish rule, they suggest that those who wrote them assumed people would have access to coins all through this period. It is less clear if this was the case as a matter of course or if people condemned to such payments were expected to make a special effort to obtain them. But none of these laws specify alternate payments in kind and anyone who did not regularly use coins presumably would have had to monetize – i.e., sell – whatever goods they did have to pay such compensations.

If Gregory de Tours provides at least one specific example of barter, he also mentions coinage in several passages. In one passage, “there was a poor old woman... who, having nothing else, devoutly threw two minuta in the church storeroom.” In another tale, a poor man delegated by the other “blessèd poor” to receive alms while they “dispersed” is given a triens but tells the others he got an argenteus. Both tales appear to be referring to a type of small silver coin, possibly one especially intended for the poor. Grierson and Blackburn cite a rare text, probably from the sixth or seventh century, referring to minutos argenteos (tiny silver coins) which were scattered to the poor. In yet another tale, Gregory tells of a man who had barely earned enough to have a triens, which he used to buy wine. Having watered the wine, he then sold it for argenteos, which if it means the same thing here. also suggests that he was selling it to people of limited means. Ultimately, he turned such a profit that he earned one hundred solidii (as much as Gregory disapproves, to a modern reader, this could also be taken as a rare example of creative entrepreneurship in the period).

Grierson and Blackburn are dubious however about the coinage in these tales: “Unless these are merely pious anecdotes repeated from one source another, they are events that must have occurred during Gregory's youth, for no silver coins remained in circulation in Gaul in the 570s and 580s, at the time that he was writing.” This might be arguable however; the fact that these were no longer minted does not necessarily mean they were not in circulation and the lack of archeological evidence may simply mean that such low-value, easily melted coins did not survive. As it is, one argenteus has been found at Saint-Martin-de-Fontenay imitating one of Justin I (518-527); it is not in the least unreasonable to think it, or coins like it, might have survived another fifty years.

UPDATE 6-9-2014: The French Library's Cabinet of Medals also holds a quarter of a siliqua (a small value silver coin) from the reign of Clothar I (555-561); that is, very close to Gregory's time. It is an imitation of an Ostrogoth coin.

At the least, Gregory's accounts here all seem to take for granted that his readers will be familiar with the coins involved; nothing in his language suggests these are artifacts of a former time.

Silver coinage aside, he mentions other uses of coins. In describing a famine, he says “Merchants cruelly ransomed the people, to the point that they gave at most a muid of wheat or a half-muid of wine for a triens.” The very fact that merchants could charge exorbitant rates for wheat or wine shows that these were sold for coins and that there were standard prices for these. In another case he mentions a man lending a triens to a friend, who returns it to him a few days later; again, this is a very matter of fact monetary transaction. In another, a man who is struck dumb immediately gives a waterman a triens to take to a saint's chapel; the fact that he has the coin at hand is taken for granted. (When he gets home, he sees “a gold piece like a triens” but weighing as much as a solidus.)

More important in these tales than the specific coins is the simple fact of people at different levels of society using coins as a matter of course. Gregory was Gallo-Roman and probably more familiar with those who maintained Roman customs; what he describes may have been less the case further north. But it seems clear that if a monetary economy was not universal in Gregory's experience, nor was it at all unusual.

By Charlemagne's time, the use of currency had become standard enough to inspire some of the first price controls. In his Frankfurt Capitulary of 794, he not only sets the prices for grains – “For a modius of oats, one denier, for a modius of barley, two, modius of rye three, modius of wheat four deniers” – but sets prices for bread: “"If one wants to sell it as bread, twelve loaves of wheat, each of two pounds, must be given for one denier..." Note that he does not mention bakers here, simply anyone who wanted to sell grain made into bread. Charlemagne himself had bakers on his estates, but it does not seem that public bakers had yet become as common as they had been under the Romans. This hints at a still young market economy. Overall, however, the very fact that price controls were necessary shows that a monetary market had been in existence for long enough for abuses to arise (as they already had, as noted above, in Gregory's time).

Arguably, the two centuries between Gregory and Charlemagne leave a gap where the use of coins is not documented beyond official purposes. But the surviving texts neither prove nor disprove the existence of a monetary economy in that time.

Following the coins

With such minimal documentary data, the best evidence for the use of coins comes from the ever-expanding finds of coins themselves; as analyzed, that is, by expert numismatists. Almost all modern work on the French side refers back to the numerous papers of Jean Lafaurie; one person to analyze these in English is D. M. Metcalf, who specifically focused on circulation in Gaul from 561 to 674. Metcalf's analysis is often very technical and in the language of statistics, so unfortunately it cannot be simply summarized. But his conclusions are clear enough.

He points out above that "general historians... and... archaeologists... cling to the belief that the monetary sector of the economy was negligible,” going on to say “the old idea of local self-sufficiency appears to be contradicted by, or perhaps one should say appears to be in complete conflict with, the fact that single coins are, seven or eight times out of ten, a long way from the place where they were issued.”

A range of finds in France provides a broad view of circulation in the period. “Because the empirical evidence is distributed so profusely all over France... the historical assessment can be based... on a rolling perspective and on multiple comparisons.” This includes "the coins from small mint-places in the same way as coins from the larger mints. The innumerable small mint-places, which are so difficult to understand historically, produced a good third of the stock of currency."

He divides the finds and corresponding mints into ten regions:
1. Brittany, Lower Normandy, etc. (Includes Rennes, Le Mans as the most important mints).
2. The lower Seine basin (Includes Paris, Rouen).
3. The North : Pas-de-Calais, Nord, Somme, and Aisne. (Includes Soissons.)
It would be appropriate to extend this region into modern Belgium, to include Flanders and Brabant. There is also a substantial number of finds from the Netherlands.
4. The East : Austrasian territory in the Meuse basin, the Moselle, and the middle Rhine. (Includes Metz, Verdun.) The départements of Aube, Yonne, and Nièvre are included here, rather arbitrarily. Yonne and Nièvre could equally well have been assigned to region 8, but they were included in 561 in Thierry's Austrasian kingdom.
5. The lower Loire basin, and as far south as the Vendée, Deux-Sèvres, and Vienne, i. e. the ancient Poitou. (Includes Nantes, Angers, Tours, Orléans, and Poitiers.)
6. Western Aquitaine : Atlantic coastlands, from Charente to the Landes. (Includes Bordeaux.)
7. Upland Aquitaine : the higher ground, with the Massif central (Includes Limoges, Clermont, Toulouse, and the mint-places of Banassac and Javols.)
8. Burgundy, with the Rhône and Saône corridor, as far north as the Plateau of Langres (Includes Chalon-sur-Saône.) It would be appropriate to extend this region into Switzerland.
9. Provence (Includes Marseille, Aries).
10. Septimania. Also the French Pyrénées (where Visigothic monetary influence is evident).
Metcalf examines the exchanges of coins between these regions meticulously and at length, tracing movements in different directions. Here is a sample:
Even in the southern half of region 8, that is to say south of the Rhône and of the Lake of Geneva (Léman), there are coins from a wide range of exterior mints, which demonstrate the spread of coinage in a southerly direction too. Coins from present-day Switzerland entered region 8, e.g. from the mints of Saint-Maurice-d'Agaune, Lausanne, Orbe, and Sion. ...In short, monetary circulation was predominantly by gradual diffusion locally, while the long-distance routeway was of secondary importance in determining the currency of the region.
Similar details show all manner of movement of coins between the different regions.

Metcalf's view (based on this and other analysis) is that “it seems to imply that, over all, the local economy was everywhere monetized, even at a village level.... A monetized economy was not confined to towns; over all, it reached countless villages, as is seen from the circulation patterns of tremisses minted at very small places.” Further, “There was no single political authority, and the coins minted in one kingdom certainly passed as current in other kingdoms too. Single finds and hoards alike demonstrate that in all regions of France a miscellany of coins, from many mint-places and with little or no uniformity of design were acceptable commercially.”

In other words, based on numismatic analysis, coins were not only minted in numerous places in early medieval France, they circulated between regions in a way that implies an active monetary economy.

The international view

The most striking aspect of international circulation in this period is that of Byzantine coins in Gaul. As noted above these tended to come from the south. But at end of the sixth century those found in the north seem to have come from the north or east.

Finds from along the Atlantic and north sea route are less common, but finds along these coasts exist. This is particularly important because, says Lafaurie, "on this route, the valleys of the Garonne, of the Loire and of the Seine allow penetrating into the interior; here again, the testimony of finds joins that of texts attesting for instance to the presence of "Syrian" merchants – already numerous in Provence and in the Narbonnaise – in Bordeaux or in Orleans.” Note that “Syrian” merchants were probably in fact any Christian Easterners (contrasted with the Jewish merchants who also played a major part in trade with the East). Adelson:
Merchants of western origin had declined in importance during the period of the Roman Empire, and their position had been taken by easterners – Syrians, Jews, and Greeks... The appearance of merchants of eastern origin during the Merovingian period in Gaul is certainly more marked than during the preceding Roman epoch or the following Carolingian age.
Among the Byzantine copper coins, those from Carthage are preponderant; in Lafaurie's analysis this suggests commercial usage. Its presence also suggests that of Byzantine gold, which the Franks could melt and reissue in a devalued form:
If this copper coinage, with weak purchasing power, thus penetrates into Gaul in a modest but not negligible way, it is normal to think that gold coins... also arrived there in certain quantity. The ports which received it, endowed with a mint, changed it into local, Merovingian coinage, and the profit... of 12% must have incited seeking out these foreign coins which produced so neat a profit to the monetary authority.
Byzantine gold however may have had a particularity; that used for export, says Adelson, was lighter than that used in Byzantium itself. These lighter issues appeared just as the Germanic groups were leaving their “wandering” and settling permanently in places like Gaul. Mints in Gaul struck their own copies of these lightweight coins.

The stability of the Byzantine regime restored trade in the West as well: “The rebuilt Byzantine fleet certainly controlled the entire Mediterranean in the period preceding the death of Heraclius [reigned 610-641], and, as a direct result, trade in the West became safer than it had been at any time since the Vandals reached Carthage." "The case is very clear cut for a great expansion of that trade during the sixth and seventh centuries after a period of decline during the preceding epoch.” (Adelson)

Overall, in fact:
Virtually all historians agree that the Germanic invasions did not mark a turning point in the economic history of Europe though they may well have accelerated the decline and disintegration of the Roman Empire.
Nevertheless, as soon as the first waves of these invaders had settled down in the new successor states, the Byzantine merchants revived western trade.
This trade was largely to the West's advantage:
The Byzantines had an unfavorable balance of trade with Western Europe during the very early Middle Ages....Western Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries was at a low economic and cultural level, without the taste and desire for exotic and refined luxury items and products of industry in great quantities, but with an excess of raw materials available for export.
Among these last, Adelson notes, were slaves, the sale of whom may have helped the West draw currency its way.

Moving towards the eighth century, Byzantine coins become rare in finds. As noted above, this may be in part because they were melted to produce local coinage. But, says Lafaurie, “the stoppage of all the finds of Byzantine coins, be they in gold or copper, in all the parts of Gaul, whether or not they are the sites of active mints, is then the sign of the thinning out of commercial and political exchanges between the Eastern Mediterranean and the West.”

Adelson notes various conclusions based on monetary circulation of the time: “The trade route from Italy by land to the Frisian coast...never seems to have been entirely closed.” Under Chlotar II, "the subsidiary trade route along the Rhine was probably used to a greater degree than in the reigns just preceding that of Phocas [reigned 602-610].” “The concentration of finds of Ostrogothic silver coins and those of the Exarchate of Ravenna in the middle Rhine region seems to be conclusive proof of a continuous use of that trade route during the pre-Carolingian era”.

The numismatic record then reflects a lively international trade under the early Franks, largely, but not only, with the Byzantines.

How did people get coins?

None of these writers address an issue which may at first glance seem obvious: how anyone but the elite of society got coins at all.

Consider that many people were simply slaves. Others were bound to the land, with no wages. Even when work contracts appear much later in the Middle Ages, they often define payments in kind, such as cheese and beer. If a monetary economy did exist through all levels of society, then, it is not obvious how anyone who was not, for instance, royalty or a merchant came into possession of coins.

One can certainly speculate. Slaves after all have been known to buy their freedom in different societies, showing that somehow they were able to earn a monetary income; eighteenth century French galley slaves often set up small trades when on land. Grierson and Blackburn cite later mentions of moneta pauperum, coins struck especially to be given to the poor. As mentioned above, they cite a passage describing how tiny silver coins were given to the poor (specifically, thrown by the consul while the king smiled benevolently on). It may be that similar customs continued, though otherwise unrecorded.

The most likely means would have been by sale. Even a slave might have had some excess production that he could (licitly or not) sell. The least likely means would have been through any kind of wages, a concept that does not seem to appear in early medieval texts. But all this is frankly speculative; the very existence of a monetary economy in this period has not always been acknowledged and still less have scholars sought to understand what fed it on a local level.


Nothing in the above is at all definitive. Even to the degree that these questions have been studied, it is difficult to summarize the result in a limited space. What does seem clear is that some degree of monetary economy survived from Roman times and was certainly revived by the time of Charlemagne. But whether it ever fully disappeared or how much it co-existed with a barter economy is likely to remain an open question. The most important point here, as with so many subjects, is that societies in the early Middle Ages were more structured and intricate than has often been thought, even if we are unlikely to ever make out all the details of the related systems.


Metcalf. D. M., “Monetary circulation in Merovingian Gaul, 561-674. A propos des Cahiers Ernest Babelon”, Revue numismatique , v6 2006

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius, Germany: a transl. [by C.I. Elton]. 1874

Fagniez, Gustave, Documents relatifs à l'histoire de l'industrie et du commerce en France V1 1898

CNRS video on medieval coins:
English version

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