25 March, 2008

The Merovingian coins from Sutton Hoo

Dating the coins

The dating of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and hence the likely identity of its occupant (more on the possible candidates in a future post), turns on the coins found in the burial (picture on the British Museum website here). The coins were in a magnificent purse carried on a belt, and consisted of thirty-seven gold tremisses from Merovingian Gaul, three blank gold coins, and two gold ingots.

Dating Merovingian coins is non-trivial, as the coins do not always carry the name of a ruler or of an identifiable mint. Of the 37 Sutton Hoo coins, 32 give the name of a mint on one side and sometimes the name of a moneyer on the other, with no ruler identified. Only five name specific rulers:
• Theudebert II (Frankish King, 595-612) – 1 coin, no mint named
• Justin II (Byzantine emperor, 565-578) – 1 coin, minted in Provence
• Maurice Tiberius (Byzantine emperor, 582-602) – 3 coins, minted at three different mints in Provence

In 1960 the French coin expert Lafaurie identified the latest date of the coin group as AD 625. More recent analysis of the gold content of the coins (which progressively declined over time as Frankish mints recycled the metal), has indicated that the coins could all have been made by AD 613 (Carver 1998). Fortunately, both these dates are reasonably consistent and place the earliest possible date for the burial in the early decades of the seventh century (it could of course be later, as the coins could have been in circulation for a while before being buried).

What did the coins represent?

No two of the coins come from the same mint. At first sight this looks remarkable, and it has been used to suggest that the coins were selected for some deliberate and specific reason, perhaps representing a diplomatic or symbolic payment of some kind. The historian Norman Scarfe suggested that they may have been the ‘blood money’ offered by Aethelferth of Northumbria in his attempt to bribe Raedwald to murder Eadwine (Edwin) of Northumbria in 617 (Carver 1998) – although why Aethelferth should have gone to the trouble of assembling his bribe from 37 different mints is not clear to me.

Another possibility is that the coin collection indicates some political relationship between the kingdoms of East Anglia and Merovingian Gaul, perhaps payment of tribute or a payment made to seal some diplomatic bargain. Martin Carver has suggested that they represent a form of tribute, with each major Merovingian mint sending a coin in recognition of the dead man’s achievements (Carver 1998). In this context it may be significant that Sigeberht, who was king of the East Angles in around 630-635, had spent time in Merovingian Gaul as a political exile in his youth (Bede, Book II Ch. 15). Our knowledge of the political history of the time is so sketchy that an alliance between Merovingian Gaul and East Anglia could easily have gone unrecorded.

It has been suggested that the three blanks were added to round up the 37 coins to a total of 40, representing payment for 40 oarsmen, and the two ingots represented payment for a steersman. This is an ingenious and attractive explanation, and there is nothing to rule it out, although it is by no means certain that the ship would have had 40 oarsmen (Carver 1998).

However, the coin collection may not be as special as it first appears. Thirteen of the coins either have no mint name or an unidentifiable one, leaving only 24 from the known Merovingian mints. According to Alan Stahl, there were so many different Merovingian mints in operation in the seventh century that the Sutton Hoo coins represent only a small fraction of the known mints. Stahl estimates that a random collection of 37 coins would have about a 50% chance of containing two coins from the same mint. In which case, this suggests that the Sutton Hoo coins need not represent a conscious attempt to select coins from different mints; it is as likely to have arisen as a random collection of 37 coins that happened to be in circulation.

Alan Stahl also points out that most coins in England in the early seventh century came from Merovingian Gaul, and that the main metal for currency north of the Mediterranean was gold. So the fact that the Sutton Hoo coins were Merovingian gold coins does not imply any special relationship between East Anglia and Merovingian Gaul. Most if not all of the coins available in England at the time would have been Merovingian and made of gold.

The presence of the blanks and the ingots need have no special significance either. Other coin hoards found outside Merovingian Gaul (at Nietap, Crondall and Dronrijp) have contained coin blanks and/or ingots along with coins, suggesting that commerce outside the Merovingian kingdom could use gold bullion alongside coins (Stahl 1992). This reminds me of the Norse system of using silver bullion (hacksilver) by weight for trade in later centuries; perhaps this was a long tradition. The combined weight of the coins, blanks and ingots is 61.11 g, and Stahl argues that this represents 48 tremisses by weight (Stahl 1992). There may be a symbolic significance to the number, or it may just be a convenient amount for commerce.

Gipeswic (modern Ipswich) was a major trading centre in the later seventh century and could have been an important source of wealth for the East Anglian kings. Perhaps it was founded by the Sutton Hoo Man, and the coins in his purse recognised the importance of trade to his kingdom? (“A nation of shopkeepers” indeed!).

As ever, many explanations are possible and you can take your choice.


Stahl, AM. The nature of the Sutton Hoo coin parcel. In: Kendall CB, Wells PS (Eds). Voyage to the other world; the legacy of Sutton Hoo. University of Minnesota Press, 1992, ISBN: 0816620245.

Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-7141-0591-0.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X


Gabriele Campbell said...

So there's no undisputed candidate for Sutton Hoo. Nice to know, since the German History Channel stated it's Raedwald. Period. ;)

But since they also had stirrups on a Roman saddle and some shaky interpretations of the motives that led Arminius to rebel against Rome, I'm considering to stop watching their reports at all.

Constance Brewer said...

Ancient commerce and coins makes me loopy. *g* I hate trying to make up a system for my fantasy world. Better to steal from the past, so to speak. Your post gives me a good idea on what one character has hidden in his purse, so thanks for that!

Carla said...

Gabriele - I think Raedwald is the most likely candidate, as I'll cover in another post, but in the absence of a "Here lies King Raedwald" inscription it isn't certain. TV programmes seem to have more trouble with subtleties and uncertainties than print and radio, especially the drama-documentary type (which I have given up on).

Constance - bear in mind that whoever was buried at Sutton Hoo Mound One was very, very rich indeed. If he was Raedwald, he was overlord of most of what's now southern England and possibly what's now northern England as well.

Bernita said...

Logical as always, Carla.

Constance Brewer said...

Ah, good point. My guy isn't lord of anything. Unless he's a thief and hasn't told me yet...

Anonymous said...

I was going to say! Under Charlemagne, a denier of good silver, at about 1.3 g pr coin, would buy you a dozen two-pound loaves. Gold is supposed to exchange with silver at about 1:8 then, but these Merovingian tremisses are very pale gold, nearly silver. I don't know how far that was recognised in their buying power at the time, but they're more or less the same weight (as witness this one). If the bullion value is allowed to set the coin value, if the economy was functioning at roughly the same level and the Merovingian coins are, say, 25% gold, they're worth 2-3 times the coins Charlemagne was legislating about, so would buy you maybe 30 big loaves of bread, or a poor pig or sheep (4 deniers in the same price edict). The Byzantine ones will be worth a lot more because of being much better gold. And the Merovingian ones may have circulated as if they were better than they in fact are. So yes: if your character has some of these in his pocket, he's rich. But they're found on market sites, as if they were lost in transactions. I've been taught that we should probably be thinking of these being traders' coins used to clear debts, tallies and slates at the end of a day's trading; they'd be just too high-value to spend in direct exchange.

Hope that helps a bit...

Carla said...

Bernita - thank you

Constance - he'd be a seriously high-grade thief! See Jonathan(tenthmedieval)'s comment. I suspect if your character had something like the Sutton Hoo purse in his possession he'd be the equivalent of a jewel heist or The Lavender Hill Mob or The Italian Job and half the country would be after him. Mind you, that might give you a plot to run with :-)

Tenthmedieval - many thanks. Since the dating relies partly on analysis of the gold content, which apparently declined over time, maybe coins from the early seventh century had a respectable amount of gold in them? I haven't found the actual gold content cited yet. I also don't know whether there was inflation between the Sutton Hoo period (c 620) and Charlemagne's day, and what effect that could have had on the currency. Either of which would reinforce your point about these being very high-value coins. I imagine them as being more like the sort of thing you'd use to buy a car rather than your weekly groceries. You will know more about this than me, but the impression I have is that long-distance commerce in England in the early seventh century was mainly concerned with exotic high-ticket luxury items for the elite - rather as if the local magnate collected his agricultural surplus, took it to a specialised market (Southampton-Hamwic, Lundenwic, Gipeswic, etc) and exchanged it for flashy tableware or exotic jewellery. The sort of place where "if you have to ask the price you can't afford it". The gold coins fit reasonably well into this sort of picture of high-value trading - more Bond Street than High Street :-) Most people either grew/made what they needed or bartered for it.
By the time of Charlemagne there's getting to be much more trade in more ordinary items, and you start seeing a manufacturing economy getting going again - e.g. the mass production of Ipswich ware pottery starting some time in the early 700s, which I think is the first mass produced pottery in England since Roman times and implies there was a functioning market system by then. Didn't Charlemagne write to King Offa about the price of quernstones and cloaks, too?

If the Sutton Hoo man was Raedwald, maybe the coins in his purse represent the king's cut from a trading place he controlled?

Rick said...

Carla - I'm a bit naughtily amused by the description of the Merovingian gift possibility as "tribute." It might indeed have been in the modern sense of paying a tribute to a famous dead person, but surely no English ruler of the time was in a position to exact old fashioned tribute from the Franks!

In the thief scenario, half the country may be after you, but you can buy off the other half. The ship was probably worth at least as much, but having the ship and having the money sort of go together.

Tenthmedieval - thanks for your discussion of the actual purchasing power of these coins. Roughly, then, the coins were worth about 1200 loaves of bread, or a few dozen sheep or goats.

Carla - your guess about coins fits mine, that they were only needed for specialized, high end commerce. When were pence first minted in England? A late medieval penny had very loosely the purchasing power of a euro, i.e., comparable to a loaf of bread - the kind of money you could use in local market transactions. The early purchasing power was more, but not (IIRC) hugely more.

Constance - even stealing from the past can get bewildering, when you realize that many familiar money units never circulated as coins, but were only moneys of account. I came to share my aristo characters' distaste for the whole vulgar thing. :)

Carla said...

Rick - quite. I was slightly surprised to see that suggestion too, given the relative balance of power. Even in the modern sense it seems unlikely that a king of the East Angles could have done anything that would have come to the notice of the King of the Franks and/or 37 Merovingian mints and wasn't recorded in any annals or accounts - though records are so scanty that almost anything is possible.

Silver sceattas appear in Kent around the turn of the seventh/eighth century, and the familiar big flat silver penny gets going under Offa of Mercia in the second half of the eighth century, say from the 760s onwards. Offa's pennies were the equivalent of the contemporary Frankish denier - 'penny' is English for 'denier' - and became the dominant coinage south of the Humber very quickly. Contrarian as ever, Northumbria carried on happily producing and using sceattas even though the silver content dwindled down to almost nothing. After the Danish invasions and the reconquest, the silver penny became standard across England in the late ninth century.

I have the impression that an eighth-century silver penny bought a lot more than a loaf of bread. If they had the same value as the Frankish denier that Tenthmedieval describes, it would be 24 pounds of bread. Last time I was in France a 400g loaf (less than a pound weight) cost 1 to 1.5 Euros depending on the type of bread - take the bottom end of the range and the silver penny would be worth more like 25-30 euros. Don't take that calculation too seriously! - intensive agriculture and mass production must surely have pushed the price of bread down in relative terms between Charlemagne's day and now - but it suggests the eighth-century silver penny was a significant amount of money rather than loose change.

If the gold tremisses are equivalent to the shillings mentioned in Aethelbert's law codes, there were (in theory) 20 silver pennies to the shilling. It may be noteworthy that Aethelbert's law codes (around 610 or so) specify that anyone who killed a freeman had to pay a fine of 50 shillings to the king, not so far from the 48 tremisses weight in the Sutton Hoo purse. Not that it was necessarily someone's weregild, but it was a serious amount of money. Although we're focusing on the coins here, it's worth remembering they would be only a tiny amount of the total value of the goods in the burial, like the jewellery, the weapons and the plate, not to mention the ship itself.

Pinching historical coin systems for fantasy is a venerable tradition. I shall be very surprised if Tolkien's silver pennies in Lord of the Rings weren't based on Old English silver pennies.

Anonymous said...

Lots of stuff! Firstly as to tribute, given as these were the coins in circulation in England (though the Byzantine ones still need some explanation in that case), the truibute could be coming from much more local places than Francia, even if the coins started out there.

Nextly, as to who was using these coins, and the nature of trade in this period, here I am caught between two experts. Chris Wickham would insist that as you say long-distance trade is marginal compared to the economy as a whole, though for those engaged in it it could be very remunerative I expect. I think that Chris would allow for a stronger market for agricultural produce than is often imagined, however, and as long as one's buying in bulk, say a whole farm's monthly load of barley when you've been growing spelt that year, coins like these could have a use in that scenario. And Mark Blackburn is, as the man who knows the coins and their find patterns better than anyone, continually stressing their market use as evinced by the findspots. But then there's archaelogists like Chris Loveluck pointing out that, by now, so many Anglo-Saxon sites have been defined as high-status because of `luxury' goods found there that actually we may have to accept that access to those goods was not so unusual after all. Maybe if you have a good year on the farm and have amassed a few of those tremisses from selling your surplus at the market, you `bank' it by buying yourself a nice shiny brooch which will hold its value...

Lastly, when you use that legislation of Charlemagne's (and if anyone wants an online version of that, it's here), bear in mind two things: firstly, the fact that these prices were chosen means that the court of 794 presumably thought them reasonable; but secondly, that the legislation was needed at all means that at the time asking prices were much higher! So what a 794 denier would actually have bought you might be much less impressive, and the same would apply in hard years to the earlier coins...

Rick said...

According to this inflation calculator


The purchasing power of a pound fell by a factor of 500 between 1500 and 2007. The earliest date it handles is 1264, and apparently the purchasing power of a pound/penny hardly changed from 1264 to the 16th century. It easily could have undergone inflation earlier, though.

A lot of economists would say that inflation rates across centuries are nearly meaningless, since the market basket of goods changes so much. But we have to have some framework to say whether some amount of money was a fortune or a pittance.

Maybe the question of early markets ends up being "both." Even if only a fairly small fraction of total production enters a market economy, it adds up across a large village in the course of a year, let alone a larger district with seasonal fairs.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - Yes, absolutely, the coins could have come to the Sutton Hoo man at several removes. If he was Raedwald and overlord of southern England, a southern English kingdom like Kent with links to Merovingian Gaul might well have paid its tribute in Merovingian gold coins. I think the idea of it coming directly from Gaul stemmed from the idea that the coins had been specially selected to represent the major Frankish mints - though as Alan Stahl argues, they may not have been consciously selected at all.

The trade question seems to me to be vexed by the patchy evidence base available - like so many things. Assessing the extent of trade, who was engaged in it, what was traded and when and how, all rely on having a reasonably representative sample. Without the denominator it's very hard to say whether something is rare or common! If, for example, we can't recognise low-status sites because they don't have datable items (or don't even leave much of a trace at all), we don't know how many such sites there were in relation to the ones with datable 'luxury' goods that we can recognise. So we don't know for sure if an expensive brooch was a 'luxury' like a modern washing machine or a car that most people in the society could afford, or if it was the equivalent of a Rolex watch or a Porsche. Or indeed if it was the equivalent of a savings account, which is quite likely. These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, as far as I can see - if flashy jewellery holds its value, then it's a savings account you can wear and show off to the neighbours. If we find one expensive brooch we label the whole site 'high status', but if the site was in use for several decades maybe it only means that one individual struck lucky once (and then unlucky, if they then lost the brooch for a metal detectorist or excavator to find 1400 years later!), which might be some random event like someone having been on a profitable raid with the fyrd one year, or having a particularly good harvest. You'd probably find a few Rolexes excavating Brixton in a few centuries' time, but it doesn't make it a wealthy area inhabited by the elite. And social structure could have changed a lot over a century or so into the bargain, so what was true in 620 might no longer be the case in 680. It all gets very frustrating.

Good point about the need for legislation implying the prices could get a lot higher! I wonder how effective Charlemagne's attempts at price control were in practice?

Rick - probably the best measure of a fortune vs a pittance is how it compared with the rest of society. If median income is 1d per year and you have 2d you're wealthy, if median income is 4d and you have 2d you're poor. But that's very hard to make even a guesstimate at unless we have data on a representative sample of the population. It starts being possible when we have tax rolls, but prior to bureaucracy (or when the records have been lost) it must be a real problem. It gets even harder in an economy that doesn't run on money - if you have 12 chickens, are you richer or poorer than your neighbour who owns a pig? And if you swop some of your eggs during the summer for some of his bacon during the winter, are both of you now richer than if you hadn't? (You both certainly eat better). I think it's very hard for us to imagine an economy that works without money, because money is so dominant in modern Western society that we literally can't imagine a world without it. In a society where most people get what they need by growing it, making it or bartering for it with their neighbours, money might well have almost no meaning, so concepts like 'inflation' become nearly meaningless too.

You may well be right that only a small percentage of agricultural surplus is needed to add up to a sizeable amount of tradable wealth, especially as precious metals and the like are durable and could be accumulated over time. One of the (many) questions about the Sutton Hoo site is, could all that wealth have come from agricultural surplus, or does it indicate that the kings of the East Angles had another source of income?

Anonymous said...

I may have to borrow that Brixton point next time I have to teach or argue this corner :-) Nicely put.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - thank you, and you're welcome to borrow it :-)