Who's Who

The Medieval Euro

Though the Euro may seem modern, its roots go back to the 9th century. Simon Coupland introduces the single European currency of Louis the Pious.

Louis the Pious, contemporary depiction from 826 as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), with a poem of Rabanus Maurus overlaid.Everyone has heard of Charlemagne, whose rule over most of continental western Europe is rightly celebrated. Fewer know of his son Louis the Pious, who reigned as sole emperor over the same vast territory from 814 to 840. Indeed, Louis is so overshadowed by his illustrious father that the most significant work about his reign is called ‘Charlemagne’s Heir’, and one of its chapters, albeit ironically, is entitled ‘The great emperor’s little son’! Yet in one area at least Louis the Pious achieved something which no other medieval ruler, including his famous father, managed to do: he created a single unified coinage which was minted from the Spanish march in the south to Frisia in the north, and from Brittany in the west to the borders of the Slav lands in the east. This ‘Christiana religio’ coinage, named after its reverse inscription, was in effect a single European currency.

To appreciate what Louis accomplished, we need to go back to the end of the eighth century. In 793 or 794 Charlemagne raised the weight of the Frankish denarius and increased its size, thereby creating what would long remain the appearance of the typical medieval penny. At the same time he brought the mints under stricter control, more than halving their number and ensuring that henceforth no count’s or bishop’s name would appear on the coinage, but only his own. Although this new coinage type was minted across the empire, there were local variations, so that the mint-name might be on the same face as the royal monogram, or on the opposite face around a cross, which might or might not have points, crescents, wedges or circles in the angles. Carolingian coinage was thus becoming increasingly standardised, even if the different mints were still able to express their individuality.

At the end of his reign, probably from 812, Charlemagne minted a small but celebrated portrait coinage. It was produced at only a handful of mints, and few specimens are known, but they have been illustrated in countless books and articles. Its purpose was undoubtedly to convey an image of imperial power and prestige, and to this end it consciously imitated Roman models, both in the appearance of the emperor in classical garb on the obverse and in the Christianised form of a temple on the reverse. The latter is of particular interest, because it was also the design used on Louis the Pious’s single currency. Opinions vary as to its significance: some have argued that it depicted a baptistry, others the chapel which Charlemagne constructed at his palace in Aachen; but the most likely interpretation is that it represented the Christian Church. The temple depicted on Roman originals was converted to a Christian sanctuary by the replacement of the goddess at the centre by a cross and by the addition of the legend, ‘the Christian religion’ (‘Christiana religio’, with the initial two letters retaining the Greek chi-rho monogram).

When Charlemagne died in January 814, Louis became sole ruler of the empire, demonstrating the continuity of his rule by continuing to mint portrait coinage where his father had left off. Some coins bore the ‘Christiana religio’ legend, others, as under Charlemagne, depicted different reverse designs, including city gates, minting tools or ships. Not all mints possessed skilled die-cutters, so that at Toulouse Louis ended up looking more like a punk than a Roman emperor! These portrait coins were minted from 814 to 818, and it was probably during this period that Louis also struck a splendid gold coinage. Even though these solidi appear to have been produced on a small scale, they were paid the compliment of being imitated in larger numbers by Frisian forgers later in the century.

In 818 Louis replaced this portrait coinage by a second type, bearing the emperor’s name around a cross on one face and the mint-name on the other. Two hoards from the 820s, one from Berry and the other from Languedoc, demonstrate both the effectiveness of the recoinage and the remarkable degree of control which Louis exerted over the economy of this huge empire. Between them the two hoards contained over a thousand of Louis the Pious’s second coinage type, but only two portrait coins, three coins of Charlemagne and no foreign coinage. What is more, the 750 coins in the larger hoard had been accumulated in under five years, yet they came from over thirty-five mints in all parts of the empire, from Nantes to Venice and from Dorestad to Barcelona. This is clear evidence of rapid circulation of coinage across this vast territory, which in turn suggests thriving internal trade.

Louis’s image-makers looked to the Bible for their inspiration, and found it in the story of David and Solomon. The parallels are indeed striking. Like Charlemagne, David was occupied chiefly with fighting wars and expanding his kingdom; Solomon with consolidating these gains and reorganising the administration. David’s treasury was filled with booty from his conquests; Solomon’s with tribute payments and the profits from burgeoning international trade. David was the great warrior king; Solomon the man of peace and wisdom. It is no wonder that the Carolingian clerics, who were the spin doctors of their day, drew attention to the parallels, which are also manifest in Louis’s coinage. For if Solomon’s greatest memorial was the temple in Jerusalem, Louis’s was the Christiana religio temple coinage.

This was introduced in 822 or 823, bearing the same obverse legend as the previous type, the emperor’s name around a cross, but on the reverse the inscription ‘Christiana religio’ around a temple in place of the mint-name. For the first time every mint across the empire struck not just the same coinage type, but exactly the same coinage. There were some slight variations: for instance, coins from Trier were minted without points around the cross, those from Sens included a letter S below the temple, and a few coins bore a cross on both faces, or included pellets around the temple. All these are invaluable clues for the numismatist wanting to determine where particular coins were minted, but on the vast majority of coins the only clue is the style of the craftsman who manufactured the dies from which the coin was struck. For the ninth-century Franks who were using these coins to buy and sell and pay their taxes there was no discernible difference between Italian, Aquitanian or Frisian coins: it truly was a single European currency.

These coins were produced until Louis’s death in June 840 at all but a handful of mints, where a new mint-signed temple coinage was introduced at the very end of the reign. Even though the ‘Christiana religio’ coins were minted for only seventeen or eighteen years, the same length of time as Charlemagne’s monogram type, at sites where large numbers of stray finds have been made they significantly outnumber the coins of Charlemagne and indeed of Louis’s immediate successors. This is the case at Dorestad, the most important market in northern Europe, and Domburg, a smaller emporium on the North Sea coast, and the clear inference is that the empire was experiencing an economic boom.

This is all the more remarkable given the political history of the period. The 830s were a turbulent time, when Louis was twice deposed, albeit temporarily, and when he has traditionally been seen as weak and ineffectual. Indeed the epithet ‘the Pious’ has often been used as an insult by later historians. Yet, contrary to this prevailing view, the coinage unmistakably shows a strong and unified currency right across the empire, with foreign coin effectively excluded, all mints producing the single imperial type and coinage circulating in massive amounts. It was only in 840, when Louis died, that this situation unravelled.

There was one aspect of the story of David and Solomon on which Carolingian exegetes preferred not to dwell. In the latter half of Solomon’s reign internal discontent grew, serious external threats surfaced, and when Solomon died, Israel divided into two kingdoms, never to be reunited. So it was in Louis’s realm. During the 830s, Scandinavian raiders began to pose a significant threat both in Frisia in the north and Aquitaine in the south. At the same time, Louis’s eldest son Lothar became increasingly disenchanted with the attention – and territory – bestowed on his young half-brother Charles, and he rebelled, briefly in 830 and more seriously in 833-34. During the latter revolt, Louis was imprisoned and Lothar took on the mantle of emperor, only to lose it a few months later when his brothers Louis (‘the German’) and Pippin demanded their father’s release. Presumably minting of the ‘Christiana religio’ type was interrupted at this time, but if so, the interruption was so brief and insignificant that it had scarcely any impact on the coinage in circulation.

The uneasy peace which ensued was shattered on Louis’s death, when the tensions between his sons exploded into outright civil war. After a decisive battle at Fontenoy in 841, three sons, Lothar, Louis and Charles the Bald, agreed a division of the empire into three separate kingdoms, with Louis’s nephew Pippin II winning the right to rule the kingdom of Aquitaine a few years later. All four rulers began striking coinage in their own names as soon as they were able. We even have a pair of ‘Christiana religio’ coins struck from the same reverse die, one bearing the name of Louis the Pious on the obverse, the other that of Lothar. Yet although Louis’s successors continued to produce ‘Christiana religio’ issues, there was no longer any one uniform type: the era of the medieval single European currency was over. It had lasted just seventeen or eighteen years, although its impact lived on long after the death of Louis the Pious, as derivatives went on being produced in Germany and Switzerland as late as the fourteenth century. Louis’s coinage may not have influenced the architects of the Euro whose notes and coins began to circulate in January 2002, but this was still a remarkable achievement by this unappreciated Carolingian emperor.

Simon Coupland is a vicar in Worthing who has written extensively about Carolingian coinage.

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