Collecting medieval Irish coins


One of the more difficult aspects of coin collecting is the language barrier one encounters when trying to decipher the legends (text around the edges) of coins. Very few of us speak Latin and truncated Latin still appears on British coins today. As we all know, British coins circulated alongside Irish coins in this country up until 1978 when we broke with sterling. Irish coins from 1928 onwards are reasonably inexpensive and easy to collect – these are the most popular for junior collectors.

coin - latin inscription (modern GB)Before our independence in 1922, we were part of the UK and used British coins. Before the Act of Union in 1800, we were a somewhat semi-independent kingdom with varying degrees of autonomy which included the ability to issue our own coins. From James I (1603) onwards, coins were made by an industrial process and gradually took on a consistent size, weight and metal content. The Royal Mint had to do this for a number of reasons – clipping, fraud and a series of financial scandals to name but a few. These coins are known as ‘milled’ coins by collectors.

coin - latin inscription (George III)Before James I, coins were made by men called moneyers, who struck the blanks (flans) with a heavy hammer to produce a coin. Hence, each coin was individually produced by hand and these coins are known as ‘hammered’ coins by collectors. Two designs (dies) are usually used – one for the front of the coin (obverse) and one for the back (reverse). The obverse is usually reserved for the king (or queen) and the reverse sometimes shows the name of the moneyer and/or the mint where the coin was produced. This makes it very interesting because of the number of variations it can produce.

coins - hammered Anvil_dye_detailAnvil die (one side of a coin design)

cooins - hammered rostok moneyerMoneyer ‘hammering’ coins from a blank set between two anvil dies (image: from a wall carving in Rostok)

In Anglo-Saxon England, for example, there were 97 mints – one for each borough and some mints had more than one moneyer. In order to control the activities of these mints, King Aethelred ordered the design to be changed every six years – yet more variations for collectors to study. These variations are also useful for archaeologists who can use them to date objects found in association with these coins.

A short video from the BBC showing how hammered coins were actually made and discussing the various techniques and materials used – featuring scenes from the Tower of London, the Royal Mint and the British Museum.

In Ireland, the first coins to be minted here were the Hiberno-Norse series by the Dublin Vikings. The Irish, it seems, had no use for coins and historians tell us the unit of exchange was a cow – not very useful for smaller transactions! This doesn’t tell us much about the micro-economics of Early or Late Christian Ireland. The Vikings, it seems, also had little use for coins but when they developed a vast trading hinterland throughout Europe and the Middle East, they adopted the use of coinage.

For example, the ‘Cuerdale Hoard’ is a hoard of more than 8,600 items, including silver coins, English and Carolingian jewellery, hacksilver and ingots. It was discovered on 15 May 1840 on the southern bank of a bend of the River Ribble, in an area called Cuerdale in South Ribble near to the city of Preston, Lancashire, England. The Cuerdale Hoard is the largest Viking silver hoard ever found outside Russia, and exceeds in number of pieces and weight any hoard found in Scandinavia or any other western areas settled by the Vikings.

The coins in the hoard are from three sources, represented in the proportions 5:1:1

  1. Viking kingdoms of eastern England are represented in the largest portion;
  2. Another portion is from Alfred the Great’s Wessex
  3. Finally, the last portion comprises coins from foreign sources,incl. Byzantine, Scandinavian, Islamic, Papal, North Italian and Carolingian mintings, many of which last are from Aquitaine (Richard Hall suggests they were ‘acquired’ during the Viking raids of 898 in France)
coins, treasure, hoard, ireland, england, viking, hiberno-norse

The Cuerdale treasure – comprising more than 1300 silver items – was probably hidden during this exodus from Ireland in 905 AD

Through the writing (legends) on the various northern European coinages, we see an ‘almost’ common written language amongst the northern Europeans, i.e. forms of runic inscriptions. Runes were used by the Anglo-Saxons, the Norse of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Greenland, and are distributed across the Northern countries. Isolated examples range from Greece to southern France to Greenland, and possibly the New World – although most of the runes found in North America in recent times have been proven to be fakes.

Runic alphabets were used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. The earliest runic inscriptions date from around AD 150. The characters were generally replaced by the Latin alphabet as the cultures that had used runes underwent Christianisation, by approx. AD 700 in central Europe and by approx. AD 1100 in Northern Europe. However, the use of runes persisted for specialised purposes in Northern Europe.

Runic alphabet - Anglo-SaxonRunic alphabet - old Danish & Swedish language Runic alphabet - old German languageContrary to still-current opinion, extensive archaeological evidence indicates that not only were many Norse literate, but also that they used runes for everyday communication and notes. For example, a carved stick found in a midden (ancient rubbish dump) in Oslo, along with several thousand other like ones, was roughly translated as “take this to my husband at the pub and tell him to come home now.”

It would appear that runes were designed to be incised, typically into the grain of wood, across the grain, and that dictates their shape. Almost all the runes, in the different varieties, have vertical staffs from which angular ascenders or descenders branch. This works well for both incused letters on wood, and for scratching on rock with a steel tool.

The ordered set of letters, what we call the alphabet, was referred to as the futhark, or futhorc, or other like names, depending on the language and the current letter set. The classical Anglo-Saxon alphabet had thirty one letters, with no provision for ‘q’ or ‘x’ but including the letter ‘th’ (which is why the English language, as we speak it, has such an incredibly high occurence of the ‘th’ phoneme) and similarly the letters ‘ng’, ‘oe’, and ‘ae.’

At the time of the Hiberno-Norse coinage, the runic alphabets were beginning to be merged with Latin as the Vikings became Christianised, so their coins are (almost) legible to us. The subtle differences on the coins give us clues as to where they were made. The coins themselves are found all over Europe as the Vikings had a trading empire – with temporary and permanent Viking settlements as far away as the Volga basin in the east, Ireland in the west and the Loire estuary and Pomeranian coast to the south. From these bases, they were able to raid further and trade further from their original homelands in Scandinavia. Meanwhile, their warrior-farmer class settled in these fertile lands and stayed there long after the warrior elites had left. Ireland is a good example of this as can be seen from their coinages.

hiberno-norse, coin, dublin, ireland, hammered coinage, irish, sithric, clontarf

Hiberno-Norse coin, minted in Dublin

Anglo-Saxon coin - Aethelred II. 978-1016. AR Penny (1.56 g, 3h). Long cross type. Dover mint; Leofhyse, moneyer. Struck circa 997-1003

Anglo-Saxon coin – Aethelred II. 978-1016. AR Penny (1.56 g, 3h). Long cross type. Dover mint; Leofhyse, moneyer. Struck circa 997-1003

But that is another story … see my next blog post on Hiberno-Norse and Hiberno-Manx coinages.

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