Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Viking's ring — part two

One of the most famous coins of the British Mercian King Offa is the imitation gold dinar illustrated on the right. It had been acquired by Pierre Louis Jean Casimir de Blacas in Rome between 1814 and 1828. It was published by P . W . P . Carlyon-Britton , F.S.A. (British Numismatic Society publication), and you can read the paper here.

The most popular theory about the coin has not changed since that publication: it is considered by most to have been part of a payment from Offa to the Pope. However, the evidence for this is slim. While such a payment is recorded, the form of that payment is not and many people question why a coin of a modified Islamic type would be used as a payment to the head of the Christian religion. My own thought is that the coins were specially struck as payments to the Abbasid Caliphate. Ideas that such coins were used in market trade can, I think, be dismissed summarily: imagine going to a convenience store with a thousand dollar bill. Just because a coin was bought in Italy nearly a thousand years after it was minted is no great justification for saying that it had been in Italy all of that time. Collecting and trading in old coins in Italy had been going on at least since the Renaissance. A more likely candidate for a payment to the Pope is the gold penny of the same king which is in the style of a Roman coin. The imitation dinar is of correct weight for an Abbasid gold dinar. I don't think that it is too much of a stretch to say that Offa was probably contacted by pro-Abbasid supporters against the Umayyad's in Spain just as was Charlemagne.

I think that one of the commonest mistakes made in the study of early coins is the constant association with trade. Starting with the Greeks, gold coins were mostly issued to be paid for military support, and many of the best known Greek silver coins were issued for cross-state and international payments to other states. Sometimes, gold or silver coins are also used as political tributes by leaders seeking allies. Efficient trade was carried out by loading ships with a commodity to be traded, far away, for another commodity. Who, in their right mind, would sail an empty ship a great distance and then purchase a cargo with coins? Ships going to America were sometimes loaded with ballast as the point was to remove wealth from the Americas, and not also to supply the natives with European goods.

The ring at the centre of this topic was not the sort of merchandise any trader would want to fill his ship with as such things could be sold easier at the source and could not compete with local jewellery at the destination. Traders had to recoup the expenses for a journey and then make a profit on top of that. The game was to buy in bulk a commodity that was common at home and was rare a great distance away, and then do the same thing in reverse for the return trip.

So let us imagine that the Islamic coins found in Viking hoards in Britain and on the continent were originally payments made to northern Europeans by Islamic rulers for military, economic or political reasons. Once they become part of the Viking economy, they can then be used locally for small market transactions. Under the term "hacksilver", some of the coins are broken or cut into smaller pieces to facilitate trade. The cut dirham would have given the silver value of two local pennies, Viking or Anglo-Saxon. Quarter dirhams are also known which would have traded as a penny. The dirham, itself, would have been the value of the much later English groat.

Tomorrow, a couple of explorers from the Islamic world among the Vikings.

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