Where There’s Muck There’s Brass: The Monetization of Northumbria c.AD570- 866/7

Archaeology research Forum Week 4, KG/33, 4-6pm, Friday 24 October 2014

Tony Abramson (Adjunct at the Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds): ‘Where There’s Muck There’s Brass: The Monetization of Northumbria c.AD570-866/7’

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Having studied early Anglo-Saxon coinage for more than two decades and published a number of books on the subject and organised biennial symposia, Tony Abramson is now researching the monetization of Northumbria in the early medieval period.

There were a number of phases to the re-introduction of coinage to England. As illustrated by the purse at Sutton Hoo (deposited c.AD630), the first phase consisted largely of Merovingian gold tremisses derived from late Roman coinage. Dating from a decade or so after that grave deposit, the Crondall hoard from Hampshire demonstrates that an assortment of English gold shillings (‘thrymsas’) now dominated the circulating medium. Northumbria followed this general pattern; Merovingian gold tremisses have been recovered locally as have 15 gold shillings attributed to York and dated to the mid seventh-century.

By the 670s, the gold content of coins had reduced significantly and Merovingian silver deniers were in circulation. At this time the domestic emissions consisted of a pale-gold (c.4%) transitional coinage for a decade or so before the English silver proto-penny (‘sceat’) appeared. This was part of a common, vastly expanded silver coinage which circulated throughout the entire North Sea trading zone. Between 685 and 750, it is arguable that around 100 million ‘sceats’ were produced and Tony has catalogued more than 630 main varieties. Aldfrith of York (685-704) was the first monarch to be named on this new coinage, and the Northumbrian coinage is distinguished by its literacy and consistency.

In the mid-750s, the northern and southern English coinages diverged. The latter followed the Frankish move to the familiar medieval broad penny/denier – probably influenced by eastern currency. However, Northumbria (in common with Frisia and Denmark) stuck to the small flan ‘sceat’ for at least another half-century. Around 830, the northern ‘sceat’ was replaced by a brass coin – the ‘styca’ – of the same size, which was made in huge numbers until the Viking Great Army – the micel here – captured York in 866/7. It is only in recent years that numismatists realised that this ‘widow’s mite’ was not to be denigrated, but marked the penetration of coinage to all levels of society for the first time since the departure of the Romans. Northumbria was again monetized, if only briefly.

Tony will give a brief, yet profusely illustrated, overview of Northumbrian history and coinage of the period, before describing the quantitative and qualitative methodologies he has developed in the first year of his study.

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