anglo-saxon in the round

Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is holding an exhibition, “Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round.” For all of us who can’t actually get there, here’s an audiovisual introduction to the show.

I think it would be marvellous to hold something like this in one’s hand.

One of my most treasured possessions is a string of 73 Roman carnelians (first century AD). I wear them all the time, wrapped around my wrist. Most people don’t notice them, but I smile to myself because I know I’m wearing jewellery two thousand years old. I positively lust for something gold from times past. A gold thrymsa would delight me beyond measure. Actually, a little sceatta would thrill me, just something the people I’m writing about might have touched.

Coins are on my mind because I’ve been thinking about money, and trade. Here are my current assumptions: that the economy of north of England, specifically Northumbria, would be still based largely on barter, or payment in kind, with hack silver being a rough and ready exchange where necessary. Coins were much more common in the south, particularly in Kent, with its Frankish trade, and East Anglia, with its brand new king’s wic at Gipswic. So I’ve imagined Hild let loose at Gipswic with two small chest of hack silver, and then tried to work out what she could buy. And how.

First of all, she’d change some of her hacksilver for coin: gold and silver, which for convenience I’m calling shillings and pennies. I’m imagining the gold shilling is a biggish coin weighing about 4 grams and the silver penny is tiny and about 1g. I’m imagining gold was around eight times more valuable than silver, so one shilling = 32 pennies. I imagine you can buy a prime male slave (young, healthy, strong, well-mannered, and skilled) for two shillings, and for a penny a suckling pig or two dozen big loaves of bread. (A lot of work, too tedious to go into here, has gone into those assumptions so if anyone has better figures please–please!–share. I don’t want to look like an idiot when this book is published.)

Then I had a lot of fun imagining the goods at Gipswic: the slaves, the imported glass goblets, the honey cakes, the Rhenish wine, the tiny perfume bottles, wheel-thrown pottery, cunning knives, ivory combs, gilt-bronze buckles… Then I had to figure out what it would all be wrapped in, and who would carry it, and how. And of course only a paragraph or two will actually make it into the book, but I feel hugely satisfied.

13 thoughts on “anglo-saxon in the round

  1. Blast it! Long comment written and Blogger seems to have deleted it. So okay, let me try again.Yes! It’s our exhibition. There will some day be a virtual counterpart designed by yours truly; it was supposed to go up at the same time as the main exhibition, but the powers-that-be have not got round to vetting it so down it stays. When it does go live I shall trumpet it in < HREF="" REL="nofollow">my blog<>.Secondly, a warning; if you should be tempted to buy early medieval gold, watch out for surprisingly-cheap Merovingian tremisses; there is somewhere a guy making very good fakes of them that are finding their way onto the market. So far they’re all from the same dies, so easy enough to spot for the numismatist in the know, but very authentic-looking if you’re not him.Thirdly prices. Yes, eight-to-one is a fair rate for gold-to-silver in the early Middle Ages, though the Islamic crescent reckoned atseven-to-one. They also generated the gold coins you may be thinking of, the dinars, and their Western imitations, the mancus or morabitinos, which are about 4 g; an early English shilling is much smaller, <>c. <>1·3 g, and you can see < HREF="'Coins%20and%20Medals'%20and%20material='gold*'%20and%20OB='shilling*'%20when%20OT='denomination'&_function_=xslt&_limit_=10&_resultstylesheet_=imagecs" REL="nofollow">a couple here<>. So they’re actually about the same weight as sceattas (or < HREF="'Coins%20and%20Medals'%20and%20OB='sceat*'%20when%20OT='denomination'&_function_=xslt&_limit_=10&_resultstylesheet_=imagecs" REL="nofollow">these ones here<> anyway), but smaller, because gold is denser. As for what you could buy with them, well, you’re in the right league; the main source is the Laws of King Ine, which are translated in Attenborough’s <>The Earliest English Laws<> (N. B. did not check title!) and maybe also in EHD; I can get precise references if it will help. In the meantime, < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this page here<> is none too bad.

  2. Many thanks for those links. (And I’m so sorry Blogger ate your first try. One day I’ll upgrade to WordPress and put both my blogs on my actual < HREF="" REL="nofollow">website<>)So I see that Eadbald’s shillings (c. 630) are the small ones. The setting I’m imagining at Gipswic is perhaps four years earlier than that, so I’m thinking Merovingian coins (the bigger ones). Do you think that’s a reasonable assumption, or should I assume some A-S king was minting the small coins before Eadbald? (The pace of change in the 7th C is astonishingly difficult to keep track of for an amateur researcher like me.)

  3. Even < HREF="" REL="nofollow">the Merovingian ones not so much bigger<>, unless I’m making some crucial error here as that one is from <>c. <>650 and so still later than you mean. It’s the metal content that changes in that coinage, I think, however, not the size or weight. < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Visigothic ones are substantially broader but about the same weight<>, and < HREF="" REL="nofollow">the actual Roman pieces<> they’re all imitating in that general range too.However, I think if I suggested that anyone was minting shillings before Eadbald and my boss found it it might be the only thing I could do that could cost me my job 🙂 Suffice to say, there is no evidence for minting gold in England before that so your characters tremisses would have to be Frankish or otherwise imported.Hope all this is some help. I see this kind of information as some payback for the amount of work time I spend slacking on the Internet…

  4. And hey! Looks as if < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Visigothic imports are not in fact as implausible<> as I might have guessed…

  5. So I see that Eadbald's shillings (c. 630) are the small ones. The setting I'm imagining at Gipswic is perhaps four years earlier than that, so I'm thinking Merovingian coins (the bigger ones).Thanks for my clarification.really i am struggled to know this things.

    Thanks for the great reading, we buy gold bullion in a recession. I will

    pass this on to our ira clients to read

  6. Mmmn, seeing in this entry (I am still slowly reading in order, as is my way, in tandem with my second reading of Hild) that you actually own the carnelians, I searched and found where you had posted a picture elsewhere — and yes, I think my mind may well have gone blank with wanting. What an amazing thing to own. How did you come by them?

  7. Those carnelians were a 10th anniversary gift from Kelley, who at the time was my partner and is now my wife. She found them in an Australian art gallery, where they told her they were dug up from a Greco-Roman site in an Egyptian oasis, Bahariya. There’s a whole blog post here.

    Perhaps it’s time for a re-post…

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