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.