Monday, 14 January 2013

Reading Money

When you begin to try and identify a coin, sometimes what you assume to be most straight-forward turns out to be surprisingly complicated. One example is simply trying to read legend (words around the edge) of a coin. Often a shorthand is used to abbreviate the words so that they fit the space - in order to understand what they mean, skills from other disciplines need to be used to understand the meaning of the dots and dashes used. Palaeography is one such skill.

Palaeography is the study of manuscripts – of how they are put together and how they are written. It was common scribal practise to abbreviate common words used in manuscripts. Often, parts of the endings were missed off this saved time and space on expensive parchment. A similar practise we see happening on coins, especially those of eleventh century England.

One coin in particular shows us several ways to abbreviate words:

On the obverse, Anglo is abbreviated by joining a small x to the word, representing the unabbreviated form Anglorum. The x represents the –rum ending, shown below:

On the reverse of the same coin, further ways to abbreviate words are seen:


On the left hand side, between the M and the O is a hyphen. At the end of the legend is a high pellet. In the middle over the A is a superscript line. The hyphen shows a contraction of the MONETA (meaning money) to M-O:

The pellet shows a contraction of the name EORFORPIC (York) to EO.:

The superscript line shows another contraction, this time of an entire word, ANGLORUM, to a single letter A:

However these conventions are not static and they do alter between different coins, or rather, different moneyers used different conventions particular to themselves to contract different words.


In this example the –rum of Anglorum is shortened by a pellet inside the O, rather than with a conjoined x.

On the reverse of the coin the contractions of Moneta and Eoforic are also shown differently:


An apostrophe, as well as a central pellet contracts Moneta:

And Eoforic is contracted by an internal pellet, not even at the end of the letter group:

Multiple marks of the same type are used as well. In this example, a double pellet stands in for the –m at the end of Anglorum:

The study of abbreviations in manuscripts and their similarities to those on coins is an area that has not been systematically studied. Conventions from manuscripts are certainly brought into the die-cutting, but are they standardised? This brief survey suggests large differences between die-cutters who were producing coins and the choices of abbreviation that they made. It appears too that there is an awareness of how abbreviations were used in manuscripts and the letter formation there.

All the coins discussed here date to the early eleventh century under the reign of Ethelred. This is a “middle period” according to Bischoff in Latin Palaeography where “a supply of abbreviations and their usage was established”. Bischoff is telling us that at the same time as these coins were being made, conventions within manuscript tradition were not set yet. It is a period of transformation and standardisation for the different media that used writing. Coins should be very much included!

Lucy Moore

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