The History of Hammered Coinage

The History of Hammered Coinage


            The hammered coin is not simply a single denomination. It is a series of coins that were minted throughout a twelve century timespan in the Medieval period. These coins are often crude copies of Roman coins or thin and wavy silver flans. After the fall of the Roman empire decentralized societies forgot the knowledge of the past and had to reinvent themselves. They had the influence of Rome, just without the government. It was hard to readjust during these troubling times. Many of the coins minted were in large quantities not meant to last long in circulation. These coins were intended to be a medium of exchange, and were not reflective of the highest artistic ability of the time. 


Introduction and History of Hammered Coins 

The Middle Ages, often referred to as the Dark Ages, ushered in a significant transformation in art, distinct from the ancient world. The era witnessed the decline of emperors and consuls, making way for the emergence of kings who took on prominent roles in governing. The military aristocracy, composed of vassals and knights, served these kings, their loyalty often hinging on the ruler's battlefield success. Latin Christianity, embodied by the Roman Catholic Church, played a central role in the spiritual landscape of this era, prevailing for a millennium. Elements of Roman culture, such as classical knowledge, endured throughout the period.

In the British Isles, the retreat of the Roman Empire after 400 AD created a power vacuum, allowing outside groups to settle and establish Anglo-Saxon culture. The warrior class dominated society, with Bretwaldas exerting influence as overlords. Independent kingdoms, including Mercia, Wessex, and Sussex, emerged, leading to competition for resources and honor. Warfare was integral to this culture, with greatness often tied to success in battle. The economy revolved closely around warfare, involving the accumulation of wealth through plunder and tribute. Despite the scarcity of written language and education, trained scribes were valuable for drafting agreements and documents. Religion underwent a transformation, as many Germanic groups initially adhered to paganism, leading to tensions with the growing influence of Christianity.

 The last emperor of Rome coin

Tremissis. Romulus Augustus, ca. 475-476. The last emperor of Rome.

Courtesy of CNG.

The Franks, specifically the Salian Franks from modern-day Belgium, formed an alliance of Germanic tribes along the Rhine river. Having early contact with Rome, they evolved from defeated foes to allies with Roman citizenship. Clovis I, who ruled from 486 to 511 AD, established Frankish dominance in Gaul, converting to Christianity and integrating Roman traditions into his rule. This religious transformation facilitated the bonding of Franks with their former Roman residents. The Merovingians, led by Clovis and his descendants, expanded their empire and fabricated their lineage to connect Frankish traditions with Rome. The roles of Counts and Dukes were modeled after Roman civic and military offices, with Counts enforcing the law in counties and Dukes handling military affairs, especially in border areas.

Tremissis. Clovis I coin

Tremissis. Clovis I, ca. 481-560.

Courtesy of CNG.

Christianity played a crucial role in the Middle Ages, as it underwent gradual forced conversion and voluntary adoption. Pagan traditions continued to exist alongside the spread of Christianity. Art and literature, exemplified by the Franks Casket, demonstrated a fusion of pagan and Christian themes. Bookmaking, a symbol of power, was a resource-intensive and expensive process. The Western Church assumed the responsibility of training priests to educate the common people. Bishops had military roles in raising local armies and increasingly faced secular influences that diverted their focus from religious duties. Monasteries played a significant role as educational centers in the absence of Roman influence in cities. Missionary efforts, particularly by Irish monasteries, reached pagan populations in the more remote regions.

Social and political thought in the Middle Ages witnessed the convergence of aristocratic ideals, blending Germanic military command and Roman influences in land ownership and administration. This fusion laid the groundwork for the European model of lords presiding over their domains, relying on military knights for protection and governance. These developments marked the beginnings of feudalism. St. Augustine's work, "City of God," played a pivotal role in articulating and championing the concept of being a Christian in a secular world, shaping a new European identity as a universal Christian society, even amidst political divisions.

Merovingians. Tremissis. Uncertain king coin

Merovingians. Tremissis. Uncertain king, ca. 639-657.

Courtesy of CNG.


The Carolingians and Their Empire


During the 8th century, the Carolingians ruled over a vast empire that encompassed much of western and central Europe, marking one of the most significant powers to rise in Europe since the Roman Empire. Charlemagne, often hailed as the "father of Europe," aspired to revive the glory of Rome.

The foundation of Carolingian power was laid by the Franks. While they had a king, much of the administrative work was delegated to counts and dukes. A yearly war council played a role in planning campaigns and ensuring a sense of justice in the realm. Notably, the office of the Mayor of the Palace became influential, with some mayors wielding more power than the reigning monarch. Charles Martel, known as "Charles the Hammer," achieved recognition for his battlefield successes, notably in the Battle of Tours/Poitiers in 732, where he checked the rapid expansion of Islam into western Europe. Following his father's footsteps, Pippin the Short took the reins and, in 751, initiated a pivotal shift in power dynamics by questioning the legitimacy of a king with no real power.

Carolingians coins

Denier. Charles Martel, ca. 718-750.

Courtesy of CNG.

At this juncture, the Bishop of Rome's position became increasingly significant. Italy was caught between the Lombards and the Byzantines, and the Pope sought a powerful ally. Pippin deposed the king and assumed the throne, leading to an agreement where the Bishop of Rome granted religious legitimacy to the Carolingian line in exchange for military support.

he first coin of the Lombards

Tremissis, ca. 757-774. The first coin of the Lombards. 

Courtesy of CNG.

Charlemagne, from the lineage of Pippin, ascended to power in 768. During his rule from 771 to 814, he expanded his empire through conquest and led a cultural revival. His military campaigns included subduing the Saxons (772-785) and securing Northern Italy's submission in the Lombard campaign (773-776). These campaigns later funded the vast amounts of coinage and the rebirth of a coinage-based economy. This wealth influx allowed him to conquer Hungary and fund border wars against Muslims. Under his rule, the Carolingian Empire became the largest since the Roman Empire, and he worked through consensus and war councils. Charlemagne's reign was characterized by the compilation of written laws, known as capitularies, and the use of Missi Dominici to ensure the enforcement of these laws. The church played a crucial role, with monasteries serving economic and political functions, and resources collected from the church helped fund the government.

Peppin ‘the short" coin

Denier. Peppin ‘the short’, ca. 745-768.

Courtesy of CNG.

Charlemagne's court at Aachen became a symbolic center of his empire, and he was crowned by Pope Leo III in 800, receiving the title of "Augustus." This coronation strengthened his rule and gave him a religious sense of duty, preserving Rome's legacy. Charlemagne promoted the Latin language and revived classical and Christian literature, fostering education and bookmaking. The church provided physical protection in return for religious legitimacy, while church officials, including bishops, began to play a more prominent role in political and military affairs.

Charlemagne, who passed away in 814, left behind the largest and most unified state in Western Europe since the Western Roman Empire. He is widely regarded as a critical figure in shaping the identity of Europe and is honored with the Charlemagne Prize, awarded to those who have made valuable contributions to the understanding of Western Europe. His coins are popular and relatively scarce, encompassing a wide range of history and mints. Their main focus in circulation was to fund the trade and commerce between Charlemagne’s empire and the Italian states who were the wealthiest at the time).

Charlemagne gold coin

Tremissis. Charlemagne, ca. 768-814.

Courtesy of CNG.

Charlemagne silver coin

Denier. Charlemagne, ca. 768-814.

Courtesy of CNG.


After Charlemagne

After Charlemagne's death, the unity of Western European society began to erode. Internal divisions emerged as local officials and aristocracies gained wealth and influence, leading to the decentralization of military and political authority. Local dukes started to establish claims to hereditary titles, and this marked the early stages of the development of feudalism. Louis the Pious, the last ruler of a unified Western Europe, faced challenges from his sons vying for succession upon his passing. This eventually led to the division of the empire, as outlined in the Treaty of Verdun, with Charles the Bald taking the western Frankish kingdom, Louis the German ruling the eastern half, which would become Germany, and Lotharingia, a contested region in the middle. Charles and Louis both minted a series of Hammered coinage with the focus being the Denier. They would see this Denier being the most popular and abundantly produced coin during the period.

Charles ‘the bald’ coin

Denier. Charles ‘the bald’, ca. 840-877. King of Western France.

Courtesy of CNG.

Art on coinage had faded immensely. Depictions of rulers on coinage had become more stylized and unrecognizable. Faces of the Roman emperors were identifiable because of the engraving techniques, which during the Dark Ages, was lost to history. Coinage gradually became more sophisticated towards the end of the Medieval era.

The roots of modern France and Germany were established as territories were divided among nobles and princes. The German crown settled on the House of Saxony, and Otto the Great, crowned emperor in 962 by Pope John XII, played a pivotal role in unifying the Germanic lands and establishing the Holy Roman Empire. This title remained prestigious for the next 800 years and was an elected position, continuing the legacy of the Roman Empire. The Vatican began minting their own coins during this time in the likeness of the current Pope. The first coins of the Papacy are those of Pope Hadrian I, who in the 10th century issued the first Papal states coins for general circulation.

The Denaro emerged as the Italian adaptation of the Carolingian denier, which made its debut in 755 during the reign of Pepin I. This new currency brought about several significant changes, including standardizing its weight, purity, and design. It also established a fixed relationship between the Carolingian silver denier, the primary unit, and fictional accounting denominations such as the shilling and the gold solidus, which were used for handling larger sums of money. Charlemagne later fully implemented and expanded this reform to accommodate the growing demands of his vast empire.

Initially, Charlemagne's deniers closely followed the specifications set by Pepin I in terms of weight and general design. However, as new silver sources were discovered and Charlemagne's influence expanded, he began issuing heavier deniers at his imperial mints, including those in Italy. This practice continued under his successors. The denier gained widespread acceptance as an international currency, and even after the Carolingian rulers had passed, early feudal authorities continued to mint these coins for their respective regions.


The Carolingian denier, along with its fractional unit, the Obole, persisted as a common denomination across Western Europe, taking on various names such as denar, Denaro, and even the English penny throughout most of the Middle Ages. It wasn't until the introduction of the larger Gros in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that its dominance waned.

 The first coin of the Papacy

Denaro. Hadrian I, ca. 781-795. The first coin of the Papacy.

Courtesy of CNG.

External threats also challenged Western Europe during this period. Three distinct groups launched invasions: the Magyars from Hungary, the Arabs from Africa who crossed the Mediterranean coast, and the Vikings from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, who sailed as far as North America. The Vikings, in particular, were known for their raiding, plundering, and political negotiations, including taking hostages for ransom.

Amid these challenges, the foundations of feudalism began to take root in the 10th century, replacing centralized government with local leadership. Land became the key source of power, and the ability to produce crops was considered the currency, leading to the development of relationships based on values like fidelity and loyalty. The feudal system consisted of various tiers, from kings and lords to vassals, knights, and peasants. Land, known as a fief, was granted in exchange for service and formed the basis for revenue and military obligations. Ceremonies and symbols, such as homage, marked the vassal's pledge of service to their lord. The rise of nobility saw titles and lands typically passed down to the oldest sons, while younger sons pursued careers in the church or served other lords as soldiers. Old nobility could trace their lineage back to Charlemagne, while new nobility built their wealth through land ownership. Castles played a central role in the feudal system, serving as both defensive structures and symbols of military strength. Stone castles, more durable and resilient, appeared in the 11th and 12th centuries. Chivalry, the culture of mounted warriors, focused on combat training, jousting, and the pursuit of individual glory and honor. Knights, despite their violent profession, adhered to a code of conduct that promoted virtues like prowess, fidelity, and loyalty. Courtly manners and etiquette were encouraged, and the culture of knighthood became increasingly refined and chivalrous.


Papal Monarchy

Pope Innocent III, who reigned from 1198 to 1216, played a leading role in the political landscape of Europe. Under his leadership, the First Lateran Council of 1215 gathered people from all over the world to pay homage to the Pope and pledge their obedience to him. The papacy wielded three levels of authority:


  1. Internal authority, governing the inner workings of the church.
  2. External authority, which included owning significant territory in central Italy and acting as a secular political ruler.
  3. Spiritual authority, related to matters of doctrine, making decisions that were viewed as infallible in shaping the faith and standards of the Catholic Church and its sacraments.

Rare Coin Commemorating the 4th Lateran Council

Pfennig. Ulrich I von Reinstein, ca. 1160?. Commemorating the 4th Lateran Council.

Courtesy of CNG.


The German Lands

The Germanic lands were a vast and diverse region encompassing various territories, all with some German-speaking populations. Challenges for German monarchs included the absence of a strong central authority and the lack of a unified state. After the last of Charlemagne's descendants died in 911, the region became a confederation of independent territories ruled by princes. These princes retained the right to elect their kings rather than submitting to a monarch's rule.

German monarchs had to negotiate, battle, and ensure a steady succession while protecting Germanic and personal interests. The Holy Roman Emperor held two distinct titles: one linked to Charlemagne and the other as Emperor, theoretically claiming universal authority over all Christian peoples. Despite these claims, the Holy Roman Emperors were less successful in centralizing their government. Notable Holy Roman Emperors included Otto the Great, who defeated the Vikings and the Magyars, and Frederick Barbarossa, a successful military commander who sought to unify and centralize the government but faced challenges from Italian states.

Frederick I Barbarossa coin

Pfennig. Frederick I Barbarossa, ca. 1152.

Courtesy of Busso Nachf. 



Capetian France

France initially started as a small kingdom and faced the challenge of multiple lords governing various regions. Political fragmentation was prevalent in France until 987, when the crowning of Bishop Hugh Capet marked the beginning of a new line of rulers under the Capetian dynasty. At the outset, Capetians ruled only a small territory, with power centered around Paris. They gradually expanded their kingdom over time.

Philip II of France, who reigned from 1180 to 1223, was known for acquiring new territories during his rule, doubling the kingdom's size. His reign included taking over Normandy from King John of England. King Louis IX, known for his piety and crusades, established a permanent law court in Paris, the Royal Appeals Court, which served as a supreme court for all lower courts to appeal. The French monarchy's power was strengthened through assets such as justice, professional lawyers, tax collectors, and agents.

Gros Tournois. Louis IX coin

Gros Tournois. Louis IX, ca. 1266-1270.

Courtesy of CNG.

French monarchs also faced conflicts with the Pope, such as the dispute between King Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII over taxing clergy members in France. Boniface's abuse and death in 1303 led to the election of a French pope, moving the papacy to Avignon and establishing the Avignon Papacy, during which French monarchs played a significant role in the selection of popes.

Rare Coin of the Avignon Papacy

Grand Denier. Pope Boniface VIII, ca. 1294-1303. Avignon Papacy.

Courtesy of iNumis.


Anglo-Norman England

In early English history, the Heptarchy consisted of seven kingdoms. The Viking invasion from Norway posed a new challenge, as Vikings raided and eventually settled among the Anglo-Saxons. By the 9th century, six of the seven kingdoms had crumbled and been absorbed.

The Kingdom of Wessex, ruled by King Alfred from 870 to 899, laid the foundation for the dominance of modern-day England. Edward the Confessor's death in 1066 led to a power struggle, eventually resulting in the Norman conquest by William the Conqueror. William I, known as William the Conqueror, ruled from 1066 to 1087. Although he was a French-speaking ruler in an English kingdom, he effectively structured the English government, built castles, and introduced French influence.

Alfred of Wessex coin

Penny. Alfred of Wessex, ca. 886.

Courtesy of Spink.


Rare Coin of Willian ‘the conqueror’

Penny. Willian ‘the conqueror’, ca 1083-1086.

Courtesy of CNG.

Henry II, William's great-grandson, expanded English power and territory. He married Eleanor of Aquitaine, gaining extensive landholdings. Henry also established an efficient system of justice, the King's Bench, and developed a monetary penalty system for legal issues. Henry faced conflicts with the Catholic Church, notably with Archbishop Thomas Becket.


Henry II and Thomas Becket coin

Penny. Henry II and Thomas Becket, ca. 1154-1189.

Courtesy of SBG.

John, Henry II's son, ruled from 1199 to 1216 and proved to be a disastrous king. He lost battles, oppressed the people with heavy taxation, and faced conflict with the Catholic Church, leading to the Magna Carta in 1215. The Magna Carta was a pivotal document that restricted royal authority, protecting the rights of the barons at the expense of the king and serving as one of the earliest constitutional documents. It laid the foundation for constitutional governance in England. Church and Society in the medieval period were tightly intertwined, with the Church playing a pivotal role in various aspects of European life. There were three key orders in medieval society: those who work (peasants), those who fight (nobles), and those who pray (clergy). These orders supported and relied on each other for the proper functioning of society. The Church was a dominant force in education, from rudimentary teachings to the establishment of universities. It was also a significant cultural institution that contributed to the arts, music, and social welfare, and it played a crucial economic role.

The rise of the clergy and their traits marked the foundation of the Church's authority. Standardization in teaching and authority began with the Church's ecumenical councils. The clergy, including priests and monks, held distinct appearances, with monks often sporting tonsures and specific clothing. Clergy members were not allowed to marry, own property, and were required to take vows of profession. They were also expected to be able to read and write in Latin.

The Papacy, centered in Rome, gradually emerged as a unique and authoritative force within the Christian Church. Early justifications for papal supremacy included claims of apostolic succession, scriptural foundations, Rome's connection to the Roman Empire, and the bishop of Rome being considered the "first among equals" among bishops. The Gregorian Papacy and the Gregorian Reform movement in the 11th century sought to curb secular interference in Church affairs, address issues such as simony (the purchase of church positions), and uphold moral standards for the clergy.

The struggle for authority between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire led to the Investiture Controversy, with both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor claiming authority over church positions. This dispute and other conflicts demonstrated the ongoing battle for power between secular and spiritual authorities. The Two Swords Doctrine represented the idea of cooperation between secular and spiritual powers, symbolized by a cross that could also be viewed as a sword. Arguments for papal authority included the spiritual salvation of individuals, the idea of papal infallibility (the Pope cannot make an error as the leader of Christ's church), and the Two Swords Doctrine. The Donation of Constantine, a forged document supposedly written by Constantine, was used to support the papacy's authority but was eventually revealed as a forgery. The struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire persisted for fifty years and ended in a compromise with the Concordat of Worms in 1122. This compromise aimed to reduce infighting and clarify the relationship between secular and spiritual authorities.

The Church continued to expand its power and influence, engaging ordinary people through increased literacy, preaching, and a sense of piety. Apostolic Poverty, the idea of returning to the life of the apostles, became a significant movement. The Church provided solutions to navigate a world filled with sin, such as confession, absolution, and penance. The Church also dealt harshly with heresy, considering it a deviation from the Church's rightful teaching. Papal monarchy continued to grow after 1215, with instruments of power such as the interdict, excommunication, and the Inquisition being used to assert the Church's authority. These instruments helped maintain order and legitimacy while ensuring the power of the Church.


Late Medieval Times

During the late medieval period, significant changes in urban development, trade, commerce, and education had a profound impact on European society. In the 12th century, the resurgence of town and city life marked a significant shift in societal dynamics. The rise of urban centers was facilitated by well-established trade networks that connected people across regions, contributing to population growth and the flourishing of cities. Coastal regions in Italy, remnants of the Roman Empire, emerged as major commerce hubs due in part to the transport of goods during the Crusades. Italian cities, benefiting from this influx of wealth and manpower, saw the ascent of powerful families, which grew in economic power. In contrast, Northern Europe focused on raw materials and basic industries while maintaining connections to the south, where specialized markets were emerging. Trade fairs played a crucial role in bringing together people from diverse regions. Despite these developments, cities were more decentralized, particularly in Italy, characterized by fragmentation, and Germany exhibited a trend toward local independence among princes, while merchants formed an autonomous class.

Medieval trade was significantly influenced by various factors. Communes, communities of citizens in urban areas, played a vital role in setting their own rules and practicing self-determination, thereby shaping the governance of their cities. These communes often had affiliations with the merchant class, contributing to the emergence of urban societies. Guilds, professional organizations of skilled craftsmen, ensured that goods were meticulously handcrafted, as mass production was absent during this period. The guild system involved apprenticeships, where masters trained apprentices in their respective trades, ensuring the passing down of skills from one generation to the next. As a result, these guilds nurtured and protected various industries.

Italy. Augustale. Frederick II medieval gold coin

Italy. Augustale. Frederick II, ca. 1231-1250.

Courtesy of Roma.

The economic landscape was further influenced by innovations in money, banking, and agreements. With the expansion of trade, there was an increased need for cash, leading to the development of banking systems. Italians were particularly adept at deposit banking, enabling individuals to deposit money for safekeeping and fostering relationships with banking families, thereby developing the concept of credit. Innovative agreements with shared risk, such as the commenda, acted as detailed insurance contracts to mitigate potential losses. Literacy and the ability to read and write in various languages, particularly the vernacular, became crucial for engaging in business dealings. The convergence of traditions, where knights became involved in trade and used their profits to build grand palaces, contributed to the fusion of different aspects of medieval society. The Church, while having reservations about the perceived greed associated with commerce, used the wealth generated by merchants to fund its own institutional interests.

The changing landscape also affected education and society. Around 1100, education was predominantly limited to the clergy, with Latin as the primary language of instruction. However, a significant turning point occurred on the Iberian Peninsula, where the works of Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, had not been translated into Latin. These works had been preserved and translated into Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. As Western Europe came into contact with Muslim scholars, they began translating these Greek works into Latin. Aristotle's challenging ideas led to a new way of thinking that went beyond the repetition of traditional knowledge, giving rise to scholasticism—an approach that applied logic and reason to questions of Christian theology and belief. Figures like Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, and St. Thomas Aquinas contributed to this intellectual movement, promoting logical reasoning and the reconciliation of faith and reason.

Rare medieval coin from the Papal States

Papal States. Grosso, ca. 1386. A very important coin.

Courtesy of Goldberg.

Universities emerged in tandem with the rise of towns and cities. Prominent universities, such as Bologna, Oxford, Paris, Prague, and others, played essential roles in the dissemination of knowledge. Universities were essentially guilds that required admission, attracting scholars engaged in intellectual trade. They adopted Latin as the language of instruction and drew students from various regions, fostering international cooperation. The church was involved in the university life, maintaining a cooperative relationship while scholars and faculty began to professionalize and gain autonomy. Universities contributed to the development of scientia—a body of knowledge that could be referenced for scientific laws. The establishment of logical foundations and new bases of knowledge was facilitated by this intellectual evolution.



By Colby J. Abele