Coin and antiquities expert Brett Hammond, of TimeLine Originals provides an introduction to medieval tokens, a topic which presents the coin collector with many opportunities for research and discovery
Let us agree that the term medieval will here cover the centuries from late Anglo-Saxon times to the mid-17th century. In a number of ways the tokens of that period bridge a gap between collecting conventional coins and collecting the artefacts that come under the umbrella of antiquities. Clearly many medieval tokens show coin-like similarities in shapes, in some of their obverse and reverse designs, even in the ways some functioned as money substitutes. However, one exciting difference remains to make medieval tokens highly attractive to beginners:
The coins of those centuries and reigns have been catalogued and classified to such a degree that hitherto unknown types or varieties come to light only very occasionally - probably when a metal detectorist pulls one from the ground for the first time. The study of medieval tokens, on the other hand, wallows in a state of infancy and ignorance, with huge gaps in our knowledge and with numerous opportunities for beginners to own rarities, and to become quite knowledgeable in some aspect of the subject.
Take, for example, a token series at the very end our time period: the 17th century copper farthings and halfpennies privately issued, mainly by tradesmen and tavern-keepers, throughout much of England and Wales between the 1640’s and the 1670’s. About 14,000 issuers have already been recorded. Nevertheless, leading authorities on the series assert that probably as many as 6,000 unknown issuers await discovery. Their tokens will come to light in old button boxes, during demolition or renovation of old pubs, or when metal detectorists search arable fields close to the villages where many of the as-yet-undiscovered varieties were used.
Village grocers and tavern-keepers stamped their own farthings and halfpennies, usually after buying the dies from London or Birmingham, and circulated them as substitutes for official money because The Mint at that time failed to consider the needs of the poor. A village grocer probably struck no more that a few hundred farthings, each bearing his own name and trade symbols. Most went into the melting pot when private farthings were outlawed by Charles the Second. With luck a dozen became lost locally to survive for today’s collectors’ market.
At the other end of our time scale small pewter and lead tokens featured regularly in the day-to-day life of the early medieval Church. We have French researchers to thank for much of our knowledge of how those tokens were used, because in France written records of 12th -16th century ecclesiastical life survive. In England, on the other hand, Henry the Eighth’s ravages destroyed ours. Fortunately French records confirm that on both sides of the Channel medieval priests received a small pewter token at every service they attended. Lazy clergy who failed to collect sufficient tokens soon found themselves in hot water with their bishop.
English records may not exist, but those tiny pewter tokens have turned up in thousands across Britain. The richest source by far is the River Thames where mudlarks and metal detectorists recover them from the low-tide foreshores on both banks of the river, especially where it flows through the City of London. Beyond the capital they are found in fields and rivers close to important medieval cathedral cities such as Winchester, Ely, York, and the rest.
As the medieval economy grew, merchants and traders in London and some smaller centres borrowed the Church’s practice and began to issue their own tokens. They used trade guild emblems to embellish many, providing today’s collectors with numerous attractive tokens depicting animals, tools and other designs. Cross and pellet reverses on many seem to indicate use as substitute money.
The medieval Church was not ashamed to make profits in a period when visits to the shrines of saints became immensely popular. As well as selling pewter badges to pilgrims who wore them in their hats with as much enthusiasm as we now have for stickers on our holiday luggage, priests also sold pewter tokens, usually displaying the saint or his relics. Pilgrims could exchange them for food and accommodation as they trekked on long journeys to famous shrines. You will enjoy Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as background reading if you decide to collect pilgrims’ tokens.
A highly localized series merits mention. In East Anglia, especially around Bury St Edmunds, the practice of electing a Boy Bishop provided a highlight in medieval Christmas revelries. Candidates for the title were all choir boys from the abbey. The chosen boy, dressed in a bishop’s robes and mitre, was paraded through local villages where he tossed handfuls of lead tokens to the poor. These pieces could be exchanged for bread and ale at local shops whose proprietors recouped their expenses by redeeming the tokens at the abbey. Boy Bishop tokens were made and distributed for hundreds of years, providing numerous opportunities for losing them in the fields of East Anglia, where detectorists find them today. Similar ceremonies, often know as the Feast of Fools, took place across Europe wherever St Nicholas had a shrine. Throwing token money to the poor was always part of the fun.
Mention of the poor, who are always with us according to economists, brings us to a major, if little understood, area of our subject. We do know from thousands of finds, that medieval silver pennies were cut into halves and quarters to represent halfpennies and farthings among those who had need of such small change. But the great inconvenience of a tiny cut-quarter silver penny to a rough-handed peasant lay in the ease with which it could be lost. Little wonder that larger lead pieces, perhaps bearing an issuer’s initials, were cast and used in local markets. We know very little about this lead money - apart from its mention in state papers when monarchs such as Henry the Second and Elizabeth the First complained about its circulation even though they failed to mint enough silver farthings.
Present-day interest in crude pieces of lead bearing antique initials is fuelled by the popularity of genealogy. As Britain’s population rises towards seventy million, increasing numbers of people seek their lost roots in local history. If the find spot of an initialled lead token is known, it is sometimes possible, with much research in local archives, to identify the issuer. Imagine the thrill of owning an initialled lead disc made by one of your ancestors centuries ago.
To round off this brief introduction to a huge series, tallies should also be mentioned. The fields of medieval England were as busy as its highways when nine-tenths of the population worked on the land. The Black Death (AD1348-1350) killed off a quarter of them, leaving landowners, including increasing numbers of yeoman farmers, with labour shortages that induced a money economy in place of unpaid labour by serfs. As already explained, cut-quarter pennies were very easy to lose. Far better to make initialled lead tallies and hand them out to labourers as they sowed, tended and harvested crops. The tallies were probably redeemed for cash on feast days or at other times of the year. Lost examples provide collectors with some insights into land ownership and family history in medieval times.
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Guide to Token collecting
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10 August 2009
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