Coins and trade in early medieval Italy

Coins and trade in early medieval Italy

By Alessia Rovelli

Early Medieval Europe, Vol.17:1 (2009)

Abstract: This paper is an analysis of monetary circulation in early medieval Italy in the period c.600–900. Using a dual comparison – first, of the level of currency use as against ceramics within Italy, and second, of the pattern of Italian coin use, and economic activity more generally, with that north of the Alps – this paper presents examples that shed light on patterns of change and discontinuity.

Introduction: In 1975 M.I. Finley observed: ‘the function of coins as distinct from their rarity or their aesthetics, has become an increasingly prominent subject of research, and the results have been considerable [ . . . ] only from the coin finds can significant conclusions be drawn about the volume of minting, for example, or the circulation of coin’. But he also added: ‘interpretation of the archaeological evidence is the point at which the dialogue between historians, numismatists and archaeologists is still unsatisfactory’. Over the years that have followed, the significant increase in numismatic evidence and a focusing on evermore sophisticated interpretative methods have further highlighted the potential of coin finds as historical documents. On the other hand, every type of historical source, including coinage, inevitably has a limit to its representativeness.

I would like to highlight this issue by addressing both archaeologists and historians, inviting the former to report on coin finds promptly, for these – even today – are still rarely mentioned in the so-called preliminary reports that often remain the only accessible documentation; and calling on the latter to overcome their lack of confidence in dealing with non-written sources. In fact, the incongruencies that may be seen in the finds on any given archaeological site are today more easily identifiable as such. With regard to coins, the inherent risks in presuming that the finds of a single site unequivocally reflect the number of monetary transactions, or the volume of currency in circulation in the region, at any one time, are well known. A wide variety of events can, in fact, have a significant influence on any individual set of data.

Moreover, when the sample is sufficiently large to enable the identification of anomalous data, for example when we are dealing with all the sites of a region, numismatic finds (both single finds and hoards) can be considered to be a good indicator of the heterogeneous factors that are difficult to assess singly in ancient economies. These factors – such as the function and use of coinage, or the volume of coin and the speed of circulation – Mark Blackburn has brought together under the deliberately generic and comprehensive term ‘monetary activity’.

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