Saints and sinners: coins in medieval Italian graves
By Lucia Travaini
Numismatic Chronicle, Vol. 164 (2004)
Introduction: When discussing coin finds in Italian graves it is best to study the phenomenon across the entire medieval period, from the sixth to the fifteenth century. Only by comparing poorly documented periods with those for which the written evidence is more plentiful is it possible to appreciate continuities and disjunctures over time. It is also helpful to consider coins in graves in the wider context of the ritual use of coins. Few coins are found in ancient and early medieval graves compared to other artefacts. In the later middle ages, when graves did not normally contain gravegoods, an occasional coin is the only object that may have caused that grave to be recorded.
This paper will discuss grave finds of coins from different periods, but will make no attempt to give a full inventory of coins found in graves in medieval Italy. It will simply examine a number of cases and offer some tentative interpretations and also refer to non-Italian examples. Coins in graves are considered as “normal” by most archaeologists and numismatists, both for the middle ages and later periods. Folk-stories tell us about “dead man’s treasures” and these are indeed found ecclesiastical and social historians have not yet taken these matters sufficiently into account.
There is also the question of the relationship between coins in graves and Christianity . From the beginning of the period under examination Christianity, albeit in a form perhaps best described as “immature”, was already established in Italy, so what links can be made between religious belief and a coin in a grave? Coins in medieval graves have often been explained as a more or less conscious continuation of “Charon’s obol”: the traditional fee for the ferryman Charon who carried the souls of the dead across the river Styx. Even in Greek and Roman contexts, however, the term has been too loosely applied. It is only when one coin is found in the mouth that we are entitled to refer to it as a Charon’s obol. It is therefore best to abandon this idea and consider coins in medieval graves within a wider framework. Coins in graves have been interpreted as offerings of the dead to the gods, offerings of the living to the dead, as a gift to the deceased to use in the afterlife, as symbolic dowries constituting “a pars pro toto which transferred the belongings of the dead to the bereaved without having to offer a large number of graves gifts” and also as a means to avoid haunting.
Most of the literature on the topic deals with early medieval graves, due to the greater interest of archaeologists in the documentary value of grave-goods, as against the virtual lack of grave-goods in later periods. Later medieval graves need more attention. The study of the late Italian middle ages is either blessed or cursed, depending on one’s view, by the quantity of written records. Because of the wealth of documentary evidence, historians of the period have tended to neglect non-literary evidence and the often different story it has to tell. Coins in saints’ graves, for example, are by no means rare but they have hardly been noticed by modern church historians5. Later medieval graves have sometimes only been recorded because one or two coins were found with the remains. This superficiality precludes statistical analyses. Although it was often not even noted whether the body was that of a man or a woman, the issue of gender may be important. In early medieval graves coins are more often associated with women and children, and this has also been noted in antiquity in some areas.Does the presence of these coins show women as more superstitious than men? Did they invoke magic more? This is certainly suggested by St John Chrysostom’s specific condemnation of women’s use of magic in the fourth century.
There are five main questions that need to be addressed in connection with coins in medieval Italian graves:
1. Why were coins deposited with ordinary people?
2. Why were coins deposited with saints and with other important people?
3. Why were coins not deposited in many or most graves?
4. Was there a difference between early medieval and later medieval graves? If so, why?
5. How were the coins deposited in graves selected? Were they currently circulating coins or not? If not how far removed in time and place?
In discussing these questions, I will focus on two main hypotheses:
1) coins offered as tokens of memory;
2) coins as a sin or as a possible danger for the soul.