The Normans: Three Centuries of Achievement, AD 911-1204
By Mark Blackburn
Minerva (Sept/Oct 2004)
Introduction: For the last two and a half years the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has been partially closed during the construction of its £12 million Courtyard Extension. During that time there have been no temporary exhibitions in the museum, and many of the post-Classical galleries have been closed to visitors. The museum was reopened on 1 July, and among the first exhibitions is ‘The Normans. Three Centuries of Achievement, 911-1204’.
This exhibition marks the 800th anniversary of the loss of Normandy to the French crown, as Philip Augustus wrested the duchy from the Angevins. It also celebrates the Fitzwilliam’s acquisition of the outstanding William Conte Collection of coins of Norman England, purchased with generous support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund. Yet the exhibition ranges more widely than Norman England, surveying the extent of Norman rule in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. The story is told through coinage.
The Normans (Northmen) were Scandinavians who, after decades of foreign campaigns in France and the British Isles, settled in 911 with their leader, Rollo, in north-west France. They were just one of several groups of Vikings who went out in search of not only adventure, but also a new life overseas. They established themselves not just in Normandy but also in north-west Scotland and around the Irish Sea, in the English Danelaw, and over the North Atlantic in the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and briefly even at Vinland in North America.
So what experience of money would the Normans have had before coming to Normandy? For most of the Viking Age very little coinage was struck in Scandinavia, and the people largely used silver as bullion, to be chopped up and weighed out when making payments. Only in western Denmark were small coinages produced to satisfy very local needs. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, silver dirhams imported from Arabic countries were a common source of bullion in the 9th and 10th centuries. In most of the Viking settlements overseas a bullion or money-weight economy can also be seen in the archaeological evidence, but this is not so in Normandy. Admittedly there are very few hoards or single-finds from the earliest phase of Norman settlement, but the Vikings there seem to have adapted quickly to a coin economy.