European Written Sources on the Counterfeiting of Coins in the Middle Ages

European Written Sources on the Counterfeiting of Coins in the Middle Ages

By František Oslanský

Historicky Časopis: Historical Journal of the Institute of History of the SAS, Vol.57 (Suppl) (2009)

Abstract: Counterfeiting of coins is mentioned in a multitude of medieval written sources, manuscripts and books, starting with the Laws of the Visigoths in the mid 7th century, through the Visitation of the Chapter of Esztergom in 1397, to the Inferno, first part of Dante Alighieri’s most important work, the Divina Comedia from the first two decades of the 14th century, which reached far beyond its age. The paper gives a selection of only partly used and often entirely unknown facts from medieval documents. This creates the pre-conditions for them to become more widely known and accessible

Introduction: In the Old Testament Book of proverbs, which received its final form perhaps in the 5th-4th centuries BC, we read: “Divers weights are an abomination unto the Lord; and a false balance is not good.” good weight could also be lacking in the coins made from precious metals, which continued to be issued into the Middle Ages, which emerged from the merging of ancient Rome with the “barbarians”. The wish of the new nations to maintain their own identity was shown in the legislation of the Early Middle Ages. An inhabitant of one of the new kingdoms was not judged according to laws valid for all inhabitants of the territory, but according to the customary laws of the ethnic group to which he belonged. However, from the middle of the 7th century, with Church encouragement, laws valid equally for Visigoths and Romans were applied.

The Laws of the Visigoths, dated to the mid 7th century, allowed the torture of servants in cases of counterfeit coins, with regard to the person of their lord, who was allowed to use torture to easily find out the truth. Whoever, imitated, counterfeited, clipped or scraped solidi was arrested as soon as a judge learnt of this. If the offender was a servant, he had to be punished by cutting off his right hand. Any person, who engraved or counterfeited false coins, had to suffer a similar punishment. The Capitulare missorum from Thionville probably from 805, originated from service notes of royal officials from their rounds. Its purpose was to enable Charlemagne, who had been crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in St. Peter’s Basilica at Christmas 800, to implement the appropriate legal measures, influenced by the Church, among other things, also against counterfeiting of coins. It had been found that counterfeit coins had been struck in opposition to royal authority and with profit in many places. It was enacted that a mint could only be located at a royal court, unless further authorization was granted. Properly struck denarii were authorized.

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