A weighty subject [Stamp & Coin Mart, March 2009, Page 98, 99]
Brett Hammond, of TimeLine Originals continues his fascinating series on Collecting The Past with a look at the weight of coins - a vital part of early trading in all corners of the world
In our modern minds we usually associate money and weight only when a heavy bulge of loose change in a pocket or purse reminds us to spend a few pence to buy a newspaper or an inexpensive snack. So it comes as quite a surprise to learn that for almost two and a half thousand years the weight of a coin, rather than any claim made in its legend, determined its true value as a piece of money.
Earlier still, in ancient Mesopotamia, which lay between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (in present-day Iraq), the cultures of Babylon and Sumer became especially interested in weight as their agricultures flourished and their warehouses bulged with grain. They began to trade with neighbouring peoples and eventually with distant lands; but as they possessed no coinage, they used gold, silver, copper and bronze in bullion form. Traders and merchants doing business had to make sure, by testing for purity in a crucible, then by reckoning for weight on a balance, that they were not being cheated in these transactions.
Surprisingly this cumbersome system continued for more than two thousand years until, around 600 BC, the rulers of Lydia, a city-state in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) hit on the idea of carefully weighing numerous small pieces of bullion and striking them with an image (a roaring lion) and declaring them to be the official bullion of their city-state. In other words, the Lydians issued the world’s first coins.
Lydian monarchs, including Croesus, reputedly the world’s richest man, had access to a plentiful supply of electrum, a gold/silver alloy found in the gravels of Lydian rivers. They also controlled important trade routes between Asia and Europe, so their newfangled coins began to circulated widely among rich merchants. However, their economic rivals, the Greeks, soon introduced a pure silver coin that proved much more useful to small traders in market-places around the Aegean. The Greeks called their coins staters, which translates as 'that which balances the scales'. The stater soon became the standard denomination upon which smaller denominations were based, and the term stater could refer to an electrum, gold, or silver coin.
Incidentally, another widely known coin denomination, the shekel, gets its name from a traditional Mesopotamian term for a weight of bullion. The shekel eventually became the standard coin denomination of the Asian kingdoms and many Eastern cities.
The rise of forgery
Thanks to the conquests of the Greeks, and later of the Romans, coinage spread rapidly across Europe and North Africa. But the success, usefulness and widespread acceptance of money led just as rapidly to the scourge of forgers whose profits came from passing coins of lower weight and impure metal. As border attacks and civil wars weakened the Roman Empire even its bronze coinage suffered from the attention of forgers. Rampant inflation encouraged emperors to switch from silver coinage to silver-plated bronze. Earlier silver coins struck from higher grade silver were then frequently imitated by forgers who made bronze blanks which they sheathed in thin foils of good silver before striking them to make deceptive imitations. Money changers of those times had little choice but to deface all purported silver coins that came their way by cutting into edges to verify that the coins were silver throughout.
Following the departure of the Roman legions from our islands and the establishment of a money economy by the Anglo-Saxons, it took until AD 959 and the reign of Eadgar, King of All England, for the English silver penny to become our standard coin. Indeed, until the reign of Henry III it was virtually the only denomination minted. These pennies proved a great temptation to coin clippers who usually removed a thin shaving of silver from every coin they could lay hands on. Two counter-measures were employed against them. The first was to alter the design of the penny so that the cross on its reverse had arms that extended to the very edge of the coin. Merchants would then refuse to accept any coin that did not have a complete Long Cross.
The second measure involved the use of a hand-held coin balance known as a tumbrel. It operated on the fulcrum principle, with an arm and a flat tray on which the coin was placed. A coin of good weight would balance or tip the tray on the arm; a coin that was worn, clipped or otherwise underweight would fail to tip the arm and be rejected.
From the late 1200’s English pennies - by then widely known as sterlings and respected abroad for their good weight and fineness of silver - attracted the envy of foreign rulers who began to imitate them. In most cases these continental issues differed sufficiently in their designs to cause few problems so long as the quality of their silver and their weight matched the English coins. But when foreign merchants brought lightweight and base metal imitations into England the need for every market and fair to have sets of tumbrels became crucial.
Metal detectorists have already found a number of tumbrels on medieval fair sites across England. Coin finds from the same sites suggest that tumbrels were in widespread use from the 12th - 16th century. Their disappearance coincides with the increased circulation of a greater variety of foreign coins in England as a result of wider international trade and other causes. Tumbrels designed to judge the bullion value a single coin of a known weight lacked the versatility of a set of coin weights and an ordinary pair of scales.
No merchant, banker or well-heeled landowner could afford to be without a set of coin weights after 1600. As well as enabling him to guard against accepting clipped, worn or forged English money, they also allowed him to deal reasonably safely with foreign currencies. As a Tudor merchant he probably had weights for ducats and florins; in Stuart times he would often have used weights that identified high grade French louis d’or; during the Georgian reigns he would have handled many Spanish and Portuguese gold pieces.
Coin weights were usually made from brass. They corresponded to the lowest weight at which a coin qualified as legal tender, and they normally indicated the denomination of the coin in a design on their surface, usually expressed in pounds, shillings and pence. Round types were commonest for nobles, ryals and angels; but these were gradually superseded by boxed sets of square weights in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At certain periods - for example, when older coins and newer, but lighter, coins were in circulation at the same time - the use of coin weight greatly increased, though weighing of coins did not take place during every transaction. Whenever possible money passed at face value if trust permitted. Nevertheless, coin weights continued in use down to the end of the 19th century.
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