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European Bracteates of the Early Middle Ages

Medieval silver bracteates are one-sided coins embossed from silver sheets with a diameter from 22 to 45 mm. They are known as some of the thinnest coins in monetary history. The coin image appears in high relief as a single die was used to strike a column of several blank coins placed on a piece of leather.

Silver bracteates are not to be confused with gold bracteates of the Migration Period which were a type of pendant made mainly in the 5th to 7th century AD. The silver bracteates were the predominant regional coinage minted in German-speaking areas (except Rhineland, Westphalia and the Middle Rhine region) from the early 12th century, lasting well into the 14th century.

Germany, Magdeburg, Freidrich I v. Wettin (1142-52), silver bracteate, St. Moritz standing with two crosses, three arches supporting building and towers above.
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Silver bracteates were subject to Renovatio Monetae, which was, in essence, a recall of the old coins that had to be exchanged for new ones. This makes them rare and quite ephemeral in the history of Medieval coinage. This practice could happen as often as twice a year and was very lucrative to moneyers.

It increased the economic exchange and stimulated the markets as people would not hold onto or hoard their coins in fear that they would lose value. The coin’s reverse featured incused impressions. Stylistically, most bracteates had symmetric designs, like the one shown below. This allowed them to be broken up in two halves in order to make smaller denominations.

Switzerland, Basel, Berthold II v. Pfirt (1249-62), silver bracteate. A bishop below an arch with towers on his left and right side.
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Because of Renovatio Monetae, bracteate types had short numismatic lifespans. Nevertheless, the artistic quality of these coins remained very high throughout the centuries. The quality and the air of ethereality made these coins attractive to collectors even though their fragility made them unsuitable for far-reaching trades or long-term circulation.

On bracteates, the artistic composition is kept very clean, featuring sacral architecture and framing either a contemporary figure, historical clerical persona or a saint of the region. We can often observe the rulers too, flanked by their attributes, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Konrad IV on the coin pictured below, made in the royal mint of Ulm.

Germany, Ulm, Konrad IV (1250-4), silver bracteate.
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As often the case with coinage, bracteates too conveyed ruling power and the sphere of influence. Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony and Bavaria issued some beautiful pieces with a pouncing lion, which (for his contemporaries) immediately evoked the most powerful ruler of the 12th century Germany. 

A testament to his association with a lion is also the so-called Brunswick Lion, the oldest freestanding sculpture of the Middle Ages north of the Alps. It was modelled on Italian examples, such as the Capitoline Wolf and the Lion of St. Mark. A copy of the lion can be viewed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The emblem of Henry the Lion – the Heinrich Fountain in Brunswick.

Literature

Svensson, R. (2013), Renovatio Monetae: Bracteates and Coinage Policies in Medieval Europe, Spink

This article is written by Ema Sikic (ema@baldwin.co.uk).

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