We take a closer look at the silver Carolingian penny. The central question here: how is it possible that the empire of Charlemagne, which extended over much of western Europe, had only a monometallic silver coinage. The answer is that this was due not only to the continued influence of the Roman denarius, but also to the political and religious developments taking place from the 7th century onwards.
In 570, Mohammed was born in Mecca. As the prophet of Allah and a political and military leader, he rapidly succeeded in unifying the Arabian peninsula under the Islamic flag (622-631), creating the first Muslim state. He then turned his attention to Syria, Persia and Egypt, which he brought under Arab control between 634 and 642. Equipped with a powerful fleet, the Arabs subsequently pressed on through the Mediterranean, conquering Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete and Sicily. But they also proved successful on the mainland: after taking Carthage, they founded Tunis on the ruins in 698. Spain came under Islamic rule as well in 711. The Arabs continued their advance, getting as far as Poitiers where they were beaten in 732 by Charles Martel. This last event marked the start of a protracted period of Reconquest (732-1492).
To sum up: from the beginning of the 8th century, Islam was the dominant maritime power in the Mediterranean. The Romans’ mare nostrum became a “Muslim sea where Christians could no longer sail at all “, according to the Arab historian, Ibn Khaldoun (1322-1406). This led directly to the languishing of western trade in the Mediterranean and a growing shortage of all imports from the east. Apart from spices such as pepper, cloves and cinnamon, other products such as oil, silk, papyrus and gold also became extremely scarce. That was bound to be the case. Owing to the continuing tension between Christians and Muslims, no permanent trading links were established, and these goods hardly every reached mainland Europe. So it is easy to understand that, for the Carolingians, it was difficult if not impossible to place gold coins in circulation.
The silver Carolingian penny usually weighs 1.70 grams; on the obverse is the royal monogram “Karolus” circumscribed with the name of the mint where the coin was struck. The monogram is formed by the letters K-R-L-S with a lozenge in the centre representing the vowels A-O-U. On the reverse we find the name and title of the king together with a cross: following Charles Martel, the Carolingians took on the role of defenders of Christendom. The uniform weight and design of the coins throughout the kingdom are a sign that the Carolingian rulers more or less succeeded in controlling the entire currency system. The transition to this mediaeval basic coinage took place under Charlemagne (768-814) and was due to his great currency reform of 793-794. So Charlemagne did not only reform the education system…
- Atlas historique, ss. la dir de Duby G., Paris, 1978, p.35.
- Grierson P., Monnaies du Moyen-Âge, Fribourg, 1976, p.46-51, 58-59.
- Pirenne H., Mahomet et Charlemagne, Bruxelles, 1937, p.122.