Twenty years ago, C.E. Challis edited A New History of the Royal Mint, an authoritative account of English mint activity from the seventh to the twentieth century. The only weakness of the book was the relative brevity with which its authors were forced to deal with their subject matter. Now, Martin Allen has decisively addressed that problem, reexamining the medieval history of the English mints in an expansive and comprehensive volume that will be an essential tool for English economic historians and numismatists for decades to come.
Allen opens his study with a detailed account of the administrative mint history of England starting c.973 in the reign of King Edgar. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the subject matter will recognize what a complicated task this is. With dozens of towns possessing one or more mint workshops throughout much of the Middle Ages, tracing the individual customs that govern the moneyers working in each workshop is a major task which Allen handles in a concise and adept fashion. He is equally capable in detailing the evidence for increasing centralization of the mints beginning in the reign of Henry II and continuing in irregular steps through the end of the Middle Ages.
Allen then moves to a comprehensive exploration of the technology through which the silver (and later gold) coins were produced, starting with written evidence from the Long Cross coinage in the mid thirteenth century which he supplements from accounts dating to Elizabethan England and the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Allen then works backward using the evidence of the surviving dies to paint a picture of mint practice in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods before once again walking forward through the physical evidence into the later Middle Ages. The majority of this discussion is focused on the production, maintenance and distribution of the dies with which the coins are struck with a significant amount of attention paid to the gradual centralization of control of die production by the crown.
From the study of the dies, Allen turns to the critical issues of weight and fineness of the coins, again handling these complex topics with a sophistication which demonstrates a mastery of both the scholarship and the technical issues involved. The figures and tables are clearly drawn and packed with useful data. The issue of fineness is especially difficult to tackle in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods where there are no written accounts and the historiography offers conflicting analyses of the evidence. Allen wades through these waters with assurance and builds a credible picture of a decentralized practice slowly coming under royal control as the medieval period progresses.
The question of profits has been of recurring interest to scholars as it is obviously tied into the crown’s interest in constantly increasing its control of coin production. Again Allen systematically walks the reader through the evidence painting a clear picture of revenue for both the crown and the mint and backing up the evidence with tables and an appendix of mint profits from 1220-1544. He also ties the profits into changes in the administration of the mints and the disruptions caused by war. The overall picture is one in which the mints provided substantial ongoing and dependable revenue to the crown.
Having described the workings of the mint, the coins they produced and the profits they generated, Allen turns his attention to the sources of English bullion. English silver tended to come from lead mines in places like Carlisle and Weardale and later from mines in Devon and Cornwall. These mines had some impact on the size of the English coinage, but Allen convincingly concludes that foreign sources of silver coming to England through trade and recoinage of old issues account for the majority of the coinage in circulation.
Just how many coins composed the circulating issues is the subject of the next section of the book and Appendix C, which summarizes all of the documented outputs of the English mints between 1220 and 1544. Starting in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods when the documentary sources are lacking, Allen uses die studies supplemented by the analysis of hoard evidence to estimate the size of the issues. While recognizing the speculative nature of the exercise, he still persuasively argues for credible numbers of circulating coins. Once the documentary records begin, first in the Exchequer accounts during the 1190s and later in surviving mint records, the calculations of the number of coins in circulation becomes more firm although Allen is still fully cognizant of the weaknesses of his sources. For example the utility of bullion purchases to the study is limited by the certainty with which we can determine the weight of the coins produced. The actual number of coins circulating in the kingdom varied over time, especially after the introduction of gold coins in the fourteenth century. It is not a simple tale of growth, but a complicated dance of silver and gold coinages influencing each other over the centuries.
In his concluding chapter, Allen turns his attention to the state of the currency--foreign versus domestic coins, counterfeit versus licit, and clipped versus whole--analyzing in his now customary detail the ongoing English effort to keep foreign currencies out of domestic circulation. He concludes the chapter with a fascinating account of crimes against the coinage (counterfeiting, clipping and debasing of coins) and the punishments entailed for these acts. The penalties were harsh--mutilation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and execution in the thirteenth and thereafter--although it was often possible to commute the penalty to a substantial fine. In the mid-fourteenth century counterfeiting became an act of high treason, demonstrating just how seriously the crown viewed the crime.
This work of scholarship is a phenomenal accomplishment which should be on the bookshelf of every English numismatist and economic historian. Beginning with the reign of Edgar and continuing into the Tudor period, it examines every aspect of the medieval English coinage. From the administration of the mints to the technology needed to strike the coins; from the weight and fineness of the issues to the profits earned by minters, exchangers and the crown; from the size and circulation of the coinage throughout the kingdom to the penalties individuals faced for counterfeiting and clipping the money, Martin Allen provides a thorough and authoritative account of Mints and Money in Medieval England.