The Medieval Euro – a single currency a thousand years ago

English: Europe in 814.
English: Europe in 814. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Charlemagne denier Mayence 812 814. Français :...
Charlemagne denier Mayence 812 814. Français : Denier de Charlemagne frappé à Mayence (812-814). Cabinet des Médailles, Paris. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Louis_le_Pieux_sesquisolidus_814_840
English: Louis_le_Pieux_sesquisolidus_814_840 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United Kingdom has taken a historic step towards a more isolationist posture towards Europe. Many in the UK think this is a terrible mistake – others are wildly enthusiastic. The great bugbear of those in Britain who detest the European project is the single currency adopted by seventeen countries – but not the UK.  Interestingly, it’s worth noting – as History Today does – that attempts at single currencies in Europe are nothing new.

In a fascinating article, the magazine chronicles the attempt by Charlemagne‘s son – Louis the Pious – to create one set of coins that would be used from Spain to the Slavic lands and across modern France and Germany. Heavily based on Roman coins with Louis represented in imperial style and a church on the obverse of his coins looking suspiciously like a re-modeled pagan temple. For this reason, Louis’ coinage is referred to as the ‘Christiana religio’ currency.

The currency only lasted about 17 or 18 years – outliving the Euro possibly!  This was during the ninth century and Louis saw his dream of a united Europe under his control disintegrate in the 830s when his three sons fought each other.  After this death, the empire of Charlemagne, a glory of the so-called Dark Ages, was divided in three.  The currency ceased to be….though the imagery on the coins continued for several centuries.

The Middle Ages saw other Europe-wide coins accepted as a de facto cross-border currency.  The Florin, minted in Florence, is a good example in the fifteenth century.  But before that, even during the Templar era, the Byzantine solidus was usable by traders all over Europe.  Constantinople was capital of what had been the eastern Roman empire and sat at the end of various trade routes, most notable silk. In the early medieval period, it was “the city”, a golden domed metropolis that outshone any rival.  So it’s not surprising to find Byzantine coins turning up, for example, in Viking burials.

Other gold coins of note that acted as a kind of single currency among European traders were issued by the two great commercial Italian cities – Genoa and Venice.  Genoa issued the Genovino in 1252 and Venice issued the Ducat in 1284.  One article I’ve read claims the first attempt to issue a currency that claimed to be truly European was by the town of Leyden in the Netherlands in 1574, which was then under siege from the Spanish.


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