Sunday 10 April 2016

Islamic gold dinars in late eleventh- and twelfth-century England

The following post offers a map and brief discussion of the Islamic gold coins of the later eleventh and twelfth centuries that have been found in England and their context. Whilst clearly rare finds, there are now ten coins of this period known, all but one of which are thought to most probably have their origins in Spain. Moreover, these coins are considered to be the survivals of a potentially substantial body of this material present in England at that time.

Distribution of late eleventh- to twelfth-century Islamic gold coins in England (image: C. R. Green).

The ten later eleventh- and twelfth-century gold dinars found in England up to December 2015 can be catalogued as follows: 1 Fatamid quarter dinar or tari from Sicily, minted c. 1050–72, found St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex; 4 Almoravid dinars from Spain, minted in 1087–1106/1106–07/1130–1 (x2), found in York, Oxford and London (x2); 1 counterfeit Almoravid dinar from Spain, mounted as brooch, dated 1106–42 and found near Winchester1 Murcian dinar from Spain, minted ?1169–70, found Standon, Hertfordshire; 2 Almohad dinars of Spain/North Africa, both minted 1168–84, found Wattisham, Suffolk, and Sporle with Palgrave, Norfolk; and, finally, 1 gold mancus from Barcelona, imitating an eleventh-century Hammudid dinar of North Africa, struck for the Christian king Raymond Berengar I in 1069–75, found Denham, Buckinghamshire.

Although gold dinar finds of this period have often been associated with English documentary references to oboli de musc and the like, which are generally agreed to represent gold Islamic coins, the first of these references is found in the Pipe Roll for 1189–90—when obol' de Muscze are recorded as being purchased for Richard I—and the majority come in the mid-thirteenth century, when numerous purchases of these coins were made for Henry III, mainly for royal alms and to further the king's personal interests. The problem, as Marion Archibald has pointed out, is, of course, that every one of the gold dinars found in Britain and under discussion here was issued before even the first of these documentary references, with the 70% being issued in the later eleventh century or first half of the twelfth. The solution to this apparent conflict of evidence is difficult, but Mark Blackburn has noted that even where there is evidence for a significant circulation of gold coinage, finds of these coins tend to be very rare indeed or even completely absent, presumably due to the value of the individual pieces, leading to a general suggestion that 'when there is even a modest distribution of high-value coinage, as with the Arabic coins in Western Europe, this may represent a substantial volume of such coinage in circulation.' In this light, Archibald has suggested that Islamic gold dinars were thus not only present in England throughout the whole medieval period from the later eleventh century onward, but were actually very probably here in significantly larger numbers earlier than they were later, given the chronological distribution of the finds we have, despite what the documentary evidence might imply. Consequently, the most credible explanation is probably simply that the official documentary references to Islamic gold coins in England represent a skewed version of reality that favours the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries due to the absence of appropriate financial records for earlier periods that might record the presence of such coins, rather than anything else.

An Almohad half dinar of Abu Ya'qub Yusuf I , minted between 1168 and 1184; found Wattisham, Suffolk (image: PAS).

Needless to say, the degree to which this apparent presence of a large quantity of Islamic gold coinage in England between the later eleventh and mid–late twelfth century reflects direct contact between England and Spain—where 90% of the coins likely have their origins—is a point of some interest. The possibility that these coins could result from Anglo-Norman trade with Spain and/or the Mediterranean has certainly been raised in the past, and there now appears to be solid evidence for English merchants engaging in a significant degree of commerce with Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, particularly from the Deorman family and the subsequent pepperers' guild of London, but also from the merchants dealing in leather goods from Córdoba who were apparently based around Cordwainer Street, London, by 1120. It is similarly suggestive that the great Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi, who was educated at Córdoba, named the modern Bay of Biscay as the 'Sea of the English' (bahr al-Inqlishin) in his Nuzhat al-mushtaq, completed c. 1154, and that he is now also often thought to have probably visited England himself during the first half of the twelfth century.

Places in southern England mapped by al-Idrisi for his Nuzhat al-mushtaq of c. 1154; for the original map, see the previous post on al-Idrisi's account on Britain. Al-Idrisi appears to show particular knowledge of two areas of Britain, namely the east coast from East Anglia to York (as discussed in the previous post) and the south coast from Dorset to Kent. Of these two areas, the fullest descriptions and praise are reserved for the south coast towns: for example, Shoreham is described as a 'fine and cultivated city containing buildings and flourishing activity', and Hastings as 'handsome, having markets, workpeople and rich merchants'. Interestingly, London is merely named and not described at all by al-Idrisi, despite its documented importance (image: C. R. Green).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.