Anglo-Saxon, Barliman Butterbur, Beowulf, Bill Ferny, cartwheel penny, Celts, detectorist, Fafnir, Hoard, hord, Horrible Histories, Lenborough, monetary systems, pence, Pennies, pound, pre-Roman British coin, Regia Anglorum, shilling, Smaug, Staffordshire Hoard, Terry Herbert, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Treasure Act, Time Team, Tolkien
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
In this posting, we’re continuing with the theme suggested by our dear friend, EMH, about Middle-earth coinage. If you read our last post, you’ll remember that we cited the price of “Bill”, Sam’s pony, which was “12 silver pennies”. Our pennies here in the US—and modern British ones—are made of copper.
(As usual with so many old and established things, there is argument over where the word “penny” comes from. Personally, we’ve always imagined that it’s an English diminutive of a Brythonic word—as it exists today in Welsh—“pen” = “head”, the idea being that coins had portrait heads on them. Certainly some pre-Roman British coins had them
and they were the norm for the Roman coins the Celts would have seen.)
Originally—from the 8th century to 1797, all English pennies were silver. Here’s an 8th-century penny.
In 1797, this was replaced by the so-called “cartwheel penny”, made of copper:
For all that the material changed, the same monetary system of 1 pound = 20 shillings, each shilling = 12 pence (pennies), which had been in place since Anglo-Saxon times, remained in place in the UK till decimalization appeared in 1971. (There is evidence that the number of pence per shilling varied early on, however, with a shilling worth anywhere from 4 to 6.)
(For a wonderful but totally perplexing view of this money system in Tudor times, see the Horrible Histories segment here.)
So many of these early coins have all come from “hoards”—that is, from groups of valuable objects which were hidden, presumably with the idea that the one hiding them would return someday to collect them, but, for unknown reasons, never did. (The word, as “hord”, is an Old English/Anglo-Saxon word meaning “treasure/thing of value”.)
As a cache (from French “cacher” = “to hide”—“cache-cache” = the children’s game “hide and seek”) of things someone thought valuable, hoards have been discovered world-wide (just google “hoard”), but some of the most spectacular hoards have come from the UK.
A particularly striking hoard was found by a metal detectorist, Terry Herbert, in 2009. This is the “Staffordshire Hoard”, with over 3500 objects dating from the 7th century AD.
In case “metal detectorist” is new to you, this is a person who spends time using a metal detector
to search what he hopes is a promising area in hopes of finding historical objects. The negative side—and we’ve seen it in the US—is that some slip into historical sites, make finds, never report them, and sell them, thereby destroying them as evidence of moments in history. The positive side—and we’ve seen this in England, particularly after the enlightened “The Treasure Act” of 1996—is that responsible detectorists cover much more ground than archaeological services can and both report finds on their own and work on sites with trained professionals. (If you have discovered the wonderful British series, “Time Team”, you can almost always see some working in the background.) In fact, in 2014, BBC4 released a comedy/drama series, The Detectorists, based upon two rather hapless members of the community, Andy and Lance,
with a second series released in 2015 and a third promised for 2017. As an example of that special brand of quiet, quirky English humor, we very much recommend these.
The Staffordshire Hoard contained a large selection of worked gold and silver pieces and fragments, but, as far as we can read, no coins. A major coin hoard was found at Lenborough in 2014. This was a carefully-buried lead box containing over 5,000 late Anglo-Saxon coins.
And a heap like that immediately makes us think of hoards from myth—the hoard from which a slave steals a cup in Beowulf (just as Bilbo does, in The Hobbit)
to the hoard of the dragon Fafnir
to the hoard of Smaug.
JRRT paints a broad picture of Smaug’s hoard:
“Beneath him…lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light…Behind him where the walls were nearest could dimly be seen coats of mail, helms and axes, swords and spears hanging; and there in rows stood great jars and vessels filled with a wealth that could not be guessed.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)
No coins are mentioned—although ponies, unfortunately, are: Smaug says that he’s eaten six of them.
And this brings us back to our original quotation and the price of Sam’s pony:
“Bill Ferny’s price was twelve silver pennies; and that was at least three times the pony’s value in those parts.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”)
Butterbur the innkeeper at Bree paid for the pony and “offered Merry another eighteen pence as some compensation for the lost animals” (the others driven off by the Nazgul during their night raid on Bree). We have some sense of just how much that meant when the story goes on to say of Butterbur that, “He was an honest man, and well-off as things were reckoned in Bree; but thirty silver pennies was a sore blow to him…”
We had assumed that JRRT, as a scholar of the medieval English world, had based his coinage on the system of the Anglo-Saxon world (which was still, more or less, the system in Britain nearly to JRRT’s death in 1973). A comparison with a very useful chart of period prices, based primarily upon surviving law texts, to be found on the website of the reenactment consortium Regia Anglorum, however, suggests that, although JRRT has silver pennies, just as the AS system does, his price for the pony doesn’t appear to match at all. If 4 silver pennies would have been a good price in the late Third Age, what would Butterbur have said to the 193.5 pence for a horse on the actual AS list?
Thanks, as ever, for reading!