The Significance of Celtic Coinage

See also Money in Fiction

"Traditional historians have tended to overlook the role played by Celtic coinage in the early history of British money." There is a paucity of written evidence from the period before the Roman conquest but "hundreds of thousands of Celtic coins have been found, mostly on the Continent, where hordes of up to 40,000 coins have been discovered. In a number of instances we have learned of the existence of certain rulers only through their representation on coins (though some are spurious)."

The quotations are from page 114 of the 3rd edition of the book by Glyn Davies, (or page 113 in the 1st and second editions).

Davies, Glyn. A history of money from ancient times to the present day, 3rd ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002. 720 pages. Paperback: ISBN 0 7083 1717 0. Hardback: ISBN 0 7083 1773 1.

Celtic monetary development is seen in its most concentrated form in Britain. Originally the Ancient Britons used sword blades as currency before they started minting coins. The earliest Celtic coins found in Britain "were of pure gold, being direct imitations of the gold stater of Philip II of Macedon...the spread of knowledge of such coinage is...generally held to be the result of migration and in particular the use of Celtic mercenaries by Philip and Alexander." Britain was probably the last of the major Celtic areas of northern Europe to begin to mint, and the last to maintain independent minting before being overwhelmed by Rome. The earliest known date for copies of Philip's stater in Britain is 125 BC. As their experience of minting grew the Celts' designs became more original. As befitting a pastoral people the horse was a common feature. The Celtic love of hunting was also illustrated by the boar designs favoured by the Iceni of East Anglia, and as farmers they also gave tribute to the fertility of East Anglia by prominently depicting ears of wheat, similar to that on modern French coins.

In addition to gold and silver coins, the Celts on the continent and in southern Britain also produced potin coins using various combinations of copper and tin. These were small in size and were cast, not struck or hammered as were the dearer gold and silver coins. Since their intrinsic value was low it is probable that they circulated as tokens, accepted for trade at a higher value than the value of the metal of which they were composed. No great skill was required in their manufacture and therefore it is quite possible that the ubiquitous Celtic smiths were able to supply local demands to supplement the official issues.

The Romans, naturally, imposed the use of their own coinage in Britain. Towards the end of their occupation of Britain and other Celtic lands the small brass and copper minissimi coins produced by the Romans for low value purchases, served a somewhat similar purpose to the earlier potin coins.

With the collapse of the Roman empire and the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, minting and the use of coins ceased for a couple of centuries, the island reverting to barter and to using other standards of value. Nowhere was the disruption accompanying the empire's decline and fall more marked than in Britain which reverted, suddenly in some areas and fairly quickly everywhere, to a more primitive, less urbanized, moneyless economy.

In his concluding chapter where he sums up the lessons of history, Glyn Davies describes how the quantity of money has repeatedly tended to oscillate between periods of excess, causing inflation, and periods of shortage restricting trade and economic activity. He notes that "after the fall of Rome Britain showed the unique spectacle of being the only former Roman province to withdraw completely from using coined money for nearly 200 years...the absence of money reflected and intensified the breakdown of civilized living and trading." (page 641).

In an earlier chapter he gives a detailed account of the re-emergence of minting in Anglo-Saxon times. Although their first coins were copies of French ones the English soon became masters of the art and English coins became models to be copied in Scandinavia and eastern Europe. The production and diffusion of Saxon coins was given an immense boost by the Viking invasions. In order to buy off the invaders the English mints produced huge quantities of silver coins for the payment of Danegeld. In Ireland too Vikings exacted tribute from the native inhabitants. On page 39, Glyn Davies explains the origin of the phrase "to pay through the nose" as coming from the unfortunate habit of the Danes in Ireland in the 9th Century who slit the noses of those unable or unwilling to pay the Danish poll tax.

Wales lagged far behind England in the re-adoption of coinage, as shown by the paucity of evidence for minting by native princes.

Other sources have pointed to the importance of cattle as a form of money in medieval Wales.

Another Davies (no relation this time!), R.R. Davies in his book The age of conquest: Wales 1063-1415. Oxford: O.U.P.,1987, points out that English coins may have circulated in Wales to some extent before the conquest, but even as late as the 14th century payment in cattle was still very common.

The Welsh were by no means unique in using cattle as a form of money. Glyn Davies in his History of money discusses what we can learn about the origins of money from the study of primitive forms of money such as cattle, on which he has three pages (pages 41-44). He describes cattle as mankind's "first working capital asset" (page 41). The origins of several English words provide evidence for the importance of cattle in this connection. The author points out that the words "capital", "chattels" and "cattle" have a common root. Similarly "pecuniary" comes from the Latin word for cattle "pecus". Glyn Davies also notes that in Welsh the word "da" used as an adjective means "good" but used as a noun means both "cattle" and "goods".

The use of cattle as money is not restricted to the remote past either. Certain African tribes, e.g. the Kikuyu, have regarded cattle as money until very recently and the author observes (page 43) that attachment to cattle as a store of wealth has deleterious environmental consequences making the development of monetary systems and institutions that satisfy the needs of the rural African population particularly important.

Thus the transition that Welsh underwent (much later than the English) to living and working in a society whose functioning depends on modern forms of money, is one that has been repeated on a far vaster scale within living memory in parts of the Third World.

Not only the Welsh but also their fellow-Celts, the Irish, were relatively late in western Europe in adopting the use of coins. After the Act of Union in 1707 the Scots used the same coinage as the English but Scotland played a notable role in the development of modern banking, the overdraft being one of their innovations, as described on pages 272-279 of Glyn Davies' History of Money.

Although the role of the Welsh in banking has been much less significant than that of the Scots, during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution an important part was played by Wales in the use of tokens as a substitute for official coins, and since 1968 when the Royal Mint started production in Llantrisant Wales has supplied coins not only for the whole of Britain but also for many foreign countries.

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Roy Davies - Last updated 25 May 2005.