Old World, New Ideas
Kevin D. Goldberg began collecting European coins as a Middle School student in suburban Philadelphia. Three decades later, he still collects European coins, but now in suburban Atlanta, where he teaches in the Department of History & Philosophy at Kennesaw State University. He earned his Ph.D. in European History from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was a postdoctoral fellow in the International Humanities at Brown University, 2011-2013. Kevin has been planning on expanding his collection beyond Europe for the past decade, but is only now getting around to it.
Confession of a German States addict
A recent purchase brought to light a tricky matter within what is arguably the most complex area of European numismatics, the German States. At about the size of a dime, a simple 1766 1/48 Thaler from Münster seems harmless enough, but cataloguing the coin requires careful attention. Münster, a Westphalian town of about 300,000 people today, had three coin-issuing entities in the 18th century; the town’s bishop (bishopric coinage), the commercial leadership (city coinage), and the ecclesiastic-minded nobility (cathedral coinage). As Coin World’s Jeff Starck alluded to in a 2014 article, Münster’s history is marked by violent internal divisions. It is no wonder then that this small state had three separate issuers of coins in the 1700s, all of whom fought for physical and financial control of the town’s trade.
Before going any further, it may be useful to solve a terminological riddle. “German States” is misleading. The patchwork Holy Roman Empire—the loosely organized governing body for most of Central Europe for about 1,000 years—did not have a centralized monetary policy, which is what allowed for the proliferation of German States coinage. Münster, one among the many bishoprics in the Empire, was never a state in the way that we understand the term today. In fact, the hundreds of territories that we reflexively call “states” were not really states at all. Instead, they were free cities, dukedoms, knightdoms, principalities, abbeys, bishoprics, etc., that constituted the complex system of rule in the Holy Roman Empire. Several of these states, including Münster, played host to petty contests for power between local, regional, and continental elites, both ecclesiastic and secular. The Münster 1766 1/48 Thaler (a bishopric issue, by the way) was struck in this environment of contested rule.
Münster was not alone as a contested state. Other states—again, this is a misleading term—including Augsburg, Cologne, Hildesheim, Lübeck, and Osnabrück, all had at least two sources of coinage in the 18th century. To be sure, states with multiple sources of coinage are the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, it is historically enlightening to explore why these few states had multiple sources of circulating coinage. This is a difficult question to answer succinctly.
Most multi-issuer states had a historically strong commercial class alongside traditional ecclesiastic and noble structures. In the north-German state of Lübeck, Hanseatic merchants wielded more power from the 12th-17th centuries than did the bishops; both the bishopric and the merchant elites struck coins. The bishopric issues display the bust or insignia of a princely ruler while the free city issues display the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire (from whom the “free city” status was usually granted) and the city’s coat of arms. Cologne on the Rhine, another extremely powerful trading city, had (like Münster) three separate coin-issuing entities in the 18th century. In fact, the merchant class was so powerful in Cologne that the ecclesiastic elites, who were no slouches themselves, were barred from entering the city and were forced to reside in nearby Bonn and/or Brühl. Thus, the coins of the Archbishopric of Cologne did not necessarily circulate freely in the city of Cologne at all. The profits from minting coins were often used to wage the bitter struggle between commerce and church.
I am aware of how this nuance can signify chaotic confusion for collectors. However, I can’t stress enough that the complexities of German States coins are actually a blessing in disguise. For me, there is an added layer of depth to the German States that no other collecting area offers. While I’m excited about my Münster coin now, it won’t be long before I’m wooed by a new coin from another small “state.”
For more on German States coins, see my article in the January 2015 newsletter of the Metropolitan Coin Club of Atlanta.