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.
No, no, not that Bourbon. The other Bourbon. The House of Bourbon; the family that ruled France — nay, Europe — for centuries. Sorry to disappoint. But while the Bourbon crest once lorded over the continent, the triple fleur-de-lis and the busts of Bourbon monarchs hardly register with collectors today.
There are several reasons for this disinterest in the coins of the ancien régime, or France before the Revolution. The fact that France was never a major source of migration to the New World (outside of a few pockets, most notably Eastern Canada) is certainly one reason. But so, unfortunately, is the notorious complexity of its mint mark and privy (engraver) mark taxonomy. Dozens of mint locations and worn privy marks have frustrated many would-be collectors. In addition, French dealers — unlike their Anglo-friendly German, Dutch, and Scandinavian counterparts — have not traditionally targeted American collectors. This, I think, is beginning to change.
It is not an exaggeration to call the Bourbons Europe’s most significant family of the past millennium. Bourbon monarchs, including Henry IV, Louis XIII, Louis XIV, and Louis XV, fashioned the royal culture of absolutism and solidified the very position of the king as a legitimate power vis-à-vis the Estates General, the rigid hierarchy of clergymen (First Estate), noblemen (Second Estate), and the heterogeneous “Third Estate,” a motley mixture of urban and rural Frenchmen without title. This entrenched system in which birth mattered more than merit is the picture (for many modern commentators) of inequality and inefficiency. The struggles for power within French society were legislated through representatives of each of the three estates. The history of French coinage is no exception.
The three estates convened in 1576 in order to combat the perceived Huguenot threat. Of nearly equal importance were questions of monetary policy, minting strategies and locations, and currency (de-) valuations. French money would be changed forever as a result. Henry III (the last Valois king) was determined that the Écu be the pièce de résistance of French coinage (much like the Thaler across the Rhine). In1577, on the heels of the meeting of the estates, new legislation put limits on the circulation of foreign coinage and encouraged the minting of small denominations in an effort to better serve the multitudes.
Under the Bourbons, the ubiquitous silver Écu (meaning“shield”) greased French commerce. The Bourbons also used the Écu—manufactured at royal mints—to drive out the coinage of their noble and ecclesiastical competitors. The House of Bourbon established profitable mints all across their territory in an effort to undermine baronial and church resistance. There were upwards of 30 Bourbon minting facilities in the 17th-century alone, from the coast of Bretagne to the mountains near Bayonne, from the Moselle to the Mediterranean. Thus, the intricacy of French numismatics had for the Bourbons a very pragmatic purpose. Control of the Écu meant control of the Estates General. Control of the Estates General meant control in France.
The House of Bourbon would maintain power in France until the cataclysm of the 1790s delivered it a standing-eight count. A few decades later, the Bourbons would be knocked out by the sweeping winds of 19th-century change. The once-ubiquitous Écu disappeared along with its benefactor. In its place, the new French Franc would continue to galvanize European commerce.
For those looking for a challenge, the Bourbon Écu offers a chance at a historically unique and powerful collection.