Until recently, it was believed that Mieszko I, Poland’s first ruler, had minted the kingdom’s first coin, however, this claim has since been refuted. Mieszko’s denarius was indeed minted by a Mieszko, although in fact it was Mieszko II, the grandson of the founder of the Polish state.
by Wojciech Kalwat
If we are tracing the beginning of the monetary history of Poland, we must look instead at the reign of Bolesław I the Brave.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, Poland had a trade network with Southern and Western Europe. In exchange for furs, leather or amber, the Slavs received luxury products as well as coins. Trade routes led from the Black Sea up the rivers of Eastern Europe to the Baltic Sea and on to the large trading market in Wolin. One of the branches of this route turned from Kiev to Krakow and Prague. The roads were travelled by Arab and Jewish merchants as well as the Varangian traders who were also famous for their fighting and plundering skills. During this same time, trade relations with Western Europe also grew in importance.
Trade with the Arab world caused a great influx of coins produced in the Baghdad caliphate and the Sassanid state in Central Asia. These were dirhams – large, silver coins bearing only Arabic inscriptions. They began to appear in Poland at the beginning of the 9th century, but the first half of the next century also saw a massive influx of these coins. Dirhams were used as a means of payment, but they were also recast into ornaments and avidly collected. So far, around 300,000 dirhams have been found in Central and Eastern Europe, and it is estimated that at one time there could have been over 5 million dirhams circulating in the area. This was a significant amount, especially because cash was not commonly used in Slavic countries. The inflow of Arab coins ceased in the middle of the 10th century. The Sassanid state, the main supplier of dirhams, was destroyed, and trade routes were interrupted by the [nomadic Turkic tribes known as the] Pechenegs and Cumans.
Arab silver was soon replaced with bullion from Western Europe. First, Danish coins from Hedeby began to appear in large quantities, and later – English coins. The latter had been minted to pay for the huge tribute that the British had agreed to pay the Danes. Money from the Danegeld, as this tribute was called, eventually trickled into Poland. Eventually, in conjunction with the development of overland trade routes, money began to flow in during the second half of the 10th century and the first decades of the 11th. This was due to the discovery of significant silver deposits in the Harz Mountains, which were used to produce currency. The basic types of German coins flowing into Poland were denarii bearing crosses, as well as the more visually complex denarii of Emperor Otto I and Adelaide.
Baptism and income
The decision to accept Christianity from Rome in 966 by the Piast prince, and later duke of Poland, Mieszko I, had far-reaching consequences. Thus, Mieszko I brought his state under the influence of Western European culture and heritage. It was also a political choice. Christianity strengthened his position in the state. However, it must be remembered that it also had very tangible economic effects. The first historical ruler of Poland, as one can guess, received income from the slave trade, which was used to finance the Piast state in the Western region of Wielkopolska. By joining other Christian states, he was forced to renounce the slave trade and the income he gained from it. However, not everyone was able to do so. The slave trade is recorded on the bronze door of the cathedral in Gniezno – a masterpiece of Romanesque art. Bishop Adalbert in Prague would even admonish the Czech prince to abandon this evil practice and give up the slave trade on the claim that some of the slaves might have been Christians sold to Jewish merchants.
Denarii from Germany served as a model for Polish money. The first denarii had come from ancient Rome. The Roman denarius was introduced as a silver coin during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) although it lost its value over time, as it became copper money. The name “denarius” did not disappear though. In Arab countries, it was preserved as “dinar”, with the difference that the denarius was a gold coin. Charlemagne brought denarius to Western Europe. The Carolingian denarius served as a model for coins minted in other countries, although sometimes its name was changed. In England it was called a “pence”, in Germany a “pfennig”, and “peniza” in Czechia?
Charlemagne’s monetary reform would unify the monetary system. The pound (libra) was the unit of account, which could be subdivided into 30 solidi where were equal to 240 denarii. This system was adopted by other countries, but in later centuries it underwent various changes or became less clear and was forgotten. Until recently, the Carolingian reform could have been traced in some countries via the names of certain types of money. This was even the case in the British monetary system, where the pound was subdivided into 20 shillings and 240 pence. The symbolic abbreviations for money units still harkened back to the Carolingian times: the letter Ł (pound) refers to the libra, S (shilling) to solid, and D (pence) to denarius. The Italian lire also referred to the Carolingian libra. In France, 5 centimes was once known as a sou, which meant solidus, or 12 denarii.
The medieval denarius, like its ancient counterpart, was subject to fluctuations. Continuous reduction of its silver content eventually led it to becoming copper money. In Poland, it was minted until the 1650s – the last time in Poznań in 1652–1653, where these coins might have also been minted for the first time in Poland.
The Denarii of the Prince and King Bolesław
The first Polish ruler who minted coins was Bolesław I the Brave. Although several basic varieties of the monarch’s coins are known, the overall number of denarii he produced – including the coins minted by Mieszko II – is estimated at 95,000 pieces, for which only 10-140 kg of silver was used. This wasn’t much. Therefore, it should not be considered an economic endeavor. It is likely that Bolesław I the Brave was primarily interested in demonstrating his power in this way. Denarii were intended for close associates of the ruler, and he also probably paid a salary to the soldiers who took part in expanding and defending the borders of the state, as well as in keeping the prince’s subjects obedient. Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, a Jewish merchant from Spain, reported that Mieszko I had a cadre of 3,000 soldiers with excellent fighting skills. He also described how they were reimbursed for their work. Tributes collected by the prince largely went to the soldiers, who were given clothes, horses, weapons and anything else they needed. And according to Yaqub, when a wife of one of them gave birth to a child, Mieszko paid them a wage whether it was male or female. Soldiers were thus supported by the ruler, but probably financial benefits constituted a secondary element of their salary.
The first coin minted by Bolesław I the Brave was probably a denarius because of the images of arrows and trees on it, referred to as the “arrow with the Tree of Life in the background”. Of the following types of denarius, the most intriguing are the “GNEZDVN CIVITAS” and “PRINCES POLONIE”. There are hypotheses that due to the symbolism of the depictions visible on them they could have been minted on the occasion of the Congress of Gniezno in 1100. The chronicler Gall, called Anonymous, described quite extensively both the visit Otto III made to Gniezno and the wonderful gifts the emperor and his entourage received. Could these gifts have included the coins in question? We cannot know.
Let’s take a look at these intriguing coins. On the obverse of the “GNEZDUN CIVITAS” there is a portrait of the ruler – extremely carefully made for those times. In addition to the monarch’s profile, you can also see the diadem on his head and the name of the prince “BOLIZLAUS” or “ROLIZAUS”. The reverse shows a cross with four points and a significant inscription: “GNEZDVN CIVITAS” (the Gniezno state). This coin is a truly unique item of which only one is known to exist.
The “PRINCES POLONIE” is equally intriguing. On both sides of it there are inscriptions that support the concept of making Bolesław a collaborator of Emperor Otto III. If we assume that Bolesław I the Brave had assumed a higher stature during his rule, then it is understandable that instead of the standard title “dux” meaning prince or “rex” – king, the term “princes” was used (though it should have been spelled “princeps”). This is a reference to the dignity of a patrician from Roman times. It is also significant for the fact that the name of Poland was mentioned for the first time, even earlier than in the chronicles! The image of the bird is puzzling. There are several concepts about its species, whether it is a dove, a rooster or a peacock. The latter is supported by such arguments as the fan-shaped tail and something resembling a crown on its head. Some consider it an eagle. However, the strongest interpretation seems to be that the bird depicted is a peacock, a symbol of Christ, a reference perhaps to the martyrdom of Saint Adalbert from the Slavnik family. At the same time, it is pointed out that the designer of these denarii may have been Radzim Gaudenty, Adalbert’s half-brother. The Slavnik family from Libice was a very wealthy one with their own mint so they thus began a long tradition of minting coins. It people are often reminded about it, it is remembered, the memory of this tradition is cherished.
Other coins of Bolesław I the Brave are also controversial. The most important records refer to the prince’s name. One some it is “INCILITVS” – famous, brave, and at other times it is “REX” – the king, and sometimes the name of the ruler is even written in Cyrillic. The latter can probably be attributed to the expedition of the Polish prince to Russia.
Bolesław I the Brave’s coins, although few, testify to his ambitions as a ruler who raised his state to the rank of a local power.
The first stage of Polish coinage is supplemented by the Mieszko II denarius from the period when he ruled together with his father.
On the obverse one can see the inscription of the prince’s name “MIDICO” and “MISICO” and a schematic image of a temple. Earlier some saw in it the image of the ruler’s headgear.
Denarii on a massive scale
Bolesław I the Brave pursued an extremely active foreign policy. After his death, his successor Mieszko II tried to continue it. Unfortunately, the wars waged by his father exhausted the country. Furthermore, Poland’s two main opponents, Emperor Conrad II and Prince of Kiev Yaroslav the Wise, deprived Mieszko II of the throne in favour of Bezprym. However, his reign did not last long and Mieszko assumed power once again. The premature death of Mieszko II began the darkest period in the history of the Piast state. A rebellion by the people destroyed state structures. The independent prince Miecław settled in Mazovia, while the prince of Bohemia, Bretislav, devastated the Western region of Wielkopolska and joined Silesia and Małopolska to his country. Casimir, the son of Mieszko II, managed to rebuild the state, thanks to which he gained the nickname of the Restorer. Were mints operating then? It is not easy to discover, but it is also hard to imagine that Prince Casimir, forced to pay a huge tribute from Silesia to the Czechia (500 silver grzywna a year, i.e. about 100 kg of silver) did not have a mint.
The mint production of the first Piasts was symbolic and did not play a major role in the economy. The situation changed under the rule of Bolesław II and then Władysław I Herman, as they produced millions of coins and basically everyone living in Poland would have already come across them. It is estimated that Bolesław II minted around 5 million coins and Władysław I Herman – around 2-3.5 million. It is puzzling why these rulers had such a large amount of gold available for their production. Silver might have begun to be mined near Olkusz, but the most important was the booty brought by Prince Bolesław from the expedition to Kiev in 1069. He launched the mint in Krakow, and later in Wrocław, and the coins produced there had a standardized appearance. Bolesław II issued two basic types of denarii. On the first – the prince’s denarius – there was a warrior on a horse (maybe the prince himself?), holding a spear and a shield in his hands, and around this figure was written “BOLEZLAVS”. The second is the royal denarius. There is nothing written on it, but its value is indisputable. This coin depicts the torso of the ruler with a crown on his head and a sword in his hand. This is an extremely important piece of propaganda, highlighting the monarch’s greatest success, which was the royal coronation, and symbolically making the Polish ruler independent of the emperor. On the reverse there is a temple with three towers crowned with domes.
The monarch did not enjoy his royal denarii and royal crown for long. The conflict with the bishop of Kraków, Stanisław, which ended with the death of the latter, led to a rebellion against the monarch. The king fled to Hungary and did not return to the country. His brother Władysław Herman seized power in Poland. However, he did not show such energy in policy making. The fact that he did not care to reach for the crown may serve as an example. Therefore, it is no use to look for royal attributes on his coins. Instead, one can find a portrait of a prince with luxuriant hair and his name, “VLADISLA”. The reverse depicted a temple with three towers. The domed helmets disappeared, replaced by sloping roofs topped with crosses with the inscription “CRACOV”. The temple is probably the Wawel cathedral.
A little bit about the functioning of mints
Bolesław II organized the production of coins not only on a massive scale but also on a profitable one. The profit for the ruler resulted from a constant decrease in the silver content of the coin. Theoretically, 240 denarii were to be produced from one grzywna of 213 g, but much more were minted. It is estimated that from one grzywna, Bolesław II minted 636 coins as a prince, and as much as 1283 as a king! After deducting production costs and the nominal number of coins that should be minted, the surplus was the issuer’s profit. This practice, of course, could not last indefinitely, because money lost value and over time, the coins were replaced.
The first mint workshops were very modest. The tools used for production would probably fit in a large bag. A person working at such a workshop in the 10th century would put into this bag an anvil, a hammer, a few other small tools and pistons for minting coins. There was no need for more, because money was scarce. The situation changed under Bolesław II. He founded two mints: in Krakow and Wrocław. The one in Krakow operated constantly and produced millions of coins. As such production had to be well organized, we can only guess that Prince Bolesław invited relevant experts from abroad for this purpose. They organized the mint’s work based on models from Germany.
Work in the mint was divided into stages. The first was to melt the bullion and, if necessary, clean it of impurities, e.g. by adding lead. The bars formed in this way were beaten into thick sheet metal. Originally, round shapes were cut out with scissors, but from the time of Bolesław II coins were punched out with special steel punches. The plaques obtained in this way underwent a purification process. This could be done either by heating them in saline and the so-called cream of tatar, or by placing plaques in a wet charcoal barrel, which was then rotated. The coins cleaned in this way gained the desired gloss. They were later inserted into the bottom piston and a coin was struck with a strong blow by the use of the top one.
One of the most difficult tasks was to make pistons for the production of coins. One had to be a real expert in order to receive the right image and inscription in such a hard material, and remember that the negative stamp had to be engraved on the piston, so that the coin had a positive image and inscription. Mistakes resulted both from the pace of work, carelessness and the lack of skilled craftsmen. Errors were especially found in inscriptions – not everyone could read and write. Also, during production the stamps wore out, which affected the quality of the minted coins. That is why they were replaced from time to time. The upper punches struck by the hammer would wear out faster.
It is worth noting that in the time of Bolesław II, sigla began to be placed on coins, i.e. signs of a workshop in which money was minted, in order to control the quality of production in this way.
Władysław I Herman was a weak ruler. While residing in Płock, he entrusted state affairs to the omnipotent palatine Sieciech. This magnate not only exerted a significant influence on the fate of the state, but was the first in Poland to issue private money. This testified to his wealth, exceptional position and ambition to reach the princely throne. It is not known whether this production took place with the consent of the prince or was arbitrary. Sieciech minted two types of denarii. As calculated, he used about 100 kg of silver, minting about 115 thousand coins. Compared to the production of the monarch, this is not much, but given the fact that it was a private coin, it was quite a lot.
On both types of Sieciech’s denarii there is a sign resembling a palatine coat of arms – Odrowąż. Sieciech’s name is visible: “ZETEH” or “ZETKEH”. In the older version, a cavalier’s cross can be seen on the reverse. It is more difficult to interpret the tangled lines on the reverse of earlier denarii. Some see there the prince’s name or his dignity, others – a crosier and a pennon. There is also a theory that it is a sign taken from the coins of Burgundy. This is connected with the mission of the emissaries of Prince Władysław Herman, who went to the abbey of Saint Gilles in Provence to pray for an heir for the sick ruler. According to chronicler Gallus Anonymous, the mission was successful and Bolesław, later named Wrymouth, was born. But whether the coin was commemorate this wonderful event – it’s difficult to discern.
Author: Wojciech Kalwat
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin