Background: Ever since the beginning of the Legacy Knights Numismatic Society, as its coordinator, one of my dreams was to create our own coin.
Our club is an official extracurricular activity of our local Christian school. Our school mascot is the Knight, and we are the Numismatic Knights; so a coin in a historic style of the Age of Knights with inscriptions and symbolism representing our club and school values would be ideal.
Because the inscription would be such an important part of the overall design of the coin, it had been given priority, and the artwork portion had been put on hold. Now that the inscription had been determined (see Part III of this series), the rest of the design could be developed.
Looking For The Right "Look"
In Part II of this series I've discussed how medieval coins were made, and how the technology of the day affected the look of the coins. The rough inconsistencies of hand-made planchets, the limitations of available tooling, the skill levels of the die carvers, and the inconsistencies of human powered hammer striking all affected how the finished coins looked.
So what was typical of the level of skill and detail of
artwork on medieval coins? And just like art and commercial design go
through phases in modern times, what was typical of the artistic styles
and themes on medieval coinage?
Design Cues From Research
As I began reviewing images of historic medieval coins, I noticed a few things:
1. A lot of medieval coinage has a legend or motto forming the outer ring of the design on both the obverse and reverse. Any portrait or other design elements are inside this circle of lettering. Sometimes parts of the picture would extend into the lettering area (e.g. a king's crown or the tip of a sword or scepter); the lettering would typically skip over and continue in the next available space, rather than have the king's picture obliterate any lettering. Variations on this design style are common to this day.
2. Portraits may be decent likenesses of historic figures; but often they are representative. By modern standards, they are often cartoonish. Take a look at the image of the Edward I silver penny. Judging by that portrait, you might think Ed was one goofy looking dude; but that same design was reused on coins of Edward II and even Edward III. Therefore this image was most likely just a representative picture of a nonspecific king, to let people know that the name in the inscription was someone authorized to issue money. (The cartoonish look might have been more of a factor of the limitations of the medium-- hand-carving a discernible image on such a small metal die-- than the artistic skill of the die cutter.)
3. A lot of European medieval coins feature crosses. Small crosses in line with lettering may indicate the beginning of an inscription. Larger crosses are often dominant elements on one side, not only as a testament to the spread of Christianity, but because they were simple designs and easy to recreate. Since hitting a die with a hammer eventually damages it to the point where it requires replacement, you would want the design on that die to be simple and easy to carve into a new die in order to save time and effort. This made the cross design as popular with the die cutter as with the Christian culture (although for different reasons). Crosses that extend from the center to the edge of the coin are called long crosses, while those that stop inside the ring of lettering are short crosses. They can be solid, thick lines, or double lines with a gap between. They can be ornamented around the middle and ends, or plain. After awhile, certain design elements may have become obligatory; people expected to see a cross design on a certain type of coin, whether or not they knew it represented Christianity, or that it was easier to carve. A cross also provided a handy guide for cutting the coin into halves or quarters if you needed to make smaller change.
4. Many medieval coins didn't bear a denomination. They were typically identified by their size. If a king gave a moneyer a pound of silver, he expected a set number of pennies to be made from it... no more, no less. (The exchange rate in Great Britain, for example, was 240 pennies to the pound; however, a little profit for the king was made by making 242 or 243 pennies from a pound, yet keeping the exchange rate at 240.) If the king weighed the prescribed number of pennies (e.g. 242), they had better equal a pound. To make sure that happened, the moneyer had to make consistently-sized blanks, and adjust their weight if necessary. This would result in pennies that were a certain size... therefore, an additional indicator that the coin was a penny wasn't needed.
5. Many medieval coins, particularly earlier ones, did not bear a date.
6. Many medieval coins did bear either the name of the moneyer who minted it, or the name of the city where it was minted. (I own a medieval English penny from the reign of Edward I that says "CIVITAS CANTOR" on it, meaning it was made at the mint in the City of Canterbury.)
7. Many have a beaded or rope-like edge around the obverse and reverse designs. This was not only decorative, but also a discouragement to trimming the edges to remove precious metal.
Developing Our Design
I began sketching ideas for what we might use. Then I thought, why not see what the students create? At our next meeting, I passed out template sheets with circles on them. I asked them to draw their idea of a coin design for our club. I suggested a few ideas, but only required it to have both our Latin club name and Latin motto on them.
The students did a great job designing coins. Two of the most common themes were knights and crosses. The knight represents our club and its origins within our school, whose mascot is also a knight. The cross represents the Christian values our club shares with our school. Both also can be found on numerous actual medieval coins from history. Of all the ideas, these two crossed over very well from historic examples to representing our club and its values. I took these concepts and created a few rough sketches that incorporated them into a design with our legend and motto.
About this same time, I had begun looking for someone who could create a die set for us using our own unique design. At first I tried asking other numismatic clubs with their own club-issued coins where they got theirs; but none of the suggested sources made coins that looked remotely medieval. They were all too modern and perfect. I came across some small companies that made fantasy coins. These companies were capable of making custom medieval-looking coins. They were fairly priced, but beyond our budget for this year. Finally an idea hit me: I remembered seeing a medieval blacksmith in action at a local Renaissance festival years ago; maybe I should see if there are any medieval historians skilled in the art of hammering coins!
I found and contacted some members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA. These are individuals who are interested in studying medieval history and learning about life during those times by actually recreating the clothing, food, and activities of medieval life. Sure enough, there was a guild for medieval moneyers from the Midwestern area of the United States, which they call Midrealm. I asked them if they knew anyone who did private contract work for medieval style coins. (The SCA is a nonprofit organization, so neither they nor any of their affiliated moneyers' guilds provide coining services for profit; but some of their members also do private work outside the SCA.) I was initially looking for someone who could make a die set for us with our design, but I also needed a good source for blanks in appropriate metals. They put me in touch with a gentleman named Carson Engle (otherwise known as "Rüdiger" to his medieval brethren), who offered to take on our project.
Mr. Engle has proven to be a wealth of information on the subject of making a medieval style coin, as he has studied them and the process of making them a great deal. He has trained in the skill of hammering coins under more experienced moneyers, and has made thousands of coins for various SCA events. He even created a beautiful silver coin to commemorate his wedding. I received samples of his work and was sufficiently impressed.
I shared my crude sketches with Mr. Engle. He looked at them and found some images of actual medieval coins to serve as evidence that our designs were consistent with historic designs. For the obverse, he found a Lithuanian half gross coin from the late medieval period of the 1500s. The image on that coin is Vytis, a charging knight. Vytis has appeared on coinage since the 1300s. For the reverse, he found a long cross on the reverse of an Æthelred penny from an earlier Medieval period. I had seen several Edwardian pennies that had a reverse with a long cross and 12 pellets, 3 in each quadrant. Mr. Engle, whose artistic skills supersede mine by far, took these ideas and drew them into an obverse and reverse design. I had him tweak the rider's helmet, sword, and shield a bit, make the cross lines a little bolder, and add the pellets to the reverse after reviewing more pennies and rethinking them. You can see the designs in the attached images that have his monogram to the lower right of each. The lettering in the final product will differ slightly from these images.
I have seen test strikes of these, and they look fantastic! I think these are going to make outstanding coins for our club!
Other Design Notes
I considered a variation of our school mascot, but opted against it, not wanting to violate any copyright laws or brand use rules. The school does not own rights to all uses of any images of knights, obviously, but they do have a right to say how, where, and when theirs is used. So I knew we wouldn't use "the" school Knight, but maybe "a" knight. The knight in our design has a plumed helm, a sword, and a shield; but so do many other knights. On our knight, as opposed to the school's logo, the helm and sword are different; the shield is one color instead of two; we do not associate it with the school's name or other branded imagery, logos, colors, or devices; and our knight is a full-body depiction riding a horse.
Anyone attempting to make a coin for their club should be aware of a couple things. Don't lift a design from someone else's work. I've read a story where a club had a coin made from a design they found. The problem was, the designer still had the rights to that design. The club didn't realize it and didn't intend to steal someone's work. The designer, a coin enthusiast himself, didn't want to cause difficulty for a coin club; so they worked out a deal acceptable to both parties. If you see a design you want to use, research it well first to make sure you don't run into licensing issues, and get permission if needed.
Also, if you involve someone else in creating your design, make sure you are clear what you intend to do with the design and what permissions you should seek before using it. If you hire someone to make coins for you, make sure you understand who owns the design and the use of it. Are you buying the right to use the design any way you want? Are you buying the dies? or are you just buying the coins, but the design and the rights to use it stay with the designer? Likewise, determine ahead of time if you want to restrict use of that design, or let other people use it, and if they need your permission or not before they do.
(While we're discussing it, please don't take and reuse my crappy sketches... not that you'd want to... but you are welcome to link to this blog to show people how much better an artist Mr. Engle is than me. Also, please do not take, edit, or reuse the designs Mr. Engle did for us. I have his written permission to display them here with his monogram. He gets the credit for the design, and their use is restricted to our club. If you would like to contact him about designing a medieval coin for you, email him at email@example.com. He is very helpful in understanding the process of medieval minting. As for the images of real coins attached to this blog post, I got them from an internet search for medieval coin images licensed for free public reuse; if the internet was wrong about that and you own the rights, let me know if you want me to take them down.)
Lastly, don't violate the Hobby Protection Act of 1973, which prohibits making replicas of real coins without significantly altering them or placing the word "COPY" into the design. Mr. Engle has the skills where he could duplicate an 800-year-old coin and it could fool collectors. Our club coin avoids this possibility because the Legacy Knights Numismatic Society didn't exist before 2017, and no real coins were made exactly like this any time in history. The obverse and reverse designs we used are similar to historic coins, but the inscriptions differ; and to our knowledge they were never paired on a genuine coin since one is early Medieval Era and the other is Late Medieval.
Many thanks to Mr. Carson Engle (firstname.lastname@example.org) for his assistance in this project and his enthusiasm for helping our students learn about the medieval minting process; and to the Midrealm Moneyers' Guild of the SCA for providing the referral.
See the finished product in the final installment in the series: The Making Of A Medieval Style Club Coin, Part V: Making The Coins!