The monetary economy of Carolingian Italy, c. 750-850

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: History


My intended doctoral research will consider the historical significance of Carolingian coinage in northern Italy between the Frankish invasion of Italy in 754 and the imperial coronation of Louis II in 855. During this period, the region between the Alps and Rome was subject to Carolingian rule as the Lombard kingdom and its institutions were gradually integrated into the Frankish realm. At the start of the period, the Lombard kingdom was strong and well organised with its own long-established numismatic traditions, as has been shown by Chris Wickham. From 781, Charlemagne's Capitulary of Mantua prompted a reform of Italian coinage, bringing it more closely in line with Carolingian monetary practices north of the Alps. This research presents a singular opportunity to study the impact of Carolingian monetisation and monetary culture on northern Italy, with the further possibility to consider the extent to which such practices were integrated into northern Italian society with resulting social and administrative changes. I suggest that in Italy coined money played a different role, being more about cultural and political statements than economic transactions, which has wide-reaching implications for our understanding of eighth- and ninth-century Italian society compared with contemporary northern Europe. It raises questions as to whether the latter was more monetised or commercialised, or whether we should be thinking of different models or forms of monetisation, perhaps reflecting differences in elite power and urban-rural relations.
The historiography of coinage in eighth- and ninth-century Italy has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been dominated by Italian scholars, such as Alessia Rovelli, Ermanno Arslan, Lucia Travaini, and Andrea Saccoli. These studies have tended to isolate regions and studying them on a micro-scale. I suggest a more comparative approach, looking at the monetary economy of Italy during this period from the broader perspective of the Carolingian monetary tradition. Wider studies such as Philip Grierson and Mark Blackburns's Medieval European Coinage vol. 1 demonstrate the benefits of this approach by situating the coinage in a broader early medieval context.
At the heart of the proposed study lies a paradox posed by the surviving body of evidence: although the documentary evidence would suggest that coin-use was prevalent, the archaeological record supports the altogether different conclusion that coin-use in Northern Italy operated in a fundamentally different way to the rest of the Carolingian empire. Chronicles, saints' lives, and bureaucratic records of sale, exchange and rent all point to the presence of coins in everyday life across various strata of northern Italian society. Documentary sources explicitly identify the users of these coins and the transactions in which they were used, shedding light on interpersonal connections that existed behind the monetary economy. However, Carolingian denarii are remarkably rare compared to northern Europe in archaeological contexts. Used in conjunction with published archaeological reports of stratigraphic excavations in Italy and the resulting coin catalogues, I anticipate that this source base will yield the conclusion that coins were used as cultural and political tools more often than they were used as instruments of commerce.
Accordingly, the source base not only presents a promising case study in the wider debate on the degree to which early medieval Europe was monetized, but there is also the potential to focus on coinage as a vehicle for political and ideological communication or projection. Particularly after Charlemagne's imperial coronation in c. 800, the significance of Rome to Carolingian conceptions of authority and imperial self-representation is incontestable, but needs careful examination.


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