Germans and Italians. Influences on late medieval mints in German lands

«The Transmission of ideas between mints in medieval Europe».
Fourth Cambridge Numismatic Symposium in honour of Philip Grierson

Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, 15th November 2000

 

Benedikt Zäch

 

Dealing with the personnel of late medieval mints in German lands is not an easy task. As for most subjects of monetary history within this region, evidence for the Late Medieval period is pettier than in Western Europe or Italy and desparately scattered.

Studies on mints and their organisation, if at all existing, were almost never carried out systematically. This may explain, why any attempt to study influences on late medieval mints through minting personnel, through innovations and new patterns of coinage will have to be restricted on a few pieces of an unknown puzzle. Nevertheless, some evidence is there, and I’ll try to give you an impression of what may be worth to be included into further research. I will give a specific emphasis on the region which today is Switzerland, and there touching regions which are beyond the German speaking lands.

Another restraint has to be made. Although it is clear that mintmasters were in close relation to people in the business of money exchange and credits, very little will be said on Lombards and Cahorsins, unless they were sometimes dealing with both businesses at the same time.

I will try to pick up several aspects along three questions. The first is, when, where and to what extent we find non-local minting personnel at mints in German lands in the 14th and 15th century. Where did they come from, and why were they employed? Special emphasis will be given to Italians as the internationally leading minting experts, because they presumably indicate innovations and changes in the process of coinage. Secondly, the „Germans“ (the local minting personnel) need to be examined. Thirdly, the interesting, but delicate question should be raised, if we really can trace, with the given evidence, the flow of «ideas» between mints, which only seems to be possible, if we can link the presence of foreign minting personnel more or less directly to specific new patterns of coinage.

How about the Italians? Peter Ilisch, in his contribution to the Oxford Symposium on Later Medieval mints in 1985, has stated, that there were no traces of Italians in any mint in 15th century Germany. Is then the title of this contribution to be changed into «Germans and virtually no Italians»? Fortunately, this is not necessary, because the statement of Ilisch is still true for the 15th century and for Germany in a strict sense, but not, if we go further back in time or if we look to other regions at the border of the German lands.

 

Italian mint farmers / masters in the 14th and 15th century

 

Minting place

Activity

Origin

function

production

 

 

 

 

 

Hall in Swabia

ca. 1300–1308

Florence

farmer

pfennigs

Lübeck

1341/42

Tuscan

master

gulden

Kutna Hóra

ca. 1305/15

Florence

farmers

gros

 

 

 

 

 

Geneva

1300

Asti*

farmer

deniers

St-Maurice

ca. 1305

Asti/Milan**

master (2)

deniers

Lausanne

1309

Asti***

master

deniers

St-Maurice

1343/44

Milan****

master

deniers

St-Maurice

1349

Milan*****

master

deniers

Nyon

1364

(?)

master

deniers

Basel

1373–1404/11

(?)

master

pfennigs

Nyon

1390/91

(?)

master

deniers, gros?

Nyon

1392–1395

(?)

master

deniers, gros?

Nyon

1399/1400

(?)

master

deniers, gros

Nyon

1400/1401

(?)

 

 

Nyon

1422–1429

Milan

masters (2)

deniers, gros

Nyon

1451–1453

(?)

master

deniers, gros?

Nyon

1453/1457

(?)

master

deniers, gros?

 

* Benjamin Thome of Asti, lombard

** Martinus Alfieri of Milan: master (together with Benjamin Thome)

*** Benjamin Thome of Asti, lombard

**** Gabriele Tondi of Milan

***** Manfredus/Maffeus Frotta of Milan

 

The evidence is very small; there are only few mentions of Italians. They are all from Florence, which seems to be, together with Lucca, the most influential place of origin for this kind of specialists. If we have a look to what they were producing, we perhaps are able to answer the question, why Italians were looked for.

To underline this, a special case is added, lying outside the German lands, but at the border of the Medieval Empire: The mint of Kutna Hóra. Here, a syndicate of Florentines were responsible, from about 1305 on, for the great enterprise of the first gros produced of silver from the newly discovered mines near Kutna Hóra. It is one of the best medieval examples of a planned, great-scale new production of coins derived from mining silver. We know that this only was possible with the help of Italian specialists, who set up the coinage and its organisation, its technical equipment and manufacturing of the minting process. Kutna Hóra was the first real mint fabric in Central Europe.

At Hall in Swabia, a factory mint was already working, when Italian came into action. Before 1308, king Albrecht was giving the right to mint at Schwäbisch Hall to a trust of Italian investors and mintmasters, two of them were of Florentine origin. Minting had been before in the hands of the city of Hall. We do not know exactly, to what extent this Italian group was responsible for the very huge series of «Handhellers» which were mainly produced during the period of about 1280 to 1310. This small change coin was, from the 2nd half of the 13th century onwards, replacing several local pfennigs (like that of Ulm and others) and was around 1300 well established as the most important regional coinage in Southern Germany.

At Lübeck, it was the first Gulden of the Florentine type minted by the city, for which a Florentine master was hired.

All these notions of Italians are isolated and don’t seem to indicate any regular contacts. Furthermore these specialists apparently were employed under exceptional circumstances.

We get a quite different picture turning to region at the limits of the medieval Empire, Western Switzerland, which was mainly under Savoyan domination. Besides the counts of Savoy the bishops of Geneva and Lausanne had active mints on their own. As we see, Italians, mainly from Asti and Milan, are fairly frequent here; it even seems that they were ruling some of the mints almost exclusively.

What is becoming clear, too, is another kind of manufacturing coinage. In Western Switzerland Italian minters were ruling normal mints with a coinage of deniers (greater denominations still didn’t exist until the 1370s), whereas the Italians in Kutna Hóra, Lübeck and Hall were managing great-scale enterprises. The comparison with the Swiss notions clearly indicate, that the Italians in Germany and Bohemia were active at exceptional moments of increased coinage in form of factory mints or to introduce new coins like the Gulden as gold denomination. The same seems to be true, by the way, in the Tirolean mints, namely Meran, at the beginning of the coinage of the Zwanziger.

The geographical distribution of the mentions in Western Switzerland shows that nearly all existing mints were affected. At Basel the case of the mintmaster «Zschekkabürlin» ist especially interesting. This german-sounding name is in fact a phonetic translation of the Italian name «Ceccopieri». This mintmaster and member of the corporation of the «Hausgenossen» was thus of Italian origin. At about 1400 he had settled down in Basle and became member of the local elite.

 

Italians at mints at around 1300

 

Minting place

Activity

Origin

function

production

 

 

 

 

 

Geneva

1300

Asti

farmer

deniers

Hall in Swabia

ca. 1300–1308

Florence

farmer

pfennigs

Kutna Hóra

ca. 1305/15

Florence

farmers

gros

Périgord

1306

Florence

farmers

deniers

 

 

Most of the Italians in Western Switzerland came to these places little after 1300. This probably is no coincidence. At the same time, as you see from this very roughly list mostly recapitulating what was shown before, we find Italians leasing mints on other places as well: at Périgord, to give just one example, the mint was leased in 1306 by the count to two Florentine entrepreneurs producing there between 4 and 5 million deniers. According to informations friendly provided by Marc Bompaire, there are many other French notions of Italian mintmasters namely from Lucca.

It is the moment when Italians, mostly Tuscans, are spreading widely over Europe within few years to work as specialists and as investors as well to sell their knowledge and get profit at the same time. They did sometime combine minting activities with others: Benjamin Thome for example, who was appointed in 1300 to lease the Geneva mint, was – probably parallely – working in the money exchange business.

But this combination of being responsible for coinage and working in the exchange or credit business was normally not apparent. As we know from Zürich, for example, where lombards can be traced back to about 1380, they were intensively networked with other lombards in Lucerne and probably other places, but never involved in any coinage. The same is true for Basle, for Constance and other minting places in Switzerland and Southern Germany as well. Again, the same has been stated by Ilisch for Germany in the 15th century: No lombards are ever mentioned in direct connection with minting activities.

This observation seems to be a key to explain the different pattern between Western Switzerland, where Italians were frequently mentioned and the regions at the north of it, where Italians were virtually absent. The highly organised Savoyan state had, from the mid-13th century onwards, introduced modern instruments of financial administration, which was almost a century earlier than in the german parts of Switzerland. One element was the contracting of specialists for minting who were hired from Italy. Apparently they came either from towns with lombard tradition (especially Asti) or were recruted from great mints like Milan. As they were working as entrepreneurs, other activities like the exchange business, leasing toll stations – as for example several mintmasters of St-Maurice did – or activities in local credit business were necessary to compensate interruptions of the coin production in the still relatively small mints or periods when the mints were even closed. This system of minting organisation is therefore linked to the more developed regions in Italy. This is important to underline if we deal later with the question of influences.

 

Quite apart from this uneven evidence concerning Italians, coin production in the 14th and 15th centuries in German lands normally is in the hands of locally recruted personnel. Again from sources in Swiss mints like Zurich or Basle, but also many other mints of Southern Germany, evidence is clear that minting was organised on a local level. In Zürich for example, all mintmasters up to 1416 were members of the town council and appointed in a combination of delegation (as council members) and leasing (as being economically independent for the minting process itself). Mintmasters of the bishops of Basle or Constance were normally officials of their house-holding or related goldsmiths. Goldsmiths were even more important in greater city mints, they often were responsible for the die-cutting and the assaying as well.

Normal mints, if they were either under city rule or under domination of ecclesiastical or secular powers, were quite small and the need for skilled specialists was not great. Most mints were up to mid-14th century producing only one-sided pfennigs or small double-sided pfennigs, which needed only little technical equipment.

Even in the Rhine and Mosellan region, at Köln, Mainz, Trier and other important mints there seems to be only locally recruted minting personnel in the 14th century. The technical skills to produce greater silver coins like the sterling imitations or the newly introduced gold coins were supplied fully by these persons. In Austria, too, there are, as it seems, no sources referring to foreign minting personnel. However, it is possible, that these are gaps which will be filled after further research.

Nevertheless, in the 15th century a new pattern is developing, which has to be seen as a reaction to much more intensified minting all over the German lands with the opening of many new mints. There are, to a greater extent than before, nomadic, very mobile mintmasters of German, not foreign origin. It may be instructive to look at two of these mintmasters a little closer.

 

Stefan Scherff

 

1422  citizen of Cologne

1426 to 1428  royal mint of Frankfurt, deputy mintmaster

1429  royal mint of Frankfurt, mintmaster

1429  archbishopric mint of Riel, mintmaster

1429/30 to 1434  royal mint of Frankfurt

1431/32 to 1434  royal mint of Nördlingen, mintmaster

1434 to ca. 1436/37  royal mints of Frankfurt, Nördlingen, Basel, mintmaster

1440  toll of Tiel, leasing

1442  ducal mint of Arnheim, mintmaster

1446  ducal mint of Dordrecht, mintmaster

died ca. 1450

 

 

Stefan Scherff, the one of them, came from Rees, a small town in the territory of the archbishops of Cologne. In 1422 he became citizen of Cologne. From 1426 to 1428 he worked for several years at the royal mint of Frankfurt as deputy of the mintmaster Peter Gatz from Basle, were he produced gulden. Being appointed in 1429 as mintmaster, he interrupted soon because of difficulties with the city authority in favour of a short engagement at the archbishopric mint of Riel. Working in Frankfurt again, he was additionally appointed to reopen the royal mint at Nördlingen, which was then leased, together with the royal mints of Frankfurt and Basel, by Konrad von Weinsberg, a member of the royal council. in 1434 Scherff was appointed, together with Peter Gatz, as mintmaster of the three royal mints of Frankfurt, Nördlingen and Basel. After a personal affair Scherff was obliged to flee Frankfurt and Köln. In the following years he is processing against accusations of counterfeiting and fraud. In 1440 he leased the toll at Tiel, in 1442 he was mintmaster of the duke of Geldern at Arnheim. His last appointment was in 1446 as mintmaster of duke Philip of Burgundy at Dordrecht. At about 1450 he died in the Netherlands.

 

Conrad Nämhart

 

1407/08  city mint of St. Gallen, mintmaster

ca. 1415 (?)  city mint of Basel (?)

1416 to 1425  city mint of Zürich, mintmaster

1419 to 1421 (?), city of Zürich, exchange

1426  city mint of Freiburg im Breisgau, mintmaster

1427  Freiburg im Breisgau, prison for debts

1427/28 to ca. 1431/32 (?)  mint of the counts of Tirol at Meran, mintmaster

1431  owner of a great estate

died ca. 1435 (?)

 

 

Conrad Nämhart came from Coburg in Northern Bavaria. We find him first in 1407/1408 at the city mint of St. Gallen, where he produced one-sided pfennigs. It could be that he then moved to the mint of Basel, but this is still unconfirmed. From 1416 to at least 1425 he was mintmaster at the Zürich mint. Here he made the first greater silver coin, the plappart, in 1417/18. In 1419 he was appointed to the exchange of the city, apparently because the mint had interrupted its production. In 1426 Nämhart was mintmaster in Freiburg i. Breisgau, where he soon got in trouble and had to be freed from prison with the help of Zürich. He then moved to Meran with many debts and was appointed as mintmaster at the Meran mint. It was a good post, indeed, because in 1431 he was already owner of a great estate near Meran. We loose his traces then; he seems to have died some years later.

 

Stefan Scherff and Conrad Nämhart are good examples of this new type of German mintmasters, who were skilled and experienced, but on the other side always in danger to get in trouble concerning counterfeiting, fraud or other delicts in relation with minting. Both, Scherff and Nämhart, were involved in court affairs several time, they were in prison because of their debts or accusations and both had to flee from places of their activitiy. Nämhart gives us furthermore a rare insight how knowledge and innovations were forwarded. This remark leads us to the last aspect to be dealt of.

If we try finally to tip the question, whether Italians or other foreign minting personnel were «influencing» mints, we have to ask first how to recognize such «innovation» properly.

Normally we just have the products of the coinage, the coins itself. In written sources, many things that would interest us most, are never expressed directly, because they were either not treated in written form or were just self-understanding.

Coins as hard evidence can deceive us, too. It is for example astonishing to see, that the Italian syndicate ruling the mint at Hall around 1300 did make no attempts to change or alter the shape and design of the «Handheller», despite of the skill and experience of the Italians to produce double-sided coins. Perhaps it was more important not to disturb the users of these tiny, but well recognisable coins than to establish better technology.

For the introduction of the new denominations in silver and gold in the Lower Rhine region, that took place in the middle of the 14th century, we are yet not able to trace – as far as to my knowledge – by what ways the mintmasters and die-cutters got their knowledge, unless it is apparent, that the design of the new coins were derived from English (for the silver) and Italian models (for the gold). All that we can say so far, is that such innovation probably didn’t come to these places by migration of foreign specialists.

Another problem is, that we never can trace personal contacts between German and Italian mintmasters. Both were, as it seems, organised in their respective network, which could have been impressively wide, but not crossing the border of language and mentality.

Nevertheless, in the case of Conrad Nämhart we are lucky to be able to observe, how innovations were transported with persons. When Nämhart was appointed to the Zürich mint in 1416, it was the first time the city was employing somebody from outside. The reason was because Nämhart should introduce the new silver denomination of the plappart, an equivalent to the Schilling of 12 pennies, which was made by weight and value after the Milan model of the Grosso and Pegione. At the time before only one-sided pfennigs had been made. As evidence clearly points out, Nämhart had nothing to do with the die-cutting. So the design of the new coin was derived from local models, especially seals, whereas Nämhart brought with him the technical skills to produce double-sided silver coins.

This does not mean, that such influences on design and shape of new coins were not coming from outside, too. A study about the early coinage of the Schillings and Plapparts in South Western Germany and Switzerland, that began at about 1375 in Lausanne, would very probably indicate, that this innovation was spreading from South to North by mediation of the Savoy region. It is interesting to see, that this was only indirectly done by migration of personnel (apart from Berne, where 1388 the introduction of the Plappart was the result of employing a Savoyan mintmaster).

Further research will have to clarify ways and contents of such influences, but even now indications are quite strong, that we could find out more on this.

 

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