Skip to main content

Major medieval find in France

 Abbey of Cluny in 2004.

Abbey of Cluny in 2004.

A massive hoard of gold and silver medieval coins being described as the largest find of its kind ever encountered has been discovered at the ruins of the Abbey of Cluny in France.

Although the discovery was made in September, the find wasn’t announced until November. This follows an investigation of the coins by an archaeological team including two representatives of the Laboratoire Archéologie et Archéométrie at the Université Lumière Lyon, nine students from the same university, and researchers from the Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée. Doctorate student Vincent Borrel at the Archaeology and Philology of East and West is studying the treasure in more detail to identify and date the coins more precisely.

The Nov. 14 issue of Heritage Daily quoted an unnamed spokesman as saying, “This is an exceptional find for a monastic setting and especially that of Cluny, which was one of the largest abbeys of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. It includes items of remarkable value: 21 gold dinars and a signet ring, a very expensive piece of jewelry that few could own during the Middle Ages. At that time, Western currency was mostly dominated by the silver denier and gold coins were reserved for rare transactions. The 2,200 or so silver deniers struck at Cluny or nearby would have been for everyday purchases.”

A United Press International report quoted a news release: “Never before has such a large cache of silver deniers been discovered. Nor have gold coins from Arab lands, silver deniers, and a signet ring ever been found hoarded together within a single, enclosed complex. This discovery will breathe new life into research delving into the past of the abbey, a historic site open to the public."

It is understood that the silver coins are obols (half deniers) and deniers dating from the 12th century, most having been struck at a mint at the abbey. Archaeologists say these coins would have been used in everyday financial transactions.

The gold dinars are reported to have been minted between 1121 and 1131 in Spain and Morocco in the name of Ali ibn Yusuf. Yusuf was the fifth king of the Berber Almoravid dynasty. These coins and some accompanying jewelry would have been stores of wealth unlikely to be used in everyday commerce. A folded sheet of gold foil as well as something described as being “a circular gold trinket” were also found, these being stored in a protective case. The entire treasure was found stored in a tanned hide, some remnants of which have survived.

The abbey was founded in 910 by William I, Duke of Aquitaine. Berno, who was the first abbot, answered to Pope Sergius III rather than to the duke. The abbot at Cluny became known for being an adherent to the Rule of St. Benedict. The Benedictine Order was to become a stabilizing force in Europe during the 11th century. The abbey expanded to eventually become the largest Christian church in Europe until the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during the 17th century. Much of the abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution.

According to The Coinage of the European Continent, Middle Ages – 20th Century by W. Carew Hazlitt, Cluny was “an abbatial mint, perhaps from the 10th but certainly the 11th century. But the abbots appear to have struck money at an early period at Saint Jean d’Angelly and elsewhere, and it has been supposed that they also did so at Saint Gengoux, a mint established by Louis VII in 1166, and suppressed by Philip le Hardi in 1281. Cluniaco Cenobio.”

A recent CBG auction (Paris, France) catalogs a Cluny 20 mm diameter silver denier with comments: “Mint Cluny did not begin until 1123 and was confirmed by a diploma in 1204. Nevertheless, since 1239 the effigies became sporadic and was removed before the end of the thirteenth century. The abbey had been leased to the eleventh and twelfth century workshop Melle. The abbey of Cluny was dismantled and destroyed [during] the [French] Revolution after being sold by the republic as a stone quarry.”

This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.

More Collecting Resources

• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700 is your guide to images, prices and information on coins from so long ago.

• More than 600 issuing locations are represented in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1701-1800 .