Article by Alexander Noran
Recently, when reading the account of a Frenchman’s experience of the defeat of his nation in the Franco-Prussian War, I came across this passage:
“Monday, 31 July . In London since this morning. Upon reaching Folkestone, I had changed a hundred franc bill into English money. I still had about two hundred francs in French coins. In order not to confuse myself, I put the English money in the left pocket of my vest, and the French money in the right pocket.
Back in the hotel that evening, I pulled from my pockets the two handfuls of coins. I made two small piles of them on the fireplace. Then I began to pay attention to the two small piles and discovered a very interesting and instructive spectacle. First, I arranged all of my english pieces face up and by order of date: 1837, 1841, 1843, 1851, 1857, 1863, 1870; and on all these pieces, I see the same inscription: Victoria dei Gratia surrounding the same young girl’s profile. Victoria, Victoria. Everywhere and always Victoria, Victoria.
Same chronological classification for the small pile of French coins, and under my eyes I see march past: Bonaparte, first consul; Napoleon, Emperor; Louis XVIII, King of France; Charles X, king of France; Louis-Philippe I, king of the French; a very beautiful, much too beautiful woman representing our second Republic; Napoleon III, emperor, without a laurel crown; Napoleon III, emperor with a laurel crown. There I came to a stop, our third Republic not yet having had the time to strike coins.
Never have I understood better why we have just lost Alsace and Lorraine.”
-Halévy, Ludovic, trans Roger L. Willaims. Notes and Remembrances, 1871-1872. Newark, DE. University of Delaware Press, 2009. p. 96-7.
This passage, other than being a telling reflection on the French psyche following their humiliating defeat at the hands of their most bitter rivals, reflects a fascinating caveat which may be considered as one of French numismatics’ greatest assets – namely, the fact that French coinage so closely followed political realities. As is evident in the visceral tone with which the author speaks about Ceres on the coinage of the Second French Republic, the French population responded fairly substantially to imagery, making circulating specie one of the most powerful political tools to be found in the Gallic lands.
Moving further back chronologically from the scope of this anecdote, the changes seen in the coinage of the French revolution illustrates the responsive rapidity with which symbols were appropriated and discarded – from Louis XVI King of France, to King of the French, to on par with the Law, to constitutional monarch, to completely supplanted. Those familiar with the pretender coinage of the 1830s will also understand how important the striking of coin was to notions of both sovereignty and legitimacy, as Henry V of the ousted Bourbon dynasty struggled to regain power.
Importantly, this excerpt sheds light on a question that many French numismatists (myself included) must ponder – namely, what was the circulation mix with so many different designs of coinage? The simple answer seems to be that the mix went relatively undisturbed after the currency reforms instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte, as our commentator seems to have had a fairly complete run from that point on. What is more is that though successive regimes sought to build legitimacy with the introduction of new, propagandistic types, they don’t seemed to have engaged in iconoclasm, or actively removing the issues of previous regimes from circulation. This would in turn account for the large number of severely worn coins from the reigns of Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis-Philippe Bourbon in particular available today.
Interestingly, and perhaps as intentional narrative contrast, his British coin sample does not present any pieces extending before the reign of Victoria. I believe this to be an intentional manipulation of reality, a thought which is made all the more likely by the fact that there were no 1837-dated English coins which bore Victoria’s portrait ever issued. What is more is that in other accounts from the mid-to-late 19th century, note is made of the worn coinage of Victoria’s forefathers still being current, and indeed widely used.
Regardless of the narrative decisions made, these brief paragraphs scream volumes not only about the circulation mechanics of coinage, but what the symbols which circulated day to day actually meant to those who used them. In a way, it is not the statistical breakdown which matters in this instance, but rather that it is an account which brings the human element back into coins in a way which is rarely seen in the study of numismatics.
Alexander Noran is chief numismatist at PCGM and foreign markets consultant for IAP Capital Group.