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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Bent Medieval Silver Pennies

Many of you reading this will know that two of my long-time interests have been numismatics and folklore. This small piece relates to both of those interests.

It began when idly flipping through pages of coins for sale on ebay (what else does a numismatist do during a lockdown?), I came across the coin pictured above. It was interesting and the price was set low; probably because it was incorrectly listed as 'bronze long cross coin contemporary piece?' I thought it was more than this. It was, I felt, almost certainly that it was silver and genuine. I have seen enough silver pennies over my life to be 90% certain of my judgment. By then, before my final bid, I had done a little research to show that bending coins in half, especially silver pennies was, if not a common thing to do, one that has been well testified.

I bid for it and won (no prices given, my blog may be being monitored!), and when it arrived it was, as I had thought and hoped, genuine.

So more research was required. The only published work I could find was from a numismatist; there was nothing I could discover in Folklore publications. In Routledge's Religion and Money in The Middle Ages series, itself fairly niche publications, was the second publication in the series, 'Divina Moneta: Coins in Religion and Ritual' edited by Burstrom & Ingvardson. The fourth chapter, written by Richard Kelleher, Assistant Keeper of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, was entitled 'Pilgrims, pennies and the ploughzone: Folded coins in medieval Britain'. There is niche and there is niche! But it contained all the information I could possibly wish for about my purchase. So back to the internet, and this time to Amazon to track down a copy.

My coin is indeed a bent, or folded, long cross silver penny and produced somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries.

So why folded? Clearly this was nothing to do with taking a piece out of a coin to test its genuineness at the time nor to help oneself to a slice of silver. This was a deliberate central fold, rendering the coin unusable as money. So what then was its purpose? Archaeologists, like my son who read Archaeology at University, if they don't know what an object is used for normally reply, 'for ritualistic purposes'. Yet, in the case of my coin, and other similar ones, it really was used for ritual purposes. Many are found near major pilgrimage centres in Britain, such as Hereford and Winchester, where pilgrims brought them to a saint to whom they had earlier prayed to for help, normally prayers for healing for themselves or others. They were often first folded over the head of the sufferer.

Kelleher also tells us that such practices were used for veterinary reasons too, including a blind horse and a 'dead' falcon. Sometimes they were not left at a shrine but worn around the neck, in which case they will be holed. These may well be to do with warding off witchcraft, like the similar use of holed stones. They are also not restricted to medieval England but can be found right across Europe. A detailed account exists in a Papal investigation in 1307 into a number of such cases where healing was attributed to the actions of a recently dead Bishop of Hereford, Thomas Canteloupe. If miracles of healing could be attributed to the good Bishop then he could be elevated to the status of saint. The Papal Commission accepted 26 of the 38 miracles investigated as genuine and Thomas was duly sanctified. The record states that the use of bent pennies in England was well known.

A later invocation for Canteloupe's help is provided by Kelleher quoting a contemporary source, 'Alice injured her foot and the disability became chronic with suppuration. Her father vowed to visit Canteloupe's shrine, and invoking his name and saying prayers he bent a penny over her head, after which they went to Hereford.'

Silver pennies were used because they were the cheapest coin that could be readily found, although there are examples of other denominations being used, farthings and halfpennies, and even gold 1/4, 1/2 and full nobles. But you would have to have been seriously rich to use these high denominations. It would also have been quite a public flaunting of your wealth as you presented it at a saint's shrine.

Folklore is full of examples of coins being used - coins thrown into a well along with a wish, a coin used by monarchs up to Queen Anne for touching for the King's Evil or scrofula (touch pieces), a coin placed in a new purse to bring good luck, a coin given in return for a child's tooth, coins placed on the eyes of the dead, coins at weddings, coins hammered into 'coin trees', the list is almost endless.

Pleased to hear by email any examples anyone would like to share.

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