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Left; Byzantine silverware, Right; Medieval silver coins from the study.	Source: Left; Johnbod/CC BY-SA 4.0, Right; Antiquity Publications Ltd

Medieval England’s Sudden Silver Currency Conversion Solved


After years of speculation, researchers have finally traced the origins of Europe's revolutionary adoption of silver coins in the mid-7th century, uncovering a tale of economic evolution and international trade that reshaped the continent's political landscape.

This discovery, spearheaded by Professor Rory Naismith of the University of Cambridge, centers on the analysis of early medieval silver coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum. The findings, published in the journal Antiquity, not only pinpoint the source of the silver but also illuminate the shifts in Europe's economic engines from the Byzantine Empire to Francia under Charlemagne.

Some of the coins analyzed during the study. (The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge/Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Some of the coins analyzed during the study. (The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge/Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Byzantine Bullion and the Silver Surge

The period between 660 and 750 AD saw Anglo-Saxon England and its neighbors break away from gold, embracing silver coins in a trade revival. The origins of the silver had baffled historians for decades. Through advanced trace element and lead isotope analysis techniques, Naismith and his team have revealed that the silver for the coins minted during the earlier part of this period came from the Byzantine Empire.

This silver, characterized by its unique elemental and isotopic signatures, including higher gold content, did not match any known European ore source. This dispelled theories of local sourcing or recycling of Roman silver during this period, pointing instead to a significant Byzantine silver influence on the economic resurgence of Northern Europe.

“It’s fair to say we were surprised by this result” states lead author Dr Jane Kershaw from the University of Oxford reported in the Antiquity press release.

“We know of some surviving Byzantine silver from Anglo-Saxon England, most famously from Sutton Hoo, but far greater amounts of Byzantine silver must have originally been held in Anglo-Saxon stores. Connections between Byzantium and Anglo-Saxon England were closer than most people think.”

“This was quantitative easing, elites were liquidating silver stored in valuable objects and using that silver to make coins that then circulated widely” Dr Kershaw continues. “It would have had a big impact on people’s lives. Far more people than before would have used coined money and thought in terms of monetary values.”

Analysis of the coins at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Analysis of the coins at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

The Shift to Frankish Silver

The latter half of the study period (750 – 820 AD) saw a dramatic shift in the source of silver. Analysis of coins from this era, including those of Charlemagne, revealed a transition to silver mined at Melle in western France. This shift, coinciding with Charlemagne's rise to power, underscored Melle's emergence as a major player in Europe's silver economy.

The findings suggest that the Carolingian dynasty's control over silver production and coin minting played a pivotal role in the economic policies of the era. Charlemagne's management of the silver supply, coupled with reforms in coinage, marked a significant evolution in the economic infrastructure of the Carolingian Empire.

Broader Implications

This research not only solves the longstanding mystery of the silver's origins but also sheds light on the complex economic and political dynamics of early medieval Europe. The influx of Byzantine silver and the later dominance of Frankish mines underpin the intertwined nature of trade, politics, and economic policy during this transformative period.

The study's revelations about the Byzantine and Frankish sources of silver provide a nuanced understanding of Europe's economic development, highlighting the role of international trade and the strategic management of precious metals in shaping medieval society.

This investigation into the provenance of medieval silver coins not only enriches our historical knowledge but also enhances our appreciation for the complexities of early European economies. The meticulous research conducted by Naismith and his team offers a compelling narrative of how silver facilitated the economic revival and political realignments of the continent.

Top image: Left; Byzantine silverware, Right; Medieval silver coins from the study. Source: Left; Johnbod/CC BY-SA 4.0, Right; Antiquity Publications Ltd

By Gary Manners


J. Kershaw,  Byzantine plate and Frankish mines: the provenance of silver in north-west European coinage during the Long Eighth Century (c. 660–820), Antiquity (2024). Available at: DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2024.33

Gary Manners's picture


Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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