Book Review: Astronomical Symbols on Ancient and Medieval Coins by Marshall Faintich; McFarland & Co., 2008, 232 pages, $55.00
Working with fellow student Bradford S. Wade, whom I met in “Ethics in Physics,” at Eastern Michigan University, I placed reviews of this book in The Numismatist (Vol 124 No. 1, January 2011), The Mich-Matist (Vol XLVI No. 4, Autumn 2010), E-Sylum(Volume 13, Number 45, November 7, 2010, Article 4), The Centinel (Vol. 58 No. 3, Fall 2010), The Celator, and the Bulletin of the Society for the History of Astronomy (Issue 21, Autumn 2011). They ran in a range; and as a consequence of our criticism, we exchanged some emails with the author who demanded retractions which we did not publish. We stand by our work – as he stands by his. This is science. Overall, the book is important and valuable. It does have its weak points. They do not detract from the major thesis: astronomical events appear recorded in the long history of coinage.
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Today, we are not always certain about the motives of the people of those distant times. The indicators that we easily read as conjunctions and eclipses – and not so easily as comets and other events – may be the mint master’s controls, or a simple statement of time, or (as Faintich hypothesizes) claims of divine grace and heavenly favor. Read them as you will, “stars” of many kinds have appeared on metal monetary media since the invention of coinage 2600 years ago.
That is the first challenge.
Common to both Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises is the hilarious presumption that coinage evolved from bullion, which evolved from bartering for commodities. Those who do not question this fantasy have not investigated the problem. The earliest records written in cuneiform on clay – which, according to Denise Schmandt-Besserat, evolved from tokens for debt – indicate divinity by placing a star above a person or the name of the person. That seems natural to us who place our God(s) in Heaven. (Those who identify their goddess with the earth have another narrative.) Thus, when coins were issued as bonus payments to mercenaries about 600 BCE, they often carried stars in many forms. In addition to the obvious “floral bursts” the coins of Croesus (Kroisos) show a bull confronting a lion. (Other coins of the same time show a "hairy wart" on the nose of the Lion.) Does that symbolize Taurus and Leo? And if so, in what context? And where is the Scorpion? The Bull, the Lion, and the Scorpion were the first points of the so-called “zodiac” of the ecliptic that was finalized only in Roman times when the Claws of the Scorpion became Libra to make 12 Constellations, analogous to the 12 months – and the 12 Olympians.
But none of that is in Faintaich. His focus is the European Middle Ages. Strong evidence supports the choice. First, we have the coins. In the years between Charlemagne and Columbus, perhaps a thousand issues are known. Many have astronomical symbols. Moreover, rather than being a “Dark Age” these were times when events were recorded in books stored in monasteries. Those events also appear recorded on coins as a common medium of communication. Therefore, it is only desk work to rely on modern astronomical software to run the clock back and look at the sky in medieval England, France, and Germany – and then compare those results to the attested times and places of mintage for coins with astronomical symbols.
Faintich builds a strong case.
“For example, he speaks entirely of secular authorities: counts, dukes, princes, kings and emperors. Never does he address the bishops (including the bishop of Rome and the archbishop of Canterbury) who issued coins. Faintich repeatedly states his major premise by referring to “the divine right of kings” a concept alien to the Catholics of the Middle Ages, but nicely enunciated to the English Parliament by the Protestant statesman, King James VI of Scotland. By not examining coins issued by ecclesiastic authorities and by ignoring the actual conflicts of church versus crown, Faintich undermines the theory that pellets, annulets, stars, mullets, crescents, combs and bars were intended as symbols of divine favor for mundane rulers.” Bulletin of the Society for the History of Astronomy (Issue 21, Autumn 2011.)
Trained in mathematics (BS) and astronomy (MA and PhD), Faintich does more than argue his point. He offers four criteria that must be met to show that the astronomical events correlate with the intent of the coin.
“First the date of the coin bearing an astronomical symbol must be ascertained. Second, the astronomical symbol must be the first such occurrence for that coin design or a reintroduction of the symbol after a substantial period of time to rule out immobilization of the design. Third, the occurrence of the astronomical event must be established. Fourth, and most difficult to ascertain, historical evidence must be presented that supports the observance and importance of the event.
"Generally, he succeeds. Philip Augustus was king of France 1180-1191; and in 1186, the five planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn – were in a close conjunction, a cluster of only 6° at sunset; and we have a coin of Philip Augustus with five pellets in the center of the obverse. Faintich does this repeatedly for eclipses of the sun and moon, comets, and conjunctions." (The Mich-Matist (Vol XLVI No. 4, Autumn 2010)
Astronomy and numismatics are both fields where accomplished amateurs contribute alongside academic professionals. This book intersects both studies. Correlating celestial events with terrestrial history may be the best path for reconciling the calendars of the past. In other times and places New Year’s Day might have been what we call Halloween, or Christmas, or Easter. In the 16th century, “April Fool’s” were behind the times, though May Day had been New Years elsewhere and elsewhen. Midsummer’s Day is actually the Solstice, not August 4 (Walpurgis Night). So, when medieval women and men recorded their lives in diaries, we can too easily misunderstand their statements of time. Comparing their skies with their coins can help us bring everything into alignment. That is just one potential use for this overlooked but significant work.