For about 300 years, these small silver coins, nominally worth half a penny were an important medium of daily commerce in central Europe. They originated in the town of Hall in Swabia and were therefore called Häller (Haeller or Heller).
In response to an advertisement from my longtime friends at Liberty Coin Service of East Lansing, I bought 12 medieval hellers to give out at Christmas. The 2x2 inserts from Liberty Coins say, “Silver Hand heller / City of Hall / 1189-1500.” Denied access to the University of Texas libraries because of Covid-19, I went looking online for references and found very little information.
|Five typical häller. |
Hands top center and bottom left.
The American Numismatic Society lists about two dozen, giving them all the same general descriptions, although their fabrics—diameter, weight, fineness—speak of historical complexity. The attributions depend on who worked the coins when they were donated to the ANS. The ones acquisitioned in 1927 are dated 1240-1437; the acquisitions of 1953 are dated 1300-1400. German haeller are catalogued from Württembergische Münz- und Medaillenkunde by Christian Binder (Stuttgart, 1846) because the free city of Hall in Swabia was entered into the Württemberg hegemony in 1802.
The Bohemian heller are listed in Beschreibung der sammlung böhmischer münzen und medaillen originally catalogued by Max Donebauer and then privately published by Eduard Fiala; Prague, 1888-1889. In each case, all häller are given the same catalog numbers. Clearly, the small half-pennies, lacking legends or inscriptions, easily with no mint control marks—little crosses or mullions, stars, etc.—are difficult to date or place. The 24 coins catalogued with pictures range in weight from 0.3 to 0.817 grams: median 0.525; modes 0.52 and 0.53; mean 0.546. The diameters all seem within 16.5 to 17.5 mm. Some of the coins are torn in the fields, a common flaw among Medieval coins which tended to be larger rather than thicker.
|Civic Coat of Arms|
The American Numismatic Association provides even less data. The ANA Numismatist has one entry for “Hall am Kocher.” (The river is often an identifier in German, for instance, to differentiate Frankfurt-am-Rhein from Frankfurt-am-Main). That citation is in an article from February 1961 by Dr. John Davenport: “European States Issuing Dollar Size Coins” clearly, not about the half-penny. More recently, Usula Kampmann’s “Around the World” column for September 2020 centered on the coins of Schwäbische Hall. Unfortunately, it was as light as the coin itself on facts. She said only that the heller was originally worth half a pfennig.
I attribute them to the rise of Friedrich Barbarossa. Whether the western half of the Roman empire actually “fell” or “collapsed” can be debated. Clearly, many aspects of society had changed slowly, almost imperceptibly one generation after another. And just as slowly, the Holy Roman Empire became a new cultural context. Low points of chaos punctuated a general trend toward production and trade, technology, literacy, art, and (ultimately) science.
Friedrich, the duke of Swabia, was the son of two powerful local families. Born in 1122, he died in 1190 on a Crusade. Friedrich inherited the title of duke of Swabia. Hall’s position as a center of exchange dated back to the salt trade of the Celts.
Friedrich consolidated his central European realms and was crowned a king in 1152 and then Holy Roman Emperor in 1155. During his wars of expansion, Italians gave him the soubriquet “Barbarossa.” In his lifetime, he increased the royal mints from two to 28.
Numismatists can often distinguish the genuine English pennies of good sterling silver (0.925 fine) from copies made elsewhere, such as the Papacy, which were also of sterling silver. To my knowledge, no one has attempted this for the haeller. The fact is that like English pennies, gold florins, and other popular issues, the haeller could have been copied in many places and likely were. That fact speaks to a fundamental principle of economics: trade crosses borders. As long as the coins were good, they were accepted prima facie.
By our modern measures, the nominal häller weighed 0.546 grams and were 0.545 pure silver. In their time, they were valued against the standard Köln (Cologne) mark which at 233.8 grams modern was about half a medieval (not ancient) Roman pound. Each unze was divided in to 32 pfennig. The haeller was accepted as half a pfennig or a twelfth of a schilling.
The fact that it was debased to just over 50% pure is the reason why it survived in daily commerce: it had more utility as a coin in local trade, wherever it was used, rather than being exported for exotic goods.
|(Both images Wikimedia Commons)|
Into modern times, the word “heller” continued as a generic term for any small coin, whether or not it was a lawful denomination as a fraction, for example, of a silver thaler (“dollar”). The currency reform of Austria-Hungary in 1892 re-established the heller as 1/100 of a corona in Austria. (The Hungarian korona was divided into 100 filler.) Germany used the heller as a fraction (1/100) of a colonial East African rupie on the Indian standard of 1 rupee = 2 UK sterling shillings. Therefore the rupie and rupee were about the same as 50 cents US silver of the time. So, the East African heller was about the same as half a US cent. The heller denomination was last struck by the former Czechoslovakia up to 1993. The separate Czech and Slovak republics kept the denomination – Czech plural haléřů; Slovak plural haliers.
In German, anything from the town of Hall would be a häller. The plural is the same word, rather than hällerer or hällern or hälleren. (In English we still have the archaic deer not “deers” for a plural.) The umlaut double-dots are a medieval convention to represent a little e over the a to show the vowel shift upward. So häller becames haeller and then heller.
I now wish that I had seen earlier this most excellent write-up Common Medieval Coins: Info Thread by Orielensis (Apr 23, 2019) on CoinTalk here:
“Frederick I Barbarossa and Political Legitimacy,” poster by Brian Sebetic; Faculty Mentor: Dr. Monique O’Connell; Wake Forest University online at http://history.wfu.edu/wp-content/uploads/Poster-Barbarossa-Brian-Sebetic.pdf
Previously on Necessary Facts