Collecting the Coins of France
by Ralph Heymsfeld
French coinage spans about 2500 years, beginning with the coins of Greek Colonies and the Celtic Gauls, and continuing largely uninterrupted to the present day. Although such a vast expanse of time might seem overwhelming, it also creates a wealth of numismatic opportunities. There are many periods that have not yet been fully researched, and there are fascinating areas for specialization. While the coins of France include some of the world's great rarities there are also opportunities to build affordable collections of historical significance.
For collectors, several aspects of French coins distinguish the field. The connection to the history of Western civilization is compelling. The Roman Empire, the emergence of Christianity, medieval feudalism and the rise of kingdoms, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the World Wars of the 20th century, and the advent of the European Union are just a few highlights of the historical connections that can be traced through French coinage. Also, the artistry of French coins can be quite high. During the time of the Louis Kings and the Ancien Regime, for example, coins and medals were used to convey royal prestige and the engraving quality was comparable to that of sculpture.
Of particular interest for many is the treasure trove of markings found in the early modern era. In 17th-19th century France there were several dozen operating mints. In addition to the relatively customary markings to indicate the striking date and mint, there were marks for the Engraver General, the Mint Director, and the local engraver. Known as privy marks, these additional markings take the form of a vast array of small icons - examples include crosses, crescents, hearts, diamonds, towers, dogs and birds. In addition to general interest, study of the privy markings is often necessary to properly identify a coin. Although France still uses iconic markings, in contemporary coinage they are limited to a simple few.
Examples of privy marks. From left:
Heron mark of Jean Dupeyron de la Coste II, director Paris Mint 1784-91
Lyre mark of Francois Bernier, local engraver Paris Mint 1774-93
Leopard mark of Alexandre Roettiers de Montaleau, director Paris Mint 1791-93
Ancient Pre-Roman Greek and Celtic Coinage
People have lived in what is present day France since long before the beginnings of recorded history.
France enters the written record in the Iron Age. It was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Gaul. Of course, the political and geographical designations are not the same as today. Gaul covered much of modern day France, as well as Belgium and parts of Germany and Italy. The Gauls were one of three groups living in the region, the others being the Aquitani and the Belgae. They were a Celtic people and spoke the Gaulish language.
The first coins to be used in Gaul were produced about 500 BC by Greek colonists who had settled along the Mediterranean coast and founded the city of Massalia - present day Marseille. These coins are small silver pieces similar to other contemporary Greek coinage. At about the fourth century BC the first silver obols and drachm from Massalia are seen in Gaul. The Greek terms of obol and drachm refer to both coins and units of weight. There are six obols to a drachm which weighs about 4.3 grams. Over the next few centuries Greek coins circulated widely throughout Gaul. Native Celtic groups also began minting their own coinage during this time, much of which shows the Greek influence to a greater or lesser extent. Of particular significance was the influence of the coins of Philip II of Macedon who reigned 359–336 BC. Mercenaries who fought for Philip II brought home gold staters (about 28 drachm) and those coins were imitated throughout Gaul as they were in other nearby ancient regions.
Ancient Roman Era
In the centuries leading up to the first millennium, Roman domination in Gaul would ebb and flow, but over time steadily grew by annexation and conquest. With Julius Caesar's victory in 52 BC at the Battle of Alesia all of Gaul came under the rule of the Roman Republic. Although Roman coins and local imitations had gradually been encroaching on Gaul, Caesar's conquest marks an obvious turning point. Under Roman rule, local gold production was stopped entirely, although local silver and bronze production continued. The Romans dispersed the Gauls in an effort to prevent the emergence of resistance. A significant cultural development during this time was the replacement of the Gaulish language with Vulgar Latin. This linguistic transformation can be seen in the appearance of Latin on the local coins.
Caesar Augustus who reigned 31 BC - 14 AD established the first Roman mints in Gaul. By the reign of Vespasian 69-79, and for the ensuing centuries until Roman influence waned in the fifth century, the coins of Gaul and the coins of Rome would be one and the same. All told, coin production in Gaul during Roman rule was not particularly extensive, and there were gaps of hundreds of years where no official coins were struck locally but were instead imported from the mint at Rome. Lugdunum and Arelate were the two official Roman mints in Gaul. There were also local mints that would appear from time to time to produce civic coinage, typically during times of shortage or war.
The workhorse of the Roman system of currency was the denarius, a small silver coin. At about the time of Augustus there were 25 denarii to a Gold aureus. There was also a bronze coin called an as worth 1/16 of a denarius. It would be impossible to summarize in any meaningful way the relative valuation of coins during Roman influence in Gaul. The relationships between coins changed over time, and various denominations came and went. The debasement of coinage was significant, with the precious metal content of Roman coins in a state of slow, steady decline. When the denarius first appeared in the third century BC it contained about 4.5 grams silver; by the third century the silver content was roughly 3 grams. In the early fourth century the 4.5 gram gold solidus replaced the aureus and Romans also began minting the tremissis which equaled one-third of a solidus.
As the power of the Roman Empire waned, it became increasingly difficult for the Romans to control and protect Gaul. During this period Gaul saw various barbarian raids from Germanic and other neighboring tribes. Roman coins were still were in common use, but barbarian tribes such as the Visigoths and the Burgundians began to circulate their own coins that were imitations of Roman coins.
At the end of the fifth century, Rome essentially abandoned Gaul and the age of the Frankish kingdoms began. For the next 500 years the Frankish kingdoms would rule the region with various levels of cohesion. The transition from Roman coinage as the standard was remarkably slow by modern standards. King Theodebert I (534-48), a member of the Merovingian dynasty, issued a gold solidus that while still modeled on the Roman, was notable because it used his name not the emperor's. By the end of the Merovingian dynasty in the eighth century a new system of currency had been established based on the silver denier. There were 12 denier to a sou, and 20 sou to the livre.
The apex of Frankish influence was seen in the Carolingian dynasty under Charlemagne (768-814) who was crowned Emperor of the Romans in 800 by Pope Leo III. The era of Carolingian rule saw the gradual development of governmental institutions and a relationship between kings, princes and vassals and that would shape French history. The Carolingian's ushered in significant monetary reform. Charlemagne's father, Pepin the Short (751-68), asserted royal authority over coin production taking over mints in the kingdom and closing private mints. Charlemagne took further control, reforming the currency including increasing the weight of the denier. Charlemagne's coins had his name and a cross. Some later coins had a profile and showed a temple. Carolingian coinage accomplished a measure of standardization, and coins based on Charlemagne's designs were produced for generations in numerous mints throughout Europe.
In 987 Hugh Capet was elected King of the Franks, and the House of Capet would rule France until 1337. The early Capetian period is characterized as being highly decentralized with the princes throughout the kingdom having power relatively equal to that of the king. Accordingly, during the tenth to twelfth centuries the trend toward royal centralization and standardization in coinage reversed itself and lesser authorities throughout the kingdom resumed coin production. These centuries are generally referred to as the age of feudal coinage, and the time is rich with the issues of dukes, counts, abbots and bishops which circulated along with royal coins. The denier remained the standard, but the designs of individual coins varied. Perhaps more importantly, the value of coins across the kingdom was referred at this time with some deniers being worth three and four times that of other deniers.
With the later Capetians slowly reasserting royal authority, it was under Phillip II Augustus (1180-1223) that royal coinage regained center stage. The denier parisis and denier tournois, both designs minted under Capetian authority, became the dominant circulating currency. Under the reign of Saint Louis IX (1126-70), France is said to have fully emerged as a centralized kingdom. With Saint Louis, only royal coins were valid throughout the kingdom and feudal coins were restricted to local usage. Saint Louis introduced the gros tournois, a large silver coin worth 12 denier. In a significant development of the late Capetian period, the fourteenth century saw gold reintroduced as circulating currency with the appearance of the gold agnel and the gold ecu.
The Capetian line expired in 1328 when Charles IV died with no clear heir to the throne. What followed was a period of strife, collectively known as the 100 Years War, which was actually a series of wars with neighboring England, accompanied by civil wars at home and the Black Plague. French Nationalism appears during the 100 Years War embodied in Joan of Arc who in 1429 inspired troops to victory after receiving religious visions telling her to drive the English from Orleans.
The political and social instability in France was reflected in coinage. Debasement of silver coins with copper was common, resulting in what came to be known as black money. The weakened position of the monarchy allowed not only competing regional coinage to circulate, but English coinage as well. Known as Anglo-Gallic coins, these coins were minted by English nobles throughout the medieval period for their French dominions. Anglo-Gallic coins were seen as early the twelfth century when Richard I The Lionhearted, Duke of Aquitaine (1172-85), King of England (1189-1199) issued coins for his French duchy. However it was during the 100 Years War that Henry V (1413-1422) and Henry VI (1422-1461) struck coins as the kings of France.
A footnote to the coins of the 100 Years War is the appearance of the first gold franc in 1360, issued to mark the release from prison of John II who had been held by the English for four years after being captured at the Battle of Poitiers. The franc would circulate until 1380 and then would not reappear in French coinage until a silver franc was minted in 1575.
The French Renaissance and the Ancien Regime
Ancien Regime refers to a period between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, or more specifically between the 100 Years War and the French Revolution. The France that emerged from the 100 Years War had evolved socially and politically. A sense of French identity was developing and France for the first time had a standing army. The monarchy was significantly strengthened and a complex aristocracy was taking shape.
Under Charles VIII (1483-98) the Renaissance which had first taken root in Italy arrived in France. As it was throughout Europe, the French Renaissance was characterized by transformations in architecture, literature, painting, sculpture and the sciences, as well as a new age of social norms and political philosophies.
French coins of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are clearly products of the Renaissance. The level of artistry seen in engraving work was significantly elevated in comparison to previous centuries. Portraits were becoming the norm and were increasingly well executed. Mechanized production methods gradually replaced hand striking. Dates begin to be included in designs and a mint mark system of single letters replaced a system of secret marks.
Coins of the Ancien Regime include the silver teston worth 10 sou, the 1/4 ecu worth 15 sou, and the silver franc worth 20 sou. The first copper coinage in modern France was produced by Henri III (1574-89) who struck doubles and deniers tournois made from pure copper. French currency underwent a significant reform in 1640 with the issuance of the gold louis d'or worth 10 livres and the silver ecu worth 60 sou. The louis d'or and the ecu would be the basis of the coinage system until the fall of the monarchy in the late eighteenth century.
The French Revolution and the Rise of Napoleon
The French Revolution (1789-98) embodied one of the most rapid and profound social upheavals in history in which the monarchy which had ruled France for centuries collapsed in just a few years. The period saw riots and the storming of the Bastille, governments forming and falling in rapid succession, and the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Coins of the Revolution reflect the rapidity of change. Originally, as France experimented with a constitutional monarchy, Louis XVI's portrait remained on coins but the royal coat of arms on the reverse was replaced with the iconic Spirit of France. In 1792 the Republic was established and in 1793 Louis was executed. New currency without Louis portrait was hastily brought into circulation in 1793, and coins featuring a woman representing liberty appeared in 1795. The Ancien Regime monetary system based on the sou was replaced by a decimal system in which 100 centimes equals one franc. Copper one, five and ten centime pieces of the time reflect this decimal system.
Dating on the coins of the Republic can be confusing for new collectors. It is based on the establishment of the Republic in 1792, with 1792-93 referred to as year one. The first Republican coinage wasn't struck until the second year, 1793-4. As an example of Republican dating, a coin inscribed L'AN '7 would have been struck in the seventh year of the Republic, 1798-9.
Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in a coup d'etat in 1799 and was proclaimed Napoleon I Emperor of The French by the French Senate in 1804. Napoleon put in place a series of coins featuring his portrait. Napoleon's coinage was based on the decimal system, introducing a number of denominations that were fractions and multiples of the franc. There were silver quarter, half, one, two and five francs and gold 20 and 40 franc pieces.
The Nineteenth Century
The French political landscape of the nineteenth century was characterized by by war, revolution and regime change. The empire established by Napoleon I, which would ultimately be known as the First Empire, was followed by the Bourbon Restoration in 1815 with Louis XVIII returned to the throne. The July Revolution of 1830 continued monarchy but saw power transferred from the House of Bourbon to the House of Orleans. A revolution in 1848 led to the establishing of the Second Republic which governed France briefly until an 1852 coup by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (who then became Napoleon III) began the Second Empire. Finally, collapse of the Second Empire in 1870 in the shadow of the Franco-Prussian War resulted in the formation of the Third Republic which would govern France until 1940.
Despite this environment of constant flux, the monetary system which solidified under Napoleon I was not only relatively stable through the century, but flourished as a standard medium of exchange across the industrializing European nations. Imagery and mottos on the coins reflected the government of the moment, be that royal, revolutionary, or imperial. Coats of arms would be replaced by laurels; monarchs and emperors would yield to the Spirit of France and liberty. However, the decimal denominations remained in place. Napoleon III introduced additional denominations including a 100 franc gold piece.
In 1865 France, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland formed the Latin Monetary Union which was soon joined by a number of other neighboring countries. Predating the Euro by more than a century, the LMU was an attempt to establish a standardized European currency. The strategy of the LMU was that each country would retain its individual currencies, but that the unit of exchange would be set to to 4.5 grams silver and 0.290322 grams gold - a ratio of 15.5 to 1. Under this system a Greek drachma equaled a French franc equaled a Spanish pesata etc. The union facilitated improved trade and currency exchange, and France's leadership in the founding of the LMU reinforced its role as an economic power. The Union was modestly successful for a time but faced many challenges not the least of which was maintaining the rigid ratio of gold to silver. Ultimately the LMU dissolved in 1927.
The first half of the twentieth century encompasses historical events that will be familiar to most readers - a global depression bracketed by two world wars. During these years, the use of paper money for higher denominations became the norm as did the use of nickel, cupro-nickel, and ultimately aluminum. Inflationary pressures were significant in the years following World War II, and in 1961 French currency was revalued at a ratio of 100:1 with one new franc equal to 100 old francs. Old francs continued to circulate but were valued at a centime. Modern times also saw consolidation of French coin production. In the eighteenth century France had more than 30 operating mints, by the end of the nineteenth century on Paris, Bordeaux and Strasburg were still in operation, and today only Paris.
In 2002 France joined with other eurozone nations of the European Union and adopted the euro as the standard currency. The euro is a decimal system with 100 cents to the euro. In France the term centime continues. Circulating euro coins are issued in denominations from one cent to two euros. All circulating euro coins have a common side which appears on coins from all nations, and a national side unique to the issuing country.
Prominent recurring images on modern French coins include Marianne and the Sower, two feminine symbols of liberty, Hercules representing strength, and the rooster a symbol of the French nation. As is common with other countries, France has issued a number of commemorative coins during the modern era, targeted toward collectors and frequently struck from precious metal. France also produces precious metal bullion coins intended primarily as an investment vehicle.
About the Author: Ralph Heymsfeld is a prolific writer and an avid hobbyist. Connect with Ralph on LinkedIn. You can find more of Ralph's writing on his website at ralph.heymsfeld.com