There is a fascinating series of Viking coins to do with East Anglia, the so called Edmund Memorial coinage, issued by the Vikings to celebrate St Edmund. The surprising thing is that the coins were issued less than 30 years after the Danes had killed him. I may return to this subject at a later date, but the coins I wish to consider now date from a little later, and come from a bit further north. I say coins, but there is one coin in particular I am interested in, one that says on it “For he has done marvellous things” – mirabilia fecit in Latin.
This is an overtly religious message, being a quotation from the second line of the 98th psalm. To find anything similar we must look not to the Anglo-Saxon coinage of the south of Britain but to Continental Europe. Among these coins it is possible to find religious texts used on coins in a broadly similar way. Less than half a century before minting this mirabilia fecit coin the Vikings had been a race of Pagan seafarers using hack-silver as a means of exchange, not coinage at all. Hack-silver was weighed and marked silver bullion; the use of coin except as a form of bullion was quite foreign to them. To have changed so completely, not only in religious belief but also developing a sophisticated approach to coinage was a remarkable transformation. We should, however, look more deeply into the religious iconography of contemporary Viking coins.
When we examine the symbols used on much of the Viking coinage we are immediately struck by the prevalence of warlike pagan motifs. Ravens spread their wings, and Thor’s hammer makes a frequent appearance. The raven was the bird of war and Thors hammer was a weapon. Axes and swords remind us of the bloodthirsty nature of the continuing Viking culture, even if it was nominally now Christian. All these symbols are survivals from a heathen past. None, with the possible exception St Michael’s sword (used solely against Satan) would have appeared on the more authentically Christian Anglo-Saxon coinage. What can we learn from this in respect of the Viking coin bearing those words from a psalm?
We cannot be sure of the exact form the rest of psalm took, whether it was that of the Roman Missal or of St Jerome’s second Revision; at least I cannot be sure, although someone with a greater knowledge of tenth century religious texts than I might have a good idea. The difference between the two versions is not great, although the stress can be different. For my present purpose I will assume that the Authorised Version gives a good translation of the psalm as it would have been known to the Viking moneyers.
As we read through the psalm a number of things strike us as having a relevance to Viking culture. For a start there is a reference to the Lord’s strong right arm- the sword bearing arm the Viking would immediately (and rightly) assume. For with his right hand he “hath gotten him the victory”. Then we move on to the power of the great waters, the sea roaring and the floods clapping their hands together. It is the perfect psalm for a race of warlike seafarers, which is a phrase I have already used to describe the Viking people.
Am I right about the coin with mirablia fecit inscribed upon it? With so little to go on it is impossible to be sure. We cannot now ask Dr Mark Blackburn, the former Keeper of Coins at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He recently died of cancer aged only 58. I never met him although we had an interesting exchange of emails a few years ago. He was a great expert on Viking coinage.
I have written aother piece on Viking Coins. This has particular reference to the St Edmund Memorial Coinage. Click on the 5th December 2011.
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