Overview of the monetary history of Belgium

Coins appeared in Asia Minor in the 6th century BC [1] and their use expanded rapidly throughout the entire Greek and Persian civilisation [2] before being adopted by the Romans. Their use spread to the Celtic people of Central and Western Europe in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC through commercial contacts and the massive recruitment of Celtic mercenaries by the Greek cities.  The people of Central Europe imitated the Greek coins of Macedonia and Thrace, following the Danube trade route. The people of Gaul, and later Brittany, developed their own coinage, at first inspired by Greek and Roman coins, but very soon the coins were issued in their own typical artistic style.

[1]

[2]

In the territories of Ancient Belgium, the most important coinages were those of the Ambiani, Nervii [3], Treviri and Bellovaci, composed of gold staters, but also of silver coins (mainly quinarii) and bronzes. The latter coins were struck or cast, the cast ones being called potins. Thus, at the time of the Roman conquest, Gaul had at its disposal a complex and well developed monetary system. Furthermore the Celts preserved their particular coinage for decades after the conquest of Gaul. It was only from the reign of Nero (54-68) that the coins of the Roman emperors, especially those struck in Lyon, supplanted the Celtic coins that were circulating at that time. From then on, and for several centuries, the lands that make up modern Belgium were under  Roman domination and influence, which is shown by the many discoveries of Roman coins in our country.

[3]

[4]

Roman coinage was also trimetallic : the coins in circulation were the aureus in gold [4], the denarius in silver, the sestertius and its subdivisions (dupondius, as, semis, quadrans) in bronze. An aureus was valued at 25 denarii or 100 sestertii. This simple system was maintained from the 1st up to the 3rd century, but the big economic and political crisis in the 3rd century put an end to it. The many usurpations and invasions which followed afterwards, were the reason for a reform in depth of the empire under Diocletian (284-305), setting up the Tetrarchy, and later under Constantine I (307-337). Among the numerous economic reforms, the one related to money had an important impact since it influenced the economic and monetary history of Europe for many centuries. In that period the gold solidus (4,53 g) was introduced (which became in French sou and is still used nowadays in the current language), struck at 72 to the Roman pound (326 g) and of pure gold. It was issued, without any debasement or loss of weight, until the 8th century in Western Europe and up to the 11th century in the Byzantine empire. Treves (or Trier), very well known in the Roman world, was a very important mint in that period and produced the bulk of the circulating coins in our lands. It was closed in the 5th century as the result of the invasions of the barbarian peoples, which finally caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the end of monetary issues.

[5]

[6]

At first the barbarian kings did not dare to strike coins in their own name. As a first step they imitated the coins of the last Roman emperors, and later those of the Byzantine emperors. Very soon bronze and silver coins completely disappeared from circulation. Only a small gold coin continued to be struck, the tremissis or one third of a solidus [5]. It was only in the 2nd half of the 7th century that the silver denarius was struck again in the Merovingian kingdom. It was then a small silver coin in a barbarian style. The Carolingians continued striking them but then Charlemagne deeply reformed the coinage of his empire. After the re-organisation of the system of weights and measures, by creating the Carolingian pound (408 g), he fixed the mass of the denier at 240 to the pound (1,70 g), 12 deniers valued at one shilling, 20 shillings valued at one pound. This system of account was used in Europe till the end of the Old Regime and until recently in Great Britain. The appearance of the Carolingian denarius also underwent a major transformation. The small rough silver coin became a larger and thinner coin, bearing the name of the sovereign on the obverse and the name of the mint on the reverse [6]. The Christian cross became the dominant symbol often associated with the royal monogram. The Carolingian denarius was the only coin struck in Western Europe during the high medieval period.

From the 10th century, after the decline of the Carolingian kingdoms and the great decentralisation of power, the right to mint money, likes several other royal rights, was progressively grabbed by the new feudal lords. A great number of aristocrats, dukes, bishops and even abbeys, were conceded the right to strike their own coins. In our lands, the first feudal lord to strike coins in his name was the mighty count of Flanders, at the end of the 10th century, followed, from the beginning of the 11th century, by the counts of Louvain and the bishops of Liège. All the great feudal lords soon had their own mint. The silver denier was still the only coin struck, but a large variety of types existed, each lord choosing his own. In the 12th-13th centuries, the mass of the small denier of Flanders [7] was less than half a gram, while the alloy of the French deniers sometimes reached only 0.250.

[7]

[8]

The economic growth of the 12th-13th centuries and the development of cities had evident consequences on the monetary circulation. The devaluated denier was no longer sufficient for the increasing transactions. In 1266 the French king Louis IX created a new silver coin, the gros tournois which became very popular and was rapidly imitated by numerous feudal lords in our lands [8]. Gold coins were struck again. They re-appeared in Italy, in the middle of the 13th century in Florence (where the florin was struck), and in Genoa and Venice (where the ducat was struck). The king of France issued later the gold ecu. From 1330, the princes in the Netherlands started to strike their own gold coins, imitating the florins of Florence and the ecus in France. Later on they struck a large number of coins in gold, silver and billon (a silver-copper alloy), imitating several types of foreign coins or creating their own national types. The artistic quality of the coinage of that period is remarkable [9].

[9]

The monetary circulation became particularly complex because many different coins were in circulation. It is only under the governement of the dukes of Burgundy that was brought a remedy to this situation. Having unified the Netherlands under his authority Philip le Bon decided in 1433 to introduce a common coinage in order to replace the different feudal coinages which hampered the economic rise and the commercial transactions. From that period on, our countries had no more than one coinage, with a few exceptions, the main one being the bishopric of Liège that maintained its independance until 1792.

[10]

The coinage of the dukes of Burgundy are typical of the end of the Middle Ages. The coins are struck on thin blanks, in a very nice late gothic style. The feudal arms and emblems occupy the most important place [10]. Their gold coins are particularly spectacular and represent a large variety of types.

With the Renaissance, the art of portrait reappeared on coins and medals. Also, the discovery of rich silver mines in Central Europe and in the New World caused important changes in the production of silver coins. The medieval coins, thin and light, were replaced by heavier coins struck on thicker blanks. In the south of the Netherlands, the first coin of that type was the florin in silver of Charles V, named « florin Karolus », struck ca. 1540 [11]. But the gold coins issued by Charles V (real, florin and ecu) remained of medieval tradition. During the reign of Philip II, the portrait of the king of Spain appeared on his coins.

[11]

This period is particularly interesting due to the troubles in the Netherlands which were in revolt against Spanish rule. The government was exercised by the States General which ordered the issue of new coins, still with the name and titles of Philip II, though of a modified type. When the Spanish army started to reconquer the rebel territories, several important towns were successively besieged (Maastricht, Brussels, Antwerp, Tournay…), which were obliged to issue necessity coins to meet their needs. After the reign of Philip II, silver coins kept the same characteristics up to the end of the 18th century: a portrait on the obverse and the arms on the reverse. The large silver coin (the ecu or daalder under Philip II and, afterwards, the ducaton and patagon) became the basis of a system that included many subdivisions in silver, billon and copper. The main gold coin of that period was the double sovereign, introduced during the reign of the archdukes Albert and Isabella, which continued to be struck until the end of Austrian rule. Silver coins were exceptionally struck on thicker blanks of double, triple and even quadruple weight, in order to be offered as presents to dignitaries. These coins are called « piéforts » [12]. The artistic quality of the portraits on the coins of the 17th century is absolutely remarkable.

[12]

An important innovation took place during the reign of Charles II (1665-1700). Until then all the coins were hammered according to the old privileges that were granted to the minters, forbidding the use of machines for striking coins. That prohibition was abolished at the end of the 17th century, resulting in the production of much more regular coins. The die-cutting was entrusted to very talented engravers, such as the Roettiers in the late 17th and the early 18th century, or Théodore van Berckel at the end of the 18th century. We owe some of the finest coins of that period to them.

[13]

The revolution of 1790 against the rule of Joseph II also had effects on the coinage. Anxious to proclaim their independence, the United Belgian States issued new gold and silver coins with the Belgian lion as the new type [13]. We touch there one of the fundamental aspects of the numismatics of the Old Regime. In times when communications were bad and a large majority of the population had received no education, coins were a fantastic vehicle of propaganda. They circulated everywhere and were used in large numbers. The choices of the represented types were therefore very important.

[14]

[15]

The French occupation, at the end of the 18th and early in the 19th century, marked the end of the Old Regime in our lands. No coins were struck during that period. It is only after the kingdom of the Netherlands was established that the mint of Brussels was reopened. When Belgium became independent in 1831, the authorities decided to strike money according to the French system and made the franc, created at the French Revolution, its national coin unit. Belgium adhered to the Latin Union, which included, among others, France, Italy and Spain. The members of this union had a common monetary system which was maintained throughout the 19th century. One French or Belgian franc was equivalent to one lira or one peseta. In other words, it was the euro before its birth ! The principal coins were the 5 francs in silver [14] and the 20 francs in gold [15]. The First World War brought an end to the production of gold coins (the last Belgian gold coin is the 20 francs 1914). After the war, inflation and different economic crises made it impossible to maintain a coinage with precious metals. In the years 1920-1930 an abundant coinage in nickel was introduced, but under Leopold III that was abandoned too.

Illustrations

[1] Kingdom of Lydia, stater, ca. 505-500 BC, Sardes.
[2] Kings of Macedon, Alexander III the Great (336-323), tetradrachm.
[3] Northern Gaul, Nervii, stater, 58-57 BC.
[4] Tiberius (14-37), aureus, 36-37, Lugdunum (Lyon).
[5] Merovingians, tremissis, ca. 640, Huy.
[6] Carolingians, Charles the Bald (840-877), denier, 864-877, Bruges.
[7] Flanders, petit denier, 1255-1259, Ghent.
[8] Brabant, Jean III (1312-1355), gros au châtel brabançon, May 1337, Antwerp.
[9] Flanders, Louis of Male (1346-1384), vieil heaume d’or, 1367-1369, Ghent.
[10] Flanders, Philip the Handsome (1482-1506), toison d’or, Bruges.
[11] Brabant, Charles V (1506-1555), silver florin Karolus, Antwerp.
[12] Brabant, Albert and Isabella (1598-1621), ducaton 1618, Antwerp. Double weight.
[13] Brabant, United Belgian States, florin, 1790, Brussels.
[14] Belgium, Leopold I (1831-1865), 5 francs 1832.
[15] Belgium, Leopold II (1865-1909), 20 francs 1876.

Coins, medals, gold, silver, expertise, public auctions

Opening hours

Monday-Friday: 9am-1pm & 1.45pm-5.30pm (appointments only).