Medieval Gold Florin, Suffolk

front and back of a gold florin

This is a Medieval gold Florin struck by the Republic of Florence between AD 1285 and 1290, found recently in Suffolk.

The coin depicts on the obverse a fleur-de-lis, which is the symbol of Florence, surrounded by the legend +FLOR-ENTIA. The reverse bears the standing figure of the city’s patron, St John the Baptiste, bearded and nimbate, wearing a hair shirt and holding a ferula; the legend reads S IOHA-NNES B. The mint mark of the so-called Duomo at the end of the reverse legend and other stylistic elements have helped to date the coin.

The mint of Florence in the later Middle Ages was among the more important mints in Italy, if not in all of Europe, and unlike many others, it was always administered entirely by the state. In fact, most rulers in Europe contracted administrators to run their mints.

The first coin of this type was introduced in Florence in AD 1252 during the turbulent period of clashes between Guelphs and Ghibellines in the Italian city-states of central and northern Italy. These two factions were opposing each other, supporting the Pope (Guelphs, in Italian translates in Guelfi), and the Holy Roman Emperor (Ghibellines, in Italian being Ghibellini) after the Investiture Controversy, which began in AD 1075. It is significant that the three allied Guelf cities of Lucca, Genoa and Florence started to issue gold coins almost in the same period, possibly following an alliance agreement against the Ghibelline city of Pisa; although the incomplete records of the agreement does not mention such unified gold coinage plan.

During the 1st half of the 13th century, Florence and other commercially oriented cities accumulated stockpiles of gold because differences in the gold-silver ratio between Europe and North Africa made it profitable for European merchants to export silver and, in effect, trade it for sub-Saharan gold. The death of Frederick II afforded Florence and Genoa the opportunity to convert those stockpiles into coin. Frederick had been striking his own gold coins called augustali since AD 1231 in Brindisi and Messina. He might have regarded the introduction of any gold coins, such as the Florentine gold florin or the Genoese gold genovino, as a direct challenge not only to his augustale but also to his rule. His death and the uncertain succession to his throne made it possible for other cities already exercising minting rights to extend production to gold coins, which also enabled them to demonstrate their political and institutional autonomy from imperial authority.

Initially, the florin was not so popular, probably because the Florentine government set the exchange of the florin against the silver at a fixed rate. However, certainly by about AD 1270 its value was allowed to float shadowing the market rate, making the coin more attractive.

The earliest written reference to gold florins in English records is around AD 1285, which roughly coincides with Edward I’s clampdown on foreign coin imports into England; the measure obliged foreigners to exchange their currency for English sterling at the main points of entry such as Dover.

A special thanks to Dr Day and Dr De Benetti for dating the coin and providing essential sources for the discussion.

View the full record on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database

Thank you to the finder for allowing this object to be featured.

This find was recorded by the Suffolk Finds Recording Team, supported by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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