A Hansa Thaler
By: Marc Bink
This month marks the final installment of a series of articles on medieval German Thalers. So in honour of that, I’ve decided to cover a Thaler from my home town of Luebeck, a place which most readers probably have never even heard of. I’ve been collecting coins from Luebeck for about 8 years now, and they are few and far between, and tend to be pretty expensive. Some readers who have come to our bi-annual Money Shows probably have seen my display on the coins of Luebeck, or have been a captive audience to one of my presentations on Luebeck at one of our meetings. To those, I apologize; I’ll try and keep it short and sweet!
Extensively rebuilt after being almost destroyed in 1942, St. Mary’s cathedral is the largest example of the North German Gothic style. It took its current form in around 1350 and is considered the “city church”. There are 4 other cathedrals of similar or lesser size in Luebeck, all of them founded and erected in the same era, from 1180 to 1380.
Luebeck is a city in northern Germany situated on the Baltic coast, about 40 km north-east of Hamburg. It is built on an island that is surrounded by two rivers which flow out into the Baltic, providing a naturally protected harbour. It was founded in 1159 by Henry the Lion of Saxony, who burned down an existing Slavic settlement called Luibice that had existed on the same site. By 1181, the new town of Luebeck was granted Imperial Minting rights and had started making its own coinage. These first coins were bracteates, simple one-sided thin silver coins that had an impression punched through so that it was visible on either side. Most of these small penny sized coins circulated locally and not many survive in any kind of condition today. In about 1353, Luebeck started minting a newer more modern style “Civic coinage”, which featured Luebeck’s coat of arms of a double-headed eagle on one side, and a cross much like an English penny on the other. The bracteates started disappearing after that point, and the coinage style matured and grew more sophisticated as Luebeck’s wealth increased.
This is probably what many a trader saw when entering the Luebeck harbour.
Woodcut, circa 1450.
The reason why Luebeck grew wealthy was because they had formed a partnership with a number of other north German cities, called the “Hansa”. (German for “guild”.) The Hansa was created primarily out of a need to keep the Vikings in Denmark in check. Luebeck became the base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia and therefore, became the leading city in the league, and was referred to as the “Queen of the Hansa”. This Hanseatic League remained the dominant trading conglomerate from about 1267 until it disbanded or fell apart in the 16th century. Essentially, the Hansa traded between England, Germany, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and up as far east as Russia. Each member of the League furnished ships and arms to each other, and were bound to help each other out if attacked. They set up their own legal and political system and as such many ex-Hansa cities in Germany are still considered separate from any other province in Germany. Besides Luebeck, Hamburg and Bremen still refer to themselves as “Free Hanseatic Cities”. Luebeck remained an important trading town after the Hansa fell apart in 1669, but was soon eclipsed by Hamburg and the overland trade to the west forged by the Saxons during this same time period. It’s mastery of the seas was replaced by a British monopoly, with Amsterdam or London replacing it as primary trading cities. It retained its independence and minting rights until 1937, when Hitler decided to strip the city of its rights and incorporate it into the province of Schleswig-Holstein as payback for a snub the Luebeck Senate inflicted on him for not allowing him to speak there during the 1932 election campaign. Hitler referred to Luebeck as “that dumpy little city near Hamburg”, and didn’t shed a tear for it when the British bombed it in 1942. The feelings were mutual, as Luebeckers never shed a tear for Hitler after he got flattened either. Luebeck was again granted “Free City” status in 1949 with the establishment of the Federal Republic.
Luebeck, Schilling, 1468-1506. This coin is about the same size as a contemporary English Groat. Note the detail; the standards are as good as any in Europe at that time. Ref: Saurma 3492-63, Behrens 63
By the mid 20th century, Luebeck was mere shadow of itself. Economically, it only produced Marzipan, (an almond paste, used in confectionaries) and its biggest draw was tourism. Ship building had ceased, and while it still maintained a port, it was replaced in importance by Hamburg. Growth had more or less stopped. The old part of the city was a snap-shot of a late medieval town; not much had changed since the city walls were pulled down 120 years earlier. The skyline was dominated by the seven towers of the cathedrals built in the 14th century. The narrow streets were filled with old houses and architectural treasures dating back hundreds of years. With World War II came the British, who on Palm Sunday in 1942, insisted on renovating the core of the old city to the tune of around 60% total destruction. It’s said that they were trying out some new incendiaries that they would eventually use to flatten Hamburg with a few months later. Had it not been for the Red Cross declaring Luebeck an open city in 1943, they would have no doubt come back to finish the job. It’s taken the last 60 years, but the core of the old city has been largely rebuilt and the skyline again features the seven towers, – now reinforced with concrete. Today Luebeck is still a port to the Scandinavian north, and efforts are being made to preserve the look and flair of the old city while updating and modernizing the utilities underneath. And yes, the Marzipan is still good too.
Luebeck minted coins for civic use from 1350 until 1918. While these last series of coins were minted in Berlin, the first coins were minted in Luebeck and by the 18th century, they were minted in Hamburg. At the height of the Hansa, Luebeck’s coins were well made, “modern” medieval designs, where there seemed to be some quality controls in place, and the silver was good. The Hansa used its own system of currency, where 3 pfennigs made a “Witten”, two “Witten” made a “Sechsling”, two “Sechsling” made a “Schilling”, and 32 Schillinge made a Reichsthaler, or Thaler. This monetary system remained in place until 1806. By the 17th century, wars had put a huge dent into Luebeck’s economy, and the Schilling was devalued to 48 to a Thaler. After Napoleon’s escapades through Europe, Luebeck was nominally tied to the Danish Crown, and Danish Skillings circulated there until the currency reform of 1871.
Luebeck, Witten, First Civic coinage, 1353-1379: This coin is about the same size and weight as a contemporary English Penny. Ref: Saurma 3483-63, Behrens 44.
Luebeck started minting Thalers in around 1502, mostly as a result of having to keep up with what was going on in southern Germany at the time. Most of Luebeck’s revenues came in from the south, with Saxon merchants using Luebeck’s port and ships to trade their goods all over the Baltic. With the advent of the Guildengroschen and its eventual replacement by the Thaler, Luebeck needed a coin which was based on the same standards which were prevalent in the south.
The Thaler in my collection dates to 1573. It features an effigy of St. John the Baptist with a Lamb on the obverse, and the Luebecker Double-eagle with Imperial titles on the reverse. The obverse side has the titles “MONETA NOVA LUBECENSIS” which refers to Luebeck’s civic coinage, separated by the mintmaster’s mark at the top. The duck mintmark refers to mintmaster Joachim Dalemann, who worked from 1559 until 1580. The portcullis marks on the bottom of the obverse side that flank the city shield are that of the Burgermeister (Mayor) Hieronymus Lueneburg, who died exactly 430 years ago on February 26, 1580. Each issue from the start in 1502 until into the 17th century had a Burgermeister’s mark on the coin, and the mintmaster’s mark was used until the very end of the civic coinage in 1797. So with every new Burgermeister or mintmaster came a new issue of coins, which accounts for odd release dates of some of the series. As sort of a quality control, older issues were expected to be turned in once the Burgermeister died to be re-coined with new titles or marks. This allowed the City senate to keep track of how much coin was “out there” and determine the city’s wealth. Most other city-states, or even countries followed similar practices during this time period, which can account for the relative scarcity of these coins now.
The coin follows the guidelines established in the Reichsmunzordnung of 1559, meaning that it weighs 29.2 grams and is struck in .889 fineness silver. This coin looks like it was double struck, there is quite a bit of ghosting on the obverse side, and some of the lettering in the reverse legend is doubled. The flan itself has a nice crack at the 10 o’clock position that runs through the coin. It may have been mounted in jewelry at some point, as a lot of Thalers were, but it’s hard to tell considering that most of these flans would have been hand-shaved to the correct weight at the mint. The coin itself is in pretty good shape; – it would be considered “Schoen” in Germany, or “fine”, but we’d call it VF over here.
Values for these coins are generally very expensive for a collector on a budget. Most that I’ve seen start in the $300.00 mark and in better grades hit as high as $3000.00 or more. Rare or “City-View” Thalers are almost priceless. Needless to say I searched hard and long before I got this example, and I think the only reason I got it as cheap as I did was because it had suffered a brutal cleaning. I turned it over to one of our club’s conservation experts who laboured long and hard to get it to start re-toning properly. Now it’s beginning to look like it should again, and with a little more exposure to smog and the generally sulfurous air around the Edmonton area it should gradually take on the colour it should have had to begin with, and it’s value is steadily increasing again.
Luebeck, Thaler, 1573. Not the first coin issued with John the Baptist on it who had by then become the patron saint of the City. Just what that is above the lamb is anyone’s guess, it looks like a pair of bloomers being run through with a sword. The Reverse side features the City Double-eagle with the denomination of “32” depicted in the centre of the bird inside what’s known as the “Reichs-apfel”, or “Imperial apple”, which was common to a lot of imperial-sanctioned minting-states by that time.
This leads to another ugly problem with a lot of older coins, and medieval ones in particular; – cleaning. Most coins have been cleaned at some point in their “lives”. It just depends when and how harsh the cleaning was. Some were cleaned (polished, or dipped) regularly by collectors up until about 50 years ago. Others got cleaned up when they were mounted into jewelry, or after they were cracked out. It’s very rare to see a good coin that is over 200 years old that hasn’t been cleaned, especially higher grade ones where cleaning may not be as evident. It takes a good eye and a lot of experience in dealing with medieval coins to figure out if and when the coin was cleaned. I can safely say that I have neither a good eye nor enough experience, but with every medieval coin I pick up I’m learning more.
Collecting medieval Thalers can be very enjoyable, there’s a wide variety to choose from, a lot of countries or states made them, and they’re some of the best coins made during that period. They’re big and heavy; the designs are usually very intricate and are the epitome of the medieval coiner’s art. The only downside to them is one will never be able to build a good type set of all of them, the listings for some German cities number in the hundreds, and there are thousands more individual designs and dates. Costs can be prohibitive if one is trying to create any kind of set of them. So I’m probably going to pick up the odd one here and there, but they won’t be the main focus of my collecting.
So this concludes my series of medieval German Thalers, I had as much fun researching and writing about them as I did collecting them. But now I’m running out of topics, and would appreciate some input from the readers, – what would you like to see in a future article? What should I write about? I’ve got a few topics I’m researching, but there isn’t enough there yet to make a credible article. So if you have any ideas, don’t hesitate to let me know, email me, phone me, or send me a letter, and I’ll look into it!
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Magazine Vol-57 Issue-02