Featured Medieval - Caffa and the Black Death

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by FitzNigel, Aug 13, 2016.

  1. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist Supporter

    Hello all - I believe I have posted the following coins randomly a while ago, but since I have been without any major purchases for a while, I though I would take the time to put together a better write-up for these. The coins come from the Genoese controlled city of Caffa from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The allure of Caffa, is its connection to the Black Death.

    The Crimea and Genoa's colonies, including the city of Caffa. Caffa acted as a major trading center for Italy on the Silk Road.

    The story of the Black Death begins with the Mongol Empire. Through terror, destruction, and war, the Mongols built the largest empire the world had yet seen, and its crowning jewel was China. The Mongols established their own Yuan Dynasty, but were hated by the Chinese. The Mongols destroyed or corrupted China's meritocracy, and the ethnic Chinese suffered under their rule. The Yuan dynasty was short lived however, as the Red Turban Movement would lead the rebellion against the Yuan and eventually establish the Ming Dynasty.

    The Mongol Empire. The Crimean made up the Western most part of the Empire. While this map shows the Empire at its height, it would not last long at this size. It soon broke into four separate Khanates, with the Khanate of the Golden Horde in yellow.

    The Red Turban movement was galvanized by the fact that natural disasters and a devastating plague were sweeping through China: a sign in Confucian philosophy since the time of Mencius, that the Mandate of Heaven had changed, and a new Dynasty was destined to take the Imperial throne. It is this plague that some believe to be the origins of the Black Death which would famously sweep through Europe. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Mongol Empire was their openness to other religions and desire for trade to spread through their empire. This would encourage numerous interactions between East and West, and would aid in an economic boom for Western Europe, as well as the spread of disease.

    The spread of the Black Death. We believe Caffa was the plague's first entry point to Europe.

    The Plague's spread west is not well documented, but it first appears on the European horizon when the Mongols besieged the Genoese trading outpost of Caffa. The Italian notary, Gabriele de Mussis, is the first to make the connection, and claims that the Mongols threw plague infected cadavers into Caffa to force its surrender. Some of the men within the city, wanting to escape the siege, fled by boat back to Europe. Almost immediately the plague could be found in Constantinople, Cairo, and then the Italian mainland, following well establish trade routes across the Mediterranean. The Plague famously devastated Florence, as described by Boccacio in his introduction to the Decameron (a book written as a series of tales told by several companions as they waited for the end of the plague). It's spread north would disrupt the Hundred Years War between England and France before spreading into the Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia, then Russia. It has been estimated that nearly one third of Europe's population died as a result of the Plague.

    A depiction of a Mongol siege.

    The Plague's introduction into the West was likely through the Mongol Khanante of the Golden Horde (a Turkic word for 'palace,' not a vast collection of coins...) which had the greatest interactions with Western Europe. Jani Beg Khan was the ruler of the Golden Horde who was credited with catapulting plague cadavers into the city of Caffa which would then cause the disease to spread to Europe. Like other Khans of the Golden Horde, Jani Beg minted a variety of coins with an Islamic influence, consisting of both silver Dirhams, and copper Puls. The Genoese in Caffa seem to have relied mostly on the Mongols' coinage for trade, but there are a few Puls that have been counter stamped with the gates of Caffa which acted as the city's monogram.

    Genoese Caffa
    AE Pul, 17.29mm x 1.3 grams
    Obv.: Christogram countermark (from Genoese Caffa?)
    Rev.: (?)
    While this pul is not an example of a standard Genoese countermark showing the city's gates, I have found some online references to this countermark being from Caffa. However, those online sources do not mention their sources. So, I question the factual news of this until I can find a more credible source.

    These counter stamped Puls are rare, and it is much easier to obtain a silver Asper minted in the following century. Caffa's continued trade relations with the Mongols clearly shows on these later coins by including the Tamga, or stamp, of the local Mongol ruler. In terms of value, Peter Spufford in his Handbook of Medieval Exchange lists a Venetian Ducat valued at 34-40 aspers in the late fourteenth century. Venetian ducats were valued around 2s. 9d. to 3s. in English sterling, meaning an aspers was worth a little less than an English penny.

    Genoese Caffa
    Filippo Maria Visconti, r. 1421-1435
    AR Asper, 16.21 mm x 0.9 grams
    Obv.: DV_M.D.:CAF The arms of Genoa in a beaded oval of four arches, three dots to side and below of portal
    Rev.: Small Jujid tamga with 1 dot. Circular Arabic legend, السلطان العادل محمد خان (The Just Ruler, Muhammad Khan)
    Ref.: Similar to Retowski, Genoese-Tartar Coinage, no. 15
    Note: Overstrike

    This Asper was minted under the rulership of Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan. The republic of Genoa came under Milanese control as the Visconti family attempted to unify northern Italy in the late 14th century. Filippo Maria was known for his cruelty and ugliness (something which he was over.y sensitive about). He would die without an heir, leaving the duchy, Genoa, at its colonies (including Caffa) to his bastard daughter and her husband.


    Exactly what caused the plague is unknown. For many years it was thought to be Bubonic Plague, or perhaps the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, spread by infected fleas and rats. A recent theory has suggested in was spread through the air, hence why it spread so quickly (in the span of five years, it would reach all of Europe). To be perfectly frank, we do not know what caused the disease. The symptoms however, are better documented: an ashen colored skin, puss-filled buboes along the body, and eventual death. It is this which provided inspiration to the children's nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie":

    Ring around the rosie (the buboes)
    Pocket full of posies (aromatic flowers meant to ward off the disease)
    Ashes, ashes (discoloration of the skin)
    We all fall down! (Death)

    Plague victims, showing the buboes along their bodies.

    The societal effects of the plague were much larger. Because of the large mortality, the manorial system in Europe would begin to break down. There were simply not enough serfs to work the land, and many lords would begin enticing peasants to work their land in exchange for a wage. This naturally disgruntled other lords who would petition their lord or King to return to their traditional methods. This would be enacted in England as the Statute of Laborers, which predictably lead to the peasant revolts of John Ball and Wat Tyler. Not only did Manorialism begin to break down, but the whole 'feudal' system was shaken, as peasants began to question their station in society, and call for equality. These ideas eventually grew into a part of the Enlightenment, leading to the American and French Revolutions. In many ways, it was the events of the Black Death which would begin to pave the way towards the modern world.

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  3. Orfew

    Orfew Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus Supporter

    Very interesting writeup, thank you.
    FitzNigel likes this.
  4. Mikey Zee

    Mikey Zee Delenda Est Carthago

    Terrific write-up...simply fantastic... and interesting coins to go with it all.

    I've read that in some places as much as 50% or more of the population perished during the relentless onslaught of the successive episodes of plagues.

    Amazing how we all seem to forget about the 'Great Khan' and his vast but short-lived Empire.
    FitzNigel likes this.
  5. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper

    I need some Mongol coinage. Did Mongols make silver coins?

    Anyway, excellent writeup. Thanks for going back and doing this for those unusual coins. I'm tempted to do the same for some of the coin's at the beginning of my collecting which I simply posted here with no explanation. These days I realize how important it is to add some depth to each coin with a little bit of history or trivia. It is not only a nice way for others to learn about these coins, but also a lot of fun and education for the person doing the research and writting about the coin.
    FitzNigel likes this.
  6. Pishpash

    Pishpash Supporter! Supporter

    Fascinating write up, thanks Fitz.
    FitzNigel likes this.
  7. THCoins

    THCoins Well-Known Member

    To illustrate your story a bit from the Mongol side:
    - First a copper dirham struck in Qunduz under the rule of Chingiz Khan:
    Horseman on the left. Bow and arrow with "Adl" (Righteous) above in Arab on the right.

    - Second, a copper Jital issued under Chagatai ruler Qutlugh Khwaja (ca 1300AD):
    Inscription on the left in Arab and Sharada, on the right in Uygur script.

    - Third, a silver dang, or denga, issued under Golden Horde ruler Birdi Beg
    (Seray al Jadida, 1358AD). A nice fellow who murdered his 12 brothers and son to get to the throne. But he did not hold it long.
  8. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist Supporter

    Thanks - and you are absolutely right Mikey. I believe Paris, or maybe Ruen lost about 70% of its population. We throw out the estimate of 1/3 of Europe died, but it obviously effected urban populations more than rural (more people in the cities after all...)
  9. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist Supporter

    Thanks @Sallent - I totally agree. As for what the Mongols minted, they didn't really change local practices much in the areas they conquered, so there is a wide variety of types and metals (including some of the earliest paper money!)
  10. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist Supporter

    Awesome! A coin minted under Chingiz is on my list! Thanks for adding more - and if there are any more Mongol or Italian coins, feel free to pile them on!
    Alegandron likes this.
  11. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    I have had John Kelly's book The Great Mortality on my must read list for some time, your terrific post has moved it to the front of the line.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to put together a great post to go along with such interesting coins!
    FitzNigel likes this.
  12. chrisild

    chrisild Coin Collector

    Great writeup, thanks! The name Caffa rang a bell here: In that city (Feodosia) there is a money museum which also has some fine examples of historic coins. See here: http://www.museum-of-money.org/goroda-feodosii (Some additional info about the museum is here: http://muzeydeneg.ru/eng/ ) Edit - Both links take you to English language pages, even though you may see Cyrillic characters first.

    The plague had another "side" effect by the way. Many people in central Europe believed that the Jews had poisoned the wells, and thus caused the disease. In quite a few cities, the Jews (who had so far lived in relative peace along with the Christians) were then killed even before the plague came ...

    Last edited: Aug 14, 2016
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  13. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist Supporter

    Absolutely! I always viewed the flare-up of anti-semitism the next major step since it really began in earnest with the crusades. While England and France kicked the Jews out of their countries in the 13th century, I think the plague may have been the impotence for the Holy Roman Empire to push the Jews out of Germany (and hence why there was a large population of Jews in Eastern Germany and Poland).

    Here's a picture from a 15th century printed book that illustrated the killing of Jews during the plague:
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  14. mlov43

    mlov43 주화 수집가

    Absolutely champion article! Thanks for sharing it here.

    Crimea has quite a bit of human history, and interestingly tied to several different cultures ~and explained here in an article featuring coins!

    This is what I like about coins. Thanks for the reminder!
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  15. mlov43

    mlov43 주화 수집가

    Oh, and thanks for the historical tip: Next time I have a dispute with the neighbors, I'm gonna catapult a plague cadaver over the fence... that'll learn 'em not to rub me the wrong way!
    John Anthony, FitzNigel and Collect89 like this.
  16. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Great writeup and cool coins, wouldn't mind getting a few down the line.
  17. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    Happy this got featured. It's nice to see something different around here from time to time. Congrats
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  18. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Mongols-Ghazna Genghis Khan 1206-1227 CE AE Jital Islamic O-R.JPG
    Mongols-Ghazna Genghis Khan 1206-1227 CE AE Jital Islamic

    Sogdiana silk road 700-800 CE AE Cash Tamga Samitan RARE Obv-Rev.JPG
    Sogdiana silk road 700-800 CE AE Cash Tamga Samitan RARE
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2016
  19. Collect89

    Collect89 Coin Collector

    Thank you for the marvelous, well-written, & informative thread. :):):):):).
    FitzNigel likes this.
  20. Collect89

    Collect89 Coin Collector


    I'm curious to know if the Mongols were the first to practice germ warfare.
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  21. desertgem

    desertgem MODERATOR Senior Errer Collecktor Moderator

    Actually a cadaver isn't necessary, In the US, prairie dog populations have been undergoing a severe plague epidemic, so they are more available. Hot summer time is best as the fleas (carriers) hop off as soon as the animal cools.

    The scary thing is that genome for the factors that make Yersinia species so dangerous have been released on the internet years ago.

    Even the best scientists (including the dominant middle east member of that time) had no idea of microscopic lifeforms, so the "invisible" death causes were more related to devils, demons, and various 'gods' than to a newer germ warfare. I would never say that the Mongols practiced 'germ warfare', more likely they were trying to release 'evil spirits' or such on the enemy.
    Sulla80, talkcoin, Pishpash and 4 others like this.
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