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The E-Sylum:  Volume 4, Number 14, April 1, 2001, Article 12

NUMISMATICS AND HISTORIANS 

   Asylum Editor E. Tomlinson Fort writes:  "Mr. Rachtootin 
   makes an interesting point about historians taking little 
   interest in numismatics; as a sometime history lecturer at 
   Penn State’s New Kensington, PA Campus,  I think I 
   might make a couple of comments. 

   First, the interest of historians, like any other research field, 
   is ignited when material is available. The brutal fact is that 
   most numismatic publications are so obscure that few 
   academic libraries make any real effort to get them. To be 
   honest, aside from the ANA and ANS does anyone know 
   of a research institution which has The Asylum in its 
   collection? 

   There is also the question of the amount of evidence. The 
   reason ancient and medieval historians work with coinage 
   is that so little evidence from before the thirteenth century 
   survives.  For example, lets take the case of the Social War 
   (c.90-88 BC). This civil war between the Roman Republic 
   and a coalition of Italian city states had repercussions that 
   lasted for generations afterwards. However, no contemporary 
   account survives. Our chief sources are Plutarch (especially 
   his lives of Sulla and Marius) writing almost 300 years later 
   and a highly condensed outline of lost books of the historian 
   Livy (Livy wrote two generations after the war but the 
   epitome was probably made in the third or fourth century 
   AD). The only contemporary evidence for the government 
   of the Socii (Latin for Allies, hence "Social War) are a 
   couple of very fragmented inscriptions and the coinage. If 
   one is going to examine this conflict then one must look at 
   the coins in depth, if for no other reason than there is little else. 

   This case is true for much of the ancient and medieval world. 
   Government records and contemporary historical accounts 
   do not really begin to survive in bulk until the 13th century 
   and later. Coinage is the one historical evidence that survives 
   in appreciable quantities before this period. 

   However, if one looks at the American Civil War (1861-1865) 
   the amount of evidence is staggering.  Even if you had as much 
   money as Bill Gates and as much free time as John Burns you 
   could not even begin to go through all the primary sources in 
   your lifetime -- forget the secondary sources. If you are 
   studying this period the coinage and paper money is a very 
   small piece of a giant iceberg.  The historian must pick and 
   choose and at the moment questions regarding currency, 
   coinage and tokens have not attracted attention. 

   For historians to become interested in modern coinages you 
   need people at graduate schools to become interested.  The 
   quickest way would be to endow a chair or two in Monetary 
   History at a couple of Universities.  The holders of these chairs 
   would publish articles and books on the subject and their 
   graduate students, when they find jobs, will continue to 
   expand the research boundaries. 

   Another way to get the academic world interested in coinage 
   would be for numismatists to publish articles in historical 
   journals. However, it is time for the historian in me to bite 
   back. While numismatists often rightly claim that historians 
   take little note of them the reverse is also true.  I have read 
   many numismatic works where the author demonstrates a 
   shocking lack of the understanding of the use of historical 
   documents or the society which produced the coinage, 
   paper monies or tokens being discussed.  Numismatists 
   have to learn to quit relying on third hand works, many of 
   which are very out of date, and actually dig into the primary 
   source material. 

   A few well researched articles on American Civil War 
   tokens published in prominent journals would begin to 
   stimulate interest among historians." 

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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