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Review of Marie Veillon, Histoire de la numismatique ou la science des médailles

29 September 2013

Marie Veillon, Histoire de la numismatique ou la science des médailles, Paris, Éditions Errance, 2008, 16 x 24 cm, 168 p. Review by  originally published in French in Bulletin du Cercle d’Etudes Numismatiques 46/1, 2009, p. 131-132.

The ‘Science des Médailles’ [science of medals] appeared at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the founding text being the ‘De Asse’ by Guillaume Budé in 1515. This study aims, among other things, to determine the modern value of Roman coinage; a problem which we still frequently encounter. What was the denarius’s purchasing power at a particular time, in a particular region?

The title of M. Veillon’s work is a bit restrictive: it is really a guide to the historiography of the printed sources about the ‘Science des Médailles’, a term used instead of ‘coinage’ “for a higher dignity”, according to Enea Vico’s own words in 1555. This little book of 132 pages (+30 p. of notes and bibliography) shows the transformation from the use of coins as a simple illustration of History – mainly recounted by literary sources (archaeology was still in its infancy) ‒ to a legitimate science able, if needed, to take the place of written sources when they are missing.

The seventeenth century saw the birth of a new type of publication, beginning in 1665 with the Selecta numismata Antiqua by Pierre Seguin: the elaboration of a corpus devoted to a single collection or a historical theme. We can note for instance the first monograph, imperfect though it was, devoted to Parthian Empire coinage, by Jean Foy Vaillant.

The founding of the ‘République des Médailles’ [Republic of Medals], “rassemblant toutes sortes de personnes considérables par leur rang, leur dignité, leur savoir” [gathering individuals valued according to their rank, dignity or knowledge] reached its climax during Louis XIV’s reign (1643-1715), he himself having been a numismatic scholar and a fervent collector of ancient coins. An interest in ‘modern’ medals arose at the same time.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the French Regency (1715-1723) saw a decline in the flourishing of studies, some of which are still accurate (for example the beautiful books by Van Loon about historical tokens in the Low Countries). Numismatics grew as a science during the nineteenth century. As M. Vaillon says, “this discipline is now different from the science of medals, banishing the abusive use of the word medal, popularizing the term numismatics and studying currency as a unit of value and mean of exchange.”

To summarize such a wealth of information is obviously impossible. One will find in this remarkable work not only information about old numismatic publications and their successive reprinting but also very precise data about the authors.

The iconographic nature of the project can’t be denied, even though the work contains no illustrations. For certain major publications M. Veillon compares the iconography chosen by the author to the ancient literary sources, showing the constant correlation between History and its metallic illustration. The latter, sometimes willfully disconnected from its context, can lead to such delusions as Father Harduin’s. His reputation essentially comes from his paradoxical positions in the philological field and his suspicion about most of ancient texts being fakes! Therefore, based on the diversity of Constantine’s portraits, he makes up five emperors  bearing the same name, with only Constantine the Great surviving among the written sources… Despite this, how many right and well argued observations come from scholars whose critical minds, regardless of the weakness of the available documentation, must still fill us with wonder.

Jean-Marc Doyen

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