Philip Grierson: Colourful Cambridge medieval historian and collector who used coins to illuminate the past (Obit)

Historians in the News

PROFESSOR PHILIP GRIERSON, who died on January 15 aged 95, was a medieval historian, a leading numismatist, and a symbol of continuity at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he was a resident fellow for 70 years.

Grierson's teaching career was that of a general historian of medieval Europe, in particular the Carolingian Empire, though it was as a numismatist and expert on medieval coinage that he was most renowned. He held chairs in the subject at Cambridge and at Brussels University. In addition he served as honorary Keeper of Coins at the Fitzwilliam Museum and adviser in numismatics at the Dumbarton Oaks Center of Byzantine Studies in Washington. Over his lifetime, Grierson built up a collection of some 20,000 medieval coins, which he bought out of his salary as an academic. He bequeathed the entire collection, thought to be worth between pounds 5 and pounds 10 million, along with his specialist library, to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Other numismatists have equalled Grierson's technical expertise, but no one has shown equal mastery of the monetary, economic, historical and technical aspects of coins and coinage, a combination which enabled him to shed light on many a knotty historical problem.

In 1960 he published an article in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient entitled The monetary reforms of Abd Al-Malik: their metrological basis and their financial repercussions, which overturned prevailing theories that the shift from gold to silver coinage in 9th century Europe had been caused by the depredations of Islam. Grierson showed that the Caliph's reforms caused a shift in the relative values of gold and silver at the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries, leading to a flight of silver to the West and gold to the East.

The main centre of Grierson's work as a numismatist lay in the coinage of Byzantium and the West and its historical context from the 4th to the 15th centuries, though he ranged further afield into Roman coinage and counterfeiting. Metrology and metallurgical analysis was fundamental to his achievement. His papers on the nature of commerce in the Dark Ages and the social function of money in early Anglo-Saxon England set researchers on new paths, and he opened up new fields of enquiry in his study of the effects of fresh supplies of bullion on European coinage and economy in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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