Archives For Numismatics

Misplaced Values

March 30, 2016 — 14 Comments

lewis penAn elderly church usher just left his home as a bequest to his church. That isn’t uncommon, but the fact that his home was filled with a vast collection of toy cars accumulated during a lifetime, was rather unusual.

The church will doubtless reap unexpected treasure from the collection’s sale, along with that of a couple of well restored classic autos. That’s nice news for them, and for the other collectors who will find some rare treasures “recycled” into the hobby during the months ahead.

What disturbed me, was the first comment offered on the website in response to the story.

“I throw everything away, even photos people hand me. Keeps me living in the present.”

That comment is disturbing on several levels. First of all, it reveals an utter disregard for the people who give gifts, “even photos,” to the writer. I hope the person has the integrity to tell their acquaintances not to waste their time and money on offering him (or her) tokens of their concern.

Second, if taken literally, the statement that he (I’ll assume it’s a guy, since I have a difficult time picturing a woman this crass) “throw[s] everything away,” is criminal. While things like photographs rarely have value to anyone but those who know the people in them, virtually any other sort of item possesses some tangible value. To toss them in the garbage—presumably for one’s selfish convenience—is terrible, when every community has charities that could use unwanted possessions to generate support for worthy enterprises.

The third thing that offends me about this comment is the inference that people who do not dispose of things in a similar manner become incapable of “living in the present.” What an impoverished view of the power of images and objects to evoke powerful and valuable memories and sentiments!

We are not talking here about someone who is afflicted with “compulsive hoarding,” that has been recognized as a psychiatric disorder. We are talking about a collector with an innocent interest. Or, removing the comment from this specific context, we would be referring to anyone who bothered to retain a photograph of their nephew or niece they received from a sibling.

I love history. But I don’t expect others to share my interest in the same sorts of artifacts that I have gathered through the years. Still, holding a coin with the image of Constantine the Great, or a civil war token with the USS Monitor adorning the obverse, don’t confine me to the distant past.

Studying history does just the opposite. It enables me to live with greater wisdom and insight in the present. C.S. Lewis summarized this truth quite eloquently.

To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. (Selected Literary Essays, “De Descriptione Temporum”).

Another observation about history’s importance from the pen of Lewis is found in The Weight of Glory. He reveals how only through the study of history can we be delivered from the danger of believing that “living in the present” is being held prisoner to current cultural conventions.

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

Thank God that you are not one of those whose vision is restricted to the current age, with its cacophony of reality television and unbridled hedonism. (I can confidently make that observation based on your reading this column to its end.)

Obviously, it’s not necessary to handle or possess actual artifacts to appreciate history . . . although I occasionally take my civil war sabre down from the wall and think about how my great-grandfather wielded one just like it.

That said, who among us would not love to have in their personal library the very copy of a book that had come from C.S. Lewis’ own?

For an excellent exploration of the current disposition of C.S. Lewis manuscripts and legacy, check out the current post at the always excellent A Pilgrim in Narnia.

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The image above of pipe and pen is from a display at The Wade Center, at Wheaton College.

Misspelling Jesus

November 12, 2013 — 12 Comments

LesusTalk about embarrassing. In a nation that considers God to be its sovereign ruler, it seems rather inexcusable to misspell the name of Jesus.

And yet, that’s precisely what the Vatican has done.

Even more humbling, the error occurred on a very public medium—the principality’s coinage. And, if that was not enough to generate finger-pointing within the Curia, the coins bearing the defective spelling were minted to celebrate the first anniversary of Francis’ assumption of the papal throne.

Having collected coins since I was a young boy, I’m quite familiar with the frequency of minting errors. Typically they are caused by mistakes at the mint itself, where there is a mis-strike or a flaw in one of the dies. (I own a couple of ancient Roman “mules” where the mint workers accidentally used the mismatched obverses and reverses when they struck a particular piece.)

The legend (text) on the aforementioned medallions incorrectly reads “Lesus.” It seems to me that Western sources have mistakenly perceived this as the incorrect substitution of an “L” for the “J.”

The truth is . . . the inscription is in Latin, in which case it is actually an “I” that should appear in place of the “L.” If this is correct, Jesus’ name would be rendered IESUS.*

In actuality, the magnitude of this error was less significant than initially reported. It affected an anniversary medallion, rather than common, everyday coinage that would find its way into the hands of the masses. Also, the mistake was discovered early enough that only a handful of the medals were released; the “lucky” recipients are sure to see the worth of these treasures increase many times over, as their rarity causes the value of the medals to escalate.

Unlike Islam, which forbids images of Allah and Muhammad, Christianity has found iconography related to Jesus to be inspirational, throughout its two millennia history.

The Lord’s face has appeared on numerous coins throughout the years, and there is an entire series of Byzantine issues that cannot be specifically attributed to individual rulers because they did not include their own likeness or name, preferring to yield their place of honor to Christ.

In a 1942 letter to a nun with whom he corresponded, C.S. Lewis shared a poem he had written. I relate it here because of the exquisite reference to religious portraiture on coinage.

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more

From all the victories I have seemed to score;

From cleverness shot forth in Thy behalf,

At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;

From all my proofs of Thy divinity,

Thou, who would’st give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead

Of Thee, the thumb-worn image of Thy head;

From every thought, even from my thoughts of Thee,

Oh thou fair Silence! fall and set me free.

Lord of the straight way and the needle’s eye,

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

A Thought for Writers

Everyone who has ever written something read by others understands the importance of proofreading. This is true for digital media such as emails. It’s even more true for print publications that cannot be easily amended.

That said, we can consider ourselves fortunate that our typographical mistakes are not inscribed for all time on precious metals.

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* Iesus in the nominative case. It’s more commonly seen as Iesu, and my Latin is too rusty to know how it should correctly be rendered in this inscription.

Nero 1We tend to caricature those we dislike. We usually do it with words, either dismissive or insulting. Sometimes we do it with images.

I wrote an essay once entitled “Demonizing Our Enemies,” and in this world of constant turmoil it includes a message we cannot afford to forget. If you’re interested in reading it, it’s on page fifty-four of the first issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, and you can read (or download) it for free here.

Sometimes, however, what appears on the surface to be an insult . . . may simply be a reflection of accuracy. That, I think, is the case in the coin pictured above. It displays a portrait of the Emperor Nero, in all of his porcine grandeur. It is, in a single word, grotesque.

Nero 2Consider this image, of the emperor in his youth. It’s rather disgusting to see what he had become. But the fruits of unrelenting debauchery and murder do take a toll.

Still, one wonders how an image like this ever came to be. What emperor, in his right mind, would allow us a graphic reproduction of his ugliness? Especially when it would have been a simple thing to circulate at the mints an idealized portrait for official use. (That, of course, has been a common practice throughout history.)

As a bit of a numismatist, I was curious as to how it came to be. My first impression upon seeing the bizarre likeness of the imperator was that it must be a “barbarous” imitation of a Roman coin. Such counterfeits became fairly common in the fourth century, and they are usually identified by terribly garbled legends (inscriptions).

After doing enough research to determine this was a genuine imperial issue, I wondered if the celator (die-carver) might have been put to death for his presumption. No evidence of that, though it may have happened.

I have to assume that Nero was so self-consumed that he was oblivious to the way the corpulent image must have invited silent ridicule. He was, after all, despised by virtually everyone for his countless excesses.

So, ultimately, the doomed emperor unintentionally played the proverbial joke upon himself. By allowing an accurate portrayal of the imperial profile, he preserved for all time a true testimony to himself. He may have falsely blamed the Christians for Rome’s terrible fire, but he had no one other than himself to indict for his metallic legacy.

For those curious as to how I might work a Lewisian theme into this unusual post, allow me to include the following passing reference to the self-acclaimed master of the lyre. It appears in the essay “Learning in War-Time”

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. . . . At first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing. . . Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peace-time. I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.

And—lest any of us smugly nod in agreement that such an evil man most assuredly deserved his searing fate—here is another passage from Lewis that offers a sobering truth.

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven [editor: they will not accept God’s forgiveness]. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

One caution, and I have done. In order to rouse modern minds to an understanding of the issues, I ventured to introduce in this chapter a picture of the sort of bad man whom we most easily perceive to be truly bad. But when the picture has done that work, the sooner it is forgotten the better.

In all discussions of Hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of our enemies nor our friends (since both these disturb the reason) but of ourselves. This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me. (The Problem of Pain).

English is a fascinating language. Certainly not the simplest to learn, but extremely versatile. You might say that among the circus of languages, English is the contortionist. (That analogy might make German the strong man and Romani the fortune teller.  As for the bearded lady . . . I’ll leave that to your personal conjecture.)

I’ve formally studied several other languages, yet I consider myself a master of none. Nevertheless, when it comes to English, I do take some pride in my skills, and would be willing to claim for myself the status of journeyman. Among other credentials I have my “verbal” score on the Graduate Record Exam, which placed me in the 97th percentile.

It goes without saying that C.S. Lewis (along with most of his fellow Inklings) was a Master of English. One of his many insights warned of language’s occasional tendency to confuse rather than illuminate.

Language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate. Some things it communicates so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available. (C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words).

As much as I discover about English, I find there is still more to learn. This week I enjoyed thinking about contranyms. It’s uncommon enough a word that you know your spell checker won’t recognize it. One of those words only an English major is expected to know.

We all know, of course, what synonyms and antonyms are. Useful little tools for playful manipulation of language. A contranym is a word that possesses two “contradictory” meanings. For example a “citation” which can be awarded for either good or issued for bad behavior. Or, consider “literally,” which has its literal meaning as well as its recently developed and contradictory definition of “figuratively.” For lovers of words that’s a particularly discomforting contranym, and it literally makes my head explode. (No, seriously, please don’t ever write or say something like that unless it is in the form of dialog you’re composing for a semi-literate character.)

There are many more examples.

“They left for London, without a thought as to the luggage they left at the station.”

“He was certainly bound for jail if they discovered the Internal Revenue agent he had left bound in his basement.”

“He buckled his belt a mere moment before his legs buckled beneath him as he was struck by the errant meteorite.”

“Apparently there are many thoughtless oversights when programs are left to governmental oversight.”

Homophonic contranyms are not spelled alike, but they are pronounced similarly. “My aural test is scheduled tomorrow, immediately before the oral defense of my dissertation.”

There are actually a couple of alternative names for contranyms. They can be called antagonyms or autoantonyms, which only serves to make the hazy water that much murkier.

Our next lesson will feature that amazing category of words that are “polysemy.” (Not really, I think this has been enough linguistic thinking to cover us for at least a week.)

Oh, one final note, for those who were curious about the choice of the image above for this column. Contranyms are also referred to as “Janus words,” in honor of the Roman deity who constantly gazes in two directions. Very fitting.

Constantinian Triumph CoinWhile pondering what to write about today, I visited one of those “This Day in Christian History” websites. It cited 27 September as the day of Constantine the Great’s “conversion” (in the year A.D. 312). Ironically, the website was in error, with the actual date being the evening of 27 October.

Many people might say “what difference does it make?” but writers will be reminded once again of the necessity of accuracy in their writings! What sort of credibility do you think that website now holds for me?

At any rate, returning to the subject of Constantine’s October 312 conversion . . . it was one of the pivotal events in the history of the world. Not only did Constantine end the persecution of the Church, he raised Christianity to the status of favored religion. Contrary to most quasi-historians, it would be left to a later emperor to establish Christianity as the empire’s official faith.

The early fourth century was a turbulent and fascinating time. Constantine had to battle a number of other so-called Imperators. (“Caesar” remained one of their many titles, but it was no longer the synonym for the ultimate ruler.) One of Constantine’s challengers—who allied himself completely with the pagan faction which still vastly outnumbered the Christians—was Maxentius.

On the evening before the battle, in response to a divine vision, Constantine had his soldiers mark their shields with a symbol for Christ (most likely, a chi-rho). He would ultimately march under that sign to victory over all of his enemies. Licinius, his final foe, would also throw his lot with the pantheon of Rome and other pagan deities. Like Maxentius, he too would fall.

This coin was minted by Constantine to commemorate his victory over these agents of the “Serpent.” The Labarum (Constantine’s standard, topped by the chi-rho) pierces the creature. The legend on the coin reads “Spes Publica,” which means “hope of the people.”

On the matter of just how transformative Constantine’s spiritual conversion actually was . . . well, that’s a subject for another day. Suffice it to say now that he regarded his allegiance to Christ as sincere, and he never recanted. Oh, and the importance of the Milvian Bridge . . . if Maxentius had not fallen there, history would read quite differently today.