Katie Gibbs is in her third year of studying history at Queen Mary University of London. She’s pretty confident that coins and clocks and what the church was like 800 years ago are things everyone should be interested in.
On 1 May 1191, en route to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade, Richard I landed somewhat unexpectedly on the island of Cyprus (which had been part of the Byzantine Empire for the past 800 years), quickly bringing the primarily Greek Orthodox Christian population under his rule. This conquest was the beginning of 400 years of western dominion of the island. Richard used the island for a short time as a base against the Saracens. However, he had never intended to keep the island. He initially attempted to sell it to the Knights Templar, using the proceeds to support his crusading campaigns. However, the Templars’ short time on the island was marred by a general uprising on Easter Day 1192, which they suppressed with difficulty and extreme violence. Richard retook the island from the Templars and gave it to the French noble – and ill-fated leader of the crusader army in the battle of Hattin – Guy of Lusignan, who ruled it from 1192 until his death in 1194, only two years later. The island remained under the rule of the Lusignans until it was overtaken by of the Republic of Venice at the end of the fifteenth century. The majority of Cyprus’ population remained Christian throughout this period, but culturally the differences between them and their new Latin rulers (as well as an increasing influx of Latin settlers) were profound. Somehow, Guy succeeded in managing this transition relatively peacefully, without destroying the infrastructure or the economy of the existing society. Edbury argues that the structures and practices which resulted in Cyprus took the form of a compromise; and this compromise of cultures can be clearly seen in the coinage which exists from this period.
During the Lusignans’ rule of the island, they struck several types of coin, many of them heavily Byzantine in style. The most particular example of this cultural borrowing is found in the pale ‘schyphate trachea’, the dish-shaped debased gold coins known as the ‘white bezants’. The Greek bezants were part of a type of coin introduced by Alexios I in the late eleventh century to replace the devalued solidus which had been in use before. These bezants were the coins which were the main currency in use at the time of the conquest. The style or tradition was known as the Byzantine hyperyra, and they were all scyphate, or dish-shaped, rather than flat.
The coins minted by the Lusignans maintained the colouring and shape of the hyperyra coins. Their Byzantine style extended beyond type or shape. Their imagery was strongly influenced by Byzantine traditions. This example is a coin of John I (John II of Jerusalem), whose short reign over Cyprus between 1284–5 allows a very precise dating of the coin’s minting, and also means that coins of this particular type are extremely rare. On the obverse we see the figure of Christ in Majesty, common both in eastern and western Christianity. Nevertheless, several elements of its iconography clearly follow Byzantine style. His right hand is raised in the Byzantine style, with two fingers extended. The cruciform halo, the halo with the cross worked into it, is generally used in Byzantine art to represent the persons of the Trinity, and appears across all types of images of Christ in different media, including mosaics and medallions. On the reverse, the king stands holding the long cross and the cross-bearing orb and wearing Byzantine-style clothing, with decorative vestments, and the long loras scarf. In earlier coins minted by the Lusignans the king is depicted wearing the short chlamys tunic, which is also Byzantine in origin.
Why the French kings of Cyprus chose to maintain the Byzantine style for two centuries in their coinage is open to debate. Coins have long held a significant place not only in the economy of a country but also in how those who make and control the money flow present their image and ideology to the population. This may or may not quite qualify as propaganda, but certainly coins were the primary interaction most ordinary people would have had with the “official line” in a society much less literate or text-saturated than our own. Typical of many medieval coins, placing Christ and the ruler on the flipsides of a coin associated the ruler with piety, and the nation with Christianity. It also associated the ruler with the deity by linking him with Christ. Other coins of the Crusader States replace Christ with the cross, to the same effect.
Maintaining the Byzantine-appearing coins the Lusignans were trying to downplay the fact that they were a different ruling group, or trying to present themselves as the Byzantines’ rightful successors. The coins themselves are not attempting to pretend to be Byzantine in any way other than style; all of them refer to the king by the Latin title ‘REX’. Keeping the visual style while changing the language the coins were inscribed in would fit this theory because the difference would matter less to those in the population with lower levels of literacy. The partial evidence makes any conclusion tentative, and there is little evidence that the Lusignans attempted to maintain a Byzantine style of rule in other areas such as coronation rituals, royal seals and diplomatic correspondence. Both the chlamys and loros, depicted on the coins, were worn by Byzantine emperors on ceremonial occasions, but we have no indication of whether these were actually worn by Cypriot rulers on ceremonial occasions.
Either way, during the reign of the Lusignans, Cyprus experienced very little political turbulence. Edbury writes ‘The conquest proved durable. After the rising against the Templars in April 1192 no more is heard of Greek insurgents for nearly two centuries.’ This could indicate that the Lusignans were skilled diplomats or effective rulers. Alternatively, if the island was not inclined to rebellion, then it would not have been necessary for the Lusigans to work hard at presenting themselves as successors to the Byzantines. The coinage for the first two hundred years of western rule on Cyprus may simply have been a mixture of traditionalism and compromise. Alternatively, the retention of the white bezants could have simply been economic. The bezant was an accepted currency around the Mediterranean, and trade between Cyprus and the Byzantine Empire, still using these coins, continued throughout the period. Shaking up the currency could well have been seen as a dangerous move. In both Antioch and Edessa, the very earliest coins produced also mimicked the Byzantine style, whereas in Tripoli and Jerusalem, gold dinars imitating the Islamic style of coinage were produced. This would suggest a wider pattern of imitation in the early years of western rule and settlement.
The white bezants demonstrate a clear and direct continuity of Byzantine tradition in the Cyprus coinage produced under the Latin crusade rulers. To be sure of which of the potential explanations for this carries the most weight, more evidence and research would be valuable.
Peter Edbury, “Franks”, in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191–1374, ed. Angel Nicolau Konnari and Christopher David Schabel (Leiden, 2005).
Peter Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191–1374 (Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Philip Newman, A Short History of Cyprus (London, 1940).
Maria Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography, 11th–15th Centuries (Leiden, 2003).
Sir Steven Ranchman, “The Byzantine Period 330–1191”, in Footprints in Cyprus: An Illustrated History, ed. Sir David Hunt (London, 1982).
Rosie Weetch, “Cyprus Coins” “Crusader Coins in Antioch” and “County of Tripoli”, Bearers of the Cross Project in association with the University of Birmingham and the Museum of the Order of St John, 2016.