Ecology, saving, and reusability. How countersigned coins changed the face of coin usage in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Many interesting exhibits can be found in the funds of the Money Museum. Among them, some of the most fascinating are countersigned coins, commemorating the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These are at first glance simple money, but they contain symbols that do not fit into the whole. Where did they come from? How and why were they used in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania?
First, the question arises as to what countersigned coins actually are. These are coins on which additional dies of various shapes are struck. In ancient Lydia (now Turkey) such coins appeared as early as the end of the 6th century BCE, although their production was not yet widespread. They could be produced by bankers, money changers, and public officials alike. Unlike in ancient Lydia, the use of countersigns in the Roman Empire was more frequent because it was necessary to change the legal status, monetary value, or local significance of the metal money used in the conquered territories. In addition, new stamps were forged on worn-out coins (which reduced the original value of the coin), the names, monograms, or mottos of the generals who led uprisings were minted in times of such change, and they could be reprinted on the coins that were circulating at the time (most often such images were minted on portraits or titles of emperors against whom the uprisings were held).

We know from archaeological discoveries that Roman coins were found in the present-day territory of Lithuania. However, according to scientists, they did not perform the function of money. In 1935, a treasure of several hundred Roman coins (mostly silver) from the 2nd century was found in Darkuškiai, Širvintos district, which raised a number of questions. To whom did the treasure belong and what significance did it have for the local population? According to researchers, Lithuanians learned to process silver and gold only in the 4th and 5th centuries, so the treasure was probably left by a merchant on a trip to Scandinavia, where precious metals were valued more.

Due to the increased demand for metal money, other countries’ money, which was already used as a means of payment, began to circulate in Lithuania. For example, the Prague grosz, which came to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 14th-early 15th century, was of great importance and used in conjunction with Lithuanian early coins and silver alloys. Later, between the 17th and 18th centuries, the patagons of the Spanish provinces of the Netherlands, silver ducats from the United Netherlands provinces, German thalers, Dutch ducats, were used. Although some of them were used for commercial purposes, however, apart from the Prague grosz, they did not circulate as a state currency. Another fate was met by the Golden Horde’s coins that entered Lithuania through conquests, battles, or trade routes: in the second half of the 14th–first half of the 15th century, they were intended to be issued into circulation in their own lands, and for this reason, countersigned coins were introduced in the GDL.

Certain stamps were already being made on silver alloys, which in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were circulating together with the first coins. It is worth mentioning the Lithuanian tri-sided alloy in the Money Museum, which is embossed on one side with a countersigned crown with a decorated round ornament. Such an alloy could have been made for the ruler’s treasury during the reign of Jogaila (Grand Duke of Lithuania 1377–1401, King of Poland 1386–1434). 

Fig. 1, 2.  BLMM, Gek 6311

Most of the GDL coins were countersigned between 1386 and 1420. For this purpose, the Golden Horde’s and its vassal Crimea’s dirhams were used (they could have entered the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the battles with the Golden Horde in the late 14th–15th century or since 1412, in cooperation with some of the Khans who fought against the emerging threat of the Grand Duchy of Moscow). They were marked with the sign of the Pillars of Gediminas. Such money has been found in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Therefore, it can be concluded that countersigned coins were more common in the eastern lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania than in the west. As mentioned earlier, the tradition itself is more Western, but its application in the Middle Ages had a very significant impact on the tradition of minting Eastern coins (Arabic inscriptions are prominent, in addition to being often minted in poor quality). Unfortunately, not only the exact date of the countersigning of GDL coins, but also the date of minting of the original Golden Horde coins is difficult to indicate. 
Fig. 3, 4. SHAM, I-N 874 
At the top, you can see Tatar coins bearing the sign of the Pillars of Gediminas

Fig. 5, 6. SHAM, I-N 889         
Tatar coin (produced around 1468–1515) with the sign of the Pillars of Gediminas on the obverse and a Tatar inscription on the reverse

In the earliest coins, the sign of the Pillars of Gediminas still melds with the Tatar signs. More prominent examples of countersigning can be seen among later coins. 
During the reign of Alexander (Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1492, King of Poland 1501–1506), a monetary reform was carried out and new half-groats were forged as a result, thus unifying all the money used in the lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Although their value was almost the same as of the countersigned coins used in the past, the new half-groats were of a much more uniform quality. 

Later there were other reasons for issuing countersigned coins: the return of old money to circulation, the release of imported coins for use in other countries, the issuance of countersigned coins during the war, with the intention of buying them at a less turbulent time at a fixed rate.

Another countersigned coin – half-thalers minted at the Vilnius Mint – marked the reign of Sigismund Augustus (1528–1572). They show not only by the exact countersigning date (1564) on the reverse but also the monogram of Sigismund Augustus – the letters “SA” and a crown above them. 

Fig. 7, 8. LNM, NL 5/100   
Philip II’s (the King of Spain, Portugal, Naples, and Sicily) half-thaler countersigned by Sigismund Augustus and with a portrait of the king underneath.

                   Fig. 9, 10. ČDM, Nn 94474                         
Charles V’s half-thaler, countersigned with Sigismund Augustus’ initials – the intertwined letters “SA” and a crown above them, 1564. The portrait is also struck out.

The appearance of these coins in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is discussed by historian Saulius Zalys: “The mother of Sigismund Augustus, Duchess Bona Sforca, got in a disagreement with her son when he married Barbora Radvilaitė. <...> After the latter’s death, she retreated to the Duchy of Bari near Naples, taking with her a lot of money. She then handed them over to the king of Spain, hoping that he would proclaim her as the vice queen of Naples. Unfortunately, it didn't happen – she was poisoned by her own favourite. Lithuania was at war in Livonia, and Sigismund Augustus asked the Spanish king to return part of his mother’s inheritance. He did not receive it at all, but part of it was paid out in Spanish thalers and half-thalers. Then the Livonian War took place and money was very much needed. A countersign was made at the Lithuanian Mint with Sigismund Augustus’ monogram. It was promised that after the victory, they would be replaced by double the amount. Because they are rarely found in treasures, this is probably what happened. The treasure with thalers was discovered in 1972.”

To reduce the original ownership of the coin, attempts were made to “blank out” portraits of the rulers so that they would be unrecognizable. The Latin inscriptions survived. They may not have been so important because of the low literacy level at the time. 

Countersigned coins were also used in private holdings. For example, Aleksandras Mykolas Sapiega marked the coins used in his holdings with the initials “MS.” With this money, peasants could only settle in their master’s estate.

Fig. 11, 12. LBPM, Gek 7768
Countersigned coins, as exclusive coins, also occur among modern money counterfeiters. You should be careful when buying and collecting money – some countersigns that mimic old coins can also be made in modern times.

Literature used:
4.    Huletski Dzmitry, Liszewski Sławomir. Lithuanian counterstamps. 1421-1481 on the Golden Horde‘s silvers. Vilnius, 2019.