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The Economy of Salvation in the Middle Ages

The aim of the project “The Economy of Salvation in the Middle Ages” is to get closer to an understanding of individuals practising their religion in their encounter with the church, priest and Catholic liturgy. Key issues for us are: How did people understand their lives on earth and what were their perceptions of salvation? What was needed to achieve salvation and a place in heaven? What means did mediaeval people use to attain salvation in their encounter with church, priest and liturgy? What was the economic role of offerings for church revenues, financial transactions and monetisation in mediaeval society?

Urnes Stave Church.

Finds from Danish churches

In Denmark we are conducting a survey of all archaeological finds and archaeological contexts from Aggesborg Church in Jutland, which has the largest number of Danish church finds at more than 700 objects. The objective is to evaluate the nave as an archaeological field in the context of earthmoving through grave digging, redistribution, bringing earth from outside, new flooring, structural changes and the distribution of the artefacts in space relative to the structure and interior of the church. A little further south in Jutland, we have identified two churches with coin finds: by comparing information on disused churches with concentrations of coins found by metal detectors in recent years, we have identified two abandoned churches in Jutland using geophysical scanning: Ulv Church and Oldrup Church.

Finds from churches in Gotland

In Gotland we are analysing archaeological finds from Bunge Church comprising 4400 coins, 400 pearls and hundreds of needles. With so many finds, Bunge Church is one of the richest archaeological sites connected to Christian rituals in Gotland (and in the Nordic countries). By mapping each individual discovery within the nave, we can observe concentrations and absences of finds and compare these trends in the material with the spaciousness of the church building, the church interior and liturgical practice.

Finds from Norwegian churches

In Norway we are compiling an inventory of coin finds in Høre Stave Church, Ringebu Stave Church, Reinli Stave Church, Bø Old Church, Eidsskog Church, Kaupanger Stave Church, Nonneseter Monastery in Bergen and in Sweden Arby Church, Gränne Church, Klåstad Church, Härlunda Church and Västerås Cathedral, in order to discuss coin finds in relation to liturgical practice, the organisation of the interior, the relationship between the choir and the nave - clergy and laity, the positioning of altars, side altars and offering sticks in the nave, offerings before and after the Reformation: rupture or continuity. Each church is subject to a methodical analysis of archaeological contexts and the possible interpretations of the finds. In continuation of these methodological discussions, interpretations of the coin material from the ruins of Sola Church are discussed as a complete archaeological discovery, exemplified by the casting pit in a bell casting workshop from about 1380 and the coin finds from Ogna Church, where only the upper untidy archaeological layers have been examined, but contain finds from disturbances down into the older layers. Can the coins shed light on the church’s older history, and could the interior with a stone floor in the choir have affected the distribution of coins between choir and nave? These discussions are based on a detailed study of the context of the finds.

Coins – the richest source material

Churches that are involved in the project.

Coin finds in mediaeval churches constitute by far the richest source material for studying coin circulation and coin use among farmers in rural communities in Scandinavia. In recent years, archaeological excavations in settlement areas around churches have resulted in significant finds. These allow us to analyse differences and similarities between sacral and secular uses of coins and money in Gotland, in Denmark and to some extent in Norway. Were some kinds of coins preferred to others for the offerings? How did farmers in rural communities obtain coins in the Middle Ages? These analyses have necessitated inventories and attribution of coins from Västergarn in Gotland and a large number of metal detector finds from Denmark and Norway.

In Åland we take a closer look at the cult of the Virgin Mary and offerings in Jomala Church to examine the relationship between altars to saints and offerings. We study post-Reformation offerings in connection with the Great Northern War, plague and famine in the 1710s and 1720s on the basis of coin finds from Lemland Church. A marked increase in finds during times of crisis has been observed both in Norway and Sweden and is being studied on the basis of pan-Scandinavian discoveries, revealing the frequency of offerings before and after the Black Death. 

Inventory of finds from churches

Part of the preliminary research in the project is an inventory and dating of all Norwegian coin finds from about 1050 to 1320: hoards, finds from churches and graves and individual finds. This inventory will help to form the basis for an analysis of finds from churches and coin finds from secular contexts on an unprecedented scale: the total recorded in the catalogue amounts to more than 40,000 coins from finds from Lindesnes to Finnmark.

On the basis of theological and monastic sources from about 1000 to 1300, we discuss the economy of salvation and changing perceptions of what salvation and economy meant, and how the church and monastic communities altered their perceptions and arrived at new views on the economy of salvation, together with the practical implications involved for the church and parishioners in the entire western Christendom. In this way, we can compare religion, mentalities and norms with the practices revealed by the archaeological material.

The totality of coin finds from Scandinavian churches amounts to more than 60,000 events (discoveries of coins). The churches we study include more than 9,000 coin finds and over 1,500 finds of other objects. We map each find using GIS and place it in a stratigraphic and chorological matrix, providing more precision than in any previous studies.

Digitisation of excavation data

Through the digitisation of excavation data such as plans, coordinate systems and lists of finds, the project reuses archaeological documentation to allow the material to be analysed in new ways and with new questions. Putting old documentation into a digital context can be challenging in terms of quality and precision. Plans are scaled, digitised and linked to the databases of finds. A dispersion analysis of the coin finds is performed using the ArcGIS analytical tool. The processed data can then be used to visualise the various properties of the objects. The analysis of the finds is discussed and interpreted in the context of the building structures, interiors, graves, postholes and other information.

Our work on establishing unified databases of coin finds from churches has often led us into discussions of the attribution and dating of coin series. This brings us to the very core of numismatic methodology. During our preliminary research, we are open to continuing these discussions on various levels in the future.

Views on salvation

The extensive project activity opens up for new and exciting approaches to the understanding of religiosity and views on salvation and the use of money in the Middle Ages. By expanding methodological boundaries through new mapping and analyses of archaeological finds in churches within an interpretive framework not limited to archaeology, but to the entire context of the offerings of parishioners, we enable a contextualisation of individual practices from the parish church to St. Peter’s Basilica and contemporary theological discourses.

The economy of salvation is a topic that has been discussed for almost 2000 years. The aim is not to find answers, but to ask questions and find ways to illuminate this complex issue. As our research progresses, we continually find new questions, methods and relevant groups of material that may be fruitful to study further. And there is room for many more.


Tags: Frelsens økonomi, kristendom, ofringer, middelalder
Published Feb. 18, 2015 2:30 PM - Last modified Nov. 9, 2018 10:57 AM


Svein H Gullbekk

Professor, Section for Numismatics and Classical Archaeology (SNCA), Department for Numismatics and Classical Archaeology