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Sigismund the «Rich in Coin», Bernese Bear, St. Vincent and the Guldiner: How the City of Berne minted its own Large Silver Coins on Tyrolean Model in 1494 A.D.

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Did you know that the city of Bern was able to compete with the most powerful princes at the end of the 15th century? This podcast presents to you a testimony of the Bernese claim to great power status.

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Bern. We are in the year 1494 AD.

 

Round the edge of the coin it is stated in large letters: In 1494 this guldiner was minted in Bern. Concerning the economic point of view, the citizens of Bern were on the cutting edge. The first ever guldiner had been minted just eight years earlier.

 

The Tyrolean ruler Sigismund the “Rich in Coin” was responsible. He initiated a silver coin that was worth as much as a gold “gulden”, or guilder. Therefore, these first large silver coins were known as guldiners. First and foremost, they served as a status symbol.

 

So Sigismund the Rich in Coin wears an impressive suit of armour. To his left we can see his coat of arms, to his right his tournament helmet.

 

The citizens of Bern also thought carefully about how they wanted to present their city. They were proud to owe allegiance directly to the Emperor. And so their coin depicts not a secular ruler, but the city's patron saint, St. Vincent.

 

According to legend, he served as deacon to the bishop of Zaragoza in Spain. He is said to have died under Diocletian for his faith. All pictures show him with a deacon’s tonsure. In his right hand he holds a book as an attribute of the learned cleric. The palm branch in his left hand depicts him as a martyr.

 

The Bernese guldiner is based exactly on its Tyrolean model. Whether ruler or saint, both stand directly in front of us. The prince looks us regally in the eye. The saint looks modestly at his book. But look at their heads and feet! Both figures break the lettering round the edge of the coin. And the Bernese imitation uses an almost identical rosette as mint mark to separate the words as the coin upon which it is based.

 

The reverse also mimics the first guldiner. If the Archduke of Tyrol depicted the coats of arms of all the dominions over which he reigned, then the Bernese citizens also wanted to show the coats of arms of a wealth of territories over which Bern held sway.

 

The Bernese bear, above which hovers the two-headed imperial eagle as a symbol of the city’s Imperial immediacy, almost disappears under the weight of the manifold coats of arms.

 

Bern's heraldic animal harks back to the legend of the founding of the city. Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen is said to have killed a bear in 1191, after which he named the newly-founded city.

 

Even today, the Bernese call their central square Bärenplatz which translates to Bear Square, and one of their city gates the Käfigturm respectively Cage Tower. These names date back to the mid-15th century, when the citizens of Bern began to keep a live bear in a cage at the square. This was a status symbol. Only the most powerful and wealthy rulers at that time possessed wild animals.

 

So it was not some insignificant city which imitated the Tyrolean guldiner. Only a few years earlier, Bern had won the rank of a great power.

 

At Grandson and Murten in 1476, the Swiss had destroyed the proud army of the empire’s most powerful prince at the time. Charles the Bold lost not only the day, he lost his baggage train.

 

The victors reaped great spoils, of which Bern claimed a large portion for itself. Their booty included weapons and the Burgundian war chest, not to mention Charles the Bold’s treasury, his ceremonial sword, his throne, his gold seal and his hat decorated with pearls, which had served as his crown. To give you a little idea of this wealth: in 1504, the city of Basel sold four tiny pieces of jewellery from its share of the spoils. For them, Jakob Fugger paid the incredible sum of 40,200 guilders!

 

No wonder that the citizens of Bern had enough money for prestige projects. The cathedral they had recently erected in honour of St. Vincent was gloriously decked out.

 

And they minted the most representative coins of their era, so that those coins could bear witness to the glory of the Bernese citizens all over the then known world.

 

Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.