Bezant

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Crusader coins of the Kingdom of Jerusalem: Denier in European style with Holy Sepulchre (1162-75); Kufic gold bezant (1140-80); gold bezant with Christian symbol (1250s). Gold coins were first copied dinars and bore Kufic script, but after 1250 Christian symbols were added following Papal complaints (British Museum).
County of Tripoli gold bezant in Arabic (1270-1300), and Tripoli silver gros (1275-1287). British Museum.

Bezant is a medieval term for a gold coin. Medievally originally it meant the gold coins produced by the government of the Byzantine Empire. The word was derived from the Greek Byzantium. Later in the medieval era among the Latins the scope of the word was expanded to gold coins produced by Arabic governments.

Medieval history[edit]

Gold coins were rarely minted in early medieval Western Europe, up until the later 13th century. (Silver and bronze were the metals of choice for money in medieval Western Europe). Gold coins were almost continually produced by the Byzantines and medieval Arabs. These circulated in Western European trade in smallish numbers, originating from the coinage mints of the Eastern Mediterranean. In Western Europe, the gold coins of Byzantine currency were highly prized. These gold coins were commonly called bezants. The first "bezants" were the Byzantine solidi coins, minted at a constant weight and purity since the time of Constantine I (died 337) until the mid-11th century. Later the name was applied to the hyperpyra, which replaced the solidi in Constantinople in the late 11th century. The name hyperpyron was used by the late medieval Greeks, while the name bezant was used by the late medieval Latin merchants for the same coin. The Italians also used the name perpero or pipero for the same coin (an abridgement of the name hyperpyron).

Medievally from the 12th century onward (if not earlier), the Western European term bezant also meant the gold dinar coins minted by Islamic governments. The Islamic coins were originally modelled on the Byzantine solidus during the early years after the onset of Islam. The term bezant was used in the late medieval Republic of Venice to refer to the Egyptian gold dinar. Marco Polo used the term bezant in the account of his travels to East Asia when describing the currencies of the Yuan Empire around the year 1300.[1] His descriptions were based on the conversion of 1 bezant = 20 groats = 133⅓ tornesel.[1] An Italian merchant's handbook dated about 1340, Pratica della mercatura by Pegolotti, used the term bisant for coins of North Africa (including Tunis and Tripoli), Cyprus, Armenia and Tabriz (in today's northwestern Iran), whereas it used the term perpero | pipero for the Byzantine bizant.[2]

Gold coinage began to be re-introduced to Western Europe in 1252 when the city of Florence began minting gold coins known as florins.

Bezants in heraldry[edit]

Banner of the Duchy of Cornwall displaying fifteen bezants. These were originally supposed to be peas (French: pois) in reference to the region of Poitou, of which the Earl of Cornwall was formerly Count.
Arms of Sir John Russell, a 13th century English courtier.[3]

In heraldry, a roundel of a gold colour is referred to as a bezant, in reference to the coin. Like many heraldic charges, the bezant originated during the crusading era, when Western European knights first came into contact with Byzantine gold coins, and were perhaps struck with their fine quality and purity. During the Fourth Crusade the city of Constantinople, was sacked by Western forces. During this sacking of the richest city of Europe, the gold bezant would have been very much in evidence, many of the knights no doubt having helped themselves very liberally to the booty. This event took place at the very dawn of the widespread adoption of arms by the knightly class, and thus it may have been an obvious symbol for many returned crusaders to use in their new arms. When arms are strewn with bezants, the term bezantée or bezanty is used.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Yule, Henry; Cordier, Henri. The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition. Third edition (1903), revised and updated by Henri Cordier. Plain Label Books. p. 1226-27. (ISBN 1-60303-615-6)
  2. ^ La Pratica della Mercatura, by Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, dated 1343, full text online in Italian at MedievalAcademy.org.
  3. ^ Arms of Russell of Kingston Russell & Dyrham. Sir John Russell was a favoured courtier of King Henry III, granted by the King the barony of Newmarch c. 1216.