A number of my posts in the original blog were lost. That is a pity because they were rather unique and detectorists still ask for them. This short post about the penny is one I have managed to resurrect and added more information.
Living in the close-knit society of a County Durham pit village in the 1940’s was quite a revelation for a small and inquisitive boy. Lots of everyday happenings like birth and death I tended to take for granted; traditions were just accepted and never really questioned.
There were women in the village, always elderly, who were regarded as ‘wise women’. They were trusted and called when there was a birth or death. With the latter, they would attend to the body, washing, preparing and ‘laying it out’.
I pause my tale just for a moment to introduce (opportunity to show off) a cut halfpenny I found, a coin that stars in the remainder of my story and pictured above! Although this is a Henry III coin dating back to 1248-50, it still illustrates the point rather well. If you are of a weak and easily offended disposition, don’t read any further.
Closing the eyes with the aid of two coins, usually a penny – because they were heavy – was one of those traditions. In earlier times, Matthew Boulton’s cartwheel would have been more than adequate for the job! I always thought it was done so that when we all trooped in to view the body, the deceased looked more at peace and comfortable, as if they were sleeping. The tradition may also hark back to the ancient Greeks who put coins on the eyes of dead people in order for them to be able to pay Charon, the ferryman, to take the dead across the River Styx.
PERPETUATING a MYTH
It has been pointed out to me that I am simply perpetuating a myth by saying that hair and fingernails continue to grow after death. I am happy to make a correction.
“The gruesome idea of nails and hair continuing to grow on a rotting corpse is fascinating. But it’s a myth – at least if you’re thinking of luscious locks and long, curly fingernails growing inside a coffin. Nails and hair may appear to keep growing, but this is because flesh shrinks as it dries out, retracting the skin to make the nails and hair appear longer. There is a little truth in the story though, because death isn’t an instantaneous process. When someone’s heart stops beating their brain cells die very quickly, but cells that use less oxygen can live a little longer. So potentially hair and nails could grow a tiny bit after the brain is dead.”Peter Buehler of the BBCs Science Focus magazine
In Liza Picard’s excellent book, Restoration London, covering the period 1660-70 when Samuel Pepys was writing his famous diary she mentions the ‘wise woman’ who gave moral support to their female friends.
‘If the membrane bag of fluid in which the baby had developed had not broken by the time the midwife arrived the wise woman would put her hand up … and break the membrane with a specially sharpened fingernail, or a thin coin. At that time, the edges of small coins were not milled and a used groat was rather sharp.’Liza Pickard
In an earlier post I exhorted you NOT to put a newly unearthed hammered coin in your mouth with the express intention of cleaning it. I think I’ve just found another reason why you shouldn’t do it – you don’t know where it’s been!
Did You Know?
In May 1877, workmen were repairing a drain in the grounds of Montrave House, Fife, Scotland. As the earth was pulled up, a shower of coins rained down from a metal pot. The pot contained incredible grade medieval silver pennies, which were eventually purchased by the British Museum.
The coins were contained in a metal pot 8 1/2 ins high and 29 1/2 ins in circumference, and consisted of 9615 English, Scottish and foreign coins of the 13th and 14th century, besides a good many smaller coins. No hoard had been discovered ( at that time ) of comparable dimensions.
I understand that a ‘select few’ were put on to the market – it is very rare that museums, especially the British Museum, part with their coins. Today, I see examples from the hoard being sold by Coincraft, the London Mint Office and on eBay.
Silver coins shown here would most likely have been used in day to day life. Just think about who could have handled yours?
Last Word . . .
“I’ll never put one in my gob again! Thanks for the education John.“zoomorphic