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by Chris Marshall

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Catalogue No.6 - Stourbridge Fair site

During 1986 Syd Cambell a local metal detector enthusiast submitted an artefact to me for examination and identification. This was duly identified as a hand-held coin balance or 'tumbrel.' At that time it was the first example of this type of balance to have been recorded from Lincolnshire. Subsequent enquiries to Mike Bonser the well known numismatist revealed that another example had been found with a metal detector by Tony Carter on the site of the former Stourbridge Fair near Cambridge. As these balances are not particularly well known it was decided to write about them in the hope that more would come to light. Three articles appeared in Treasure Hunting magazine in March/June 1987 and January 1988. The following is an amalgamation of those three articles.

Although all the known English tumbrels have been found (where dateable) in later-Medieval contexts, this method of weighing coins was known and practised from the 6th century AD in Byzantium and in the near-east tumbrels for weighing individual as well as sets of coins have been used almost through to the present day. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford holds several examples in its collections from Turkey and Syria made of copper-alloy and bone. The apparent demise of the tumbrel during the 16th century in England coincides with the increase in the use of individual coin-weights used in ordinary balance scales. The increase in coin denominations from the mid-14th century onwards and regular adjustments of the weight of coins in an attempt to maintain the ratio between gold and silver probably stimulated this development. As the English tumbrels are generally for a single coin denomination they could never be as versatile or practical as a balance and set of weights for each coin type. It is not until the introduction of the sovereign in 1817 when England abandoned this bimetallism and went on the Gold Standard that rocker-armed balances for weighing individual coins re-appear.

The construction of all the known examples is basically the same based on the fulcrum principle and employing a balance arm with a flat platform on which the coin is placed. This is pivoted via a spindle through the second arm that has a slot and hollow back to facilitate folding the balance into a convenient unit for carrying. The method of use is straightforward - coins of good weight will balance or tip off the tray and be passed as good whilst coins which are worn, clipped or otherwise underweight will fail to tip the balance arm and be rejected. Thus it can be seen that the known English tumbrels are designed to test a single coin of a known weight to judge its bullion value. The English name 'tumbrel' is also applied to a type of two-wheeled cart that like the balance arm is tipped to deposit its load. An alternative name is 'trebuchet' which again is a descriptive term for the action involved - 'to totter to one's fall'.

The danger of such devices in private hands is that they can be used to cheat the unwary in a number of ways - by retaining good coins and passing on those that are under weight, by 'adjusting' the counter-balance or by judicious clipping of heavy coins so that they still just passed the balance. In the latter case this was possible because in the Medieval period at a time when the bullion value of a coin was directly related to its weight in silver, coins could be struck at the Mint on blanks a grain or so either side of the legal standard, but always remaining within specified brackets. As long as a quantity of the coins when weighed averaged out at the official standard they could pass from the Mint. This process was known as 'the remedy'. Metal detector enthusiasts will know from their own finds that the clipping of coins was a widespread practice in the Medieval period and this did not escape the notice of the authorities.

Our earliest documentary evidence of light coinage is from the reign of King John in the year 1205.1

(Speaking of Merchants) - but they were not to lend nor to merchandise with any other coins but those which were large and weighty, as the penny sterling ought to be. And for the discovering of this lack of weight in the money, there was issued from the mint office a penny-poize wanting one-eighth of a penny, to be delivered to anyone who would have it, to be used until Easter in the next year

This quote is of interest as it informs us of the amount of deficiency in weight that could be tolerated - 'wanting one-eighth of a penny'. The standard pennyweight at this time was 22 grains so an absolute minimum of 19.25 grains would therefore in theory be acceptable. No official coin weight for the penny has ever been found or recognised but tumbrels are known at this time (and possibly earlier). It would however be unacceptable to suggest without harder evidence that this 'penny-poize' was a tumbrel rather than an individual coinweight.

The first official use of the word 'tumbrel' comes in the Statute of Money from the reign of Edward I in 1292.2

And because many people, poor and rich could not distinguish the light and clipped coins, it was ordained that the money should from that time be received and paid by weight of five shillings in amount and five shillings in value, by the tumbrel, which was to be delivered by the warden of the exchange, being marked with the king's stamp, as the measures were. And every person might at his pleasure bore the money which would not weigh the tumbrel; and also all other money not being the coin of the king of England, Ireland and Scotland. And that the weights should be delivered and marked by the warden of the exchange, as well as the tumbrel. The viewer and warden of the monies that should come from abroad, as soon as he had viewed them, was to weigh them; and if he should find new money whereof the pound did not weigh twenty shillings, by the number of 4 pennies, then he should examine by the tumbrel where the fault was.

This statement raises many interesting points including the weighing of coins 'that should come from abroad'.Almost from its introduction but principally from the 1290's onwards, the sterling penny was extensively copied on the Continent due to its ready acceptance everywhere as a coin of good weight and metal. In many cases these copies were sufficiently different as to be recognisable and their value was equal to that of the sterling. Inevitably some issuing authorities abroad began to mint copies of light weight or base metal and it is these coins that created problems when they passed in trade to England necessitating the need for weights and tumbrels. Although there is documentary evidence on the Continent of legislation against the use of tumbrels by private individuals, and even in one instance their use is denounced as a sin, this does not seem to be the case in England. With the number that are now gradually being found on a variety of sites, and all with no official markings of an issuing authority, it would appear their use in this country may be more widespread than was previously realised.

The tumbrel found by Tony Carter (Cat no.6) on Stourbridge Fair site is the most decorative found to date with panels of hatched lines, circular punched ornament and an acorn finial. The weight required to balance the arm is 16.5 grains and it would therefore have been used for the 18 grain penny minted between 1351-1412. Another tumbrel had already been found on this site in the 19th century and been presented to the Ashmolean Museum by Sir Arthur Evans (Cat no.5). The weight required to balance this example is 17.74 grains and it is likely that both these tumbrels were in use during the same period.

The first Lincolnshire tumbrel (Cat no.7) was found close to the site of a former Priory and is a rather plain affair with just a line of punched dots on the upright arm and coin tray. The weight to balance is considerably less than the other examples at approximately 12 grains and the only English penny that this could have been used for is the 12 grain penny of 1464-1526. A purse frame found close-by of a type known to be in use during this period suggests that the tumbrel may have been contained in it and thus further supports the dating. The same finder also located another tumbrel on this site (Cat no.10) which although complete has a damaged coin tray and no weights can be ascertained. It does however have an acorn finial on the main arm - a common decorative feature on later-Medieval artefacts.

Another tumbrel submitted for recording found on a Priory site in the West Midlands (Cat no.11) is the first example seen that has a zoomorphic terminal. Again the coin tray is damaged so no weights can be deduced but the main arm displays rocker-traced zigzag decoration commonly used on strapend and buckle plates of the 14th century. The coin tray is incomplete and has the appearance of being sheared across. This has been done in antiquity as the edge has full patination. Has this tumbrel been confiscated, made in-operable by cutting away the coin tray, and then subsequently been discarded as useless? If so this is the first example found that indicates this practice.

Two fragments were recognised from another Medieval Fair site this time in North Yorkshire (Cat no's.12 and 13). Both pieces are the top half of the upright arm and exhibit the typical hollow back in which the balance arm rests when not in use. Although these finds are both broken at the weakest point in the structure it does seem a little coincidental that both were found in exactly the same condition. It should perhaps be borne in mind that the reason for this may be other than accidental. Number 12 has a simple acorn-like terminal whilst number 13 is the second example seen with a zoomorphic terminal. This Medieval Fair site has produced a number of single coin finds ranging mainly from the Short-Cross issue of 1180 to the Tudor period.

A recently published3 bone fragment found during excavations in Bristol (Cat no.14; fig.14 after Jones) is part of a balance arm and coin tray with ring-and-dot decoration. It was found in a 13th century context. The last tumbrel submitted for recording is another example from a Medieval Fair site, this time in East Yorkshire (Cat no.15). This is the third tumbrel from Yorkshire and the fifth to be found on a Fair site. It has no decoration or decorative finial but is complete and therefore dateable from the weight required to tip the balance. A good 22 grain penny achieves this and as the earliest coins from the site are Edward I sterlings we can suggest that the period of use for this example is c1279-1344.

Although the number of tumbrels found is not large, the evidence of three sites with more than one example is significant and would suggest that the use of tumbrels was a common practice on sites where money changed hands in sufficient quantity to warrant their use. In particular the example of two tumbrel losses on the site of Stourbridge Fair, both complete and therefore highly unlikely to be confiscations that were discarded by authorities, would indicate a common usage during monetary transactions. Many more examples must have passed over the site without loss. Comparison to the recording of Medieval mirror-cases (Keith Fellowes; Treasure Hunting - March 1987) reveals that from a total of thousands of these mirrors known from documentary sources to have been imported in the 13th-14th centuries we now have less than fifty surviving examples to consider. It would be prudent to recall this analogy when considering the ratio of loss to usage of these tumbrels.

The presence of foreign merchants trading at major fair sites could add yet another uncertain factor to the equation of the precise use of these tumbrels. We cannot be certain that they were used purely for English coins at all, only that the weight required to tip the balance corresponds to the minimum legal requirement of the English sterling penny of that time. They may also have been used to test foreign coins before acceptance. During the Medieval period even Scottish coins may have been regarded with suspicion and quite a few of these as well as Continental coins are now being turned up by metal detectors in England. To summarise then we can suggest that the tumbrel was used for checking coins that either through clipping appeared to be underweight or for coin types that were not readily recognised or accepted without checking them first. On the present evidence tumbrels found in England range in date from the 12th - 16th century.


1. Annals of the Coinage of Great Britain and its Dependencies; 3rd edition, vol.1 p.178 - Ruding R. 1840
2. as above pp 198-199.
3. Excavations in Redcliffe 1983-85: Survey and Excavation at 97 Redcliffe Street, Bristol - Jones R.H. 1986.
    my thanks to A. McGregor for bringing this to my attention.

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