In Germany they were known as rechenpfennig. The Dutch called them worpghelt. But to most collectors they’re just jetons. Paula Hammond takes a look at the intriguing tokens whose history is told in the very name they carry
Back in the days of the Roman Empire, bone or stone discs and a flat, lined exchequer board were used for bookkeeping. To make calculations, the counters (called calculi) were moved from column to column. No one knows exactly when the first metal counting counters appeared, but the earliest known example is dated 1190, and was probably commissioned by an Italian financier. Their popular name comes from the French jeter (‘to push’) and these curious counters were used in exactly the same way as the Roman calculi. Italian City States were at the heart of the Medieval commercial world and it’s easy to imagine that these hangovers from old Rome gradually spread from there to France, England and the Low Countries.
The earliest known English jetons appeared in 1280. These carry the star and crescent of King Edward I (1272-1307) and were probably made at the Tower of London. Examples from Holland and Belgium date from a similar period. However, a royal writ referring to ‘barons of the exchequer’ proves that exchequer boards and casting counters were common in England as early as 1118. Other documents suggest that Venetian coins were used at the Royal Exchequer during the reign of King John (1199-1216).
Everything changed in 1202 when a book called Liber Abaci extolling the virtues of the new Hindu–Arabic numeral system was published. This proved so influential that, in 1299, merchants in Florence were banned from counter casting. Other Italian city-states followed suit, but it was only by the 1400s that it became standard practice across Europe. In the meantime, though, jetons took on a life of their own.
Although they’re not coins, most jetons were originally produced by governments or large estates, and made by the same mints that produced genuine currency. Because of this, early jetons look very similar to coins in terms of size (averaging 28-32 mm) and quality, although they’re usually copper-based rather than silver.
Jetons were not marked with numerical values, but like coins, many carried a bust portrait on the obverse, along with a Latin motto. Such images usually represented the official who commissioned them. The reverse generally carried the ruler’s coat of arms, or the name or badge of the city or counting office. Official jetons also included the date of issue.
To prevent counterfeiters from coating jetons in silver and passing them off as the real deal, English jetons were sometimes pierced in the centre. In Germany, where Nuremberg was the centre of jeton production, tokens were produced not by governments but individual rechenpfennigschlager (reckoning coin manufacturers). Again, to deter counterfeiters, they had to be clearly labelled with the maker’s name and the word rechenpfennig.
Jetons were used as unofficial gambling counters for centuries but it was only when they fell out of official use, that they began to be produced specifically as gaming pieces. Many of these were similar to official jetons, but carried fanciful images and were cruder in appearance. Later, up market jetons, cast in silver and sometimes gold, were issued too, celebrating religious festivals, military victories and important people.
It was, arguably, during the Dutch Revolt (1568-1609) though, that jeton mania took hold. Over 2,000 jetons are known to exist from this era, promoting the views and victories of both combatants.
Other European rulers quickly saw the merit in such propaganda pieces and began commissioning their own jetons. In 1559, Philip II (1554-1598) issued silver and copper jetons to mark the opening of his new counting house. Although they were no longer used for accounting, gifts containing the face of the monarch were sure to remind officials where their loyalty should lie. Gradually these commemorative tokens evolved into larger, more expensive history medals.
Collectors were quick to see the appeal of jetons and by the 1700s jeton enthusiasts formed a small but keen community. The first book on the topic appeared in 1687, and focussed on jetons as historical pieces. In fact, their use as counting counters seems to have been all but ignored until the work of the English numismatist, FP Barnard in 1920. Since then jeton collecting has undergone a real revival.
For many collectors, jetons simply offer a fascinating contemporary commentary on people, places and events. Like all collectables, price depends on rarity. Before the 1600s, silver jetons were rarely made. After 1600, silver became the default metal for commemorative jetons, making the earlier pieces more valuable. Copper-based gaming/counting jetons were issued in huge numbers, and discarded as they became worn. But, because they were made in thousands of different designs, collectors still have the real thrill of discovering something new, for a fairly small financial outlay.
Inevitably there are plenty of fake and fantasy jetons on the market, so buyer beware. Collecting jetons is generally more challenging than collecting coins, but then, isn’t that the fun of the chase?
In Germany they were known as rechenpfennig. The Dutch called them worpghelt. But to most collectors they’re just jetons. Paula Hammond takes a look at the tantalising tokens whose history is told in the very name they carry.