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Scott was so energized by what had just happened that he practically flew home. Clutching the mysterious coin, he alternated between walking fast and running short sprints until he reached his house. What was this thing? Where was it from? He was eager to learn. But most of all, he was excited to have in his possession something of great age and significance. What great events might have occurred when it was new and in circulation? Who might have owned it? What history might it reveal?
He planned to inspect the coin after dinner. But at the dining room table, he couldn't resist telling his parents and teenage sister, Jennifer, about his afternoon. “Let us see the coin, come on, let us see it,” the curious Jennifer demanded.
Scott reached into his pants pocket and presented the piece for everyone to inspect. “It's really old and significant. That's what Professor Papadopoulos, I mean Dr. Pop, said,” Scott explained as he passed it around the table.
Mr. Tennyson commented on its weight. “This is hefty. I wouldn't want to have a change purse filled with theses,” he observed. “These would really weigh down a person.”
“Let me look,” Jennifer insisted as she reached for the coin. Mr. Tennyson passed it to her and she quickly confirmed its weightiness. “Man, this as heavy as a silver dollar,” she exclaimed. “It's so brown—maybe from age, but maybe that's its original color. Some of the design has been worn away, probably from centuries of handling. And you can see here on the back, it seems to be worth 12 D. But I don't know exactly what that means. Can you understand this, mom?” Jennifer asked.
Taking the coin from her daughter, Mrs. Tennyson quickly recognized what she held in her hand. She had studied the French language and French history in college and had no trouble translating the words embossed on the coin. “This is French money. You can see by the date struck on the back that it was minted in 1791,” she explained. “As you can see, too, on the front there is a profile of a man who is identified by the writing surrounding his head: Louis XVI Roi des Francois. That means: Louis XVI King of the French. But what makes it really intriguing is that date,” she added. “This coin was issued a few years after the French Revolution began. It's from revolutionary France, one of the most significant times in modern history.”
Scott was impressed. He had read a little about the French Revolution. He knew that it was a major event in bringing liberty and democracy to Europe, although he didn't know exactly how and why. He also recalled that it was a bloody event that lasted many years and resulted in warfare throughout Europe and even the Near East. Moreover, Scott knew that the French Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and all the turmoil his rule represented.
“Just think,” Scott exclaimed, “Napoleon himself might have handled this coin when it was new.”
“Look at the back of the coin,” Mrs. Tennyson said. “There are more words and images. You can plainly see the phrases LA NATION LA LOI LE ROI engraved around the top edge. These mean THE NATION THE LAW THE KING.” She continued, “Around the bottom it says AN 3 DE LA LIB, which means YEAR 3 OF LIBERTY. That, of course, means the coin was issued in the third year of the Revolution which began in July 1789—or, obviously, during the second half of 1791.”
“I think the 12 D signifies that the value of the coin was 12 deniers. As I recall, the denier was a unit of money in France for centuries,” Mrs. Tennyson remarked. “But I'm sorry, Scott, I don't know what the figures in the center of the coin represent. I see a little cap situated above a vertical bundle of sticks. There is also a wreath of some type. I guess you'll have to dig up that information on your own.”
For the next week Scott spent many hours trying to learn everything about the French coin. He relied heavily on his computer and its internet connection. Through several search engines and websites, Scott compiled a detailed account of the French Revolution, including pictures of various coins that circulated in the first years of that cataclysmic event. He discovered that the word DUVIVIER engraved on the coin was placed there by Benjamin Duvivier, the Engraver General of French Mints from 1774 to 1791. He was also the man who designed this coin.
Scott also learned that the letter A—found standing alone below the portrait of Louis XVI—meant that this coin had been struck at the mint in Paris. And a small pellet embossed to the left of that letter signified that the coin was struck after mid-September 1791.
As for the representations that his mother failed to recognize, the young researcher determined that they were cultural symbols with important meanings for the people of the time. Much as he had with the tapestries hanging in The History Shoppe, Scott was able to interpret the connotations of the symbols on the coin. For example, he found that the wreath was comprised of intertwined oak leaves. This symbolized victory. The wreath of oak leaves appeared as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. It was a reward for champions, such as athletes, warriors, political leaders, and the like.
The small cone-shaped hat with the sagging tip was even more interesting to Scott. It was called a Phrygian cap and it represented liberty. This image had passed from ancient Phrygia where it originated in the first millennium B.C. Significantly, it became associated with human liberty in the first century A.D. when it emerged as fashion worn by emancipated slaves who had been granted freedom by their masters in the Roman Empire.
Later civilizations used the cap as a sign, including the Normans at the time of their conquest of Britain in the eleventh century. As an image of liberty through revolution, it was used by American colonials during their war for independence. It even appeared on the earliest currency of the infant United States.
Then there were the bundled sticks. Scott uncovered the fact that they, too, emerged from ancient Rome. Called fasces, they signified the power of life and death found in the laws of the state. The sticks were, more correctly, birch rods with protruding axes. They represented corporeal punishment (the rod) and capital punishment (the axe), the range of punishment awaiting those who broke the law. Through the centuries the image came to mean law that was strong and legitimate. The fact that the fasces emerged in ancient Rome added an aura of majesty that reinforced their intended message in revolutionary France.
So, as Scott deduced, the coin told the world much about France in 1791. The coin said France was now organized around principles of liberty and laws. France celebrated the achievement of liberty as a victory. And all this had some spiritual relationship of the Revolution to the glory that had been the Roman Republic.
Scott's web surfing brought even more understanding of this piece of money. This message of revolutionary freedom was strongly reinforced by the writing on the money. That curious phrase, “King of the French,” was radical, Scott learned. It told the world that Louis XVI was no longer King of France, as if France were his personal possession. France was made of people. The French citizenry was the nation, the people were France, and Louis was their King, but by the will of the people.
Then were the three specific abstractions: The Nation, The Law, and The King. In that order, the coin communicated that this was a new social arrangement. The French had formed a bold new society. First and foremost came the people, the nation; second, the legal arrangements under which these free people lived, the law. Only then came the monarchy: desired by, but not paramount to, the people and their laws. This was a profound social statement, a radical reevaluation of the way politics had existed for centuries.
The coin didn't tell Scott everything he wanted to know. In fact, it triggered a search for more information. It led him to his local library where he consulted written accounts of the first years of the French Revolution. Here, he discovered that power was seized from the old nobility and its church allies by members of a new social class, the bourgeoisie. These were middle class citizens who were merchants, lawyers, bankers, traders, and the like. They were firmly supportive of the new economic system sweeping much of Western Europe, the economic system called capitalism. The old economy was primarily agricultural; the bourgeoisie lived in cities and made their livings in urban professions and by investing in various economic enterprises. By 1789 this capitalist class possessed great wealth and social responsibility, but it had little political power. The French Revolution was about wresting political power from the old regime and bringing it to this emergent bourgeoisie, this new middle-class.
One of the first actions of the revolutionary commoners was to relegate King Louis XVI to a ceremonial role. They insisted that Louis was no longer the absolute monarch, King of France by the God's appointment. He was instead only King of the French. And, very importantly, he was not above the law.
In their first weeks of revolt in 1789, the rebels wrote and approved a monumental Declaration of the Rights of Man, a written manifesto reminiscent of what Thomas Jefferson and the American revolutionaries proclaimed in their Declaration of Independence thirteen years earlier. In the French document, the revolutionaries set forth the fundamental human rights possessed by all people—not just citizens of France, but people everywhere in the world.
With the Declaration of the Rights of man in place, the revolutionaries then wrote a constitution for the nation. It put great limits on royal power and made an elected parliament the source of future laws and national action. This document was signed by the King on the first anniversary of the revolt. Louis XVI would remain King only as long as he obeyed the laws of the new state.
There had been violence early on. There was fighting in Paris and other large cities. Peasant uprisings against the old feudal landlords in rural France were widespread. But these outbreaks were soon quelled and power rested with the middle-class lawmakers. Everything on the coin proclaimed that France was now a liberal and modern nation.
The young historian quickly became enthralled with the French Revolution as a field of study. Although he was prepared to discuss the coin with Professor Papadopoulos after a few days of research, he continued his exploration of this crucial period in Western Civilization. He even missed his favorite television programs, preoccupied as he was with gathering as much information as possible about the Revolution.
He learned about the foreign kings and princes who felt threatened by the shift of political power to the hands of the new powerbrokers in France. These royal leaders feared that the French model would spark upheavals in their own kingdoms. Fanning the flames of war, too, Scott learned, were many noblemen who had fled France and saw their lands seized and their powers curtailed by the new government in Paris. These nobles were persistent voices demanding that foreign countries invade France, crush the revolution, and return their confiscated property and their lost social privileges.
But, there was another side. In his search, Scott encountered revolutionary agitators within France who wished to spread the gospel of the Revolution by waging war throughout Europe. These radicals felt that the last remnants of feudal Europe should be destroyed and democratic regimes should be established everywhere—by force if necessary. In 1792, both sides had their wishes fulfilled.
From that year until the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, revolutionary France was continually at war. Within the nation there was a bloody civil war fought in the central provinces of the country. Outside, the Prussians and Austrians took the lead in battling France. Eventually Great Britain, Spain, Holland, and many of the Italian states joined the anti-French alliance.
Before it was over, France had evolved from a Monarchy to a Constitutional Monarchy to a Republic and eventually an Empire. As for Louis and his royal dynasty, the House of Bourbon, that ended abruptly. In 1792 he and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, attempted to flee France for asylum in enemy Prussia. Captured near the border, they were returned to Paris and imprisoned. A year and a half later, with France now organized as an aggressive democratic Republic, Louis and his wife were tried and convicted of capital crimes. By a vote of 361 to 360 the national legislature sentenced the royal family the guillotine. The one-vote verdict was swiftly carried out. The King and Queen were beheaded in January 1793.
To Scott, the pace of events in the French Revolution was frantic and complicated. He knew he would not have time to investigate every aspect of the era, but he wanted to impress Professor Papadopoulos. He figured that he would learn as much as possible until Wednesday arrived.
Scott was also impressed with this new approach to comprehending history. He never thought that spending a week with an old brown coin could reveal so much about the past. And he never knew that learning history could be so much fun.
|Copyright © 2009 J. Fred MacDonald-All Rights Reserved.|