Power struggles between European sovereigns and a simple twist of fate led to the founding of the original Vienna Mint 825 years ago.
Three Anniversary coins in silver brilliantly illustrate the founding of the Vienna Mint and tell its fascinating story. In 1191, two crusaders, Duke Leopold V of Austria and Kind Richard ‘The Lionheart’ of England, got into an argument during the capture of the city of Acre. In December 1192, on his way back home from the Holy Land, Richard was taken prisoner by Leopold on the outskirts of Vienna. The huge ransom in silver, which was extorted from the English people in return for Richard’s release, was used by Leopold to found both the stronghold of Wiener Neustadt and the original Mint in Vienna, where the first silver Viennese Pfenning was struck 825 years ago. The fact that we are celebrating our anniversary by issuing a series of silver coins could not be more fitting.
In the commemorative year we're not only issuing three anniversary coins, but also offering plenty of reading material about the eventful history of the Vienna Mint. What has happened in these 825 years? Every month, we report on the coinage of past centuries and provide anecdotes about the fortunes of those entrusted with coin-making. Toward the end of the year, we will look ahead and discuss the monetary system and coinage of the future.
Beginning of the 18th century until the establishment of the Mint on the Heumarkt: from a coin collector who was emperor to an emperor who printed as much paper currency as he needed.
The Principal Mint
The reign of Emperor Charles VI, which lasted from 1711 to 1740, had a special significance for the Vienna Mint. The emperor himself was a coin and medal collector. Under his reign the Vienna Mint ultimately assumed a leading position and the name "Principal Mint" became established. He had the minting operations, whose headquarters were still on Wollzeile at the time, equipped with new machinery and he brought artists and specialists from abroad to Vienna. He founded an academy of engraving, which was to accomplish significant achievements in coin engraving and medal design in Austria in the second half of the 18th century.
The coinage convention
In 1752, during the reign of Maria Theresa, the Vienna Mint relocated to Himmelpfortgasse, the High Baroque former winter palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy.
The Vienna Mint had to render special services during coin reforms, as in the following situations: in 1753, in order to get the age-old problem of monetary debasement under control, a coin convention was signed with Bavaria, which most of the empire's lands gradually acceded. Thus not only was the coinage standardised in the Habsburg hereditary lands; international payments were facilitated as well. The convention standard existed in Austria until 1857.
Copper coinage was also introduced under Maria Theresa in 1760. The traditional kreuzer had been reduced to a tiny silver coin, thus from now on it was minted as a stately and beautiful copper coin.
In 1762 the first paper currency in Austria was issued by the Vienna Stadtbanco. Thus additional funds for the war effort could be raised without having to debase the coin standard again.
When paper currency appeared
The reign of Emperor Franz II (1792-1835) meant a time of upheaval. The lengthy conflicts with France had catastrophic effects on the monetary system. War-related financing needs steadily grew. For years there had been an ideal source of coverage available: paper currency. Provided it was handled unscrupulously, the amount in circulation could be increased as desired. This rapidly growing crisis initially caused the gold and silver coins in circulation to disappear, and eventually even the copper coins were withheld and hoarded. After finally being convinced of the hopelessness of the situation, the emperor signed the patent of 20 February 1811, which amounted to the declaration of state bankruptcy.
The year 1814 brought the end of the war against France. A lasting solution to the financial crisis was sought. The creation of a national bank on the English or French model soon came under consideration. In 1816 the Austrian National Bank was founded as an independent stock corporation. Its main task was to redeem the enormous amount of inflationary paper currency and convert it into convention-standard currency. The loss of money for the population was ultimately over 90%. The money was no longer worth the paper on which it had been printed.
On the Heumarkt
In the 1830s, it was decided to build a central mint on the site of the gold and silver wire-drawing works and the adjoining square, which had served as coal storage for the Wiener Neustadt Canal. The intention was to construct a building that would unify the administration and scattered production facilities and workshops of the Vienna Mint and remedy the existing lack of space. The Classicist building was constructed between 1835 and 1837 based on the plans of Imperial and Royal Architect Paul Sprenger. At Heumarkt 1 minting has taken place up to the present day.
Text: Bernhard Seiter
This article is based on the explanations by Bernhard Koch in "Die Geschichte der Münzstätte Wien" in the book "Geld", edited by Wolfgang Häusler (Vienna, 1994), and in an anniversary volume from the year 1979 as well as in Helmuth Jungwirth's "Die Münzstätte Wien und das neuzeitliche Geldwesen in Österreich" (also in the aforementioned book).
In Vienna there's either wind or plague – Vienna ventosa aut venenosa – at least that's what's been said since the Middle Ages. In 1678, Vienna was again beset by the latter. Initially classified merely as "high fever," in late autumn the first cases of pestilence appeared in the district of Leopoldstadt. In July 1679, the number of deaths rose dramatically; the outbreak of plague was certain. The dead lay in the streets for days. Only a few people were willing to work as attendants to the sick and as gravediggers. Infected beds, straw and corpses piled up in front of Stubentor.
Arthur Fürnhammer writes: "In 1679 there was a plague, whose extent and degree of devastation approached that of the year 1348. Unlike in the Middle Ages, however, the plague also extended increasingly to princely circles. Emperor Leopold I fled with his entourage and took the plague with him in his refugee convoy, first to Prague, then to Linz. However, he survived the plague and thanked the Holy Trinity for this by erecting on the Vienna Graben a pillar, which is still known today as the Plague Column."
Nine months of isolation
The mint master at the time resorted to another strategy in order to effectively confront the plague; he came up with a plan that could be described as reverse quarantine: isolating certain individuals – not to protect society, but to separate himself and his staff as protection from the general public.
In 1994 "Die Münze" magazine quoted a chronicle: "Quite assuredly filled with the fullest confidence in the omnipotence and mercifulness of God, mint master Matthias Mittermayer von Waffenberg decided to enclose himself in the Mint together with all of the personnel under his control. He furnished the building with everything necessary for an extended period of time, and before the pestilence had spread in Vienna, all of the personnel, together with women and children, entered it. The front doors and the windows to the outside were walled up, leaving only very small openings to observe events outside the building and to be able to communicate with the outside..."
For nine months the Mint's team barricaded themselves inside; then, "all of the Mint's inhabitants emerged entirely unscathed and in good health - not a child was lost, not even an instance of illness had resulted among them." Those who were rescued then vowed to make an annual pilgrimage to Holy Trinity Church in Lainz. Why this church? Peter Pichlbauer, the fire protection officer at the Mint and organizer of the pilgrimage from 1995 to 2011: "I was once told that when it comes to life and limb, it's best to turn to the highest authority, the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The column on the Graben is also a Trinity column."
For 340 years
This episode in the history of the Mint has come a long way, establishing a tradition that has lasted for nearly three and a half centuries. As has been the case for 340 years, this year the pilgrimage will also take place on or around Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost. The pilgrimage fulfils a vow and offers the opportunity for a get-together outside the working day. In the 1990s, a high-ranking guest took part in the pilgrimage. Cardinal König visited the Austrian Mint on the occasion of the presentation of the medal commemorating the 850th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral. Pichlbauer: "On this occasion I told him about the pilgrimage. He was quite interested and said, 'If I'm still alive and well, I'll come.'" On 30 May 1996, he took part in the pilgrimage to Munich. He also joined the subsequent visit to the wine tavern.
It should also be pointed out that the pilgrimage on foot was resurrected in 1999 as well. Since then, there has been a small group that walks from the Mint at Heumarkt to Lainz every year. One can speculate about what led to that change of heart. Surely it recalled the meaning of a pilgrimage, as it involves a substantial degree of difficulty. The pilgrimage was decided upon in 1999 - as so often, but not always - at Wambacher, the local wine tavern. Another aspect of this pilgrimage is both practical and ecumenical: "When I speak of the church in Lainz, I mean the old parish church of Lainz, which was handed over to the Syrian Orthodox community by Cardinal König in 1974. The mass on the occasion of the pilgrimage is the only Catholic service in the year that takes place there." (Pichlbauer)
At six in the morning
Finally, we look to the year 1904 and the 225th pilgrimage. This anniversary was celebrated in a particularly festive manner. In a surviving invitation, it is announced that "the participants shall gather at 6.00 in the morning in the parish church of Mariahilf, where a holy mass will be said; then at 7.45 in the morning the procession will begin (...), with the Waller Crucifix, the flags, a statue of the Saviour and an offering and chalice encircled and carried by white-clad girls for the Holy Trinity Church in Lainz across Mariahilferstrasse, through the imperial palace of Schönbrunn to Lainz." Then the programme included an "anniversary mass for the Mint," afterward a break, then a sermon at 10.00, and finally solemn high Mass. "After giving thanks, the pilgrims then dispersed."
Text: Bernhard Seiter
In the Middle Ages, the first coins minted on what today is Austrian soil originated around the year 1000 in Salzburg. Minting did not take place in the east and southeast of Austria until the 12th century.
Johannes Hartner (of the Coin Cabinet in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) explains the connection between mintage and the political events of the time, as follows: "In 1155, Margrave Heinrich Jasomirgott (1141-1177) established Vienna as the new capital of the Babenberg March - the marcha orientalis. Just one year later, this region was separated from the Duchy of Bavaria and elevated to the independent Duchy of Austria, which resulted in Vienna's ascent as a new ducal residence. The Mint, however, was located in Krems, the former seat of the Babenbergs, where coins had been minted since 1110/20. When Styria fell to the Babenbergs in 1192, the Viennese merchants opened new trade routes to the south, and Vienna developed as a new centre for robust trade in goods on the Danube. In view of these new economic prospects, the founding of a ducal Mint in Vienna seemed to be only a matter of time."
Its origin in 1194 ushered in the period of the classic "Vienna Pfennigs," which were minted in Vienna and two other workshops in Enns and Wiener Neustadt. The "Vienna Pfennig" refers to the products of all three Mints.
The "recoined" currency
A curious feature of the mintage of the time was the periodic recoinage, the "renovatio monetae", which was carried out annually in Austria. In addition to the revenue, or seigniorage, that the mint masters generated from the mintage itself, recoinage, which was a kind of coinage tax, was another fiscal instrument for filling the sovereign coffers. It was also used to supply the Mint with the urgently needed precious metal. The old Vienna Pfennigs were taken out of circulation and, in return for an additional charge (!), had to be exchanged for new coins. In practice, however, this compulsory exchange only played a role in payments to the ducal chamber or on official market days, while the old Pfennigs, which retained their value in silver, were used elsewhere in payment transactions. In order to facilitate control by the tax authorities, the new Pfennigs had to be clearly distinguished from the old Pfennigs, which resulted in their diverse range of images. "The Vienna Pfennigs of the 13th and 14th centuries reveal a wide variety of motifs. They extend from depictions of rulers, motifs of flora and fauna to early forms of coats of arms - the lion and eagle are found especially frequently." (Hartner)
When the annual recoinage in Austria began cannot be said with any certainty, but it has been established that there was considerable popular criticism of it as early as under Duke Frederick the Quarrelsome, the duke of Austria and Styria from 1230 to 1246. It was Duke Rudolf IV who finally renounced the annual recoinage in 1359 and introduced a beverage tax instead.
In the second half of the thirteenth century, the European monetary landscape had fundamentally changed. Growing economic and commercial needs were no longer met with the small Pfennigs. Outside of Austria the minting of coins of greater value had begun.
Austria kept its Pfennig-based currency, but used larger foreign denominations in trade. Despite the new gold and silver trade coins, the economic strength of the Pfennig currencies had not yet broken; the Vienna Pfennig reached its greatest distribution in the course of the 14th century (Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Salzburg, Eastern Bavaria, Styria, Carinthia).
The schinderling economy
In 1362, the aforementioned Rudolf IV fatally decreed that the future standard for the Pfennigs would be based on the "increase in the price of silver"; that is, on the market price of silver. The risk involved in this arrangement was significant, as the standard had to be continually redefined with the fluctuating prices of precious metals, which destabilized the Pfennig's value. That would considerably shatter the confidence of the population in the currency.
The entire first half of the 15th century was marked by steadily growing inflation. This was due, on the one hand, to the immeasurable revenue that the mint masters squeezed from their sovereign right to coin money; on the other hand, it was fuelled by the low-value Pfennigs that flowed to Austria from abroad and squeezed the better coinage out of the market.
The crisis escalated when Emperor Frederick III (1452-1493) had vast quantities of inferior Pfennigs comprised almost entirely of copper produced to finance costly military campaigns. They were referred to by the population as "schinderlings." The schinderling economy reached its peak in 1460, when 3,600 Vienna Pfennigs had to be paid for a gold guilder. To compare: in 1455, one had to pay just 240 Pfennigs for a guilder.
Emperor Frederick was forced to yield to the pressure of the estates and to agree to a coinage reform. The new mint master, Niclas Teschler, immediately began minting five-grade Pfennigs, which had a standard of 313/1000. As a result, the monetary economy was consolidated as of 1463. In another reform, the Vienna Pfennig ultimately lost its quality as currency in 1481 and was reduced to a mere token. In its place came the gold guilder, which was supplemented by groschen and kreuzer in silver.
Text: Bernhard Seiter
This article follows in large part the explanations by Bernhard Koch in "Die Geschichte der Münzstätte Wien" and Michael Alrams in "Der Wiener Pfennig"; both in the book "Geld," edited by Wolfgang Häusler (Vienna, 1994).