What coins and medals say about epidemics 24. May 2023

What we can learn from coins and medals goes far beyond discovering hidden hoards or studying the economic consequences of events. Such artefacts also tell us about societies’ beliefs, hopes and fears. In the ancient world, for instance, deities of healing such as Asclepius (known in Rome as Aesculapius) or Hygieia (in Rome: Salus) were not just worshipped in temples, but also depicted on coins, especially in times of terrible diseases or epidemics.

Bronzemedaille, deren Relief den heiligen Asklepios zeigt. Rechts hält er einen großen, fast keulenartigen Stab in Richtung des Bodens, mit der sich um diesen windenden Schlange (Asklepios- oder Äskulapstab), vor seiner Linken steht der kleine Telesphoros mit Kapuze und Umhang. Die Inschrift lautet: "ECOLES DE MEDECINE".

There is a very good chance that coins with motifs of this kind were used as amulets to protect against epidemics. The legends inscribed on them do not refer directly to a particular epidemic, however, but are broadly dedicated to the health of the emperor (Salus Augusti) or to good health in general. Many of the symbols that are today still associated with medicine and healing have their origins in ancient times. Probably the most well-known is the Rod of Asclepius, with a snake curling around it. The snake represented the deities of healing; it was associated with rebirth and immortality but could also be seen as a symbol of life and death. There was a good reason why the Ancient Greek word “pharmakon” meant not just “remedy” but also “poison”.

While no mediaeval numismatic artefacts have survived that directly relate to the Black Death, city medals appear during the early modern period with references to the plague. Unlike the coins from antiquity, these actually name the “plague years” on their obverse or reverse.

Zwei Seiten einer Goldmünze. Das Relief der Vorderseite zeigt ein Skelett mit Sense und Sichel neben einem Stammbaum stehend. Darüber steht: "PRAESTAT PUTARI QUAM CONCIDI" und darunter "ANNI FUNIESTI MEMORIA". Die Rückseite zeigt eine Art Altar auf der drei Bienenstöcke stehen, die von Bienen umschwärmt werden. Im Hintergrund sind in der Ferne links einige Bauern mit Karren und rechts zwei Segelschiffe zu sehen. Am Altar steht "REDDITIS ITINERIBUS COMMERCIO REDINTEGRATO HAMBURGUM RESURGENS" und oberhalb des Reliefs "VALENT SI VOLENT"

They often show the city or town hit by the disease, sometimes combining depictions of death with imagery representing rebirth. This is shown especially clearly by a medal from the Hanseatic city of Hamburg. On the obverse (front), Death is plucking leaves from the tree of life. On the reverse, beehives and departing ships represent the return of trading, and thus the end of the epidemic. The legend on the obverse, “Praestat putari quam concidi” (“Not cut down but cut back”) expresses the hope that Hamburg has survived the plague.

There are also city medals from during the 19th-century cholera epidemics. The images on these rarely focus on death, instead increasingly depicting care for the sick. The scenes portrayed on the medals become more relatable and personal, moving away from the fate of the town as a whole and thus becoming more moving as they reflect human vulnerability.

Eine Bronzemedaille deren Relief einen liegenden Kranken zeigt, der von einer Frau gehalten wird, die ihm aus einem Gefäß etwas zu trinken gen Mund reicht. Die Bekleidung und Gefäße haben eine antike Anmutung. Darüber steht "EPIDEMIA COLERICA 1884 IN GENOVA".

Over the centuries, the way we process epidemics has changed. This is especially clear from the medals that come after the early modern period. There is a certain continuity between the plague medals from this era and ancient depictions of the deities, the difference being that those deities are replaced by St. Sebastian and St. Roch or scenes from the Bible. As the state healthcare system increasingly developed, religious motifs began to fade into the background, but they have still not gone entirely. An emphasis on scientific research and on nursing can still be seen in the coins and medals minted during the coronavirus pandemic. Many offer thanks to healthcare workers or are dedicated to scientists.

Medaille mit Ordensband: In der Mitte der Münze befindet sich der Äskulapstab mit Schlange vor einer Perspektivansicht der Erde, in deren Zentrum Nordamerika (?) liegt. Das Motiv ist von Lorbeer umgeben. Im äußeren Ring steht im oberen Halbkreis "HONORARY SERVICE", im unteren "The fight against the pandemic".

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