A blog written by Museum Remote Volunteer Amanda Ciccone.
Epping Forest District Museum (EFDM) would like to highlight a recent acquisition, a James I penny, that was previously modified as a love token. I will describe this penny and its background, explain the love token coin phenomenon, and finally, explore the ways to dig deeper into the emotions that surround it.
This pierced, silver James I penny, struck in the first quarter of the 1600s, was found by a metal detectorist in 2017 at North Weald Basset, Essex near Latton Priory. The obverse, or front of the penny, has a Tudor rose and the legend surrounding it I D G ROSA SINE SPINA, which translates to James by the Grace of God a rose without a thorn. The reverse has an image of a thistle as well as the words encircling TUETUR UNITA DEUS, translating to May God protect these united kingdoms.
In addition to its antiquity, what makes this penny special is its S shape; being bent in this way, it was concluded in the Treasure process that the coin was used as a love token and not currency. Its unique shape, the single piercing at the top, and it being made of more than 10% silver, makes the penny ‘treasure’ as defined in the Treasure Act of 1996.
There are endless examples of love as manifested through artefacts throughout history, though this trend of turning a coin into a love token, like in the style of the James I penny, appears to have existed off and on from the post-Medieval to modern eras . The purpose of bending the coin wavily would be to avoid spending it accidently, though we do not see every token changed in this way. Other modifications we might see on a love token are text engravings (initials, small phrases), shape and dot indentations, and the relief purposely rubbed away. The single piercing at the top of this penny indicates that it was likely worn as jewellery.
Regarding purpose, there were several, the most obvious being to make a love declaration. A suitor would give a token to their “crush”, and the reciprocity of affections would be known by whether the coin was kept or not. A love token, though, could mean a good luck charm, be used to make birth and marriage announcements, or act as a keepsakes in the event of a death. There were even ones called convict love tokens in the 18th and19th centuries, where prisoners in England being sent to Australia and elsewhere customised coins for their loved ones, to be kept as personal mementos.
To discover what a love token coin meant to those who used them – that is to say, what emotions they might have felt – has its challenges. For one, attempting to uncover an individual story behind a coin is sometimes a success, but sometimes not. Even if there is an inscription or initials, this will often be too generic to yield more information. Furthermore, a coin being a movable object – not a static piece of architecture, say – gives a coin infinite possibilities of definition relative to its immediate environment.
How else can we elevate the discussion to include emotions? One way is to find more context to put love token coins in, which I believe means drawing attention to the role of silver in England from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Silver was known as being easily bendable, which proved problematic in England over the centuries. In the 17th century, coins could be clipped, meaning, one could shave off the silver, boil it down into bullion, and use as counterfeit. English silver at one point had more value abroad than domestically. The English government attempted to face these challenges through the Great Recoinage of 1696. However, the updated currency transition was slower than expected, and the counterfeit activities continued through the following century and beyond, until the Great Recoinage of 1816.
It is interesting to note, then, that while some people saw an illegal opportunity in silver, others used it for the more innocuous purpose of creating an emotional connection with another. Understanding this does at least two things: For one, it makes us consider the practical reasons for choosing a coin as the medium for a love token (an accessible object that is easy to manipulate). It is also a reminder that the same object can produce varying emotions: love, loss, and greed to name a few.
It should be acknowledged that archaeologists since a few decades have been incorporating emotions into their discipline, and those experts even acknowledge the difficulties of studying an unwritten, unseen entity. They have posed worthy questions and have encouraged the usage of a uniform vocabulary, though, in helping to look at an artefact from other angles. The discussion regarding the relationship between emotions and material things or culture, (Tarlow; Harris and Sørensen) and the action of exchange as emotional (Thomas Maschio, as explained by Harris and Sørensen) are particularly relevant, and very compelling literature.
Finally, there is a folklore quality that surrounds love token coins: while there is much that is lost over time, we recognise the feelings in regarding a love token without quite knowing how to prove or explain it. The number of societies, coin collecting websites, Facebook groups, and YouTube videos that focus on love token coins was noteworthy in researching for this article, and I believe their existence reinforces the idea of love token coins as a living, yet bodiless culture.
And so, while there may be much that we do not and cannot know about the emotions that surround a love token coin, perhaps this might not be seen as an obstacle. We can, instead, be encouraged to take emotions out of the equation and go in a different direction, such as studying the context of an artefact. There is potential to develop ideas and theories that might not otherwise be possible.
On the other side of the coin, the emotions that love tokens conjure in us in the present day, without knowing an individual token’s origins, are part of what sustains their legacy.
The following articles were highly influential in the writing of this blog and in considering every possible angle on the topic of studying emotions and artefacts:
- Tarlow, S. 2012. The Archaeology of Emotion and Affect, The Annual Review of Anthropology, 41:169-85
- Harris, O.J.T. and Sørensen, T.F. 2010. Rethinking emotion and material culture, Archaeological Dialogues, Volume 17, Issue 2, Cambridge University Press, pp. 145-163
 Though the research for this article focused on the love token coin trend in the English-speaking world, it could very well have been a practice in other communities, or something close to it, a coin being such a common object across so many cultures.
 Interestingly, convict love tokens coins seemed to tend to contain more specific information – complete names and dates – than other types of love tokens.
 Perhaps the same person engaged in both activities, making this discussion more complicated!