Medieval Change, Cut Dirham

Date: c. 750 - 1300 CE
Iberian Peninsula

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Item Description:

Both the "one piece" and the "three to four piece" options will have the same total weight (just over 1 gram).

These medieval Islamic dirhams were cut into pieces for a very practical reason: making change.

During the Middle Ages, providing change posed a considerable challenge to merchants due to the lack of smaller coin denominations. Because of this, it became common to physically cut coins into smaller pieces to meet the exact values of transactions. In England, for example, a silver penny could be cut into halves or quarters to create halfpennies and farthings. The cut pieces continued to be considered legal tender, and their value was proportionate to the size of the piece relative to the original coin.

This practice was also common during the era of Al-Andalus (711 - 1492 CE) on the Iberian Peninsula, when Islamic rule introduced an array of cultural and economic changes in modern day Spain, Portugal, and parts of France. Silver dirhams, the dominant coin of this period, were routinely cut to create smaller denominations, enabling transactions of lesser value.

This was a practice born out of necessity, in a time preceding more sophisticated minting methods and a wider variety of coin denominations. It allowed greater flexibility in commerce, despite being a somewhat crude method. However, it also opened avenues for fraudulent activities such as clipping or shaving coins for the precious metals. Small pieces of metal could be clipped off of coins without altering the face value, which could then be melted down into ingots and sold. As minting technology progressed and more coin denominations were introduced, the need for cutting coins gradually diminished, and the practice eventually phased out.

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