Sunday, September 07, 2008

God's penny

A bit of fallout from the trip to Leiden that I hadn't mentioned is that Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood gave me a "Godspenning" -- literally, "God's penny" -- that she had come across in her collecting. This is an interesting variation on one of the common types of "finger" or "ring" rosaries that I wrote about awhile back.

Here's what it looks like. The photo shows both sides of the same coin.


(Many thanks to Henk 't Jong, of 't Scapreel, for his help with the translation and background on this.)

The text is (not surprisingly) in Dutch. Here's what it says.

On the front:


Heer wat wilt U dat ik doen zal
"Lord, what do you want me to do?"
This is accompanied by a rooster, symbolizing morning.

GOD red ons uit de nood! Geef vrede aan de wereld.
"God, save us from distress. Give peace to the world."
This has a sun, symbolizing (I think) noon.

HEER blijf bij mij - het wordt nacht
"Lord stay with me, night is coming."
This has a crescent moon, symbolizing night.

On the back:


Wie u vervolgt, vervolgt MIJ.
"Who persecutes you, persecutes Me."
This side has a cross made of barbed wire.

Around the edge on the front side are ten small bumps and an eleventh, larger bump -- so this can be used to count the prayers of the rosary. On the back, in tiny letters, one in each point of the star, it says GODSPENNING, and "58" at the base of the cross.

Henk says:

"The 58 means that it dates from 1958. At this time and a bit later it was sold door to door for 1 guilder to help persecuted and displaced 'Volksdeutscher' (German nationals in Slavic countries) from the east of Europe (from behind the Iron Curtain) to the west who were living in very poor circumstances in abandoned hovels, bombed out buildings, bunkers and barracks. They were made by a religious group called 'Oostpriesterhulp' (Eastern priests help) and distributed through parochial networks. Nowadays they are religious collectors' items, but on our national E-bay site, Marktplaats, they often go for €10 or less."

Obviously, this little pocket accessory can be used to count the prayers of the conventional rosary. The inscription, however, makes me wonder whether some particular devotion may have been intended by it, perhaps at morning, noon and night, reciting one of the three inscriptions on the front of the coin each time.

When I see a simple devotional object like this, I always wonder whether there are any older historical versions. So far, I haven't found one. All I've come up with is several references to something quite different with the same name. In both English and (Henk tells me) Dutch, the "God's penny" is the symbolic deposit of one penny paid to conclude an agreement to buy something. Once the "God's penny" has been handed over, neither party can back out of the deal. It's also called an "earnest-penny" in English.

This seems likely to have originated as a pre-Christian custom, to invoke the blessing of the gods on the transaction -- and, presumably, their wrath on anyone who breaks the bargain. There is a Latin word for it, arrabo, which is discussed by the first-century AD author Aulus Gellius in one of his Attic Nights essays. I ran across this via Google Books, which had this charming footnote in a 1795 translation of the Attic Nights by William Belloe:

"The arrha was the earnest-penny given in bargains. Barthius says it is a Hebrew word: Arrabo vero vox pure Hebraica est -- Venantius Fortunatus, a [saint and] Latin poet [from the late 6th century], calls the death of Christ arrham salutis, the earnest-penny of salvation."

Dragging this fascinating topic back kicking and screaming to paternosters, however...

It occurs to me that the relatively modern Godspenning does have something relevant to say. I've noticed in my research that people who aren't especially well informed about medieval artifacts can miss some very relevant details in a painting, details which may have significance, simply because they don't recognize what they're looking at. For instance, you might mis-identify Catherine Pole's rosary beads here as a decorative belt, and miss their religious meaning. (A second look reveals that she is actually holding them in her hand, not wearing them.) A portrait of an Englishwoman conspicuously holding rosary beads after King Henry VIII's break with Rome is certainly significant!

Catherine Pole 1546

My outstanding example of understanding what you're looking at, however, is this painting, where Saint Joseph is holding something in one hand that looks like a rather peculiar leather belt with round scales on it.

Because I know what I'm looking at, I can identify this as a type of prayer counter, what I usually call a "disk rosary." (These are a current research project of mine, by the way, so if anyone else sees one of these, I'd appreciate knowing about it. I have less than a dozen examples.)

Now that we know what the modern Godspenning looks like, it will be interesting to see whether anything that looks like it shows up in a medieval context. Perhaps somewhere out there, someone will find an otherwise inexplicable something that looks like a little toothed gear, or a notched coin, and it will turn out to be... this.