A Bracteate (from the Latin bractea, a thin piece of metal) is a thin single-sided gold medal with a stamped or repoussé decoration based on ancient Roman and Byzantine coins.
They were doubtless the most curious and interesting types of coins among the pfennigs of the German Middle Ages.
The gold bracteates were made mainly in the 5th to 7th century AD and they conveyed both the sophisticated taste and high social status of their owners, who wore them as fine jewelry and hoarded them as treasure.
The manufacture of bracteates probably originated with Roman and Byzantine portrait medallions, presented by the emperor as gifts to important figures. Many of the bracteates feature ruler portraits of Germanic kings with characteristic hair that is plaited back and depictions of figures from Germanic mythology influenced to varying extents by Roman coinage while others feature entirely new motifs.
The motifs are commonly those of Germanic mythology and some are believed to be Germanic pagan icons giving protection or for divination.
The diameter of the bracteates can vary from 10 to 50 mm and the weight is mostly between 0.05 and 1.00 g. They are only 0.05–0.20 mm thin, making them the most fragile coins in monetary history.
Although the leaf-thin bracteates are the most fragile coins in monetary history, they were the main coinage for almost two centuries (1140–1320) in large parts of medieval Europe – especially in Sweden, Norway, Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Switzerland, Moravia and the Baltic countries.
Bracteates were issued for local circulation, but they never achieved acceptance in economically developed regions. The decline of the bracteates as the main coinage and short-lived coins, in general, depended on developing economies, growing cities and increased local and inter-regional trade.
When monetization increased, and it became harder to handle re-coinage (around 1300), the bracteates lost their function as the principal coin.
For several decades, the basic reference work on bracteates was by Mogens Mackeprang, who published a catalog of them arranged geographically.
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In the 1960s, the German historian Karl Hauck, German runologist Klaus Düwel, and Danish archaeologist Morten Axboe have worked to create a complete corpus of the early Germanic bracteates from the migration period, complete with large-scale photographs and drawings.