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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Changing Money and "Spending a Penny"

Plan after M. Burgoyne, Mamluk Jerusalem. An Architectural Study, London, 1987

In some cultures, to speak directly is regarded as ill-mannered. Indeed, sometimes, to speak at all is frowned upon. When as a child, some treat was placed on the table by my Victorian-era born grandmother, she would, only half-teasingly, say to us children – "If you ask - you don’t get… and if you don't ask – you don't want", which inevitably left us wondering (not for very long of course) what we should do. It was, I think, merely another form of that favourite Victorian doctrine that children should be seen but not heard.

But even for adults it is not always easy to know how to express oneself. People sometimes choose coded and convoluted ways to state even their basic needs or thoughts. This was true in the past, and has had something of a revival in recent years with the advent of political correctness (a sometimes highly positive thing in that it promotes a greater consideration of one's fellow human beings and the situations which challenge them, and sometimes a negative thing in that it can encourage people to ignore challenges that need to be faced).

The now somewhat antiquated phase "to spend a penny" was regarded in some places and by certain social classes as a more acceptable way of stating that one wished to go to the toilet. This derived from the requirement there once was in London and some other cities, of placing a penny in the slot of the door of a public toilet in order to patronise it. How appropriate then that what today serves as a public lavatory in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem (and which, by-the-way, requires no charge) may have been in the twelfth century, a place where pennies indeed changed hands.

Frankish Jerusalem was not an important commercial centre. That position was held by the great port cities of Acre and Tyre, where East-West commerce was centred, and which were inundated in the trading seasons with international visitors. However, Jerusalem, although off the commercial route, was the greatest single destination of pilgrimage, and as such was likewise inundated by foreign travellers in the festive seasons. Pilgrims arriving in the Holy City from different parts of the medieval Christian world, would often have the need to convert some of their foreign currency into local coins, and this was done in the city's various exchanges.

There are records of some of the money exchanges that were active in the medieval city. The Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani, a summary of documents and letters during the crusader period, contains a reference to the square of the money changers (platea nummulariorum) where various people, including the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre possessed money changers' tables (mensae nummulariorum), surprisingly perhaps considering the Church's view of such activities. It also mentions tables of money changers (tabulae cambii) apparently located in a postern opened in the wall on Mount Sion, known as the porta Beaucayre. City gates were convenient and logical locations for exchanges, although this particular gate was a minor entrance, and there may well have been additional exchanges in the larger gates. The Hospitaller order appears to have possessed an exchange above a bakery in a house on Mount Sion Street, in the heart of the city, and the main exchanges were also located in that area which was the commercial hub of medieval Jerusalem. The contemporary French text known as Ernoul refers to two of these: the Syrian Exchange, presumably where money from Eastern countries could be exchanged, and the Latin Exchange for western currencies. The location of these two exchanges is described in enough detail to enable us to locate where they had been:

Reaching the [Latin] Exchange where David's Street ended, you came to Mount Sion Street. Leaving the Exchange, you found a covered street, vaulted over, known as the Street of Plants, and here were sold all the vegetables, fruits and spices of the town.


Coming in by the main St Stephen's Gate [today Damascus Gate]… the street which ran to the Mount Sion Gate, was called St Stephen's Street. Reaching the Syrians' Exchange you came to Sepulchre Street on the right…

Twelfth century maps of the city show an exchange labelled "cambium monete" at the very heart of the city, where David's Street/Temple Street (the Former Cardo) intersects with St Stephen's Street/Mount Syon Street (the former Decumanis).

Where, based on these descriptions and maps, we would expect to find the Latin Exchange, there still exists a medieval structure appropriate in form to have functioned as a money exchange. This is part of a larger medieval complex known today as the Khan al-Sultan. Its layout is like that of a miniature covered market street, with a vaulted passage, on either side of which are six small recesses or alcoves. Its current use as a public lavatory may have some hidden significance, relating perhaps to the transience of wealth or the real value of money, but I will leave that up to the philosophers.

The above references from Ernoul are from Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century. The Rothelin Continuation of the History of William of Tyre, trans. Janet Shirley, Aldershot and Burlington, 1999, pp. 14, 19. The reference to the Hospitaller exchange on Mount Syon Street is from G. Bresc-Bautier (ed.), Le Cartulaire du Chapitre du Saint-Sépulchre de Jérusalem, Paris,1984, no. 68, p. 165. The Revised Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani is now available on the web - For references to the Jerusalem's exchanges in this source see RRR nos. 169, 276, 560..

(For those of my readers disappointed in finding that in spite of its title, this post is not about the intriguing topic of latrines, I will indeed return to discuss that in the near future.)

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