Michael Metcalf, a distinguished numismatist who passed away at 85, had a keen understanding of the quantitative significance of medieval coins long before historians or other experts in numismatics appreciated it. In the 1960s, Michael conducted a detailed study of the coins of Offa, the eighth-century king of Mercia, which enabled him to assert that these coins were struck in much greater numbers than anyone had realized. As a result, he suggested that early Anglo-Saxon coins were far too numerous to have been reserved for the use of an elite. Instead, the numbers indicated that there was a much greater degree of Dark Age monetization than previously assumed.
Initially, the established orthodoxy struggled to come to terms with this revelation, leading to debates which at times became heated enough to be reported in the national press. However, Michael remained resolute in the face of criticism from influential scholars until the appearance of the metal detector in the 1980s confirmed Michael’s arguments. The discovery of large numbers of medieval coins from all over the country helped make the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where Michael was keeper of the Heberden coin room from 1982 to 1998, a leader in this field.
Michael also used evidence from single coin finds to map and quantify early Anglo-Saxon gold coins (thrymsas) and silver pennies (sceattas) of the seventh and eighth centuries, culminating in his three-volume work Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum (1993-94). He demonstrated that over a quarter of the English money stock consisted of similar silver pennies struck in the Low Countries, indicating a huge balance of payments surplus likely due to exports of wool as early as the eighth century. Anglo-continental trade links played an important role in English wealth from at least the eighth century through to modern times.
Michael also analyzed more than 600 English single finds from this period as he tried to answer a number of questions about the nature of the circulation and the structure and distribution of the coinage in England. He identified 39 key questions to explore, such as the relative importance of the various mints, the significance of foreign coins brought to England in trade, the changing volume of currency, and the distribution of single finds across the country. The fact that Anglo-Saxon coins of different weights circulated together opens up major questions about the value of money, including the role of royal authorization in establishing the value of money.
Michael was born in Newcastle to Thomas Metcalf, a Methodist minister, and Gladys (nee Moore), a former teacher. Although the family was from Yorkshire, they moved around according to his father’s ministry, and Michael grew up in Keighley, West Yorkshire. After attending the town’s grammar school, he spent a year in national service with the army before studying geography at St John’s College, Cambridge. His later numismatic work often reflected his knowledge of spatial and topographical approaches, and his understanding of multiple European languages helped him to expand his range of numismatic interests and the sources he used.
Michael’s numismatic doctorate on medieval Balkan coinage was supervised by Philip Grierson, a highly influential Cambridge historian and numismatic scholar. This thesis was quickly published in 1965 as Coinage in the Balkans 820-1355, followed by updated and expanded editions in 1970 and 2016.
From his childhood, Michael had a passion for collecting coins. He amassed an impressive personal collection of sceattas over the years. Many museums view curators having personal collections as a possible conflict of interest. However, the Ashmolean Museum, where Michael worked from 1963, did not prohibit this practice.
As Michael rose through the ranks from assistant keeper in the Coin Room to department keeper and fellow of Wolfson College in 1982, the museum undoubtedly benefited from his expertise and personal collection. Michael celebrated his 65th birthday by donating twelve sceattas found in the Oxford region to the museum’s collection. In 2015, he further gifted the museum with 90 carefully collected Adriatic and Balkan coins.
In 1996, Michael was granted the title of professor of numismatics of Oxford University. He was a prolific writer, having published nearly 250 scholarly articles and 23 books on the subject.
After retiring to his Yorkshire roots, Michael continued to write and never shied away from controversial topics. He held a deeply felt and quietly radical faith that he expressed through theological discussions pieces in his Christmas cards.
Michael’s wife, Dorothy, passed away in July. He is survived by their three children, four grandchildren, and two step-grandchildren. Michael will be remembered for his unwavering dedication to his profession and his kindness and generosity towards others.