I recently attended a meeting in which someone mentioned Austria’s 1780 Maria Theresa thaler coin. The silver-dollar size piece was extremely popular and circulated all over the world. The thaler unit was also the origin of our word dollar. With so many interesting facts about the coin, I could not resist. I had to acquire one.
I soon learned that they were not difficult to find since many are still around. They were struck all over the Hapsburg Empire and are still produced (but not as money) in Vienna, Austria. Demand for the 1780 coin was so great that it was minted well into the twentieth century.
A Coin that Circulated All Over the World
Indeed, the MT thaler was more than just a popular national coin. It soon became a standard international trade currency, with its use extending far beyond places under Habsburg political control. It became a coin of endearment in areas where Austria had no colonies, direct influence or major trade ties.
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It was so extraordinary that everyone without a stable currency started to use it. The coin was struck with Austrian permission well into the twentieth century by mints in Birmingham, Bombay, Brussels, London, Paris, Rome and Utrecht. Nearly 400 million pieces circulated between 1751 and 2000. All the thalers retain the date 1780, which remained the same regardless of the actual mint date.
The MT thaler mainly circulated throughout Africa, the Arab world, Ethiopia and India, where it was valued for its stability and beauty. Some places in the Middle East reportedly still accept it as money in isolated bazaars. When Italian colonizers last century attempted to introduce a similar-looking coin in the Ethiopian region, the people rejected it and remained faithful to Maria Theresa. It is a shining example of strong silver money in modern fiat times.
What It Looks Like
It is an impressive and dazzling silver coin. Its face contains the profile of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who ruled Austria, Hungary and other domains in central Europe during the eighteenth century. The Empress is richly dressed and elaborately veiled as a widow after the death of the Emperor, her husband. She has a face of noble determination.
The back of the coin has a magnificent display of the Habsburg coat of arms with the double-headed eagle and the shields of the many areas over which she reigned. Even the coin’s edge is ornate with the engraved words clemencia and justicia to indicate a government marked by clemency and justice.
The Empress’s name is written on the thaler, and the two sides are filled with abbreviations in Latin. Thus, we find written M. THERESIA D. G. R. IMP. HU. BO. REG. on one side. The reverse reads ARCHID. AUST. DUX BURG. CO. TYR. 1780. The translation is “Maria Theresa, by the grace of God, Empress of the Romans, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Burgundy, Countess of Tyrol. 1780.”
Uplifted Into Another World
However, it was not these facts, fascinating though they might be, that compelled me to obtain my thaler. When it arrived in the mail, I quickly unwrapped it and was enthralled by its beauty, captivated by its history and uplifted into another world.
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The coin reflected something of the Habsburg charm and diplomacy that harmonized the many peoples under its thousand-year rule with all its marvels, charm and splendor. The person of Maria Theresa reflected a time, unlike our own, in which governments retained a personal and family character. She had the role of a mother to the peoples she ruled. She identified with these places, which are so well expressed by the inscriptions on the coin.
Maria Theresa was no saint, and the society around her was far from ideal. However, she possessed remnants of that Christian dignity and grandeur that uplifts the soul to think about the moral values, marvelous ceremony and incredible courtesy that marked all her society from top to bottom. By looking at the coin, we look toward that ideal Christian civilization that inspired Austrian culture. We are assumed by the grace, higher values and lumen Christi (light of Christ) that sustained that Christian order, not the defects that eventually dragged it down.
The thaler is forever 1780, before the brutal French Revolution and Terror that sought to destroy all things Christian and noble. Thus, it contains an immense attraction in our vulgar postmodern times.
That attraction reflected the great trust in the coin worldwide. Money is built on trust. Maria Theresa conveys such an image of honesty, trustworthiness and virtue that her coin came to dominate vast regions of the world not under her rule. Oriental peoples would accept no substitutes for this coin but remained faithful to that sovereign profile frozen in time. They trusted in her, and she reciprocated by assigning value to their confidence as they used her thaler in their commerce.
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Such relationships are the stuff of legends. Those poignant links are what make history so attractive.
When I touch my Maria Theresa thaler, I am touching history. I am uplifted to another world symbolized in that coin that invites me to enter. I do not know when and where my thaler was minted, but I know that it participates in the legend of a grand queen who appeared in history and calls me to defend the Christian civilization that inspired my thaler.
History then comes alive, and I accept the invitation because I want to be part of it.