Klagenfurt, Austria, c.1555. Gold. Diameter 26.3mm,
10.3 grams. Obverse: EGO SUM VIA VERT ET VITA (I am the true way and the life), around a half-length portrait figure of Christ, facing right, with orb in left hand. Reverse: AGNUS DEI QUI TOLIT PECCCATA MUNDI (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world), around the full figure of a lamb, facing left holding a banner above.
September 15-17, 2003,
May 29, 2001,
Prizes for academic excellence were given in Europe as early as the 14th century, but in those days were useful items such as books, silver pens and monetary awards.
The first school award medals were given at gymnasiums in Austria and Germany in the third quarter of the 16th century. These gymnasiums were essentially secondary schools (run by either Jesuit or Protestant clerics), which prepared boys for university and taught the classical languages and liberal arts.
Dr. Herbert Erlanger, who published a book in 1975 entitled the “Origin and Development of the European Prize Medal to the End of the 18th Century”, noted that the earliest dated school award medal was given in 1577 at the Nuremberg Gymnasium at Altdorf. There are also dated examples of school medals from other German, Austrian and Swiss cities dated from the few years right after that.
This gold medal, however, which recent research by Dr. Hubert Lanz indicates was awarded around 1555 at the Protestant Gymnasium in Klagenfurt Austria (the oldest high school in Austria), is the oldest school medal that I know of and certainly one of the oldest that exists.
All of these early school award medals were struck in silver and gold in monetary sizes (this being a 3 ducat size) and so were probably acceptable in payment, but were produced in very small numbers, and were not struck according to the legally prescribed norms for coins of the period.
Award medals (both shooting and school medals) seem to have originated in the middle of the 16th century, when a silversmith in Augsburg figured out around that time that he could use a screw press to stamp out coins and medallic objects. As a result, the labor required and therefore the economics of making these sorts of things changed dramatically and it became more practical for medals to be used as academic prizes.
For additional information, see Lanz Auction 87 (May 19, 1998) lots 504 and 505, with additional historical notes (in German).