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By Dani Trynoski
Most people take a hard pass when faced with a discussion on economy. Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, but when I bring up the “e” word I get waved off with a “Next!” What about when you combine the “e” word with a “v” word? (No, not the girly one!) How about Vikings? Most people who like Viking history and culture know they had a penchant for shiny things but how exactly did they use those shiny bits n’ bobs?
Aside from looking awfully fine in a museum exhibit case, we can use these gold and silver objects to illuminate an economic currency structure. In the Middle Ages, Scandinavians obtained their daily necessities through a variety of means. Some people made certain items like fabric, baskets, or leather yet needed to buy other goods like metal housewares. Most transactions would be a barter system, maybe a bolt or two of fabric in exchange for an iron cauldron? Metals would be included in these transactions too.
What’s most interesting in this examination of how people bought-and-sold in this place and time period is the evolution of the barter system in Scandinavia throughout the Middle Ages. The changes in what objects, materials, and amounts affected the economic system was radically different in 600 A.D., 900 A.D., and 1200 A.D. How can we identify these changes? Let’s take a look at the shiny stuff.
Hoards are a useful resource to evaluate how metals were used and valued at a specific point in time. While hoards may contain materials that were a few years out of fashion at the time of deposition, they are without question a personal collection of goods created by an individual at a moment in time. Hoards are usually dated by the coins: if a coin was minted in 810 A.D., then the hoard was deposited terminus post quem (at the limit after which, or no earlier than) 810 A.D. Most scholars agree that the t.p.q. date of a hoard means it was likely deposited a few decades later, after the coins and other material was in circulation for some time. From this perspective this makes hoards an amazing window into a historic mindset. Looking at the composition of medieval Scandinavian hoards, there are clear trends in the type and form of materials included in these hoards.
Hoards through the ages
There are three main periodic trends within the hoards. The earlier collections, deposited in the 6th to 8th centuries, tend to contain more complete, formed items such as brooches, amulets, beads, torcs, arm rings, coins, or chains. Some items may be intentionally cut or damaged but the bulk of the hoard deposit will be whole items. Gold items may be included such as in the Hoen Hoard however silver is almost always included along with the occasional small amounts of iron, copper, or bronze.
In the 8th to 9th century hoards, the composition becomes more mixed. These hoards are more likely to contain a combination of complete items, coins, ingots (roughly shaped bars or loaves of metal), and types of hacksilver or gold. Hacksilver refers to any object which was cut, clipped, bent, or damaged in a way so that the damage effectively removes the item’s previous function.
Coins reign supreme in the 10 to 12th century hoards. These later collections will almost exclusively contain silver coins and hacksilver, with the majority of the weight being coins. There’s less variety in the metals and types of items here, and that reflects a serious change in the economy.
Gold and silver was a known commodity in Scandinavia since their own Iron Age and these precious metals did play a small part in the economy in the early Middle Ages. Roman and Byzantine coins appear in 5th and 6th century archaeological deposits, with holes drilled in them and attached to jewelry chains. This practice continued for the next 800 years however the day-to-day function of coins changed dramatically.
In the early Middle Ages in Scandinavia, the barter exchange economy was also supplemented by the personal standing of the giver. If you received a handmade, handcrafted arm ring from the jarl’s personal goldsmith or form the jarl himself, were you likely to cut it up or melt it down? Nope, no way. Even in the 21st century, we place a personal valuation on goods and commodities: look at the rise in fair trade imports/exports, and the tug-at-your-heartstrings marketing that goes with it.
Sidenote: Don’t get me wrong, we should ensure that industries around the globe are treating their supply chain workers fairly, but as a consumer we typically place a higher value on products with a story. So did the early medieval Scandinavians, and this is reflected in hoards full of treasured items. Coins were seen as a unique treasure, but had traveled out of their original context and valuation system into (literally) new territory.
As bands of Vikings explored new lands with the sail and clinker-built ship, they couldn’t easily transport their exchange system with its close ties to personal valuation. In the archaeological record for the 8th to 9th centuries, there is an increase in the number of scales and weights. This, along with the increased amounts of hacksilver and gold in hoards, supports the theory of a weight exchange economy. Precious metals were used as more of an impersonal currency system and goods were valued with a silver or gold price. Commercial exchanges became more tangible with a more direct valuation based on supply, demand, and specie.
The Coin Economy
Moving along in history, Scandinavians eventually adapted a coin economy like most of western Europe. By the 8th century, the trading center Hedeby minted coins however they weren’t widely used. It wasn’t until the development of a more central political base in England and Norway that royal coinage was regularly minted and used. The York silver pennies are curious combinations of Scandinavian symbols like ravens, Thor’s hammers, and swords with Anglo-Saxon Christian symbols like the cross or a seated king. Coinage played a part in the weight exchange economic system too, as silver coins flooded into eastern Scandinavia from the Middle East and Asia. In the last 50 years, metal detectors on the island of Gotland turned up thousands of clipped or cut Arabic dirhams. The clipped coins were used in both a weight exchange system, and in a system where the coin itself represented a fraction of a currency value.
The development of a coin-based economy saw the final step in the evolution of personal to impersonal economic systems. Rather than determining the value of a commodity through the shine of a goat’s coat or the status of the giver, by the late Viking Age a commodity was valued by the number of coins a buyer would give for that item. As Scandinavian political structures changed over 800 years, so too did the king’s control over the economy. Minting royal coinage allowed the king to control one of the greatest hoards in the land: the national economy.
Danielle Trynoski earned her MA in Medieval Archaeology at the University of York in England. When she’s not visiting museums and historical sites, she’s riding horses or reading about Vikings. She currently lives in southern California.
Birgitta Hårdh, Wikingerzeitliche Depotfunde aus Südschweden. In 2 Bänden. Band 1: Probleme und Analysen. Band 2: Katalog und Tafeln (1976)
James Graham-Campbell and Gareth Wilson, Silver Economy in the Viking Age (2007)
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Coins discovered in a Viking hoard from Sweden. Photo by Peter Konieczny