What is the going price for sheep? We can use that information to develop some very rough approximations of prices during the Viking age.
My conclusion at the end of this post:
$150 – looks to be about the best estimate for a productive ewe
$200 – price for a productive ewe, rounded off to a single significant digit and giving more weight to the more analytically focused articles found.
Follow along as this city boy sorts out prices for sheep. I learned a lot along the way.
11/1/17 (article written in 2002) – Countryside Daily –Raising Sheep: Buying and Caring for Your First Flock– This was the most helpful of a number of articles I read. It is focused on someone who wants to start raising sheep on a small acreage or someone wanting to become a part-time farmer. The focus on a small flock makes for a good comparison to ancient days when farmers would not be running hundreds of animals that would be raising what could be tended to by a family.
Article gives background on how to get started, including where to get animals and what to look for when starting a herd.
Here are some rough estimates of prices as of 2002:
$200 – $250 – a younger ewe (female) in the ideal age of two years up to four years.
Higher than $200-250 range – a bred ewe, (for us city boys that means female which has a higher price because you will quickly have yield from the ewe, specifically a new lamb)
Less than the $200 – $250 range – an older ewe, aged five years and higher – lower price because there are less productive years left
$75-$150 – lambs
$100-$150 – ram (lots of options exist, including borrowing ram for a friendly neighbor, renting a ram, buying one and selling them after the breeding season)
Here is some technical breakout, which of course is new info for me:
How many warriors did the Vikings put ashore during raids? The size of the raids grew over time, starting small with fast-strike harassing plunders and growing to the point where the arrival of Vikings constituted a major invasions.
Here are a few guesses, from writers who have some basis for making such guesses.
In The Vikings course from Great Courses, Prof. Kenneth Harl makes the statement that the typical raiding party in early or mid 9th century may have been 10 or 20 ships. At 50 or 60 warriors per ship, this would be somewhere in the range of 500 up to 1,200 warriors.
By the end of the 9th century, the raiders could gather in forces of 100 or 120 ships. He thinks they may have been able to put 5,000 or even 10,000 men ashore. That would mean the longships carried somewhere between 50 and 80 warriors each.
In that post I calculated that the implied value of a bound New Testament, hot of the press from the first printing, cost something in the range of about $900 in terms of today’s currency.
I’d like to work through what that implies about the value of gold back then.
What is a Gulden?
It is a gold coin used in Germany. A few minutes of research does not quite explain its weight or purity. The most helpful thing I found is an article from Money Museum which describes a number of Medieval Currencies:
I found an interesting way to convert the price of a New Testament bible in 1522 to current dollars.
How does this sound for a price of a New Testament? About $900 for the first and second printing, and around $2,700 for the third printing.
If that grabs your interest, let me explain how I got to that answer.
Prior to Martin Luther translating the New Testament from Latin to German, the only bibles around were in Latin, hand transcribed before the Guttenberg press revolutionized printing, and only available to priests and monks. Even at that, monks had to go to the library to read the likely only copy in the monastery.
Luther translating the bible into German, combined with the merely 70-year-old Guttenberg press technology, meant that the bible was literally opened up to the people.
Prices for the first three printings
Eric Metaxas provides us the key to price those first few printings of the brand new text.
The Viking, by Tre Tryckare, copyright 1967, has some fun speculation on the volume of annual trade in a major Viking trading town in Sweden.
The large island of Gotland, off the eastern shore of Sweden, is about 1,229 square miles in size. It was a major trading center during the Viking age. Page 51 of the book says that of the 200,000 silver coins found in Scandinavia from the Viking Age, about half were on the island of Gotland. This includes, according to the text:
40,000 – Arabic
38,000 – German
21,000 – Anglo-Saxon
The text has some fun speculation on the possible amount of trade. Two critical assumptions, which are listed so you can revised them as you wish:
Out of 1,000 silver coins received in trade, an unknown number were buried for storage and 1 of those has been found. This wild guess assumes that there was 1,000 coins of income for each 1 coin found,
One Anglo-Saxon coin had purchasing power of 10 or 20 schillings. At the then exchange rates of 1967, this would be roughly comparable to somewhere around $3.00.
Before decimalization of British currency, there were 20 schillings to a pound. Today (10/17/17) one pound converts to US$1.32.
One of the fascinating things to consider about the Viking and Roman ages is what economies looked like without a banking system or even a rudimentary financial system.
Ponder just a few of the implications.
Merely having coins allowed for trade that was more complex than barter.
There was no way to transfer money over distances. To move wealth required carrying precious metals or tradable goods. Returning from a successful trade mission or raiding expedition meant you carried your wealth with you.
There was no way to store wealth in any sort of financial intermediary. No banks. No Credit Unions. No money market accounts. No Schwab or Vanguard to hold your stocks. No stocks at all. Not even bearer bonds. No government securities for safety.
No, instead if you had wealth you needed to hold silver or gold. Putting it under the mattress or anywhere in the house or even in the area of the farm buildings made your wealth subject to theft by whatever marauder or king’s representative that meandered through. Instead you would bury your wealth.
Minting of silver and gold coins shows the foundational purpose of money:
medium of exchange,
store of value, and
unit of account.
The Viking age shows all three quite well.
That is where the large number of hoards of buried treasures come into play.
From the report and pictures, the sword appears to be in wonderful condition. It was found at 5,380 feet above sea level in a spot which would be frozen and under snow about six months a year. Article says there would be low humidity in the summer. That provides the environment allowing this sword to be so well preserved.
Here are a few more guesses on the volume of precious metals flowing into the Viking lands.
Overall impact on economy from having all those coins available
In The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings, on page 211 Lars Brownworth says the massive flow of silver coins helped the Scandinavian areas move into a coin based economy from a barter economy. Just have a large supply of coins would have made trading easier and thus would have boosted the economy just by having those coins available.
More guesses on the loot flowing into Viking lands
On page 33 of The Vikings, from the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, the text provides one data point on the total tribute paid to Viking raiders from all Frankish sources. The published comments report 685 pounds of gold and 43,042 pounds of silver in total.
Comparing prices and values over a long period of time is tough to do.
For example, how can we compare the cost to live for a year in the Viking Age to today? How can we understand the cost of a sword that cost X ounces of silver?
This involves not only converting the value of silver then to now but also adjusting for the very low standard of living then (you hope all your family survives the winter and hope you live long enough to see a grandchild from each of your children) to the high standard of living with long life expectancy today.
One way is to look at the value of something back then and the value of something today.
This post looks at the value of a cow today in order to provide some frame of reference for ancient times.
A large contingent of trained, well armed warriors could hire themselves out as mercenaries for a nice wage during the Viking age. Vikings at War by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike gives us a specific example.
Edmund Ringson reached a good deal with Prince Jaroslav in Novgorod back in 1016.
Jaroslav needed to defend himself from his brother, who had already killed off a few other brothers.
Edmund, having been exiled, had 600 warriors with him.
Let’s look at their one year deal.
Prince Jaroslav would provide a great hall for the company, which obviously means provide housing for all the troops.
He would also provide all the food they wanted, with the description in the book of “the best provisions.”
So up to this point the Prince essentially agreed to provide all the living costs for a year since near-subsistence farmers spent essentially all their time providing themselves and their family food and shelter.
The serious part of the wages were one ounce of silver per man per month. Ship captains would get an extra half ounce per month. I will add my wild guess that Edmund got a multiple of the base; I will assume 10 ounces of silver per month.