Units of measure and relative value in the Viking Age

Viking harbor with longboats in Bork, Denmark. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Before trying to quantify some sort of dollar value for items during the Viking era, let’s look at some relative values. My approach will be to find a way of comparing the prices of items during the Viking Age in relation to each other. Value of cows or sheep today will be added into those relative values. That will provide some sort of rough methodology for gaining some sort of understanding of prices.

Notice the vagueness of my description and the number of qualifiers? This is a very rough process and could easily be wrong. However, I will give it a shot and I will show my work so you can assess my methodology and revise it as you wish.

Here is what I’ve found for indications of relative prices and exchange rates.

Iceland in 1200

The Viking Answer Lady provides a variety of information for Units of Measurement from Viking Age Law and Literature. There are not a lot of exchange rates that I will use, but will pick up a few.

One of the main points for this article is woven cloth was a unit of measure. Homespun cloth, which I assume was made of all, was measured in alin, or alnir plural, or ell. That was 19 3/8” in length of a standard specified quality. The unit of measure was a logeyrir, measuring six ells in length by two ells in width. That would be 116.25” by 38.75”. That would be 9.69’ or 3.2 yards long and 1.08 yards wide.

If you want a really rough measure, consider a longeyir as three yards of modern cloth.

Discussion of a logeyrir in the article provides an assumption on changes over time. Source of the estimate is not explicitly identified. Here is the estimated exchange rate by century:

  • c1000 – 3:1, 3 logeyrir to ounce of silver, or 18 ells for an ounce of silver at 3 ells to longeyrir; picture about 9.7 yards of homespun cloth
  • c1100 – 8:1 – 48 ells to ounce, or about 25.8 yards
  • c1200 – 7.5:1 – 45 ells to ounce, about 24.2 yards
  • c1300 – 6:1 – 36 ells to ounce, about 19.4 yards

A few measures:

  • Eyrir (plural aurar) = ounce = about 27 grams
  • Mork (plural merkur)  = mark = 8 eyrir (ounce)
  • Pund = pound = 24 merkur (marks)

An althing (national assembly) in Iceland about 1200 (1186 AD is the specific date) set a number of maximum prices. This presumably shows relative values. Here are a few of the items listed in the articles

  • 6 alnir (ells) of vaomal (wool cloth) = 1 eyrir (ounce of silver)
  • 3 cattle, each one-year-old = 1 cow
  • 2 cattle, each two years old = 1 cow
  • 6 ewes (2 of two years age and 4 older) = 1 cow
  • 1 horse over four and less than 10 years age, healthy = 1 cow

Exchange rates listed do not contain any link between animals and precious metal or between animals and cloth. That will make it difficult for my little brain to price out precious metals using this data set.

 

Relative value of gold and silver

Viking: The Norse Warrior’s [Unofficial] Manual by John Haywood says the relative value of gold and silver is 16 to 1.

This is a higher exchange rate that I have seen elsewhere.

 

Iceland exchange rates about 1000 AD

Hurstwic is a group that provides training on Viking combat techniques. Their website provides a large amount of educational material. You can find lots of fun information there.

One of their pages provides background on Towns and Trading in the Viking Age. Toward the bottom of the page, the exchange rates for various items in Iceland early in the 11th century are described as:

  • 8 ounces of silver  =  1 ounce of gold
  • 8 ounces of silver  =  4 milk cows
  • 8 ounces of silver  =  24 sheep
  • 8 ounces of silver  =  144 ells of wool cloth (standard size mentioned above)
  • 12 ounces of silver  = 1 adult male slave

Article points out the prices would vary over time and in different places. The above information provides a useful data point.

This article also describes during the Norse era that an ounce weighed about 27 grams. One mark was 8 ounces.  An ounce is eyrir in singular and aurar in plural.

The next step in my calculations will use the above exchange rates in an effort to quantify prices.

 

More detailed exchange rates across regions

Regia Anglopum describes themselves as an Early Medieval Reenactment and Living History Society. On their For What It’s Worth page, they provide good background on English coinage in Early Medieval Britain.  They also provide a huge number of prices of animals, weapons, fines, skins, and other stuff. They have gathered data from many sources giving prices from Britain, Western Europe, Central Europe, northern Europe, and Eastern Europe.

Here is the information they provide in pounds, shillings, and pence, with my calculation of each of those in terms of troy ounces at 31.1 g per ounce:

 

coin weight grams troy ounces
pound troy pound      373.00      11.99
schilling 48 to pound, 5 pence          7.77        0.25
pence 240 to pound          1.55        0.05

 

Here are a number of the prices they listed that are of interest to me. The price in medieval currency is listed along with the grams of silver and my calculation of troy ounces:

 

.. ..  l – pound  s – schilling  d – pence  grams  troy ounces
cow central        88.5     137.18        4.41
cow eastern        64.5       99.98        3.21
pig eastern        20.0       31.00        1.00
sheep eastern        10.0       15.50        0.50
horse eastern      193.5     299.93        9.64
horse northern      197.5     306.13        9.84
horse central      308.5     478.18       15.38
helmet central        53.0     411.81       13.24
mailshirt central      529.0     819.95       26.36
shield and spear central        88.5     137.18        4.41
spear western        33.0       51.15        1.64
sword western        81.3     125.94        4.05
sword britain      240.0   1,864.80       59.96
sword & scabbard central      308.5     478.18       15.38
knife western          2.0         3.10        0.10
male slave northern      197.5     306.13        9.84
female slave eastern      131.5     203.83        6.55
120 acres of land (1 hide) britain          1.0     373.00       11.99
tax for 1 hide britain        22.0     170.94        5.50
Fyrdsman’s pay for month britain        10.0       77.70        2.50

 

I reorganized the above information for further analysis.

Here are relative values of some items within region.

 

relative values within region  Britain  western  northern  central  eastern
animals / slave:
cow eastern          3.2
pig eastern          1.0
sheep eastern          0.5
horse eastern          9.6
female slave eastern          6.6
horse northern          9.8
male slave northern          9.8
weapon:
mailshirt central         26.4
helmet central         13.2
sword & scabbard central         15.4
shield and spear central          4.4
sword western          4.0
spear western          1.6
knife western          0.1

 

There are not many data points that allow comparison between regions, but here are a few, with ratios between central or northern Europe to Eastern Europe:

 

cross region relative value  Britain  western  northern  central  eastern  C : E ratio  N : E ratio
cow          4.4          3.2 137%
horse          9.8         15.4          9.6 159% 102%
sword        60.0          4.0
slave          9.8          6.6 150%

 

Finally, here are some comparisons of weapon prices in relation to each other and by region:

 

weapons by region  Britain  western  northern  central  eastern
 mailshirt         26.4
 helmet         13.2
 sword        60.0          4.0
 sword & scabbard         15.4
 shield and spear          4.4
 spear          1.6
 knife          0.1
sword:spear ratio 246% 349%

 

The price of a sword in Britain seems remarkably out of proportion. I can’t imagine it would have been 15 times the price in Western Europe. I cannot pursue the concept any further because is no other good comparisons between Britain and the continent or between a sword price and other weapon prices.

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