Thoughts on the legacy of the Vikings and economic development

A group of armed Vikings, standing on river shore. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

This blog focuses on the finances of ancient times, with minimal focus on the overall society and culture.

Perspectives of the Vikings have varied over time, ranging from them being vicious brutes pillaging everything they could find (according to the Christian monks suffering at the hands of the Vikings) to brave explorers and traders.

For just this post, I’ll touch on those issues. Actually, the following comments all affect the economic world of the Viking Age.

Chapter 3 of The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings points out the occasional tendency to romanticize the Vikings. Some focus on their brave exploration and merchant trading abilities. There’s even a school of thought that considers them to be misunderstood victims of hostile PR reports from Christian monks. Another school of thought emphasizes there were merely one part of the typically brutal medieval age.

In The Viking Legacy, the closing chapter of The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, Peter Sawyer explores the political, cultural, and economic changes during the Viking Age.

The Vikings could be brutal, were frequently plunderers, and sold many people into slavery.

The author points out, with examples, that the violence, destruction, and plundering was not unique to the Vikings. The Franks, Irish, and English could be just as brutal. One example he offers is Lothar, son of Louis the Pious, who after his father’s death ravaged the area from Sens to Le Mans in pretty much the way a Viking force would have done. His forces looted all the churches they could find while killing and raping their way across the countryside.

Christian kings and their armies could cause as much hurt to their own people and expropriate as much wealth as has been done by any other king and any other army throughout history, including the Vikings.

He points out the behavior the Vikings depended on the wealth and geography of where they operated. They traveled rapidly by sea, so areas within short marching distance of a coast were more in danger. Strategy of Charles the Bald was to defend the interior of his territory. That means the interior of Frankia suffered less while the Vikings were essentially free to roam and plunder near the coast.  In general, monasteries moved from the coast to the interior. One collateral behavior, pointed out by the text, is that on large estates there was the option of moving relics and wealth out of the way of marauding Vikings.

All of England was vulnerable to raids because no place was a safe distance from the sea or a navigable river.

The large amount of wealth in Frankia made plunder, tribute, and ransoms lucrative, with the proceeds easy to transport. That means capturing slaves wasn’t a major factor in Frankia.

In Ireland, where there was far less monetary wealth, taking slaves was the most productive way to get rich.

In Eastern Europe there was less wealth initially so trading slaves and furs to Muslim merchants was the way to riches. Later, the increased wealth in Eastern Europe made tribute and plundering more lucrative. (Easier too – you don’t have to feed a bag of silver coins and the gold chalices won’t voluntarily run off if given half a chance.)

In a certain crude way, that different behavior in Frankia, Ireland, and Russia makes sound economic sense: each approach reflects the easiest, most productive way to take stuff and get rich. The vulnerability of those living near the ocean and navigable rivers compared to the interior reflects the military and economic strength of the Vikings.

Unintended economic benefit of strong kings

Political consolidation in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden had a major economic impact in terms of expanding commerce. One long paragraph points this out.

Early in the Viking Age much of the treasure taken back to Scandinavia was dispersed amongst people, meaning it wasn’t just held by the yarls.  However, most of it went into hoards, buried underground. The political and economic structures did not provide enough stability for development of towns and expanded commerce.

Only in the late 10th century (late 900s) was there the first discovered hoard of hack silver, meaning silver coins that had been chopped into pieces making them usable for everyday trade. Up until the 11th century most money was held in hoards and used for large transactions, liking building a ship or buying a farm.

Once kings consolidated enough power there was enough stability and security in place that it was worthwhile to actually develop a craft or engage in large amounts of trade. Book points out that it is time when cargo ships started to appear. Without political stability, it would be foolish to invest so much money in a knarr.

This is a key point of development economics. There has to be some level of stability in the economic and political systems in order for trade and commerce to develop. If you have no expectation that things will be stable long enough that you actually get to keep the rewards of your effort, there’s no point to investing the time and money to develop a craft, build a boat, or buy productive tools.

Storing your wealth in a hoard and letting it sit made economic sense early in the Viking Age. Chopping your silver coins into small pieces usable in everyday trade made sense late in the Viking Age. Investing in a commercial ship didn’t make sense until later on.

Economic options at the end of the Viking Age

Author concludes the chapter by pointing that by the end of the 11th century (late 1000s) the option for Scandinavians were pretty much closed to go on plundering raids to gain wealth or immigrate to England or the various North islands in order to get land and start a new life.

How then to escape the back-breaking life of subsistence farming, where one harsh winter could result in the starvation of your entire family?

The new economic options were from peaceful trade. Swapping timber, firs, preserved food (think cod), and raw materials would produce not so much silver but instead result in cloth or cereals or clothing or furnishings or jewelry.

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