Homespun cloth used for money in Viking Age Iceland.

Viking woman standing near Drakkar on seashore. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.  Illustration is highly consistent with other things I’ve read describing women’s clothing during the Viking Age. Notice the brooch securing the outer wrap, hair ornament, inner and outer garment.

Money is usually defined as something that is a medium of exchange, a measure of value, and a store of value.

For example, I sell you something in return for “money” which I can then immediately buy something from someone else. Or, we can use “money” to set a value for something you have. Or, I can sell something now, store the value in “money” and then buy something of equal value later.

In Iceland during the Viking Age there was not enough silver to use it as “money.” So, other things, especially homewoven cloth was used as substitute.

In Viking Age Iceland, Jesse Byock gives a good explanation of how cloth was used as a measure of value and medium of exchange.

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Homespun cloth used as “money”

There was apparently no silver or gold native to Iceland. Neither was there any massive inflow of silver as happened throughout Scandinavia. Precious metals were not a viable means of exchange or store of value.

Instead several commodities developed as substitute for silver. The most common was homespun cloth.

The book says the standard of measure was the “law ounce” (lögeyrir). That was equal to homemade cloth measuring six “ells” long and two ells wide or 12 square ells of fabric.

Author says an ell was about 49 centimeters or 19.5 inches. Thus 1 law ounce was equal to homespun cloth 9.75 feet long (6 x 19.5” = 117”) by 3.24 feet wide (2 x 19.5” = 39”).

The ratio of law ounce to 1 ounce of silver varied over time:

  • 8:1 law ounce to ounce of silver – 11th century
  • 7.5:1 – 12th century
  • 6:1 – end of 13th century

Each area thing set the price of goods which were measured in standardize ounces (thinglagsaurar). A standardize ounce is usually equal to 3 or 4 ells of homespun cloth.

That means a standardize ounce would be 3 or 4 ells, or a bolt of cloth 3 ells by 1 ell or up to 4 ells by 1 ell wide.

 

Now to put all that data together, I calculate the following:

Ounces: Ells: Inches Yard
measure units dimen. units length width sq. in. US
US yard      36.0   44.0    1,584.0    1.0
ell 1 x 1 1      19.5   19.5       380.3    0.2
law ounce 1 ell 6 x 2 12    117.0   39.0    4,563.0    2.9
standardized oz 1 ell 3 x 1 3      58.5   19.5    1,140.8    0.7
standardized oz 1 ell 4 x 1 4      78.0   19.5    1,521.0    1.0

That table shows the size of a piece of homespun cloth that would be equal to a law ounce or a standardized ounce. In the US, a yard of cloth at the local fabric store measures 36 inches long by usually 44 or 45 inches wide.  I’ve calculated total area of each measurement and then calculated the equivalent number of US yards of material.

One ell is about 0.2 US yards of fabric. A law ounce would be about 2.9 US yards of fabric.

 

The ratio of law ounce to ounce of silver in the 11th, 12th, and 13th century, according to Byock’s book:

Ounces: Silver
measure units ounce
law ounce 11th    8.0 1
law ounce 12th    7.5 1
law ounce 13th    6.0 1

 

The next step is to convert one ounce of silver into law ounces, and then convert that into ells and then equivalent amount of fabric measured in US yards.

Ounces: Ells: Inches Yard Silver
measure units dimen. units length width sq. in. US ounce
12th century:      –
law ounce 7.5 ell 7.5x6x2 90    877.5   39.0   34,222.5   21.6 1

 

By pulling that data into equations, I calculate:

1 law ounce = 3 or 4 standardized ounces
1 standardized ounce = 4 or 3 ells
1 ounce silver = 7.5 law ounces = 90 ells = 21.6 U.S. yards

 

I’m showing my work so you can double check my math and logic. Also, you can revise my calculations in any way you wish.

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