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.

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More background on coins and storing wealth in hoards during Viking Age

Replica of Viking coin. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Comments I’ve accumulated from a few other books fit well with the previous post Background on Viking Age – money, trading centers – 2 of 5

In Vikings: Raiders, Traders, and Masters of the Sea on page 99, Rodney Castleden explains much of the trade carried out by Vikings was in barter. For example, swapping furs for linen or pottery.

Eventually bullion became a store of value. This would have been in the form of silver coins usually, with gold being used sometimes. The coins had value because their precious metal not because of the particular coin.

This is a different framework from today where coins and bills have value because the government says so. It would be extremely rare to encounter a coin today that has precious metal equal to its face value. To further the contrast if you happen to have an old coin that has lots of silver in it (that would be dimes, quarters, half dollars, and dollars dated 1964 and earlier in the United States) their value is a large multiple of the face value. If those coins happen to be in fairly good condition their value is an extreme multiple of their face value.

The contrast in the Viking Age and medieval era is coins had value because of the precious metal they contained. Thus the bullion value was the means of exchange. As an aside is also a store of value and a unit of measure. That is the definition of money.

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Background on Viking Age – money, trading centers – 2 of 5

The Cuerdale hoard” by akhenatenator is in the public domain (CC0 1.0)

In terms of economic life, Viking Age: Everyday life during the extraordinary era of the Norsemen, by Kirsten Wolf, points out geography affected the size of settlements. On the coasts of Denmark and Sweden there were villages, meaning a group of three or more farms. In contrast, across most of Norway, the interior of Sweden, and the island colonies, the typical settlements were individual farms.

Fish were obviously a major component of the diet, particularly since there were a lot of fish and they were close in to land.

Author points out blacksmiths, who made tools and implements, had high prestige and had some of the richest grave goods.

Imports and exports

Author thinks that fur was one of the main exports. Slaves captured on raids were another major export.

Major imports would have been salt, spices, wine, silk, pottery, and glass. Weapons and semi precious stones would have been other major imports. Silver flowed into Scandinavia as the result of both trading and raiding.

Author says the pottery, wool cloth, and glass would have been imported from Western Europe. Silk came from Byzantium. Much of the silver came from the Muslim world.

Coin hoards

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Guess on volume of trade in Gotland during Viking Age

Viking gold coin” by arnybo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

Here is the string of guesses:

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Buried hoards of gold and silver

These coins are part of the Cuerdale hoard, a group of about 7,000 coins, some cut in pieces as was typical, found in 1840 by workers in Cuerdale, Lancashire. This is largest silver hoard in Viking Age, with estimated burial date of 905 A.D. “The Cuerdale hoard” by akhenatenator is in the public domain (CC0 1.0)

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.

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