Background on Viking Age – life expectancy, family structure, and stray tidbits – 1 of 5

Viking house in the city of Hobro, Denmark. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Viking Age: Everyday life during the extraordinary era of the Norsemen, by Kirsten Wolf, provides a good overview of the Viking Age. The seven chapters discuss domestic, economic, intellectual, material, political, recreational, and religious life. I will paraphrase only a few of the author’s comments of particular interest to me.

Life expectancy, family structure, rights of women

Average life expectancy was something in the range of 30 years to 40 years. This means only a few people lived long enough to become a grandparent.

Author points out women had far more rights in Scandinavia during the Viking Age than typical for the medieval era. They could divorce and had inheritance rights.

Combine this with men being gone for a long time on raids or trading expeditions and one of the consequences is that marriage was more of an economic partnership than a patriarchal system. When men were gone for an extended period of time, the wife would have to tend to all aspects of running the homestead.

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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.

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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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