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Viking Currency & Transactions - How Did They Trade & Barter

Thousands of years ago, nations around the world engaged in trade, and for thousands of years, money, in various forms, has been used as a means of payment. However, in this article, we will not go back to such a distant past and the very beginning of the use of money as a currency. Our research topic in this article is trade, specifically money and transactions in the Viking Age.

All of us who love Viking culture and history know that they adored jewelry and precious metals (especially silver and gold), but what was a trade like back in the day? What about the origin of the Viking money, and how has the development of the economy in Scandinavia evolved through history from an impersonal to a personal payment system?

We will try to answer these and some other important questions about Viking commerce in as much detail as possible below.

How Did the Vikings Trade Before Using Coins Crafted of Precious Metals?

In addition to being famous conquerors, the Nordic men were extremely respected and influential people in the world of trade. As was the case with many other countries, early medieval trade in Scandinavia was based on barter. However, the Scandinavians quickly realized that this form of commerce could only function in small transactions and when traders had the goods required for an exchange.

But what if a trader does not have goods for barter and wants to make a purchase? It was clear. The Norse men had to introduce additional value with which they could pay for goods in such situations. Initially, they used rare metals as a means of payment. Silver was most often used because it was the most common precious metal among the Vikings. Gold was also used but only in rare cases. For the purpose of payment, the silver was shaped into levers, or smaller pieces would be torn off of large silver objects, the size of which depended on the value of the goods being purchased. This type of payment (tearing a piece of silver) was known as "hack silver" and was one of the most well-known and practical payment methods during the Viking Age.

Why was "hack silver" a practical way to pay for goods a Viking wanted to obtain?

Because people could carry their silver "viking wallet" with them even as jewelry. If they wanted to pay something, they would simply tear off a part in a size that corresponds to the value of the goods.

However, at that time, while the people of Scandinavia traded in barter goods or paid for them with unprocessed metals, most of the modern world was well acquainted with the use of metal coins for the purpose of paying for goods. So, it was clear that the Vikings also had to adapt their trading system to other countries if they wanted to improve their economy.

For some time Vikings obtained coins only by raiding or trading with other nations. However, at some point, they had to start making their own coins. This is because the use of unprocessed metals as a currency was considered a characteristic of the barbarian people. So, in order to improve their image among other nations of that time and preserve the image of respectable merchants, the Nordic men realized that they had to start minting money themselves, as other sophisticated countries did.

Medieval Coinage in Scandinavia

Ancient Scandinavian jewelry

Although the Nordics inhabited Scandinavia in the 8th century, the first mints appeared just before the end of the 10th century. From this fact, we can see that the people of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have long resisted crafting coins that would be their "national" currency. We assume that it was easier for them to use the money they stole by plundering other countries in Europe or the money obtained during a trade.

Svein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, issued coins, which were the first coins made in Scandinavia. The coins were crafted on the model of English coins called "pennies". In the beginning, the silver penny even bore the name and figure of the King of England. Somewhat later, instead of a picture of the English king, a picture of the Danish king Svein with the inscription "for Svein, king of the Danes" was imprinted on the penny.

Originally, coins in Denmark were made of silver, but copper was increasingly used over time. The weight of one coin was about 0.89 g.

Around the same time that the crafting of Danish coins began, Vikings from Norway and Sweden were also experimenting with silver coins. However, the form of coins in the Scandinavian countries was still quite primitive in relation to the form of coins of other nations from that period.

Danegeld - Payment for Peace

Wars in the early Middle Ages required a large amount of money. Alfred the Great (King of England) increased the minting of coins by as much as eight times in order to build ships and fortresses that would help his soldiers defend the country from the Nordic invaders.

Although the tactics of Alfred the Great proved successful, some rulers who reigned after him did not want to fight. These kings agreed to give money to stop the attacks, primarily of the Danish and Norwegian Vikings. The term the British used to make peace with the Vikings was "Danegeld", meaning "Danish debt." With the founding of Danelaw (the territory of northern and eastern England that was under Danish rule), the British became obliged to pay a form of tax on the land that belonged to the Nordic men.

Precisely because of these imposed payment obligations, there was a large increase in the coinage in England, most of which ended up in Scandinavia.

The Appearance of Viking Coins During the Viking Age

As we have said, the first Viking silver coins made were faithful copies of coinage from England. Over time, the Vikings began to include images from Christianity in their coins and images from Nordic mythology as well. Consequently, it often happened that there were Christian and pagan motives for the same money. For example, a York silver coin contained Scandinavian symbols such as Thor's hammer, swords, and ravens in combination with symbols such as the cross. 

Historians believe that the inclusion of both types of motifs in the appearance of Scandinavian coins preceded the transition from paganism to Christianity.

Viking Coin Hoards

Part of the Cuerdale silver hoard

The most significant evidence of money from the early Middle Ages comes from the archaeological search for ancient hoards. Fortunately for us, Scandinavians were inclined to bury their wealth, leaving behind the best traces of life in the past. Thus, archaeological research shows that from the 9th century until the end of the Viking rule, there was a large flow of foreign silver coins in the Scandinavian countries.

Also, archaeological excavations revealed that German and Anglo-Saxon minted pennies represented the most significant part of the money in the Viking countries.

One of the largest Vikings hoards was the Cuerdale hoard, which was discovered in 1840 in England. This hoard dates between 903. and 910., and was considered the largest Viking hoard found until the end of the 20th century. The vault contained over 8,600 silver items, including Viking coins.

About 70% of the coins found were minted in the Viking kingdoms in Britain, the Anglo-Saxons minted 15%, and 15% of the coins were made in other territories.

In 1999, archaeologist Jonas Ström discovered another hoard (Spillings hoard) that was buried in the 9th century. It turned out that there were three rich hoards, two silver (weight 67 kg) and one bronze (20 kg weight). To this day, this hoard is considered the largest ever found.

As for the composition of the remaining discovered hoards, it varied depending on the period in which they were buried in the ground. Accordingly, the composition of hoards buried between the 6th and 8th centuries differs significantly from the composition of hoards deposited between the 10th and 12th centuries.

When it comes to coins, they predominate in hoards dating from the late Viking Age.

Viking Money in the Present Day

Most of the coins found in buried hoards are on display in museums around the world. So, for example, the mentioned Cuerdale hoard is in the British Museum, while the items from the Spillings hoard are on display in the Gotland Museum.

Conclusion

Norse people played a very important role in the development of the medieval economy. Their trade routes stretched through many European and even some Middle Eastern countries.

By trading with other nations, the Norse men came into contact with various types of money that were widely used in some countries as a means of payment. They realized that if they wanted to improve their economy, they had to adapt their payment system to modern civilizations. Therefore, Viking coins were a means of payment, just like in all other premodern cultures of that time.

And just like that, the first mints of money sprang up in Scandinavia.

Until our next meeting,

Skåll!

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