History of trade is long and extensive, and it goes back to almost five thousand years ago. Its development changed and shaped humanity for ages, and eventually made the world as we know it. Although subconsciously, while trading gold for wool, or cattle for weapons, Viking traders were trading something way more important than just material objects – it was an exchange of cultures.
Each civilization came to the point of realization that self-sufficiency isn't a road to success, it needed another to co-exist with in order to grow and expand both in intellectual and material ways, and Vikings were no exception. And since Viking culture is relatively new compared to some ancient civilizations, its expansion had to develop faster just to keep in step with the times.
Despite the popular culture, in which Norsemen are often presented as vandals and aggressors, and their trades as nothing but thefts, we can assure you that Viking 'shopping sprees' were a lot more like ours than you might think.
Trade was, in fact, one of the most conflict-free social activities of the time, for both parties used to benefit from it, and it was set out by rules that had to be followed religiously. Some written sources such as 'The Annals of Fulda' even claim that each trade had to be under supervision and protection by the rulers of both parties, leaving no place for possible misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts.
With their wits, outstanding navigating abilities, excellent ship-building, quality of products, and above all curiosity, it is no wonder why Vikings will be remembered as some of the world's best traders in history.
Viking Trade Goods
As you probably already know, the predominant branch in Viking settlements was farming; therefore, it is no wonder that their main exports were of an agricultural nature. Yet, because of the harsh weather conditions they lived in, farming could hardly be productive an entire year. This made Viking settlements more independent from the land they inhabited and more mobile, which were excellent factors for the development of trade.
Viking ships played a crucial role in Vikings trade
With their skills and equipment, Vikings didn't have to trade only within Scandinavia and nearby territories – they knew that longer voyages were much more profitable and efficient in the long run. However, since long journeys needed more significant investments and meant higher risks, they had to make sure their products were of good quality.
Additionally, products Vikings brought with on a trading expedition were never arbitrary but dependent on laws of supply and demand of the country they were visiting. For example, England was a much better market for exporting tin, linen, and barley than Russia - which was a better place for trading fur, wax, and honey.
Another great trading market for Norsemen was, of course, Byzantium, and various products such as silk, spices, wines, rings and bracelets were delivered to it every couple of months. Apart from previously mentioned, Vikings were also commonly known as traders of timber, fish, weapons, animal fat, glass, soapstone, and much more.
Slaves in Viking Trade
Unfortunately, animal products, fabrics, and crafts weren't the only items that were up for sale in Viking Era – people's lives were of a much greater importance and price. Vikings traded both local and foreign slaves, and unless one of them was of a much higher status, they had no rights at all. Moreover, slaves were treated no differently than domestic animals, with whom they slept and ate.
Since Viking lawgivers weren't very forgetful, it was much easier to become a slave in mid-Medieval century Scandinavia than most other parts of Europe. For example, slavery was the punishment for both theft and murder, and it wasn't uncommon for a thief to become a slave for the man he was trying to rob. From then on, his life belonged to his master to do what he pleased.
Apart from exhausting labor with barely any time for a break, slaves were also used for sexual exploitation, giving those who were blessed with physical beauty a much higher price. If literate, they could be used as scribes or translators, as well as ways of paying off debts. Some historical sources even say they were frequently used as human sacrifices during religious ceremonies, such as funerals of their masters.
Although they didn't lack in their own domestic slaves, Vikings traded Arabic and Eastern European slaves as well. There were several cities that were known to be trading centers for slaves specifically. Danish Viking settlement Hedeby, Bolghar – the capital of Volga Bulgaria and Viking age Dublin were perhaps the most important ones.
Some slaves, or thralls, as Vikings used to call them, eventually saw their light at the end of the tunnel. It could happen, occasionally, that someone would buy their freedom, or it could simply be given back to them by their masters.
Means of Exchange in Viking Era
In their beginnings, Vikings produced all the products they needed domestically, which made pretty much each settlement independent from the other. If one farmer, for example, produced more wool, he knew that in need, he could easily trade it for his neighbor's milk, and vice versa.
Once they started dealing overseas, they needed to slowly forget about their natural economy. They needed products with more or less universal value, and that is when early mercantilism in the form of bullion took place. Bullion economy was a system in which precious metals such as gold, platinum or silver and, rarely, base metals such as aluminum or copper, were used as a standard currency for global trade.
Coins were also used by Viking traders
Bullion was particularly popular during the Viking Era for the fact that precious metals maintained their value for a longer period of time. Most times, bullion came in the form of an ingot, and that is exactly how it got its name. 'Bouillon' was an Old French word which meant to boil or melt precious metals that could create an ingot from a raw substance. Apart from ingots, bullion came in the forms of bars, coins, and even jewelry.
However, shapes and forms of bullion had nothing to do with their value; it was weight and purity that defined it. Mass was easy to determine with a simple scale, which every experienced Viking trader carried with them, while purity could be discovered by the so-called 'pricking and pecking' the surfaces of the metals.
Although gold might have had a greater value, Viking traders preferred dealing with silver. Silver was first discovered and accepted by Vikings during one of their trading voyages when they crossed paths with Islamic civilizations. And if no one's complaining, why change it for gold?
Eastern and Western Trade
Unfortunately, between the 8th and 12th century Vikings weren't honored and talked about in the way we do it today. On the contrary, they were sowing fear among entire Europe. Their trading networks were secure and branched, and according to sagas, they traded their products as far as North America.
Although when it comes to trade, Vikings' name is oftentimes associated with Western Europe, it is important to know they were established in Eastern countries as well. In the 8th century, Vikings realized they could use rivers Dnieper and Volga to sail south to Russia, and soon enough cities like Kyiv, Bolghar and Novgorod became some of the biggest trading centers in Europe.
Russia was a great market for wax, honey, fur, jewelry, as well as weapons and slaves. However, it wasn't the last stop for Viking traders – they had strong connections with the Far East as well. Cities like Constantinople, Baghdad, Allahabad, Jerusalem, and Beijing were an important source of exotic goods, as well as essential places for cultural exchange during the Middle Ages. Timber, iron, amber, and slaves were the products Vikings would bring on their Far Eastern trades, and in return, they would ask for wine, silk, exotic fruits, spices, and, most importantly, silver.
As we mentioned earlier, when Vikings first got in touch with Arabic silver coins and started accumulating them, soon enough they realized they could be used both for melting into jewelry or as a way of payment. Reintroducing gold and silver coins as ways of payment was extremely important for the European economy after the fall of the Roman Empire, and Vikings' raids and trades played a huge role in it.
Unfortunately, every great story has its ending, and so does the one of Viking trading expeditions. Although in the beginning it may seem that no religion could tame a warlike Viking spirit, acceptance of Christianity during the 11th and 12th centuries among the Scandinavian and other Nordic countries eventually brought some changes into Vikings’ everyday lives.
Their settlements were becoming more and more permanent, and they started to nourish the local economy, slowly replacing warriors and sailors with craftsmen and laborers.
Despite the fact that great Viking trading stories may have to end, the world gained a lot from that era of humankind. So don't worry, because no one said this was a sad story, for every progress needs some renouncements.
Christianization opened new horizons for Vikings. It introduced them to life more peaceful than they previously knew it, and brought them nothing but growth and prosperity. And Vikings as traders played a huge part in this change.