Despite the traditional view of European economic history, during the early medieval period, being labeled as "primitive", the truth is anything but this crude interpretation.
People from Viking societies, renowned for their trading nous, exchanged goods with a wide variety of cultures, civilizations, and peoples, from Baghdad to the Balearic Islands and everywhere in between.
They primarily relied on a surprisingly complex trade and barter system.
The economic foundation of the Viking expansion
The historical impact that people from Viking societies had on interconnecting a European economy during the early medieval period is widely unknown and underappreciated.
Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire throughout much of Europe, skilled traders and merchants, from Viking societies, helped to reconnect economic links and trade routes from north to south, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Russian steppes, and from Scandinavia to Sicily.
In fact, a case could be argued that the major reason for the Viking expansion, which saw people from Viking societies scattered to the four corners of the North Atlantic world and West Asia, was to conduct and secure business.
Rading and trading often went hand in hand, and the most common view is that it is difficult now, from the distance of more than a millennium, to see when merchants and businesspeople from Viking societies laid down their battle axes to conduct business.
Whilst a raiding voyage may have been conducted to secure loot upon arrival in the unsuspecting town or village, business plans and relationships may have been forged instead and vice versa.
Trading both far and away
Merchants and traders from Viking societies were to establish trade routes and links throughout the Eurasian region, especially with the Byzantine Empire and various parts of the Islamic world, and to ply the lucrative "Silk Roads" that connected Europe with the then (as now) economic powerhouses of the world, China and India.
Yet it wasn't just far away that people from Viking societies engaged in trade. A large amount of it was little further than their doorstep.
They were, first and foremost, local entrepreneurs and businessmen who plied their trade and their fares within their communities and neighboring regions.
The town marketplace or trading centers, such as Birka (Sweden), Hedeby (Denmark), or Kaupang (Norway), grew into the Viking nodes of commerce thanks to the efforts of local and regional businesses.
Aside from these precious metals, the simplest way to exchange goods was through bartering. Photo: n_defender / Shutterstock
No money? No problems!
People from Viking societies operated in an era when the use of paper money was centuries away. Furthermore, the idea of a nation-state only took hold towards the end of the Viking era (c. 750 – 1100 CE), let alone the idea of standardized currency.
Merchants and traders from Viking societies, however, did utilize a variety of forms of rudimentary currency when conducting business. One of the most used forms was hack silver.
These were fragments of bent or cut silver – sometimes from a silver coin, but it could be cut from anything made from silver – and weighed to use as a form of currency.
Along with hack silver, Islamic dirhams and ingots of iron, as well as precious jewels or gold, were also used. Often a mixture of all of these would be buried for either safekeeping or for later use, only to be forgotten about, gifting modern archaeologists a wonderful array of buried Viking hoard treasure.
Aside from these precious metals, the simplest, cheapest but not necessarily the easiest – way to exchange goods was through bartering. Here goods and services could be exchanged in an era before any widespread currency or measurement standards.
Traders and merchants would bring their wares to a marketplace and would negotiate and haggle based on mutual needs and desires. Given that these traders and merchants traveled the length and breadth of Eurasia, from the Black to the Baltic Sea, from Constantinople to Dublin, they traded a diverse range of wares, including livestock, slaves, furs, timbers, weapons, walrus ivory, and amber.
In return, people from Viking societies often valued Frankish-made weapons (so much so an export ban was placed upon them), jewels, and other treasures.
For example, one runic inscription from Hedeby describes how Oddulfr traded Eyríkr an otter skin in exchange for a sword.
Self-reliance and social networks
Bartering was so commonplace throughout Viking societies because it allowed individuals to amass wealth without relying solely on accumulated wealth.
It often was used in smaller communities where individuals, who had produced agricultural surpluses, could then barter for items they required. This could often help a sense of self-reliance, community spirit, and self-sufficiency grow throughout the tight-knit community.
Bartering also allowed the formation of tight social and economic networks. Marketplaces, like the one in Birka, brought people and goods together to conduct business. Bartering, though it was for an economic purpose, had a social one, too, allowing connections and personal networks to be established.
These personal networks helped create trust and cooperation and facilitated even more trade throughout the Viking world and beyond. Often people from Viking societies traded well beyond their shores, allowing them the chance for cultural interaction and the easy transmission of new ideas or technologies and information.
In fact, Viking espionage and intelligence gathering was said to be one of the best in the early medieval world, with many a raid or attack formed from the information gathered by their merchant and trader brethren.
The role of exchange, especially bartering, by people from Viking societies, when conducting business, was an important and fundamental aspect of their economy. It not only provided a means of exchange but promoted both economic activity as well as social interactions.
The acquisition of goods and the building of economic and social networks for the sustenance of their local or regional communities was made in an era before the adoption of widespread or standardized currency.
An otter for a sword suddenly doesn't sound like such a bad deal anymore now, does it?
Artnet has published more information on a recently rediscovered Viking trade route here.
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