One of the most popular books of recent times, regardless of whether you have a PhD in Economics, is George Lakey's 2016 book Viking Economics (available for purchase on Amazon here).

The book is an exploration of how Nordic countries built strong, equitable, and prosperous societies through a hybrid of market capitalism and comprehensive social welfare. 

Nordic economics has been labeled as portraying "capitalism with a heart," and it is part of the reason why these nations always rank near the top for both ease of doing business and quality of life. 

Long before the modern Nordic welfare states were constructed, there was another type of "Viking Economics" – the original one that existed back when Vikings roamed, raided, and sailed the high seas more than a millennium ago. 

Whilst all the popular depictions are of their warriors raiding, rampaging, and pillaging their way through the coastal communities of Europe and the surrounding areas, not all people in Viking societies were Vikings. 

A small but significant number were traders, merchants, and early entrepreneurs. 

Viking traders often carried silver ingots that they could hack into fragments, turning them into hacksilver for use as a flexible and divisible form of currency. Photo: ALGORIDDIM (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reconnecting Europe's economies 

These men – and it was only men – could also have dropped their wares and wielded an axe if the timing or treasure was right. The line between traders and raiders was so blurred that the two often went hand in hand. 

Perhaps a Viking raid came across a rich community. The initial shock and awe might have pinched a few treasure chests' worth of gold and a few unlucky villagers. 

But then, the same people may have returned to conduct business and open trading routes. 

The story of the early medieval period, when Vikings roamed, is how people in Viking societies helped build new trading links and revitalize old ones. 

These routes snaked across Europe, connecting Scandinavia to Southern Europe, the Baltic region to the British Isles, and everywhere in between.

In an era before standardized currency, PayPass, or even credit cards, what sort of currency did merchants from Viking societies use? 

The Spillings Hoard, containing 67 kg of Viking silver, was discovered in Gotland, Sweden coincidentally just after a TV crew had filmed at the site for a cultural feature. Photo: W.carter (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Don't be such a hack 

Much has been made of the ingenious nature of people from Viking societies, from their marvelous pieces of floating maritime technology to their navigational skills, scientific ways of measuring time, and even what they grew and ate

It should be no surprise that their ingenuity entered the business world. 

Due to their propensity for acquiring treasure – especially when huge loads were offered up thanks to the pointy end of a sword or axe – they developed what historians call "hacksilver." 

Hacksilver consisted of pieces of silver cut or hacked from larger objects, like jewelry or silverware, and then used as a rudimentary form of currency wherever people from Viking societies lived. 

People from Viking societies often raided and traded with societies and economies that were more "advanced." 

One of the features of this advancement was coinage – be it minted by the orders of Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, or the great Caliphs of the Islamic world. 

According to Stephen Merkel's article in the archaeometallurgical journal METALLA, Viking traders and raiders were familiar with coinage. 

However, their rulers and leaders, especially in the early part of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100), did not have the authority, means, or technology to mint coins. 

Hacksilver was a great way to solve this problem. Unlike coins, it did not have a fixed denomination, and its value was measured only by the weight and purity of the silver. 

Since it was hacked by a sword, knife, or axe, it was fragmented, consisting of small, stripped, and shaped pieces of silver. 

This fragmented nature made it easily divisible and transportable, making it a great early example of portable wealth. 

Viking traders and merchants could carry a significant amount, enabling larger and more efficient commercial transactions and investments. 

By melting silver items like coins, jewelry, and decorative pieces into ingots, Vikings created a versatile form of currency that could be portioned into hacksilver, enabling adaptable and efficient trading. Photo: Catherine Zibo / Shutterstock

How and where was it used? 

Hacksilver was developed as a solution to a problem. 

Though Norse traders, merchants, and even old raiders conducted business in communities where coinage was available, this was not always the case. 

Remember that the Vikings helped open trade routes to places without a history of using coinage, including northern Scandinavia, the Baltic, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. 

Viking traders could carry hacksilver and thus conduct commercial transactions with a simple measure. 

It could also complement existing barter systems, offering a degree of flexibility that hauling around heavy jewels or silverware did not afford. 

Finally, it was also a means of savings; individuals could often keep stashes of it, even burying them for future use or in case of economic, societal, or personal emergencies. 

Several Viking hoards have been uncovered that feature hacksilver.

The largest, of course, was the Spillings Hoard, discovered in 1999 in Sweden. This is the "big daddy" of all Viking hoards, uncovering more than 67 kilograms (148 pounds) of Viking silver, including numerous examples of hacksilver. 

Across the North Sea in England, over 8,600 items of treasure, including hacksilver, were uncovered in the Cuerdale Hoard, whilst the Ladby hoard, uncovered on Funen Island in Denmark, contained hacked silver items and fragments of jewelry dating back to the 10th century. 

 

 

Vikings' slow embrace of Christianity and coinage is highlighted by the mid-10th century raven penny minted in York (Jórvík). Photo: The British Museum (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A portable form of wealth 

As the medieval nations of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden took form as unified states by the 11th century, their rulers adopted the norms and practices of their European counterparts. 

These included Christianity and coinage, as noted by Lotte Hedeager in her article in the European Journal of Archaeology

However, for the three centuries before, Viking traders and merchants used hacksilver as a practical and flexible form of currency. 

It helped to lubricate early medieval Europe's economies and ensured that some Viking merchants and traders amassed great wealth and forged a path that their modern entrepreneurial ancestors, like Daniel Ek of Spotify fame, have trodden down. 

If this article has tickled a historical itch, look no further than STOEX. This tourism company offers small, personalized day trips to Sigtuna from Stockholm as part of their Viking History Extended tour

More information on Viking money can be found on the BBC website here

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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