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Money and trade in Viking-Age Scandinavia

Dagfinn Skre

Economies, Monetisation and Society in West Slavic Lands 800-1200 AD, ed. Mateusz Bogucki and Marian Rebkowski (Szczecin 2013)

In many studies of Viking-Age economy and society the period’s increased use of coins and cut silver is bestowed with major explanatory force. In my view this is unjustified. The introduction of silver as means of payment had few consequences; it is rather itself a consequence of profound societal and economic changes. As the British historian Michael Postan wrote: The ‘rise of a money economy’ is one of the residual hypotheses of economic history: a deus ex machina to be called upon when no other explanation is available. This skewed focus in the study of payment media is, I believe, rooted in the view that gift-giving was the period’s main mode of exchange. The consequence of this view, which has dominated economic studies for more than 30 years, is that trade is underestimated and underinvestigated.

This paper addresses the question of how money was conceived and used in trade in the Viking Age and before, but starts with some brief reflections on the role of gifts. For several decades it has been the Stand der Forschung that in Viking-Age Scandinavia gift-giving was the dominant type of exchange, supplemented with plunder outside Scandinavia, and with a modest market trade emerging in the course of the period. As I see it, the giving of gifts was a highly important custom, particularly for creating and maintaining political alliances and a group of followers. Gifts forged or maintained social relations. Such motives would not be relevant in all situations where two parties had an interest in exchanging products. It would, for instance, rarely be the case in the relation between a buyer of an object and the craftsman who produced it. Would, e.g., the metalcaster who produced large numbers of low-cost ornaments for the populace be interested in forging lasting and binding social bonds with all his customers? Neither gift-giving, Viking raids, nor trade in the period’s few markets and towns can account for such products’ wide distribution in the Viking Age, nor for the distribution of everyday utensils and necessities, e.g. of iron, pottery, soapstone and whetstones throughout the first millennium. Exchange with the prime intention to acquire objects, not to establish or maintain social relations, must have existed in a rural context.

This realisation leads to an interest in money. How could trade go about when coinage and silver, by many scholars considered to be the period’s only money media, were scarce or lacking?

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