One of the hottest stories on TV right now is 1200 years old. Though the historical accuracy is questionable, “Vikings” has renewed interest in the Scandinavian culture of the past. One of the most interesting aspects of historic Viking culture is their gradual move to a coin-based economy.
The Vikings originally traded with precious metals by weight, known as a “bullion economy.” They accepted coins from other nations, but only as their weight value in gold or silver. Precious metals (silver was heavily preferred) circulated in the form of jewelry, as well as ingots. Large silver items might be cut into small pieces, referred to as “hack-silver,” for various trade purposes. Traders carried small scales so that the silver in a transaction could be accurately weighed; this allowed for a very precise trade economy without a need for coinage. In fact, the Vikings were known to melt foreign coins into jewelry, or simply mount the coin to be worn as-is. Wearing their tradable precious metals was valued as a show of wealth.
Coins began flooding into the Viking economy from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the west, when the Vikings demanded financial gifts to “make peace” with the kings of those nations. Kingdoms like Mercia, Wessex, Kent, and East Anglia all had precious metal coins that the Vikings found desirable; Northumbria also had coins, but since these were lower-value coins of copper and bronze, the Vikings appeared to have no interest in them. Charles the Bald, king of West Francia, paid 7,000 pounds in 845 to persuade the Vikings to leave his kingdom alone. These payments were sometimes known as “Danegeld,” or “gafol,” and were hilariously ineffective, as the Vikings continued to raid and conquer Anglo-Saxon lands. (These raids and conquests also irreversibly changed the English language; the documentary “The Story of English” gives an excellent overview. You can see the most relevant episode here.)
As the Vikings settled into England, they began minting coins of their own. These were still primarily based on the weight and quality of the silver, but it did make trade somewhat more convenient (no hacking bits off jewelry during a transaction.) Initially, Viking coinage was very imitative of existing coins, as can be expected from a society that was still getting used to the idea of using coins at all. The coinage of Wessex under Alfred the Great served as one of the primary inspirations for Viking coins; some of these coins even bore Alfred’s name rather than the name of any Viking ruler. Athelstan, Alfred’s godson and a Viking with the birth name of Guthrum, had coins that were copied from Alfred’s, but with his own name added.
A key aspect of Viking coins from occupied British lands is that many of them carry explicitly Christian symbols, such as the cross, or various Latin inscriptions. Some were even issued in the name of churches, such as St. Peter of York. However, some of these coins also have pagan symbols, such as Thor’s hammer; whether this is a sign of tolerance or syncretism is hard to know for sure.
The Vikings made use of foreign coins, especially in Scandinavia, both for bullion and as coinage; Islamic silver dirhams circulated regularly during the early Viking age. (In fact, there is evidence that some of the Vikings may have converted to Islam during this period of cultural exchange.) The stream of silver from eastern countries vanished in the tenth century, provoking the Vikings into another age of raids in the latter half of the century. England bore the brunt of this, due to its wealth. The ruler at the time, Æthelred, decided to pay off the Viking raiders rather than fight them. (His nickname is “Æthelred the Unready,” which is not to indicate that he was ill-prepared, but rather, poorly advised. “Unready” is a mistranslation of the Old English word unræd, meaning “bad counseled”.)
Though Æthelred’s policies eventually led to the conquest of England, it also resulted in a flood of silver coins into Scandinavia; according to the BBC, “even today more late Anglo-Saxon coins are found in Scandinavia than in Britain.”
While the Vikings were invading western lands, western concepts of government were making their way into Viking culture. The small Scandinavian kingdoms began to merge into what is now Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. All three eventually began using royal coinage, and the distinctive Viking coins passed into history.