What Kind of Bullion Did the Vikings Have?

Money makes the world go around, as the Vikings soon discovered. Gareth Williams accounts for the rise of Viking coinage.


Status and bullion

The Viking Age saw major changes in the economy of Scandinavia. At the beginning of the Viking Age, few people in Scandinavia had any knowledge of coinage. Some foreign coins entered the region as a result of trading contacts both with western Europe and the Islamic world to the east. However, except in major trading centres such as Hedeby and Ribe, in Denmark, the idea of coinage as such was unfamiliar. Coins were valued only for their weight in silver or gold, and circulated alongside many other forms of precious metal.

This is what is known as a bullion economy, in which the weight and the purity of the precious metal are what is important, not what form the metal takes. Far and away the most common metal in the economy was silver, although gold was also used. Silver circulated in the form of bars, or ingots, as well as in the form of jewellery and ornaments. Large pieces of jewellery were often chopped up into smaller pieces known as 'hack-silver' to make up the exact weight of silver required. Imported coins and fragments of coins were also used for the same purpose. Traders carried small scales which could measure weight very accurately, so it was possible to have a very precise system of trade and exchange even without a regular coinage.

Sliver Brooch  

Precious metals were also a symbol of wealth and power. Like many peoples throughout history, the Vikings demonstrated their wealth and status by wearing beautiful jewellery, or by having expensively ornamented weapons, which were their equivalents of the Armani suit or the Rolex watch of today. In many cases, imported coins were melted down as the raw material for arm-rings, neck-rings or brooches. In other cases, coins were even mounted as jewellery. The show of wealth was more important than the idea of a coin-based economy.



Viking coin-weight from Wareham, with inset silver penny of Ethelred I of Wessex  

The Viking raids of the ninth century brought the raiders into regular contact with the monetary economies of western Europe. The Frankish Empire had a strong centralised coinage, which had been introduced by Charlemagne around the time of the first recorded raid. Although the Empire was divided after 840, the tradition of strong silver coinage continued in the various smaller kingdoms that replaced it.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms each had their own coinage, and the wealth of Anglo-Saxon England was probably one of the main causes of the Viking expansion. East Anglia, Kent, Mercia and Wessex all had silver coinage, although the Kentish coinage disappeared after the kingdom was swallowed up by Wessex in the 820s. Northumbria also had a coinage, but unusually this was mostly made up of copper and bronze coins with a much lower value. These were apparently of very little interest to Viking raiders.

Both in England and on the Continent, native rulers regularly paid Viking raiders to leave them in peace. The idea of 'Danegeld' is particularly associated today with the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016), whose policy of paying off the Vikings rather than fighting them was famously unsuccessful, and led to the conquest of England by Svein Forkbeard and Cnut. Such payments were also common in the ninth century, and both Anglo-Saxon and Frankish chronicles are full of references to rulers 'making peace' with the raiders. 'Making peace' was a polite expression for 'paying them to go away', and could involve large sums, such as the 7,000 pounds paid by the Frankish ruler Charles the Bald in 845. Even Alfred the Great, more famous for his military resistance, was forced to 'make peace' on occasion. A particular feature of late ninth-century England is the existence of small lead weights, with Anglo-Saxon coins set into the top. These were probably used by the Vikings to weigh out payments in coinage.



Silver penny of Athelstan / Guthrum, imitating Alfred's 'Two-line' type  

The idea of coinage was not a difficult one to grasp, and once the Viking raiders began to settle in England in the late ninth century, they began to issue coins of their own. Today this might seem an obvious thing to do, because we are used to dealing with coins on a regular basis. However, even a single silver penny (the only common denomination in the period) was a valuable item, and most poorer people probably never handled coinage at all. Coins might be very slightly more convenient than some other forms of silver, but payments continued to be primarily based on the total weight and quality of the silver.

The reasons for adopting coinage were probably political and cultural as much as economic. Like many 'barbarian' invaders, the Vikings looked at the more 'civilised' peoples they had invaded, and wanted to be like them. Issuing coins was one of the established rights associated with Christian kingship in Europe in the early Middle Ages. The Anglo-Saxons themselves had adopted coinage as soon as they converted to Christianity, and the Vikings did just the same.

Reverse of silver penny  

Most of the early Viking coin types were imitations of more established coinage. This is fairly typical of societies that adopt the idea of coinage from their neighbours. One of the main models for the coinage of the Danelaw was naturally the coinage of Alfred the Great of Wessex, the most powerful ruler in the British Isles. Many coins from the southern Danelaw carried Alfred's name, rather than the name of the rulers who issued them. In East Anglia, the Viking Guthrum, Alfred's godson, issued coins copying the designs of Alfred's coins, but with his own new baptismal name of Athelstan. Other early designs were copied from Byzantine and Frankish coins, reminding us of the wide range of the Vikings' contacts.


Coinage in the British Isles

The link between issuing coins and Christian kingship is very clear in the coinage of Viking rulers in the British Isles. Almost all the coins that carry the name of a ruler were issued in the name of kings, rather than jarls (or earls). The exception is a rare coinage from around 900 in the name of Sihtric Comes (Jarl Sihtric), of which only a handful of examples survive. This might not seem surprising, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that the Viking armies were led by jarls as often as kings. Furthermore, when coinage was adopted by Viking rulers outside England in the 990s and later, the jarls of Orkney did not issue coinage, although they were probably at least as powerful as the kings of Dublin and the Isle of Man, who did.

It is also very noticeable that the coins of the Danelaw carry very Christian symbols. Many have the Christian cross, and some carry Christian inscriptions such as DOMINUS DEUS REX (Lord God and King) or MIRABILIA FECIT (He has done marvellous things). Coins were also issued in the name of St Peter at York, and St Martin at Lincoln. The designs were not all exclusively Christian, however, which suggests some religious toleration. Some of the St Peter pennies carry the hammer of the pagan god Thor alongside the name of St Peter. A coin type attributed to Olaf Guthfrithsson of York (939-41) shows a bird that has often been identified as one of Odin's ravens. It could equally well be interpreted as an eagle, symbol of St John the Evangelist, and the image may have been chosen deliberately to appeal to Christian and pagan alike.

Whatever the religious symbolism of the Olaf coins may be, they carry a very clear statement of Scandinavian identity. While most Anglo-Scandinavian coinage had inscriptions in Latin, like Anglo-Saxon and Frankish coins, Olaf's coins carry the inscription ANLAF CUNUNC (konungr), which is Old Norse for King Olaf.


Coinage in Scandinavia

Silver penny of Olof Tribute-king, king of Sweden, minted in the 990s  

Foreign coins, especially Islamic silver dirhams, were known in Scandinavia throughout the early Viking Age. They circulated alongside other forms of silver bullion, but the supply of silver from the east dried up in the late tenth century. This was one reason for the new wave of Viking raids in the west from the 980s onwards. England was particularly wealthy, and its ruler Ethelred II found it easier to pay off Viking raiders than to raise armies to fight them. Apart from leading to the conquest of England, this policy led to a huge flow of silver coinage to Scandinavia. This continued as a result of trade during the reign of Cnut and his sons, and even today more late Anglo-Saxon coins are found in Scandinavia than in Britain.

At the same time, western ideas were also flooding into Scandinavia. These included the same ideas of Christianity and kingship that the Viking settlers had adopted in England. This coincided with the gradual unification of the smaller kingdoms into what we now know as Denmark, Norway and Sweden. These changes are reflected in the adoption in the late 990s of regal coinage in all three kingdoms. Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, Olaf Tryggvasson of Norway and Olof Tribute-king of Sweden all issued coins with their names and titles, imitating the coinage of Ethelred II. Before this there had been a small anonymous coinage in Denmark, but there were no earlier coins produced in Norway or Sweden.

Reverse of silver penny of Olof 

The fate of the coinages was different in each kingdom. In Norway, the coinage got off to a very weak start and only really took off under the powerful kingship of Harald Hardrada (1047-66). By contrast, the Swedish coinage started strongly, but collapsed in the 1030s when the new Swedish kingdom fragmented and relapsed into paganism. By far the most successful was the Danish coinage, which started strongly under Svein Forkbeard and became firmly established once Cnut united the kingdoms of Denmark and England. As in England, coinage was issued in a number of towns around the kingdom, and these also acted as power centres both for the king and the Church.



The mixed Cuerdale Hoard also contains 8,600 coins, as well as these ingots and pieces of jewellery and plate.



Hacksilver or hacksilber, are fragments of cut and bent silver items treated as bullion, either for ease of carrying before melting down for re-use, or simply used as currency by weight. It was common among the Norsemen or Vikings, as a result of both their raiding and trade. The name of the ruble, the basic unit of modern Russian currency, is derived from the Russian verb рубить ('rubit'), meaning "to chop", from the practice of the Rus, described by Ahmad ibn Fadlan visiting the Volga Vikings in 922.[citation needed] An example of the related Viking weighing scale with weights was found on the Isle of Gigha. Hacksilver may be derived from silver tableware, Roman or Byzantine, church plate and silver objects such as reliquaries or book-covers, and jewellery from a range of areas. Hoards may typically include a mixture of hacksilver, coins, ingots and complete small pieces of jewellery.

Hoards of hacksilver are also well known in pre and post-coinage antiquity, in European and Near Eastern contexts. The Cisjordan Corpus (c.1200-586 BC) is the largest identified concentration of pre-coinage hacksilver hoards, and provides key evidence for the Phoenician and wider Near Eastern roots of the development and proliferation of the earliest silver coinages in the Greek world and western tradition.

The widespread adoption of Greek silver coinages by c.480 BC appears to have developed first out of cooperative relations between Greeks and Phoenicians, then partly as a competitive, culturally consolidating response to earlier Phoenician expansion and domination of silver trade, which had been conducted with hacksilver. Within the Cisjordan Corpus, a concentration of hacksilver hoards occurs in a part of southern Phoenicia that was recorded in antiquity as a territory of the Shardana tribes of Sea Peoples associated with Sardinia. Thompson, in her analyses of the hacksilver pieces, relates this textual evidence to lead isotope ratios that have ore signatures matching Sardinian ores. This is the first recognized material evidence linking the two regions in this critical period. The same hacksilver hoards have provided the first recognized provenance-evidence for far-reaching contact between Europe and Asia related to the prehistoric trafficking of metals.