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Vikings: raiders or traders?

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Viking trade

We had our second meeting of the Nordic Financial Services Club in Oslo last week.

It was a fantastic meeting with case studies from a number of local firms including Schibsted Media Group, ValYou and Nordea.  I’ll write up some of this later this week, but wanted to begin with some history.

Not some history of the Financial Services Club, but some history of the Nordic region.

This is because, by coincidence, I happened to pop into the Viking exhibition at the British Museum yesterday.

It’s a fascinating exhibition, although very crowded, and clearly shows that the Vikings were brave, bold and traders as well as raiders.

In fact, barter was their stock in trade, which led to the creation of ‘commodity money’.  Beads, furs and dried fish were used as currency, because they held their value and came in quantities that were easier to measure.

This was ok when they were dealing locally, but Vikings travelled extensively in their long ships (the recreated Viking ship in the exhibition is 37 metres long!).

Viking settlements have been found in the Americas (Canada and Newfoundland), Northern Africa, across the East (they traded extensively with the Islamic communities in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan), and Europe of course.

Long distance trade created a need for a more sophisticated form of payment, and brought the Vikings into contact with societies that had well-established monetary economies.

For example, one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the numerous dirhams that the Vikings collected.  Over 100,000 dirhams have been found in Scandinavia, either whole or in fragments.  This is because the dirham was viewed as of value for their silver, rather than as a currency, and would cut the dirham into various sizes for exchange of goods.  In other words, the coins were traded for their silver value by weight, rather than their face value.

Initially, the Vikings exchanged the imported coins, such as dirhams, as bullion (metal valued for its weight and purity), and this could take any forms of value from coins and jewellery to simple gold and silver ingot bas to fragments of silver, known as hack-silver.

There were also many forgerers in Viking Scandinavia who copied the dirhams even though they could not read Arabic so, if they were caught, who knows what happened to them?

The dirham silver (or less commonly gold) was dutifully weighed and traded, and the importance of bartering is the reason why Viking burial sites for wealthy merchants shows that they were buried with their scales. 

Viking trade

Equally, Vikings liked to display their wealth by wearing rings of twister silver.  These were produced in multiples of Viking ounces (about 25g to an ounce).  Tings symbolised ownership of set quantities of Islamic silver dirhams, which they used as currency.  They were originally made as neck rings and sometimes into smaller rings and, according to the Book of Ahmad Ibn Fadian (an Arab diplomat of 921-22 AD):

“Round their necks, they wear torques of gold and silver.  For every man, as soon as he accumulates 10,000 dirhams, has a torque made for his wife.  When he has 20,000, he as two made and so on …”

Another aspect of Viking trade is that the Vikings and Slavs intermingled and created a new race of peoples in Eastern Europe called the Rus.  The Rus settled in Kiev and later founded what became Russia (the country of the Rus peoples).

The Rus traded with bullion in the form a grivna.  

Grivna was a measure of weight, mainly for gold and silver, commonly used throughout medieval Poland, Bohemia and the Rus lands. It was also a unit of measure of a unit of exchange, as Grivna were produced to a standardised weight measurement system and, as such, was used as money.

This is why the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia adopted in 1996, takes its name from this original form of medieval currency.

The Vikings were also one of the first races to create taxation or, some might call it, protection money.  Farmers would pay a ‘tribute penny’ to stop the warriors attacking his stock and taking it. 

This was particularly true in England where the Viking territories were gradually conquered by the Anglo-Saxons (a mix of Germanic and indigenous peoples living in England) and, from 954 AD, all of England was under Anglo-Saxon control.

In the 990s, Viking raids on England resumed and became more intense. 

As a result, the English adopted a policy of paying gold, or tribute, to the Vikings in return for peace.  However, this just encouraged more Vikings to come in search of loot or geld.  This is why more Anglo-Saxon currency from this period of time has been found in Scandinavia than in England.

Ealdorman Byrhtnoth was killed at Maldon and, in that year, it was first decided tax be paid to the Danish men because of the great terror which they wrought along the sea coast.  That was at first ten thousand pounds. Anon, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, AD 991

There are other things that show a difference in Norse history.  For example, women were very important in their society, and had far more status than many other ancient civilisations.  For example, keys were often found in women’s graves. 

They symbolised that the deceased had the status of lady of the house, and had control of the household finances.  Women also managed the household stores, which were essential to survival through the long Scandinavian winter.

Interestingly, women were also heavily engaged in trade in Viking times, and were permitted to inherit land and goods, and hold property in their own right.  That is more than their sons as, according to another Arab writer of the time, Ahmad ibn Rusta:

“When a son is born, the father throws a naked sword before him and says: ‘I leave you no inheritance.  All you possess is what you can gain with theis sword.’”

In fact, many of the Norse myths about Vikings wearing helmets with horns and being rapers and pillagers are not quite accurate.  Their helmets had no horns and sure, some of them were rapers and pillagers, but that was just to create submission.

After that, they would trade, barter and work with people to create commerce and commercialisation of goods and services.  This was their real focus.

There were many other interesting ideas that came up in the show but you should go if you want to know more.

Meanwhile, there will be more on the Nordic Financial Services Club meetings and history tomorrow and our next planned meeting is on payments innovation in Stockholm on May 27th 2014.


p.s. if you are wondering why they were called Vikings, it’s the old Norse word for pirate or raider.


p.p.s. did you know that the word beserk came from the extreme yobs of the Viking era?  These warriors were not part of society’s norms, and tried to make themselves look as weird as possible by filing their teeth and wearing tattoos.  In battle, they would go crazy and just throw themselves into war without thought for their own lives.  It was a kind of zone they went into.  These guys would wear bear-shirts and so, when the battle started and the mad warriors began their rampages, the people would say there go the bear-shirts, which became they are going beserk.


p.p.p.s. if you are interested in the history of money, we have a presentation on this very subject from the British Museum coming up on 16th June 2014. Details below:

The History of Money
Ben Alsop, Project Curator: Citi Money Gallery, the British Museum

The Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum is home to one of the world's finest numismatic collections, comprising about one million objects. The collection spans the history of coinage from its origins in the seventh century BC to the present day, and related material such as coin weights, tokens and money boxes.

The department also holds the national collection of paper money, ranging from one of the earliest fourteenth century Chinese banknotes to the euro, as well as a magnificent selection of commemorative and art medals from the Italian Renaissance to the present.

The most extensive numismatic library in the country is also housed within the department and, like the collection itself, exists for the benefit of the scholar and general public alike. This material is brought to a wide audience through exhibitions, publications, a broad programme of educational events and through our study room facilities.

Ben Alsop is responsible for the Money Gallery, sponsored by Citibank. He is responsible for the updating of gallery content both in the gallery and on the Museum website. 


Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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