Review: Silver Economy in the Viking Age

James Graham-Campbell and Gareth Williams, eds. Silver Economy in the Viking Age. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2007. Hb., 240 pp., b/w illustrations throughout. ISBN 978-1-59874-222-0. $89.00.

The Vikings have long been an early medieval cultural group in need of an image consultant. In recent decades, they have been cast variously by scholars and in popular culture as either bloodthirsty sea raiders out of a Robert E. Howard novel (a characterization that goes back to the Anglo-Saxon chronicles) or as more restrained international salesmen, traveling the waterways of Europe to reach their clientele. As Susan E. Kruse points out in her contribution to the present volume, these are extreme views that have resulted from the swinging of the pendulum of scholarly opinion. Viking culture(s) and Scandinavian involvement in international trade are far more complex and nuanced than the scholarly and popular stereotypes would suggest. Silver Economy in the Viking Age, based on papers presented at a symposium at the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) on May 26–27, 2000, approaches the use of silver from a variety of archaeological, numismatic, metrological, textual, and anthropological angles in order to expand the ongoing dialogue (and in some cases fan the flames of controversy) regarding this facet of the Viking Age.

The collection opens with D. M. Metcalf’s “Regions Around the North Sea with a Monetized Economy in the Pre-Viking and Viking Ages,” which provides an excellent overview and interpretation of ninth- and tenth-century coin finds in Anglo-Saxon England. This paper is especially important, as it strongly challenges Henri Pirenne’s influential thesis, which argues that the English economy (and that of northwestern Europe in general) was not heavily monetized outside of the great estates and trade centers prior to the eleventh century but was somehow stimulated by the disruption of the Viking incursions. On the contrary, Metcalf makes a good argument for extensive monetization in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and suggests that if anything, the Viking presence severely hampered international trade, leading to a decline in coin production and usage in the tenth century.

Brita Malmer revisits the controversy over the dating and location(s) of minting for early Danish coinage in “South Scandinavian Coinage in the Ninth Century.” Here she takes issue with Metcalf’s influential view that the eighth-century Wodan/monster sceattas were produced at Ribe rather than in Frisia (see “A Note on Sceattas as a Measure of International Trade, and on the Earliest Danish Coinage,” in Sceattas in England and on the Continent, ed. D. Hill and D. M. Metcalf [Oxford, 1984]: 159–164) and presents a good case for closely linking the die combination groups KG 3–6 to the Carolingian denier of the 820s. This would make KG 3, minted at Hedeby, the earliest known Scandinavian coin emission. Despite the find evidence, which shows two discrete areas of type circulation in Schleswig-Holstein and southern Jutland, Malmer resists the explicit identification of the mints responsible for Danish coinage in the ninth and tenth centuries as Hedeby and Ribe.

The economic role of the early local coinage and foreign coins in Scandinavia is treated by Ralf Wiechmann in “Hedeby and Its Hinterland: A Local Numismatic Region.” The bulk of this article is taken up by a thorough review of the hoard and individual coin finds from the eighth through tenth centuries in Schleswig-Holstein, Angeln, and Schwansen, leading to the conclusion that the coinage of Hedeby was aimed primarily at supporting domestic rather than foreign trade, ultimately bringing an end to the use of hack-silver and greatly reducing the numbers of foreign coin finds around Hedeby in the tenth century.

“The Evidence of Pecking on Coins from the Cuerdale Hoard: Summary Version” by Marion M. Archibald briefly comments on the Viking practice of coin pecking (testing silver quality by observing the resistance of the metal to the blade of a knife). Using the heavily pecked material in the Cuerdale hoard as her study sample, she argues that coin pecking was used to check the metal quality of unfamiliar or suspicious coin types. As pecking only occurs later in Scandinavia but is well known from Viking Dublin already in c. 830, it is suggested that the practice developed there and was brought to non-coin-producing areas of England and Scandinavia by individuals with Hiberno-Norse connections.

Mark Blackburn puts Anglo-Saxon silver into the larger framework of precious metal use and exchange in the Viking Age by discussing “Gold in England During the ‘Age of Silver’ (Eighth–Eleventh Centuries).” In this masterful paper, the author uses the copious documentary evidence and the extremely limited numismatic material to convincingly argue that the late eighth and ninth centuries saw considerable use of gold coins as a special-purpose currency despite the transition to silver-dominated economies throughout Western Europe. Based on the admittedly slim evidence of eight surviving Anglo-Saxon mancuses, Blackburn posits three phases in the development of early medieval English gold coin production. In an early phase, the coins were struck with the designs and names of the moneyers alone, without reference to the king, but a ninth-century reform of Cenwulf (?) replaced these private types with royal ones related but not identical to the penny. In a third phase (tenth and eleventh centuries), gold mancuses were struck with regular penny dies. All of this leads the author to conclude that the coins were probably produced on the basis of private need for gold coin to complete particular types of exchange and that anyone with gold could have commissioned a moneyer to strike mancuses. The importance of private need and enterprise to the system envisioned here is very interesting, not least because it mirrors the later practice of the early modern mints of the Tower of London and colonial Massachusetts, which routinely struck coins for individuals who brought in their own bullion for the purpose. The paper concludes with three useful appendices devoted to British finds of gold coins, an inventory of English gold coins with meaningful inscriptions, and an inventory of gold ingots and hack-gold with English find contexts.

In “A Survey of Coin Production and Currency in Normandy, 864–945,” Jens Christian Moesgaard attempts to clarify the chronology of the types immobilisés struck in Normandy in the decades preceding and following the ceding of the region by Charles the Simple to the Viking chief Rollo in 911/12, in order to assess the influence of Viking rule on coinage and currency. Based on the evidence presented, he concludes that the Vikings had little effect on the preexisting currency system(s) of Normandy, as they failed to introduce a Scandinavian-style bullion economy and continued the regional practice of striking types immobilisés, although in time the coinage circulation becomes increasingly regionalized. Real innovation only comes with the signed Rouen deniers of William Longsword in c. 930/40, which Moesgaard convincingly divorces from supposed Anglo-Saxon prototypes.

The three papers that follow deal with Viking Age silver hoards from Scandinavia, northwestern Russia, and Ireland as evidence for the commercial and status/display economies of the period. In “Viking Economies: Evidence from the Silver Hoards,” Märit Gaimster identifies four types of media (coins, bars and ingots, hack-silver, and ornaments) in Viking Age silver hoards from Denmark and Öland and uses the frequency of their occurrence in relation to each other to illustrate a primarily social, rather than economic, function for arm- and neck-rings. Hack-silver and ingots appear primarily in the more complex “commercial” hoards, whereas the rings were mostly hoarded separately from other media. Gaimster’s comparison of the find material also shows some minor regional differences in the hoarding of ingots and hack-silver.

A similar approach is taken by John Sheehan in “Form and Structure of Viking Age Silver Hoards: The Evidence from Ireland,” in which he presents his detailed classification system for non-numismatic elements in Irish silver hoards, embracing five major classes and twelve subdivisions (but excluding coins). Although it is true that the five hoard classes have “reasonably discrete distributional patterns” when plotted on a map, it is less clear that the distribution reflects different economies or that the distinction between commercially “passive,” “potential,” and “active” hoard classes is necessarily accurate. Concentrations of all five hoard classes in central western Ireland also coincide with concentrations of coin hoards, which may be suggestive of similar economic functions. Likewise, there is no way to be absolutely certain that the complete ornaments (class 1) were hoarded for different reasons than the commercially “active” hoards containing hack-silver. When complete ornaments appear in hoards with complete ingots, Sheehan rightly considers them to be commercially “potentially active.” Surely the ornaments also had this potential when hoarded on their own. If it is agreed that the ornament hoards have this same “potentially active” quality, the distinction between the status/display economy that they are normally considered to represent and the bullion economy at large becomes somewhat fuzzier.

In contrast to the tendency of Gaimster’s and Sheehan’s contributions to emphasize the differences between apparently distinct silver economies, Birgitta Hårdh’s “Oriental-Scandinavian Contacts on the Volga, as Manifested by Silver Rings and Weight Systems” offers compelling evidence that at least one class of ornament (“Permian” silver rings) occasionally found in Scandinavia was produced to a particular weight standard and therefore was intended to function within the bullion economy, if not to circulate after the manner of coins. The metrological evidence is very strong for interpreting these northern Russian rings as a form of money in large units used for large-scale trade, but one wonders whether the weight system of the “Permian” rings was consciously derived from the 1/8 fraction (grivna) of the Old Russian pound, which was also equivalent to twenty Arabic dirhams, or whether the standard of the rings might have been imposed by the use of Arabic dirhams to make them. Although Ibn Fadlan’s account of Rus’s traders melting down specific sums of dirhams (10,000!) to make neck rings is used as evidence in the contributions by both Gareth Williams and James Graham-Campbell, it is a little surprising that Hårdh has not fully factored it in to her discussion.

If such a practice lies behind the adjusted weights of the “Permian” rings, it might also help to explain the metrological variances in Scandinavian rings. Indiscriminate use of pennies, deniers, and dirhams, or a failure to make sure that all coins of a particular denomination were full weight at the time of melting, could account for wide weight differences. Thus, for example, it would have been possible for two rings to be made with the identical value of one hundred deniers or fifty dirhams in coin but have very different weights. This would tend to further blur the distinction between silver monetary, bullion, and status/display economies, as the rings would then become a more attractive and efficient equivalent to a large purse of coins for important transactions. (For the related situation of coins converted to objects for use in the status/display economy of Greek temples, and which could be converted back to coin when necessary, see A. Bresson, La cité marchand (Bordeaux, 2000), 212–240.)

Moving on from the hoarding phenomena, Susan E. Kruse comments on “Trade and Exchange Across Frontiers” in relation to the economic activities of the Vikings. In contrast to the tendency of past scholarship to deny or overemphasize Scandinavian engagement in neutral (i.e., market) exchange with other cultural groups, the author argues that the limited documentary and archaeological evidence virtually guarantees their involvement in such activity. As a corollary to the evidence adduced in favor of Viking neutral exchange across frontiers, the author discusses the serious difficulties that must have beset Scandinavian traders in foreign lands if trade was not primarily based on barter. She is rightly suspicious of proposed common Scandinavian weight standards, since the metrology of excavated weight sets is incompatible internally and between sets, and the political centralization required for weight standardization was largely absent from Scandinavia until the close of the Viking Age. On the other hand, if Viking weights were largely produced and used to check that objects made to foreign standards were full weight, there is no need to expect compatibility between weights in a set or between sets. A later parallel for this might be found in the merchant weight sets of early modern Europe, which routinely included weights for foreign denominations. This seems somewhat more plausible than assuming that the known Viking weights represent some broad or regional Scandinavian standard(s) that were poorly replicated in the weights.

Gareth Williams’s “Kingship, Christianity, and Coinage: Monetary and Political Perspectives on the Silver Economy in the Viking Age” builds on Kruse’s point about the relationship between controlled weight standards and centralized government, arguing that the development of Viking coinage hinged on the desire of Scandinavian kings to emulate contemporary Frankish and Anglo-Saxon monarchs rather than the needs of the economy. The case for a correlation between Scandinavian coin production and the adoption of Western European Christian modes of rule by Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish kings is quite compelling. The author even shows a relationship between gaps in coinage and periods of pagan reaction or rule by earls rather than kings.

However, we are still left with some reservations about the degree to which the political function of the coinage should be privileged over its economic function. For example, despite Williams’s well-taken point that Hedeby was a firmly royal foundation of the Danish king Godfred, the coins struck at that trade emporium in the ninth and tenth centuries were all anonymous and frequently based on a Carolingian prototype. Surely the adoption of this type was dictated at least as strongly by the needs of trade with the Frankish kingdom as by the desire of the king to appear as an equal to his more southerly royal contemporaries. Likewise, if the anonymous Hedeby issues are understood as reflections of royal power, the author’s suggestion that the many anonymous coinages of the Danelaw might have been struck by earls out of deference to the kingly prerogative of being named on the coinage becomes problematic. Williams’s use of the Danish coinage of the Christian Norwegian king Magnús the Good (1035–1047) as an example of politically motivated coinage is also debatable. He argues that the king only issued coins in Denmark, but not in Norway, because the more centralized Western European style of kingship was poorly received by the nobles of Norway but was already well-established in Denmark. However, one might also argue that Denmark also had a longer tradition of coin production and use, and therefore Magnús’s Danish coinage reflects a response to the economic needs of Denmark.

The collection concludes with James Graham-Campbell’s “Reflections on ‘Silver Economy in the Viking Age,’” which is a summation and in some cases a critique of the major themes and subjects discussed in the preceding papers. He particularly reflects on the distinctions between display and bullion economies while noting the interconnection between the two. He also tends to champion the simplified classification system of Gainster over that of Sheehan in his reflections on the methodology of studying silver hoards, although he makes the important point that Sheehan’s classification system has nevertheless been the source of much fruitful discussion.

The papers in Silver Economy in the Viking Age reflect, reduced down to the economic level, the larger fractured view of who the Vikings were as a cultural group. The variety of opinions expressed, areas explored, and controversies engaged in by the authors might have made Silver Economies in the Viking Age a more appropriate title for the collection. Although most of the papers raise almost as many new problems as they attempt to solve, it is this very feature that makes the book an extremely important presentation of the state of the question(s) regarding the use of silver in the Viking Age. It certainly offers much material for further exploration.

—Oliver D. Hoover