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Viking Coins: An Enduring Legacy

September 7th, 2016 by

Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians the world over are very interested in the Vikings, the preeminent Nordic culture from the 8th century CE to the 11th century CE. Viking history is studied with the same enthusiasm as other great medieval or ancient societies, speaking to these notorious seafarers’ unique contributions to Western culture.

Yet another area where studying the Vikings provides important insights is the history and development of their coins and currency. Viking coins help illustrate the evolution of money around the world because the Vikings’ experience mirrors broader historical trends in the field.

The Development and Adoption of Viking Coins

Viking treasure found in Britain. Photo: Alastair Grant / AP

Viking treasure found in Britain. Photo: Alastair Grant / AP

As was the case with many civilizations that came before, trade in the Viking world was initially conducted with large ingots made of precious metals, as well as jewelry and foreign coins—but only gold and silver. The precious metals naturally served as a monetary standard. Commerce depended on the weight of the gold or silver in the transaction, not on any coin denomination. The jewelry or foreign coins that traders would accept were often simply melted down or worn as adornments.

For all intents and purposes, the Vikings had no use for coins made from less valuable metals like bronze. Nonetheless, as the powerful Nordic tribe began to expand their territory and conquer other lands in Europe, such coins—especially those of the Anglo-Saxons—began to flow into the Viking economy. In many cases, they were paid as tribute to the Vikings to deter them from subsequent raids or conquest, but these gestures were typically made in vain.

viking boatOver time, more and more foreign coins made their way into Scandinavia. This wasn’t limited to coins from the British Isles; a wide variety of cultures show up in Viking coinage, including silver dirham coins from the emerging Islamic world. Interestingly, when the Vikings began striking their own coins in England during the 10th century, both Christian and pagan symbols appeared in the designs. On the flip side, as the graphic above explains, the Viking conquest of England led to a massive influx of silver Anglo-Saxon coins into Scandinavia.

Viking silver coins from the Watlington Hoard.
Portable Antiquities Scheme [Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 ]

Because they were seafaring raiders that spread their influence across Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the North Atlantic (even the northeast part of North America), the Vikings also came into contact with, and adopted certain practices from, myriad distinct cultures. This was likewise true of the gradual acceptance of a coin-based economy by the Vikings.

There’s no denying that the Vikings had an indelible impact on the trajectory of Western history. Yet it’s also intriguing that these other peoples whom Viking traders encountered also helped shape Viking culture itself. This story of cultural cross-fertilization reflects the development of Viking coinage toward the modernity that is associated with the rise of Europe as the world’s geopolitical center after the Renaissance (about 14th century CE onward).

 

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