When the Norsemen broke out from their isolation, they traveled with a crusader’s passion. The first to leave went as pirates and raiders, but the bonafide traders were not far behind. It was important for people to know the difference, as a sheriff in England met his death thinking he was meeting traders when they came as raiders.
We don’t know much about the local commerce within the countries. It’s safe to say, however, that barter was the earliest form of exchange.
Not long after their “breakout,” the Norse kings started to mint their own coins like they had seen in other parts of the world. Silver was the most common metal used for trade.
Furs were their most important export. The chief sources were Greenland, Finland, the areas inhabited by the Sami and even Newfoundland. Greenland also supplied ivory from walrus tusks, rope, hides and falcons. When the north German and Polish towns started to boom in the 12th century, there was an increased demand for food. This spurred the fishing industry of the Lofoten Islands and Iceland.
Market towns grew up in good harbors. The most famous of these in Denmark was Hedeby, near the German border in southern Jutland. It started up about A. D. 800 and was destroyed with fire in 1050 by the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada.
Hedeby was an international trading center, located near the present city of Schleswig, and with much of its business directed toward the German towns. Other Danish centers of trade were Aalborg, Aarhus, Ribe, Ringsted, Roskilde and Viborg. Aarhus, on the east coast of Jutland, was a major site doing business chiefly with the Scandinavian countries.
The earliest of the known Swedish trade centers was at Helgo on Lake Malar near the present city of Lillon. It was started in the fifth century and disappeared in the eighth century.
Birka replaced Helgo on the island of Bjorko that became a famous international center. A great deal has been learned of Birka through archaeological excavations from 1870-1885.
I saw a display of artifacts from Birka at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and was amazed at the ornate jewelry made of gold. Other places of importance for trade in Sweden were Lund, Sigtuna, Skara and Vastergaran. Lund became famous for its cathedral and university. As the home of the Archbishop, it had considerable prestige.
Norway’s most important early site for trade is believed to be Kaupang, southwest of Oslo. It was a local market for the Scandinavian countries rather than an international center. Located near the earliest known settlements in the country, it’s often mentioned in the sagas of Snorri Sturluson. Other important cities of Norway include Bergen, Oslo and Trondheim.
Bergen became famous as the center of the Hanseatic League, a powerful alliance of north German merchants. Oslo, with its protected harbor, has ancient origins. The wooden buildings of Scandinavia were a fire hazard. When burned down, many cities came to a standstill unless rebuilt by foreign wealth.
The Norsemen built towns in other lands. In Ireland, the Norwegians built Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford. There is some exciting excavation going on in Dublin today in search of the early Viking settlement. A small Celtic settlement existed there previously, but the Norsemen developed its harbor to winter their longships.
The most famous Norse site in England is York (Jorvik), once the center of Danish rule over the area called “Danelaw.” The excavations have become a major attraction for tourists and students of history. Other places of Viking vintage in England include Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham (home of “Robin Hood”) and Stamford. The anthropological influence of the Danes and Norwegians on east England and the outer edges of Scotland is significant.
The Norse center in Normandy (northwest France) was Rouen. This is the place from which William the Conqueror hailed.
The Swedish Vikings made deep inroads into Russia beginning about A. D. 850. Many of their artifacts have been found at Kiev, the major city of early Russia, in a cemetery that covers 250 acres. It has over four thousand small mounds, many of which contain cremation urns.
Soviet historians denied any real significance to the Viking presence in their land, even though the 12th century Russian Primary Chronicle claimed that the Norse presence was important to the development of Slavic nationhood.
One of the national treasures of the Czech Republic is the “Sword of Stephen,” kept in the cathedral at Prague. Scholars claim that this is a 10th century Viking weapon.
Besides cemeteries and ruins of ancient cities, one of the most interesting finds has been buried coins. Ten thousand coins left behind by the Vikings have been found in Estonia. These were buried to keep them from falling into the hands of raiders. Latvia and Poland have also produced Viking artifacts.
The term “Viking” is used today, but Norse would be more accurate. The word “Viking” first occurred in the dictionary in 1807. Some early Norse called themselves “Ascomenos.”
As communities grew, the merchants formed guilds for protection and to stimulate the economy. They also controlled the knowledge of skills that they passed on within their own families and to favorites.
They became masters in the art of bargaining, dealing in silk, wine and slaves, as well as furs and handcrafted articles. Viking swords were much in demand.
I have a replica of an authentic “Viking Burial Sword.” The original is in the national museum in Copenhagen. The Norsemen had a sharp eye for business. Those of you who have visited their lands today know that they still have a sharp eye for business.
Next week: “Warfare in the Viking World”