The Poor Man’s Money in the Carolingian Iron Age

23 January, 2012

This week on the Reading Rest I have a book:

James Graham-Campbell, Søren M. Sindbæk and Gareth Williams (eds). Silver Economies, Monetisation and Society in Scandinavia, AD 800-1100. Aarhus University Press. 2011.

This is a conference publication and a good one too not least while it is a mixture of current ideas, and some old ones. The new perspectives dominate, but there are a number of problems that one would hope had general answers although the answers have a contextual basis only. To mention just one essential question: What is the relation in time between the date representing the minting of a coin and the one representing the day it was hoarded and eventually forgotten?

Far from being a comprehensive overview Silver Economies is a collection of mostly interesting contributions. Notwithstanding, I chose to comment upon a phenomenon that I happened to observe thirty odd years ago, when I was interested in coin weights and Oriental coins found on Gotland. The phenomenon was a simple one:

Early Oriental coins are slightly underweight compared to later coins.
Oriental coins are overrepresented among stray finds, i.e. coins probably lost while circulating rather than being hoarded.
When circulating coins, there is a general tendency to introduce lightweight and consequently early Oriental coins. Consequently, once again, one would tend to hoard surplus i.e. relatively speaking inactive coins i.e. fortune in relatively speaking younger and heavier coins.

One of the problems characterizing studies concerning the period in question is the old view upon the Viking Age as a leap from prehistory to history, from Heathendom to Christianity, from petty kingdoms to nation states. A period of progress, when a number of hitherto unknown and more advance cultural phenomena were introduced as part of the evolution of society, the Viking Age is supposed to be Viking and vigorous. Traditionally, monetization, i.e. understanding the principle of the nominal value and commensurability in a coin, and thus currency as being a legal or agreed upon tender, was one of the progresses embraced by barbarian Vikings, about to become civilized Christians. The idea of the brutally primitive Pagan becoming tolerably Christian is an old one, reflected already in Carolingian poetry commenting upon Danes and Northmen (cf. On the Reading Rest June 13th 2011), but also in the odd 20th century Viking Congress.

When it comes to the introduction of monetization in Scandinavia this Viking view has to be abandoned.

When the Roman Empire expanded northwards some coins started to reach Scandinavia. They were mostly silver or gold and few and far between. Silver and gold coins were valuable, but generally speaking uninteresting from a monetary point of view although they must have changed hands. The interesting coins, as it happens, are the ones with a negligible metal value, i.e. coins consisting mainly of copper.

These low-value coins have been known for years, but the use of metal detectors has added significantly to their number, especially in Denmark where the method is safely organized. Their distribution in Scandinavia meets the eye, because they are frequent in Central Scandinavia where there are no other Roman coins. Their chronological distribution is odd too, because they are sometimes very old, even 3rd century BC. Their greatest quality, nevertheless, is the fact that they are often very uncommon types – the further inland the odder. Lastly, when found in inland hoards the time span represented by the coins may be several hundreds of years and the youngest coins in such a hoard may be an Ottoman copper coin [1]. Like old Oriental coins they don’t easily drop out of circulation.

Low-value Roman coins in Scandinavia

Antiquaries once had a tendency to see them as imported in modern times, but today there is little reason to believe that, not least why the distribution of these coins mirrors routes from inland to coastland Scandinavia and vice versa. The most frequented seems to have been the one stretching from the Stockholm area to Darlecarlia.

We cannot see the roads themselves, only places along the route where the coins were likely to be lost or hoarded.

Stockholm is the obvious import situation and transshipment area with small hoards on the islands, e.g. under the Parliament or from Djurgården and stray finds such as the one on the hillock where Historiska Museet stands today as well as further off in the outskirts of today’s city. The first stop along the route towards the inland is Stäket, a couple of stray finds at a typical communication point, or Väsby. The next is Sigtuna, hoard and stray finds, before we reach the Uppsala area. From these plains we proceed all the way to Darlecarlia where hoards and stray finds are plentiful.

Further north this coastland-inland pattern is even more obvious owing to communication along the rivers.

It stands to reason that the use of coins in the inland has something to do with the exploitation of the inland and the transshipment of goods bringing them further south. Likewise the simplest way of understanding this usage, within a restricted economy involving trappers and farmers, middleman or supercargo, is to suggest that the coins fulfill their purpose because they are uncommon and impossible to imitate in Scandinavia. Their value is negotiated in a market situation. This economy was probably limited: valuables such as fur against everyday commodities and clothes. The reason for such an economy is in all probability the fact that trappers cannot be expected to carry off their surplus in goods.

The point in all this is the fact that from the Early Iron Age and onwards Scandinavians understood the idea of monetization, of nominal coin value and of the self-regulating market. It was a limited market circulating goods. The nominal value of a coin was probably just ‘one’, and the real value negotiated.

But it was a market and it had nothing to do with the Viking Age. The Viking Age, as it happens, is just the enhancement during the Carolingian Iron Age of phenomena introduced during the Early Iron Age.

In Silver Economies, Monetisation and Society in Scandinavia, AD 800-1100, Birgitta Hårdh and Ingrid Gustin draw attention to the abovementioned facts about the circulating Oriental coins, they are old, in their cases on Viking Age market places such as Kaupang, Birka and Uppåkra where the expected relation to the hoards from Scania is pointed out by Birgitta Hårdh. The pattern disclosed by Hårdh and Gustin link in with the well-known fact that there is much more silver in Scandinavian than necessary to keep the market economy going. And obviously those who owned silver didn’t find it necessary to put their silver into circulation, creating inflation, in order to get hold of the goods on the market. Nominal circulation of coins and coins factions simply wasn’t big business. Predictably the weight of coins and coin fragments, even their accumulated weight, is negligible. That large amounts of silver changed hands at market places as well as on farms and in halls is obvious and so is the inflation when it comes to the value of beads and bronze (cf. Sindbæk’s article in Silver Economies, Fig.2.1.). By the way, there are early hoards of beards and simple jewelry belonging to the  5th and 6th century in Eketorps borg on Öland.

Ultimately, coins circulating on the market place originate with the large silver owners. They in their turn belong to landowning families mainly engaged in import and contractual distribution and redistribution of large amounts of bullion and jewelry outside the market place. Buying ships and arranging marriages, e.g. in order later on to inherit land, may be activities belonging to this sphere of economy. There is a limit to these transactions since, e.g. on insular Gotland, landowning families cannot avoid making fortunes of their silver. Obviously, these sliver owners must also have supplied the market place economy with small amounts of silver, successfully controlling inflation. Some of the silver goes back into their hoards, because ultimately they produce real values such as goods, and some enters into the surplus of those who sell on the market, e.g. craftwork or services. When we consider the small amount of silver, it seems likely that large owners of silver introduces only a very small fraction of their silver directly into the market place. They may of course buy on the market, but also supply their pit house dwellers, such as weavers and smiths, with silver coins for their products, before the farm owners bring cloth, combs and iron tools to the urban economy. Their pit house dwellers and farm hands on the other hand will benefit from the nominal market economy in places such as Kaupang and Birka and Uppåkra.

The Roman copper coins and the Oriental silver coins circulating in market economies during the first millennium AD suggest that in Scandinavia market economy was introduced in the periphery of the economy, not as a splendid mind-broadening innovation, but reluctantly and primarily as a result of the social stratification of society in which there is a need to satisfy a demand for commodities among the landless, such as trappers and pit house dwellers. This stratification and the number of landless were no doubt growing during the whole of the first millennium AD. When it comes to economy, the Carolingian Iron Age was a revival or a renaissance enhancing concepts and phenomena understood already in the Early Iron Age. As pointed out in Silver Economies, e.g. by Sindbæk, the dynamics of the urban networks in the Carolingian Iron Age were an instigating force also in Scandinavian economy. In order at least in part to explain the difference between the Roman and the Carolingian Iron Age we may in other words point the difference between two kinds of urbanism, the Colonial and stagnating Roman, and the Indigenous and dynamic Northwest European. The Vikings were but a symptom and a revival of an Early Iron Age Scandinavian phenomenon.

[1] Recently Inger Zachrisson has discussed and catalogued the Roman coins in Central Sweden with a view to Early Iron Age trade. Zachrisson, Inger. 2010 Vittnesbörd om pälshandel? Ett arkeologiskt perspektiv på romerska bronsmynt funna i norra Sverige. Fornvännen. Årg 105:187-202. (Summary in English).


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