One of our most popular displays at our viking reenactment events is our coin-strike, where you can make your own replica Viking coins. But what was money to an early-medieval person? What did they buy with it, and who did they pay?
A Bullion Economy
Before coinage was introduced, people often traded using the value of the material or goods they wanted to sell or buy. The value of a good milking cow, or an amount of butter or grain may have been their point of reference when bartering. However, if you wanted to trade your cow for some grain, but couldn’t find anyone who wanted a cow, then you’d need something else. In the Viking-age, valuable precious metals, usually silver but occasionally gold, could be used as a third unit of payment.
Unlike today’s money which represents an agreed face-value, coinage in the Viking-age was itself valuable. Silver coinage from far flung places such as Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey) could easily be used in places such as Dublin, Ireland, or in York, England. In fact, several Viking hoards in Britain have been found containing Islamic Dirhams, English Pennies and Frankish Deniers amongst other currencies made from precious metal.
Coins weren’t the only valuable silver trade good however. Many hoards contain silver bands of ‘hack silver’ where slivers of metal were cut from a bracelet to make the silver-weight value of a trade, and there are many examples of ingots – trade weighted bars – in Viking hoards. Similarly, silver and gold jewellery fragments have found to be deliberately broken for this reason, as have coins which are sometimes cut into halves, or quarters.
Silver was very valuable, so it’s unlikely that it was used to buy mundane things where a barter culture better served. A single coin of silver would be too much to buy a single loaf of bread for example – change would be an issue! It’s more likely that silver currency would be used for large purchases of animals, grain, weapons and land. And for paying taxes to the King, or tribute to a warlord for protection.
The primary precious metal found in Viking hoards is silver. Many items, particularly coins, bare marks of testing processes used by traders. Without the aid of modern science traders relied on knowing the feel of good silver, just in case an opportunistic criminal tried to counterfeit them. Cuts into the edge of coins called ‘nicks,’ and ‘pecks’ onto the surface of the coin test to see if the coin is merely gilded (plated) over a base metal such as lead. Bending the coin would also show if it was made from silver as it is considerably harder to do so than if the coin was made of an alloy of lead or tin.
Coins and the Law
One way the kingdoms of Europe tried to control money, and it’s silver-purity, was by licencing coin making to only a few mints. In Britain during the time of Alfred the Great there were few mints, mainly located in large population centres, or places of royal power like Winchester. The Vikings were getting in on the action too – the Scandinavian ruled city of Jorvik (York) were minting their own Viking coins in the 10th Century.
By the time Alfred’s grandson Athelstan became ‘Rex Totius Brittanae’ (King of all Britain) in 927AD there were numerous mints around the country, usually in fortified towns called burhs. There were eight mints in London alone! By the reign of Aethelred II (978 AD) there were around 90 mints in England. This shows just how the Wessex power base had spread into what became England and how much wealth was being generated in trade with the Viking settlers that had raided and stayed over the last hundred years, and with traders from the other parts of Europe. For matters concerning payments to the crown, this line of Anglo-Saxon kings had enough power to refuse foreign currency in internal affairs.
Making Coins: Ingots were heated up and beaten into thin sheets with a hammer. Coins were cut from it with tin snips, or perhaps with a specially made chisel (though none survive for us to know for definite). The coin dies were made of iron with the pattern punched into it. The coin is placed between the two dies and the pressure exerted by hammer blow causes enough friction to melt the silver for enough time to dip into the punched pattern and create a relief effect.
As well as showing the extent of kingly or national power, especially in the control of wealth generation and taxation, coins can show how money travelled. Certainly in the case of Islamic coins found in Britain and Scandinavia, they show how the trade routes through Russia and Eastern Europe reached Britain and Ireland, especially in the tenth century when Viking power was building.
The English silver penny was introduced around 765 AD and persisted until the 13th century. During the late 9th century, until the mid-late 10th century there was a round half-penny, but after currency reform by King Edgar in 973 AD people were required to cut the coin in half or quarters (usually following the design of a cross on the reverse). During King Edgar’s reign, the number of mints stabilised and the die patterns were controlled centrally at a master die cutting workshop. The last Viking coins minted at York disappeared with Eric Bloodaxe and Scandinavian rule in 954.
Minting official coins was heavily regulated. Coin dies were issued to the mints, and often replaced with new designs to stay current and project the power of the king. ater there were five such workshops. The Domesday Book mentions that owners of a Mint would have to travel to London and pay a Monetagium (tax), as well as buy new dies quando moneta vertebatur (‘when the coinage was changed’). And there were severe punishments for forgery, and clipping (stealing excess silver by reducing the size of a coin). A law by King Athelstan in the early 10th Century prescribes mutilation as punishment for this crime: the hand being cut off.
Some coins, such as those minted at York, (Viking kings Ragnald, Sihtric and Eric Bloodaxe etc.) show how the Vikings were embracing Christianity. Several Viking coins bare the symbol of St. Peter who was the patron saint of York Minster. Some even bear the inscription ‘SCIPE TRIIO’ which is abbreviated Latin for Sancti Petrus Moneta, Saint Peter’s Money. Included on the face of a few issues of ‘St. Peter’s Money’ is also the hammer of Thor, the Viking God of Thunder. Linking St. Peter to such a popular god in the Scandinavian pantheon was a sensible move in the conversion and assimilation of Vikings into Christian Europe.
Further Reading about Viking Coins and Trade
- Ager, B & Williams, G (2010). Objects in Focus: The Vale of York Hoard
- Graham-Campbell, J (2011). The Cuerdale Hoard and Related Viking-age Silver and Gold from Britain and Ireland in the British Museum
- Graham-Campbell, J. Sindbæk, S.M. & Williams, G eds (2011). Silver Economies, Monetisation & Society in Scandinavia, AD 800-1100
- Graham-Campbell, J & Williams, G eds (2006). Silver Economy in the Viking Age
- Grierson, P (1986). Domesday Book, the Geld de Moneta and Monetagium: a Forgotten Minting Reform
- Gullbekk, S.H. (2008). Coinage and Monetary Economies in Brink, S eds (2008) The Viking World
- Mainman, A.J & Rogers, N.S.H (2000). Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York
- Malmer, B (1972). King Canute’s Coinage in the Northern Countries
- Naismith, R (2005). Islamic Coins from Early Medieval England
- Skre, D (2009). Means of Exchange: Dealing with Silver in the Viking Age
- Williams, G (2008). Shire Archaeology: Early Anglo-Saxon Coins