Markets and Trade

How towns, trade and the king's wealth grew in the Viking era

Viking trading towns

Trade flourished during the Viking period. At the beginning of the Viking Age, the first proper trading towns developed in Scandinavia. They were located at central points along Scandinavia’s coasts, near to natural harbours or on fjords. Some were just small markets located on beaches, which grew in size. Others, like Ribe in Denmark, are thought to have been planned and built up according to rigid town plans.

Imported products were distributed from the towns into local areas, whilst locally produced products were sent out into the world. In Jutland, for instance, imported products have often been found when Viking Age villages located near to towns are excavated.

Hedeby and Ribe

The port of Hedeby, today located in Germany, was Denmark’s most important trading centre. It grew in size and importance during the Viking era as it was located at a traffic junction of land and water routes. The town was surrounded by fortifications which protected a network of streets where merchants and craftsmen were based. They operated under the protection and control of the king.

Ribe was another important trading town, though smaller in terms of size and the amount of trading. At the beginning of the 8th century, a king or a powerful magnate gave permission for merchants to set up their stalls in safety in a field near the Ribe River. A general street was established, with 6m- to 8m-wide plots of land on either side. Merchants could sail their vessels close to the trading centre, which initially was only used at certain times of the year and was deserted in the winter.

The trading towns of the Viking period were an economic asset to the king. He founded the towns and thoroughly encouraged their development. This may have been why Danish King Godfrey destroyed the trading town of Reric in North Germany in 808. After the attack Godfrey forced all its tradesfolk and craftsmen to move to the trading centre of Hedeby, and to sell their goods there instead. This was an effective way of removing the competition from Reric and creating more wealth and trading for Hedeby. The king gained from this financially, as he could now demand taxes from the influx of new merchants.

Godfrey also repaired the border fortification known as the Danevirke – the boundary between the Danish kingdom and the territory inhabited by the Saxons, which was under Frankish influence. This meant that Hedeby’s inhabitants, as well as visiting merchants, could now feel more secure.

At the end of the 900s, King Harald Bluetooth strengthened Hedeby further. He constructed a defensive structure, consisting of a semi-circular earthwork, around the town. From this earthwork the king’s housecarls – his private warriors – could guard and defend the town against attack. The harbour was also safeguarded with a boundary of stakes.

At the end of the 1000s, Hedeby was attacked several times and trading activity subsequently moved to Schleswig. A contributory factor to this may have been the rising water level in the area, which made it difficult for the latest vessels to reach Hedeby’s quays. At the same time new trade routes were also becoming more attractive. This marked the end of 300 years of activity at Hedeby.

Exchange in the Viking Age

A runic inscription from Hedeby tells us that Oddulfr gave Eyríkr an otter skin and Eyríkr gave Oddulfr a sword. This describes a straight exchange, which was a very common type of transaction in the Viking Age. Many of the exchanges involved surplus farm products, including cereals, vegetables and domestic animals. Farmers brought them into the towns and exchanged for essentials like clothes or tools, and luxury items like jewellery and glass.

During the Viking period, silver became more and more important in trading. It could be used for payment according to its weight. Cut-up silver jewellery, ingots and coins have often been found. These were required to make the weight of silver balance in a transaction. Using a set of scales and weights, the amount of silver required could be precisely determined.

Value of the goods

According to written sources, a stirrup could be exchanged directly for a sword or bought for 125 grams of silver. A female slave, on the other hand, cost a cow and an ox. Three cows were equal to a horse, whilst two horses or four male slaves were needed to acquire a suit of chain mail.

This gives us an idea of the value of some Viking Age goods, although supply and demand also influenced the market then, just as they do today.