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The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Nearly everything we know about Viking Age coins comes from hoards. Whether buried as votive offerings or as simple stores of wealth, these troves of precious metal tell us a great amount about Viking society in Scandinavia. From these hoards, we have evidence that coinage was not an indigenous Scandinavian technology. Coins were initially imported via an amorphous combination of tribute payments, pillaging, and trading. A long, drawn-out process that occurred between the ninth and 11th centuries, this importation of coinage mirrored the rise of Viking culture.

Despite modern perceptions, not all Scandinavians were Vikings. Instead, the word is a title akin to “pirates”. In fact, the word is a modern revival of the old Norse word víkingr, which means “freebooter”, “sea-rover”, or “pirate”. While many Medieval Scandinavians could be what modern people consider Vikings, their culture consisted of more than just overseas raiding. In fact, the word was originally used as a verb, and Scandinavian men (and some women) would go “viking” and did not think of themselves as “Vikings”.

Beginning in the late 700s, the various Scandinavian kingdoms began to project influence through raiding, as well as peaceful yet lesser-known trade expeditions. Known as the Viking Age, this process officially started with the raid of the Anglo-Celtic monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumberland, England in 793. By the early 11th century, this process resulted in massive quantities of silver coinage being brought back into Scandinavia. From a sampling of over 250,000 Viking Age coins excavated in modern Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, 45% were German, 35% are from the East (mainly Arabic dirhams from the Abbasid Caliphate), and 17% were English. The remaining 3% were a mix of Byzantine and other European powers.

Modern scholarship’s disproportionate focus on western Viking raids, settlements, and activities in the modern British Isles has given us an inaccurate image of the extent to which Scandinavian trade permeated through central Europe and into the East. This eastern movement followed nearly all navigable European waterways and culminated in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire and Nordic traders reaching the Abbasid Caliphate’s eastern ports on the Black Sea. This network of trading missions not only began to familiarize northerners with the existence of coinage, but through coins like the Abbasid silver dirhams and Byzantine miliaresia, it provided an abundant source of wealth and economic power.

Of the Byzantine coins that made their way back to Scandinavia, the most common was the silver miliaresion struck between 945 and 989. Most Byzantine coins found in Gotland and mainland Sweden show significant signs of wear, and almost 28% of these coins were holed to be used as some form of ornamentation.

This Eastern coinage was supplemented with the silver extracted from western Europe and the newly formed Danelaw. Called Danegeld, this was originally in the form of loot claimed through raiding but quickly shifted to a more official land tax when Scandinavian rule was more firmly established. Payments in coinage, instead of bullion, were made possible because the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex all had established traditions of producing standardized silver coinage.

Throughout the late ninth and early 10th centuries, the Nordic kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden began solidifying into distinct political units. While economic factors were mainly responsible for local kings establishing their first domestic minting capabilities, the drive to appear as civilized as possible should not be underestimated. Using hacksilver, or cut-up silver bullion, was becoming a sign of barbarism and even slightly heretical. This was due to the fact that issuing coins was one of the rights connected solely with Christian kingship. It was “Christian” to produce coins, and pagan not to do so. This was seen earlier with the Anglo-Saxons, who had adopted coinage shortly after converting to Christianity.

In a practice as old as coinage itself, the Scandinavians imitated the coins of their neighbors and other cultures with which they were in contact. This can be seen in three main groupings. The first is the ninth-century imitations of the Carolingian Dorestad deniers and Frisian Sceattas. It is unknown who first produced these Scandinavian pennies imitating Carolingian coins from the south, but while the earliest types are of similar design to the penny, they are the weight of Carolingian Halfpennies struck by Luis the Pius, proving a direct connection existed with the German economy. This halvbrakteat seen below was struck by Harald Blåtand, also known as Harald Bluetooth, at the Hedeby mint between the 960s and the 970s, is imitating a class 2 denier of Charlemagne from Dorestadt from the late 700s. As you can see, the moneyers used a great deal of abstraction when copying the original coin.

The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
DENMARK. Harald Blåtand (Bluetooth). Circa 958/9-986. AR Halvbrakteat (18mm, 0.36 g, 6h). CNG 109, Lot: 806. Sold for $1,800. Image: CNG.
The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
Carolingian. Charlemagne (768-814) Denier 771-793/4 AU58 NGC, Dorestad mint. Offered by Heritage Auctions on 8/11/2016, but not sold. Image: Heritage Auctions.

The second grouping is comprised of coins that either imitate or were influenced by Byzantine miliaresia. Most imitations are copying coins struck either by Constantine VII or Basil II, often with incorrect legends. Production of these imitation coins started at the turn of the millennium and occurred in both Sweden and Denmark. One such example is this imitation by the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung (reigned 995–1022). While the obverse is difficult to interpret, and the reverse legend is practically gibberish, it is clearly imitating the miliaresion struck by Basil II that can be seen below.

The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
Olaf Skötkonung, 994-1021/1022. Pfennig. Sold by Künker Auctions in 2018 for 2,000 €.
The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
Miliaresion, 977-989, AR 2.52g. Offered by Numismatica Ars Classica on 11/18/2013. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Byzantine numismatic influence in Scandinavia peaked under the Danish king Sven Estridsen. Ruling Denmark from 1047 to 1076, he repeatedly used Byzantine design motifs on his coins. For example, the silver penning below, which was struck at the Danish Lund mint, depicts a Christ Nimbate in the same manner as contemporary Byzantine coins.

The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
Sven Estridsen (1047-1074) AR Penning. Sold by Davissons, Ltd. for $850. Image: Davissons, Ltd.

As an even more direct inspiration, Estridsen struck a silver penning depicting himself on the obverse and the Byzantine emperor on the reverse.

The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
Denmark. Sven Estridsen, 1047-1075. AR Penny. Sold for $500 by VAuctions, Triskeles Sale 19. March 17, 2017. Image: VAuctions.

Next is perhaps the most common and well-known category of these imitations, those replicating contemporary English coins. This can be seen clearly with the imitative coins of the Danish king Svein Forkbeard (r. 985–1013), the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvasson (r. 995–1000), and King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden. All three kings struck coins that imitated the Long Cross and Short Cross pennies of Aethelred II.

The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
Bruun Rasmussen Auction 907, lot 134
The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
AR Penny of Cnut the Great (1000/5-1020), Struck after 1003. 1.61g. Offered by Alfa Numismatics on 2/27/2022. Image: Alfa Numismatics

As is evident by the Long Cross silver penny of Aethelred II below, these imitations of Sven Forkbeard are mostly faithful copies. He did, however, go one step further and seize official dies while raiding.

The Coins of Viking Age Scandinavia
BRITISH, Anglo-Saxon. Kings of All England. Aethelred II, 978-1016. Penny (Silver, 20 mm, 1.53 g, 6 h), long cross type. Sold for 440 CHF on August 20, 2022. Image: Leu Numismatik.

Because of the massive influx of foreign coinage and the home-grown practice of imitating said foreign coins, Viking Age numismatics is an extremely complex field.

The coinage of each kingdom had different levels of success tied to their political fortunes. It wasn’t until 1047 and the reign of Harald Hardrada that Norwegian coinage became entrenched. While he died in 1066 in a failed invasion of England, Hardrada’s successful centralization of power forced the increased circulation of his coinage.

Norway, Harald Hardrada (1045–66). Silver penny / denar. Image: London Coin Galleries, Ltd.

When the Swedish kingdom collapsed in the 1030s and reverted briefly to paganism, its coinage slowly disappeared. Even before Olof Skötkonung died in 1022, he and his sons Anund Jacob and Emund engaged in war with Norway. This conflict ushered in a period of conflict and disunity. Additionally, while Skötkonung was the first Christian king of Sweden, it wasn’t until the 12th century that Sweden truly became Christian. This drawn-out process resulted in an economic downturn and while there are coins from the reign of Anund Jacob, he ceased minting late in his reign. It wouldn’t be until King Canute came to power in the 12th century that domestic coin production resumed in Sweden.

On the other hand, Danish Viking Age coinage was very successful. In fact, Hedeby bracteates of the 970s circulated as far afield as Poland and Russia. While the first Danish coins were imitative pennies struck by Harald Bluetooth, as discussed earlier, truly widespread minting was implemented by King Cnut I during the early 1020s at Lund. This mirrored Cnut’s meteoric political rise. Becoming king of England in 1016, king of Denmark in 1019, and finally king of Norway in 1028, he was the most powerful European ruler of the early 11th century. As Denmark was the most politically developed Scandinavian country at the time, and the most heavily influenced by the Anglo-Saxons, Cnut invited Anglo-Saxon die cutters and mint masters to help establish a domestic Danish minting operation.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Viking age ended. Marked by the defeat of Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the collapse of the Danelaw, Danish control over England began to diminish in the mid-11th century. Subsequently, Danish access to English silver dried up, which forced a decrease in the weight and striking quality of Danish coins.

This shift marked the end of Viking coinage in the Scandinavian kingdoms.

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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