Norse Trade, more Bang for the Buck

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For as long as history can trace, the Norse have been well known as great traders.

Their trade reach extended all the way to the Far East, through Russia and the Black Sea, to the Middle East. Regular trade thrived throughout Europe and in the Mediterranean. The Volga trade route along the Volga River connected Norse tradesmen all the way to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea to trade with Muslim countries, sometimes as far as Baghdad through the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers trade routes. The reach of the Norse was extensive.

Map showing the reach of Norse trade.
Map showing the reach of Norse trade.

Norse trade settlements were everywhere and even some scholars argue that during the Viking Age if many Norse traders were mislabeled in history as being marauding Viking raiders rather than the welcomed peaceful traders that most of them were.

In fact a great many modern cities throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, and across Europe actually began as welcomed peaceful Norse trading settlements, rather than the result of conquered entities. Skilled craftsmen and smiths were drawn to and even relocated to these trade centers as well.

The Norse had established regular ports and settlements where trade was held for the bartering of wares peacefully without any fear of molestation. Booths were built in these places so that native and foreign merchants alike could come and trade goods such as: furs, dried meats, skins, garments, grain, slaves, weapons, metals, and just about everything and anything. Götland was regarded as a major trade center for the North.

The trade ships heading to trade ports were free from Viking attacks, as plundering merchant vessels seems to have been considered unmanly. The Vikings, although having a reputation for raiding targets of opportunity, were not pirates.

Kaup-skip (trade ships), unlike the longships and other war vessels, were easily recognized as being ships of trade. Kaup-skips didn’t have shields on the sides or war pennants and dragon ornaments of the war ships. The Viking longships stuck out as raiders or obvious vessels of war, whereas the knarrs and other merchant ships were obvious.

St. Olaf mentions trade ships having red and white striped sails to clearly identify them as peaceful trade vessels.

Replica of Viking Era Merchant Knarr.
Replica of Viking Era Merchant Knarr with red and white striped sail marking it a trader ship.

Traders (Kaufman) were respected and trading considered as a high calling. Even the sons of kings became famous warriors, seafarers, and traders.

Kings made trade agreements with traders and controlled some trade to an extent, such as domestic grain which was forbidden to be exported during hard years. Incentive was always made to keep traders coming and importing goods they couldn’t get otherwise. This also allowed exportation of local goods, which opened the door for profit and taxes.

The Norse had a greater value for silver than they did for gold as far as trade standards were considered. The Norse used a monetary standard of what is called a ‘Bang.’ A ‘Bang‘ was a spiral ring of silver that was used for trade before the regular presence of silver coins as a standard.

Drawing of a Norse “Bang” (ring).
Drawing of a Norse “Bang” (ring).

The Bang values were measured by marks and aurar. One mark equaled eight aurar (1 oz.), one eyrir (singular for aurar) equaled eight ortugar, and one ortug (singular for ortugar) equaled ten (or sixty) penningar (singular penning, German: pfenning).

It was customary to weigh the medium of exchange by scales. With all things being equal, trust was a limited commodity. Even when the bang fell out of use, the new silver coin standards were weighed by scale to verify their weights when used in trading.


by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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