For as long as history can trace, the Norse have been well known master 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.
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.
However, even though most benefited from the far reach of Norse trade, there were some Norse traders that could be considered the used car salesmen of the medieval period. They sold narwhal tusks as unicorn horns and barren ice lands as lush green pastures full of grape vines.
Some medieval Europeans believed that the legendary unicorn had magic powers.
Vikings and other northern traders were able to hunt the narwhal for its spiral tusks and them claiming them as being the horns from unicorns. They were able to sell the horns for many times their weight in gold. It was a lucrative business for many Norsemen from Greenland hunting narwhals.
It is also believed that Greenland was named so by Erik the Red as a means for making it sound more habitable in order to get people to settle there. That is why it is often jokingly referred to as “the ultimate real estate scam.”
Of course it must be understood that most Norse merchants were not professional traders. Trade was a regular way of life and survival. Not many were strictly traders by occupation, most were first and foremost farmers. Since virtually all trade was done through barter, a trader was responsible to personally verify the quality and quantity of goods they received in any trade.
You had to personally make sure and inspect the used longboat or wagon you were trading your gold, silver and cattle for. Much like dealing with a used car salesman today, all trades were final and you very well may have bought a lemon.
Things were no different then than they are today. A trader is always going to jump on an opportunity to make a fast buck, or in the case of the Norsemen, some fast silver. If there was market for it, whether it be for copper or iron goods, snake oil, or unicorn horns, there was bound to be a trader offering it.
- Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1270 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, 2016.
- Daston, Lorraine and Park, Katharine (2001). Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750. New York: Zone Books, ISBN 978-0942299915.
- Shepard, Odell (2007). The Lore of the Unicorn. Forgotten Books. ISBN 978-1605064307.
- Kane, Njord. “Chapter 9 – Norse Trade.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018
Article by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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