Commerce and key markets in Scandinavia during the Viking Era

Commerce in Viking Age Scandinavia is mostly known to have taken place between the major trading ports located around the North and Baltic seas. During the Viking Age, the most significant emporia situated along the coastlines of the Baltic Sea — or in their vicinity — were the following ones (approximate or precise contemporary coordinates given in parentheses):

  • Alaborg (Novgorod Oblast, Lyubytinsky District, Russia)
  • Aldeigja (Staraya Ladoga, Volkhovsky District, Leningrad Oblast, Russia)
  • Arkona (Rügen Island, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany)
  • Bardy-Świelubie (near the city of Kołobrzeg, West Pomeranian Voievodship, Poland)
  • Birka (Björkö Island, Sweden)
  • Dierkow (near the city of Rostock, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany)
  • Dorestad (near the city of Wijk bij Duurstede, Utrecht province, the Netherlands)
  • Gnezdovo (in the village of Gnyozdovo, Smolensk Oblast, Russia)
  • Grobiņa (near the the city of Liepāja, Kurzeme Region, Latvia)
  • Hedeby (southern Jutland, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany)
  • Holmgard (Veliky Novgorod, Novgorod Oblast, Germany)
  • Kaup (Zelenogradsky District, Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia)
  • Skiringssal (Vestfold, Norway)
  • Köpingsvik (Borgholm Municipality, Kalmar County, Sweden)
  • Lindholm (near the city of Aalborg, Denmark)
  • Menzlin (near the town of Anklam, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany)
  • Ralswiek (Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany)
  • Rerik (Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany)
  • Ribe (Region of Southern Denmark, Denmark)
  • Sarskoye (Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia)
  • Sigtuna (Stockholm County, Sweden)
  • Timerevo (several kilometres south-west of the city of Yaroslavl, Russia)
  • Truso (Lake Drużno, Northern Poland)
  • Vanaja (one hundred kilometres north of Helsinki, Finland)
  • Wolin/Jomsborg (Wolin Island, West Pomeranian Voievodship, Poland)

From the list of the aforementioned settlements it must be mentioned that some had a defensive purpose as well, being built as strongholds and not solely as market places. Furthermore, some of them were mixed Scandinavian-Slavic markets, being at the same time populated by the Wends.

It is equally important to highlight the fact that the town of Wolin in modern day Poland is very likely to have been the actual location of the famed Jomsborg, the citadel of the elite Jomsvikings during the early Middle Ages.

Detailed map depicting the trade routes of the Norsemen in Northern and Western Europe. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Detailed map depicting the trade routes of the Norsemen in Northern and Western Europe. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

However, trade also did take place between a wide variety of other undocumented trading outposts and harbours from the area between the North and Baltic seas. In fact, the Viking Age was primarily triggered by trade, rather than plunder, violence or conquest.

A 3D reconstruction of a Viking Age settlement. Image source: www.pinterest.com

A 3D reconstruction of a Viking Age settlement. Image source: www.pinterest.com

As such, the trade network of the Norsemen comprised key ports in Scandinavia, where commerce mainly took place during the Viking era, due to proximal logistic reasons. Yet, this network didn’t stop here, as Norse merchants traveled to many places in continental Europe, and beyond, arriving in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and even sailing the Caspian Sea.

The Longships were the most safest means of transportation for the Norsemen during the early Middle Ages. The preferred type of longship used by them for trade was the karve, but larger ships could voyage with many goods as well. Image source: www.vikinghammer.tumblr.com

The Longships were the most safest means of transportation for the Norsemen during the early Middle Ages. The preferred type of longship used by them for trade was the karve, but larger ships could have voyaged with a considerable cargo of goods as well. Image source: www.vikinghammer.tumblr.com

A peculiarity of trade within Viking Age settlements was that products and various goods were mostly charged in silver, rather than in gold. In this respect, the Norsemen developed a certain ‘bullion economy’, where silver overcame gold as a means of transaction.

The Norsemen mainly imported fine textiles, weapons, silver, and silk from the Frankish Empire, the Byzantine Empire, as well as from the Anglian kingdoms of Britain (i.e. Northumbria, Mercia or Wessex). In turn, they exported, among others, skins, furs, amber, walrus ivory or honey.

Map highlighting Kaupang's geographic location in Scandinavia. Map designed by Sven Rosborn on www.commons.wikipedia.org

Map highlighting Kaupang’s geographic location in Scandinavia. Map designed by Sven Rosborn on www.commons.wikipedia.org

The largest market places from Viking Age Scandinavia that handled all these goods were (in no particular order) the following ones:

  • Ribe (from early medieval Denmark)
  • Hedeby (from early medieval Denmark)
  • Birka (from early medieval Sweden)
  • Kaupang in Skiringssal (from early medieval Norway)

It is also quite interesting to note that between 991 and 1018, the Anglo-Saxon kings of England paid Viking invaders 2.8 million troy oz in silver coins. This explains why today there are still more Anglo-Saxon silver coins in Denmark than in England.

Slaves were also an important part of the Viking Age trade. The slaves taken by the Norsemen were known as ‘thralls’.

Documentation sources and external links:


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