Coins and Weights and Measures



During the greater part of the Viking period a coin, as such, was quite worthless to the ordinary man; only as a piece of precious metal did it represent a certain vale dependent on its weight. This is proved by the many hoards of silver containing coins cut into pieces of certain weights or adapted for use as jewellery or amulets by the addition of loops or holes. Although the Vikings had very little use for coins, it was during their period that the first Scandinavian coins were struck. The coin-making can be divided into two periods: one in the middle and latter part of the ninth century, the other around 960-80. The model for coins of both these groups was the Emperor Charlemagne’s Dorestad coinage, dating from the early ninth century, before the destruction of that town. The observe of this well-known and much used Dorestad sliver coinage was inscribed:

CARO                                                                                                                                                    DOR

and the reverse

LUS                                                                                                                                                      STAT

These dies were copied more or less exactly by the earliest Scandinavian moneyers. Where they actually carried out their work is not certainly known; some say Birka in Sweden, others Jumne in Wendland and Hedeby in Denmark. Hedeby is perhaps the likeliest, being so close to Dorestad. The oldest Nordic coinage shows how a coin type can continue – through copying – long after the disappearance of the place where it was first struck. The Dorestad coinage was well known and valued on the great trade-routes between Friesland and the North, and after the destruction of Dorestad in the 830s the Northmen tried to copy it. however, in their ignorance the Scandinavian die-cutters misunderstood the legends of the prototypes and these became so blundered as to be unrecognizable and were quickly replaced by entirely new motifs, such as human masks, quadrupeds (‘Harts’), birds, ships, etc. Coins of the second period, dating from the later tenth century, are as a rule light and thin, sometimes struck or embossed on one side only: hence the name ‘half-bracteates’.

The first Danish Viking king to have struck his own coins abroad was thought to be Halfdan Lodbroksson in London in 872; but modern scholars doubt this. other Danish kings, Cnut and Siefred, struck a coinage at Quentovic on the Continent at the end of the ninth century, and French-Norman kings did the same at Rouen from the 930s. From about 900 to the middle of the tenth century the Danish and Norwegian kings of Northumberland produced coins bearing their own names – Sitric, Regnald, Anlaf, Eric (no doubt Eric Blood-Axe, Harald Finehair’s son).

It is interesting to study these Anglo-Scandinavian coins more closely. Some of them bear martial designs – sword, banner, or bow and arrow – others Christian symbols and legends – crosses, the hand of God, the monogram of Charlemagne, or letters like D(omi)-N(u)s  D(eu)s  REX (‘Lord God the King’) or MIRABILIA FECIT (‘He accomplished miracles’). There are other coins, decorated with birds may be, or a type of triangular design or hammer; of these it is difficult to say whether they were pagan or Christian. The bird may be Odin’s raven or the dove of the Holy Spirit; the triangular designs may be three shields or a symbol of the Trinity; the hammer may be Thor’s celebrated weapon or the pallium or Tau cross. One would not consider the last two were it not for coins from ecclesiastical centres such as St Peter’s, York, and St Martin’s, Lincoln, which carry the same hammer-like design. This group of coins illustrates the conflict between paganism and Christianity among the Danish and Norwegian emigrants at a time when both homelands were still heathen. The largest hoard of Viking silver coins in England was deposited at Cuerdale in Lancashire, shortly after 900. The Viking kings, Cnut and Siefred, mentioned above, introduced the Anglo-Saxon penny to Northumberland years later the Norwegians did the same in Ireland, through Sigtrygg Silkbeard of Dublin.

In general the Anglo-Saxon coinage system formed the basis for the first independent regular minting in Scandinavia other than the imitated Dorestad coinage. This native production began about the same time in all three countries: in Denmark about 1000, under Swein Forkbeard (988-1014(; in Sweden under Olaf Skotkonung (994-1022); and in Norway under St Olaf (1016-30). It is only during the last third of the Viking period, therefore, that the Northmen produced their own native currencies.

the first Danish (also the first Scandinavian) coinage with a king’s portrait is a very rare silver one bearing a bust of Swein Forkbeard holding his sceptre vertically before his face; he has a fierce aspect, though one must not expect an exact likeness. The coin legend is ‘Swein, King of the Danes’, the title formulated half in Latin (Rex) and half in inaccurate Anglo-saxon (Addener). The reverse of the coin bears a cross with the Latin word crux and an Anglo-Saxon legend running ‘Godwine (moneyer) of the Danes’. The mint is not named on this, the oldest, Scandinavian royal coinage. Cnut the Great’s coins, on the other hand, frequently give their mint names: Lund in Skane; Roskilde, Ringsted, and Slagelse in Zealand; Odense in Fyn; and Ribe, Viborg, and Orbak in Jutland. Later coins mention several other places in Jutland – Hedeby, Aarhus, Randers, and Aalborg. It was customary to name not only the mint but also the moneyer, so that we now know the names of several hundreds of these montarii. What their status was, however,  is not known: whether they were civil servants in the king’s employment, or persons licensed to make coins. On Cnut’s coins, in addition to the royal portrait, there occur several Christian symbols – the Lamb of God with the Gospel book, God’s hand, and the dove of the Holy Ghost, the three of these simplified in the sign of the Trinity; the three shields; a cross bearing the magic Latin inscription Lux, Lex, Pax, Rex (light, law, peace, king). Occasionally too, heathen symbols appear, such as the six-footed dragon guarding the treasure, or the man’s mask for warding off evil, or a distorted classical (Carolingian) temple gable. As mentioned above, a distinct Byzantine influence is noticeable in the coins of Cnut’s successors, Hardacnut, Magnus the Good, and Swein Estridsson (the period 1035-75): here we can see such motifs as the full-length portrait of the king with orb and sceptre, of two angels, or an angel presenting a banner to the king, or Christ enthroned.

In the last quarter of the eleventh century Danish coinage became fully stabilized: the royal monopoly of making coins seems to have been confirmed; the number of mints was reduced to five – Lund and tumatorp in Skane, Roskilde and Slaglese in Zealand, and Viborg in Jutland; and the number of coin types to two – the King and the Holy Bishop – both of which weighed 0.9gm/0.03ozes. The east Danish penny maintained its quality, but in Jutland it deteriorated during the reign of St Cnut (1080-7), and was not only under-weight but also debased with copper. (This may well have been the result of Cnut’s rearmament programme when he planned to conquer England). this deterioration continued under Cnut’s successor Olaf Hunger 91087-95), and it was probably German influence which produced coins of the same weight as before but on a larger and thinner planchet and, therefore, more crudely stamped. At the same time and also due to German influence, the bishop began striking coins; but by this time the Viking period was over.

The currency situation in Sweden during Viking times was rather complicated. To begin with, in the ninth century, there was the Dorestad coinage; this may well have isolated development in Swedish numismatic history. Native Swedish coins appear under King Olaf Skotkonung (994-1022) and King Onund Jacob (1022-50), and coins of both these kings were modelled from Anglo-Saxon exemplars. They were minted at Sigtuna, and most of the moneyers are also known from their work in England, where they had made coins for Athelred II and Cnut the Great, particularly in Lincoln. It is reasonable to surmise that a group or colony of moneyers was brought across from Lincoln to Sweden by King Olaf Skotonung in order to produce the native Swedish product. One of King Onund jacob’s coins, minted by Thormod in Sigtuna, is remarkable in carrying the legend ‘Cnut, King of the Swedes’. This Cnut can be none other than Cnut the Great. The implications of the legend are uncertain: perhaps it has no great significance. At the death of Onund Jacob in the middle of the eleventh century, minting in Sweden was temporarily suspended, and it was not resumed for more than a hundred years. The reason for this can only be the powerful heathen reaction which occurred in the turbulent latter half of the eleventh century when, after the banishment of the bishop of Sigtuna, Christianity was forced on the defensive, almost to the point of dissolution for a long time.

Greater continuity of coinage can be seen in Norway. It has been much debated whether Norwegian minting first began under Olaf Tryggvason or under St Olaf; probably it was under the latter. The Norwegians, too, followed Anglo-Saxon models, the pennies of Athelred II. Their coin legends give the royal title ‘King of Norway’, the moneyers’ names are all Anglo-Saxon: no Norwegian mints are named. Harald Hardrada (who was killed in 1066) played a great part in the development of the Norwegian coinage from the middle of the century. He brought great wealth back with him from Byzantium, and must have been largely responsible for the Byzantine influence on Danish and Norwegian coin types. He frequently used the symbol of the Trinity on his pennies, but it seems that he had no scruples in striking two coinages; one of fine silver, the other debased and containing half, or less than half silver. The latter was certainly not accepted outside his own domains. This situation was improved to some degree by King Olaf Kyrri (1066-93), whose coins, though only half the weight of the old ones, were at least made of fine silver. In the second half of the century, Norwegian mints begin to be named – at Nidarnes, Hamar, and Kaupangr (in Trondelag) – and shortly after Hardrada’s death coins begins to appear with legends in runes and in the Norwegian language, doubtless a nationalist reaction against those in Latin and Anglo-Saxon.



We now turn to the Viking system of weights and measures. As we know from archaeological finds, their weights (made of lead, bronze, or iron) were almost spherical and often had stamped characters on the flat base. Elegent small collapsible scales in round bronze containers have also been found. Extensive research has been conducted into the Viking systems of weights and measures, especially by Swedish and Norwegian scholars, in whose countries most of these finds have been made. Foremost among them are the Norwegian, A. W. Brogger, and the Swede, T. J. Arne. Although final answers have not yet been achieved, much has already been established. In the later Viking period and the Middle Ages there was a widespread system based on this formula:

1 mork  –  8 aurar  –  24 ertogar  –  240 penningar

These units developed at different times, the later being the mork ‘mark’, whose name probably dervives from the mark on the bar of the steel-yard. It appears in literature for the first time as a unit of weight in a treaty between the English King Alfred the Great and the Danish (East Anglian) King Guthrum at the end of the ninth century. It seems  to have spread from Scandinavia to England, and towards the close of the Viking period it also reached western Europe and Germany. It has been suggested that this mark, with its equivalent of eight aurar, constituted an arithmetical unit related to the Carolingian libra (the pound with its 12 unciae) in the proportions of two to three; and that the mark bore a relationship to silver, as the libra did to gold, which facilitated the transition from reckoning in gold to reckoning in silver.

The oldest element in the system is the eyrir (plural aurar) (derived from the Latin aureus [‘of gold’], as applied to the Roman solidus). It originated in the days of the Roman emperors and was, as the name implies, based on gold and not silver. Examination of Scandinavian gold hoards of the migration period has revealed gold rings which are multiples of a gold eyrir weighing about 26.4gm/0.93ozes.: a correspondence resembling the relationship of the uncia to the Roman pound ir libra. As the Viking period advanced, the eyrir was reduced in weight to 24.5gm/0.86ozes., corresponding approximately to about 3 ertogar of 8gm/0.28ozes. each.

The third component in the system was the ertog, which is from a later period then the eyrir. The derivation of the word is doubtful, but Marstrander suggests it may be a compound of Latin (denarius) argenteus ‘of silver’ and a Germanic word for weight. The ertog was based on silver (the basic precious metal of the Vikings) as the eyrir on gold. Brogger believes that the model for the ertog as a unit of weight was the Emperor Valentinian’s silver coin called the tremissis (one third of a solidus) which became the basis also of the Anglo-Saxon pennyweight.

the fourth and last element in the Viking system of weights, the penningar, coincided with the silver coin of the same name which was (or should have been) of the same weight. The existence of under-weight coins led to the practice of differentiating between weighed penningar and counted penningar.

T. J. Arne, after examining Viing scales and weights found in Sweden, has arrived at a unit of weight averaging a little over 4gm/0.14oze. He relates this, keeping in mind the possibility of losses in weight of his specimens due to various causes, to the Sassanid drachin, a unit equal to 4.25gm/0.14oze., and suggests, somewhat doubtfully, a connexion between the two systems.

Very little is known of Viking linear and cubic measures. It was noted in an earlier chapter that the construction of Trelleborg fort in Denmark was based upon a measure roughly equivalent to the Roman foot (about 29.5cm/11.6inches.); but that is about all we know. No yardstick of any sort has been found. As to measures of volume, the Viking trader no doubt knew the accepted rules when buying or selling – the accepted sizes of the pot, the mug, or the bushel – but for reasons best known to himself he did not deem it necessary to enlighten others, and, in consequence, we do not know.