The Vikings and Money

Vikings in Norway make their own Coins

Pennies ca. 995 – 1100 AD

Hoards from the Viking period show that from the 9th century onwards – stretching well into the 11th century – there was an extensive flow of foreign silver coins to Scandinavia. Arabic dirhems were prevalent at first from the latter half of the 10th century, but German and Anglo-Saxon pennies constituted the greater part of the currency in the homeland of the Vikings. It is a fact that silver coins at that time had become popular as a means of payment in the Nordic countries. Evidence from hoards tells us that the foreign coins, in particular the Anglo-Saxon, were imitated in Scandinavia. Among those, however, we find three pennies with the inscription ONLAF REX NOR. The final three letters are most probably an abbreviated form of Normannorum. Who is this “Olav King of the Norwegians”? Is it Olav Tryggvason or Olav Haraldsson we here see a -very symbolic – image of?

The Anglo-Saxon prototype for this type of penny can now be dated to ca. 991 – 997 AD. Moreover, one of the three Onlaf- pennies is found in a large coin-hoard from Ågelösa near Lund in Skåne (Sweden). According to the dating of the 12 Arabic, 133 German and 1850 Anglo-Saxon coins, the hoard must have been deposited some time before 1010 AD. This proves that coinage in Norway commenced during the reign of Olav Tryggvasson (995 – 1000 AD). During the years 991 and 994 he was in England, engaged in sharing large sums of money (Danegeld), which the English king Aethelred paid to the Danish-Norwegian Viking army to avoid attacks and pillage. On Olav’s return to Norway in the summer of 995 he was likely to be well-off with Anglo-Saxon coins. It is also possible that he had brought with him an English moneyer. The reverse inscription on his pennies in any case mentions a moneyer with the Anglo-Saxon name Godwine. GODPINEM- ONO. means something like “Godwine in Norway”.

We also have extant coins from Olav Haraldsson (1015 – 1030 AD). Their prototypes are still Anglo-Saxon pennies. The youngest type of the Saint king imitates the English pennies of Knut the Great from the coining-period ca. 1023 – 29. This early Norwegian coinage must have been of quite modest extent.

From Norway we have a great number of hoards spanning the time between Olav Tryggvason’s return and the death of Olav Haraldsson. Among several thousands of coins of foreign prototype we find only three which with absolute certainty may be referred to as Norwegian: They are three pennies from Olav Haraldsson and which all were part of a hoard found at Stein in Hole in Ringerike (Norway).

Magnus the Good was deeply engaged in Denmark. From 1042 AD. he ruled both kingdoms, and now he has coins struck at several Danish mints. So far no coins have emerged indicating that he had any coinage in Norway. About 1045 AD. his uncle Harald Hardråde had returned from his service as guard-officer in Byzantium. He interferes in the political struggles in Denmark, and he also issued coins down there – in Odense.

As king of Norway (1047 – 1066) Harald Hardråde is responsible of an extensive coinage. It seems like his ambition was to make Norwegian coins only to be valid in this country. Foreign coins were probably excluded deliberately, as was the case in Western European states. Just a few of Harald’s coins indicate where they were minted, Nidarnes (Nidaros) and Hamar. In the latter half of his reign the Norwegian king obviously has decided that minted silver was to be mixed with copper. The silver contents of the pennies was reduced to 500/1000 and even lower. It is this coinage which in the Sagas is referred to as Haraldsslætten.

During the intense striking of the inferior coins from the Haraldsslætten inflation the coin-images are being altered and “barbarized”. They become distant from their Anglo-Saxon and Danish prototypes. The inscriptions are mutilated into meaningless lines and points, if they are not represented by runes. The language of the Runic inscriptions is naturally enough – Norwegian. This is one of the very few occurrences where coin-inscriptions on European Medieval coins are being reflected in the national language. Latin was dominant in this field, far into modern times. The quoted deterioration of the silver pennies is the first inflation in our monetary history.

The inflation continued during Olav Kyrre’s reign (1067 – 93). It must be said, he made an attempt to improve the coin-standard, but he failed. Instead Olav Kyrre begins to strike pennies of half the weight, but of the good, old silver contents.

Written by Thor-Egil Paulsen, Rælingen, Norway, March 1995, based on Kolbjørn Skaares booklet “Moneta Norwei” (Oslo 1968)

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