Do you ever wonder how goods and services were valued in the Viking Age, given that there was no monetary system in place? It’s quite an intriguing topic, for how did the people in ancient Scandinavia think about the value of goods in a world without a capitalist system or even the concept of an hourly wage? Unlike today, where everything has a price tag, the people of ancient Scandinavia seems to have had multiple value systems in place. To understand how goods were valued during the Viking age, we need to look at how objects of value where treated. To me it seems there were at least three different value systems in place during the Viking age:
Firstly, there was personal value, which is the value an item had to an individual. For example, if someone wove a piece of fabric, they would be careful not to waste any of it because it would be laborious for them personally to make more fabric. It had a high personal value for the person who made the fabric. In contrast, a person in a city with access to buying fabric whole cloth, would not be as concerned about using or wasting fabric since a bartered bolt of cloth will not necessarily hold as high of a personal value. The city dwellers personal attachment to the fabric is very low, he or she values the fabric in relation to what he bartered for it not for the hours put into making the fabric. However, it is worth noting that this accessibility to items does not necessarily reflect that the city-dweller has more wealth or resources. The city-dweller just has more venues to sell items since more people and more crafts people live in a well-established urban environment.
Secondly, cultural expression denotes a kind of value in of itself. For instance, amber was a raw material that was highly valued in the Viking Age. However, it was never used in its raw form. Instead, it was turned into beads or carved into intricate figures, like the gripping beast amber figure found in Sweden. Although the process of carving amber yielded a lot of loss of highly valuable material, the cultural value of a carved amber bead or carved figure exceed the perceived value of the lost amber material. There might also have been a case of taboo in owning or presenting unworked natural materials. I will delve deeper into this in a later article.
Gold is another interesting case when it comes to cultural expression as a value in of itself. Gold was be worked into a culturally valued item but since gold was so valuable it had to maintain its original weight. The cultural expression value did not exceed the perceived value of the raw material of gold, contra the case of amber. Because of this gold was most often worked using techniques that preserve the material in a reusable state. So casting was rarely used instead smithing techniques using chisel and shears so that the cut-offs could be collected and reused. Additionally, paying a goldsmith for their work in gold would have been frowned upon because it would have devalued the patron’s wealth. Instead, the goldsmith would have been paid in something that would be more valuable to the goldsmith than to the patron, such as good quality wool fabrics, professionally made clothing, lodging, or even loyalty and protection.
Gold is another interesting case when studying and trying to understand the value systems of the early medieval period of Scandinavia, since gold just like amber never was worn as raw lump of material. It seems to have been very important to work the gold into a culturally recognisable and therefore culturally valuable item. At the same time gold has a very heigh cost value, so unlike amber, gold couldn’t be wasted in the making of the cultural valuable item. So in the case of gold, value gained from shaping the raw material of gold into a cultural value item such as a disc fibula, for instance, doesn’t seem to have been perceived as more valuable then the “cost-value” of gold itself; gold scraps cannot simply be lost. Therefore we also see gold was worked especially using techniques that preserve the material in a reusable state. Filing wasn’t used; instead, burnishing tools, scissors, and chisels were used for flattening sharp edges and cutting into shape. Burnishing tools doesn’t leave hard-to-reuse dust, and chisels and scissors leaves cut-offs that are easily gathered and melted down. Furthermore, to increase the perceived “cost-value” (and in extension the perceived wealth of the wearer) of the gold, gold was worked using the hollow-formed technique, where thin pieces of gold were hammered onto dies and stamps to give it as big a surface area and as much bulk as possible. This creates the impression of a lot of gold even if there were only a few grams.
Lastly, cost value was the amount someone was willing to pay for an item. This system was not as rigid as the monetary value system we have today. If a person had easy access to materials like wheat or wool, and could use these to buy a bolt of cloth, then the perceived cost value of a bolt cloth would be lower than if they had to use harder-to-get items.
In conclusion, people in the Viking age seems to have had a complex system of values that went beyond value given from a simple monetary exchange. It’s fascinating to see how different items were valued based on their cultural, personal, and cost value. It just goes to show that there is more ways to value and appreciate an item than just its price tag.
Have you ever wondered how goods and services were valued in the Viking age? Unlike today’s capitalist and monetary system, the Vikings did not have a fixed value for items or any concept of an hourly wage. Instead, they had a unique set of value systems that determined how they valued different goods and services. In this article, we will explore three value systems that existed during the Viking age, namely:personal value, cultural value, and cost value.
Personal value is the value an item holds for an individual. For example, if someone weaved a piece of fabric, they would be careful not to waste any of it because they knew how laborious it would be to make more. This personal value meant that fabric was not wasted. Conversely, a city-dweller with easy access to bolts of fabric may not be as concerned about using or wasting fabric since it would not hold high personal consequences for them. However, accessibility to items does not necessarily reflect the city-dweller’s wealth or resources; it just shows that they have other ways to channel their personal wealth.
Cultural value is another system that influenced the value of items. For instance, raw amber was highly valued during the Viking age but was never used in its raw form. Instead, it was turned into beads or carved into intricate figures, like the gripping beast amber figure found in Sweden. Although the process of carving amber yielded a lot of loss, the cultural value of amber as a bead or carved figure was more valuable than amber in its raw form. Additionally, there may have been a taboo in owning or presenting unworked natural materials.
Gold is an interesting case when studying and trying to understand the value systems of early medieval Scandinavia. Gold needs to be worked into a culturally valued item while maintaining its weight as weight directly equals its cost value. The cultural value gained when shaping the gold into, for instance, a disc brooch was not perceived as higher than the cost value of the gold. Therefore, gold was worked using techniques that preserved the material in a reusable state, such as burnishing tools, scissors, and chisels. Furthermore, to increase the perceived cost value of the gold, it was worked using the hollow-formed technique, where thin pieces of gold were hammered onto dies and stamps to give it as big a surface area as possible while giving it as much bulk as possible.
Interestingly, paying a goldsmith for their work in gold was frowned upon since it would have devalued the amount of wealth the patron had. Instead, the goldsmith was paid in something more valuable to them than to the patron, such as wool fabrics, professionally made clothing, lodging, loyalty, and protection.
Finally, cost value refers to the amount someone is willing to pay for an item. This system is not as rigid as a monetary value system and was likely the most prevalent value system during the Viking age. If someone had easy access to materials like wheat or wool, and could use these to buy a bolt of cloth, then the perceived cost value of a bolt of cloth would be lower than if they had to use harder-to-get items.
In conclusion, the Viking age had several value systems in place that determined how goods and services were valued. Understanding these value systems helps us appreciate the cultural, social, and economic dynamics of the time.