Sunday, 23 December 2012

How long did the bullion economy last in England?

Thanks to dateable hoards and site finds, we are pretty knowledgeable about the introduction of bullion in England. Current evidence suggests that bullion was being used by some of the earliest Viking raiders and settlers in England – that is, in the 870s, around the same time as bullion use was developing within Scandinavia. 

The end-date of the metal-weight economy in England is less clear, however.  The latest silver hoards from the Danelaw are found in northern England, and date to the late 920s (e.g. the Vale of York hoard, deposited c927-28). But the evidence from single finds suggests that bullion use continued for longer than the hoards alone indicate. A handful of recent discoveries of foreign and pecked coins, treated as bullion rather than as coins, suggest instead that the bullion economy continued into the 930s, and possibly beyond.

A tiny dirham fragment from Yorkshire. Photo by Ian Cartwright 
This picture shows a tiny dirham fragment, recently discovered at a site in Yorkshire (dirhams were Islamic coins minted in the Middle East, which formed an important source of silver for the Scandinavian bullion economy). Very few people are able to identify these coins, so I took the fragment to Stockholm, to be analysed by coin expert Gert Rispling. After very careful study and comparison with better preserved coins (such as the one below), Gert identified it as a mint of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, dated to c928/9. 

A better preserved dirham, similar to the
one found in Yorkshire
Estimates of the time it took dirhams of this date to travel from their source in the Middle East via Scandinavia and/or the Baltic to England vary: from one or two years to between ten and fifteen. If we take a mid-point of c5 years, the coin cannot have been lost much before the mid 930s, while its fragmentary condition hints at an even later date of loss, in the later 930s or even 940s. Although this coin fragment looks insignificant, it suggests that a fresh source of silver continued to reach the northern Danelaw sixty years or more after the first Viking settlements.

The end-date of bullion use in England is important– and not just for pedantic scholarly reasons.  Since bullion use was a distinctly Scandinavian economic and cultural practice in this period, its longevity in England provides a useful measure of the degree of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian assimilation.  In a scenario in which the Scandinavians quickly adopted local practices, we might expect the use of bullion to have been relatively short-lived –perhaps not extending beyond a generation or two. But perhaps we're now seeing opposing evidence: the Scandinavian way of doing business - or at least their means of exchange - seems to have continued in some areas for an extended period. Although we must be careful not to infer too much from a small number of finds, these coins offer hints for a continued separateness of the Scandinavian settlers and their descendants from the existing, local population. 


  1. Reading Gert Rispling's name takes me back to the Fitzwilliam Coin Room immediately; it seems perverse that there is only one person we can turn to for this kind of expertise, but on the other hand one cannot easily imagine someone being encouraged to make that specialism their career. The whole post serves as a welcome reminder of something that came up in a seminar I was at recently where in questions someone wondered whether we had adequately considered the role of the opening of the Harz silver mines in Germany on the development of the Old English state. As this sort of find helps to remind us, that was not the only source for silver in England...

  2. Indeed, but re: the sources of silver in England, it is worth noting that the number of dirhams which made it to Britain and Ireland is tiny in comparison to the vast numbers reaching Scandinavia - what we're seeing is very much a trickle at the end of the line. Plus, there is a significant decline in the import of dirhams from the later part of the 10thC, which appears to correlate well with an increase in the appearance of Anglo-Saxon and German coins within Scandinavia (ie. western sources are replacing the declining dirham stock). THe Harz mines seem to reopen in the 960s, so I'm not sure that dirhams provided an alternative source of silver at this date....But I completely agree about the importance of people like Gert! There are very few people to turn to, and identifying these coins is not something you can just 'pick up'.