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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2014

7 - Exchange and trade: the Carolingian economy


Introduction: interpreting the carolingian economy

Around 890, a team of scholars at the court of the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great undertook the translation of the fifth-century Latin world history of Orosius into the written version of their vernacular Old English language. Orosius's work, with its story of barbarian invasions and Christian triumph, had an obvious message for readers in Viking-age England, and Alfred's team translated freely: as a result, when they came across Orosius's lengthy geographical descriptions of Europe, they updated his very classical picture of northern and eastern Europe to reflect contemporary realities. The detailed account of the different peoples and groupings of the Baltic and southern Scandinavia led into a series of digressions, recounting the tales told to King Alfred by two travellers in the north, Ohthere and Wulfstan. Ohthere claimed to Alfred that ‘he lived the furthest north of all Northmen’, and gave an account of his exploration around the modern Norwegian coast as far as Lapland and the White Sea. Ohthere's accounts of various groupings of Beormas, Cwenas, Finnas and Norðmanna distinguish them not in terms of ethnic origin but in terms of their land and their economy. The lands of the Finnas, for example, were described as ‘waste’, that is lacking agriculture, animal husbandry or permanent settlement: they were seasonal hunters, in contrast to the Beormas, whose territory was ‘fully settled’.

But the scribe recording Ohthere's tale-telling was not solely interested in ethnographic and geographical detail: he focussed also on wealth and its exchange. Hence the almost palpable interest of the audience as they heard an account of riches rooted not in property rights over land and labour, but in control of livestock, some tame but most wild, and the collection of tribute: Ohthere told how he was ‘a very rich man in those objects which their riches consist of, that is wild deer…he was among the first men of his land, but he had not more than twenty cattle, twenty sheep and twenty pigs, and little that he ploughed with horses’. The wealth of Ohthere's people, we are told, lay ‘mostly in the tribute (gafol) that the Finnas pay them’, which was carefully graded, with each different rank among the Finnas making specific gifts of animal skins, bird feathers and whale bones. These were destined to be exchanged, for Ohthere's account of his wealth and his relations with the neighbouring peoples naturally flowed into an account of a voyage down the Norwegian coast to the trading town (port) of Kaupang, and thence to Hedeby at the base of the Jutland peninsula, the nodal point of the trading routes of southern Scandinavia. From Ohthere's account of the trip to Hedeby, the scribe moved seamlessly on to an analogous account of the voyage of Wulfstan east from Hedeby to Truso, a major centre for exchange in the Baltic. Wulfstan's observation of the coastline and islands of the Baltic is enlivened by discussion of the customs of the peoples he encountered: the drinking habits, funeral rites and magical abilities of the Este.

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