Fish as Currency in Iceland
The founding of a ‘non-monetary’ system is not opposed to the development of trade. As no native coins have been excavated so far, internal trade was based on ‘money substance’.
Between c. 930 and 1186, the price index of skreith (dried fish) in relations to pure silver increased. For instance, the monetary system of 1200 used silver, homespun cloth (vaðmál) and dried fish as currencies.
The value of cloth and fish was set against that of silver ‘one ell of vaðmál […] is worth one hundred ounces of silver as fixed at a þing (local assembly)[…]’, and ‘ten ounces of silver are worth one hundred dried fish’. The disparity in the rate of exchange between vaðmál and fish could be explained by the very nature of those commodities.
While vaðmál production was not restricted by natural factors, fish exploitation might have been subject to environmental conditions affecting its value. However, according to market demand, and taking into account the value of vaðmál, fish was a staple good or in case of deflation of vaðmál, its commercial value was displaced to a money value hence the equivalence between fish, vaðmál and silver. This would indicate that fish had a use value, and was both a commercial and non-commercial asset.
J. Byock. Viking Age Iceland. (2001). Peguin Book Press.
A. Friðriksson. Sagas and Popular Antiquarianism in Icelandic Archaeology. (1994).Worldwide Archaeology Series, Avebury, Great Britain.
Note: The first coins were found on farms located at Bragðavellir and Hvaldalur on the southeastern coast of Iceland, between 1905 and 1933. Along with them were other archaeological objects such as stone whorls, pieces of iron, animal teeth and fragments of soapstone. The coins are now held by the National Museum of Iceland and are from various periods: Probus (AD 276-282), Aurelian (AD 270-275), Diocletian (AD 284-305), and Tacitus (AD 275-276).
J. Graham-Campbell. ‘The Viking-Age Gold and Silver of the North Atlantic Region.’ Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic. (2005). eds. A. Mortensen and S.V. Arge.
F. L Pryor. ‘The Origins of Money.’ (1977). Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Vol.9, No.3.
B.E Gelsinger. Icelandic Enterprise: Commerce and Economy in the Middle Ages. (1981). University of South Carolina, Columbia. From 10.83:1 in c.930 to 7.5:1 in c. 1186. This shows an increase value of skreith per legal aurar (pure silver).
Diplomatarium Islandicum. Fyrsta bindi 834-1264, (1857-76). Accessed July 8, 2013.