Viking-Age Iceland: Money, Currency, and Skreith (Dried Fish)

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This settlement is described in an Icelandic saga as a fishing and shark station during the Medieval period

This settlement is described in an Icelandic saga as a fishing and shark station during the Medieval period. Image by Valerie Dufeu

Did early-medieval Icelanders use fish for money?

Icelandic early-medieval economic and social patterns do not correspond with what existed in Continental Europe, Scandinavia and Great Britain. The dearth of written sources, along with a tendency to assess Icelandic socio-economic patterns in comparison with Scandinavian models, and especially Norway, have played a crucial role in some misunderstandings regarding Iceland’s socio-economic developments.

Coinage and the support of executive bodies that enforce commercial laws and taxes are the essential features of trading exchanges and economic growth. In Iceland, the absence of coinage  has led to the incorrect conclusion that Iceland contributed only marginally to the active trade of Viking Age Scandinavia.

Iceland:’Money’ Versus Currency

The only feature that did not exist in Iceland, was coinage, so far as we are aware; to date, no archaeological excavations have retrieved any kind of Icelandic coins. According to Adolf Friðriksson, archaeologists have only found Roman coins that all predate the Settlement period (AD 870-930) by hundreds of years. Note that the value of these copper coins was worthless at a time when silver was the main standard-value for commercial exchanges.

Icelandic graves have yielded Viking-Age, Anglo-Saxon, Hiberno-Norse (Irish-Norse), German and Cufic coins. It is quite difficult to interpret such recovery, for there seems to be an insufficient number of total coins in Iceland to serve as currency. It would be misleading to conclude, however, that the lack of Icelandic coins is an indicator of absence of money and trade.

Although it is nowadays associated only with a currency, ‘money’ is in the present study defined as an item that is used in any one of the money purposes, such as standard of value or means of payment. Frederic L. Pryor has defined money as:

“any standardized object serving actively as a medium of exchange for commercial purposes (either for domestic or foreign transactions) or as a medium of payment for domestic non-commercial purposes.”

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