Commerce and Navigation

The Northmen, who in ancient times sailed to foreign shores, were far
from always being Vikings, bent only on rapine and plunder, and the
conquest of new possessions. They were very often peaceful merchants.
The remote situation of Scandinavia, and the dangers which the natives
of more southern countries pictured to themselves as attendant upon a
voyage to that _ultima Thule_ and its heathenish inhabitants, must in
ancient days, when navigation was very limited, have deterred foreign
merchants from visiting it regularly, and bartering their wares. The
Scandinavian tribes, on the contrary, were at that time almost the only
seamen. From the want of all that belonged to the exterior comforts and
conveniences of life in Scandinavia, the business of a merchant who
bartered the products of the north and south, and who brought home with
him a knowledge of distant and unknown lands, must early have become a
profitable, and, from the dangers connected with it, an honourable
profession. The trading voyages of the merchant were not, indeed, held
in such esteem as those of the Vikings; yet from the most ancient times
certain established customs were observed in the north for the
protection of merchant vessels; and the merchant who, as was frequently
the case, had distinguished himself by warlike qualities and shrewdness
of understanding, was neither despised in the company of Vikings, nor in
the King’s hall. Even chiefs of royal descent did not regard it as
anything dishonourable to exercise the mercantile profession. Already,
in the most ancient times, a number of trading places were scattered
round the north, and large annual fairs were held. Once a year the ships
of the merchants assembled together from the whole of Scandinavia,
perhaps even from the other nearest situated countries, in the Sound of
Haleyri, or, as it is now called, Elsinore. Booths were erected along
the shore; foreign wares were bartered for fish, hides, and valuable
furs; whilst various games, and all sorts of merry-making, took place.

During the Roman dominion in England, and probably even in far earlier
times, a tolerably brisk commerce appears to have been kept up between
England and the countries of Scandinavia, especially Jutland,
Vendsyssel, and the districts round the Limfjord; where also, as a
consequence of this, genuine Roman antiquities have been dug up at
various times. After the conquest of England by the Jutes, the Angles,
and the Saxons, and still more after the Danes and Norwegians had begun
to settle there, this intercourse became still more frequent. We may
safely assert that, so early as the close of the ninth and beginning of
the tenth century, a very brisk trade must have existed between England
and the North. The Scandinavian element was then so well established,
that not only did Scandinavian kings reign, and coin money, in the north
of England, but even that extremely important old Saxon city,
“North-weorig,” which lay in the very heart of England, was called by
the Saxon kings themselves, on their coins, by the foreign name of
“Deorabui” (Deoraby, Dyreby, Derby); although this name, according to
the English chroniclers’ own statements, was first given to it by the
immigrant Danes. Some will even recognise Derby in the name of “Doribi,”
which stands on a coin of King Ethelwulf of the middle of the ninth
century (837-857). At all events it is a certain and remarkable proof of
the early and wide-extended influence of the Scandinavian settlers, even
in places far in the interior of the country, that “Deorabui” appears
repeatedly on coins of King Athelstane (924-940), and of his immediate
successors. It was this same Athelstane who is said to have visited
Scandinavia, where he learned the language; and who afterwards educated
at his court Hagen Adelsteen, the law-giver, who subsequently became the
first Christian king in Norway. This fact also indicates the wide-spread
and peaceful connection between England and the North, which not long
afterwards induced the Norwegian King’s son, Olaf Trygvesön, in his
treaty of peace with the English king, Ethelred, whose lands he had long
harried, expressly to stipulate for certain rights and privileges in
favour of the Scandinavian merchant ships in the English harbours.

Even in Alfred the Great’s time (A.D. 900) the seas and lands of
Scandinavia were but very little known to the Anglo-Saxons; for which
reason Alfred, chiefly with a view to trade and commerce, sent Ulfsten
and the Norwegian Ottar on voyages of discovery to the Baltic, and along
the coast of Norway to the White Sea. That according to the laws of his
country an Anglo-Saxon merchant obtained the rank and title of Thane, or
Chief, when he had thrice crossed the sea in his own ship, sufficiently
attests how desirous the Anglo-Saxon kings were to awaken among their
subjects, by means of large rewards, a desire for such voyages.
Subsequently, however, during the expeditions of the Vikings and
Normans, when the dangers attending long voyages had become still
greater than before for the Anglo-Saxons, owing to the perfectly
overwhelming force of the Northmen at sea, the trade, with Scandinavia
at least, must have continued to remain in the hands of the Scandinavian
merchants; who, as we learn from the Sagas, were continually making
voyages, as well from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, as from the still
more distant Iceland, to England, and the other countries of the West.
Wherever the Normans had won new settlements, Scandinavian merchants
likewise established themselves in order to maintain a steady connection
with their ancient home. It is for this simple reason that we find in
those times so many Danes and Norwegians settled in the most important
trading places, not only in England (in London, Southwark, Derby,
Grimsby, York, Whitby, and other towns), but also, as we shall see in
the sequel, in Ireland and in Normandy, where the city of “Ruda,” or
Rouen, is spoken of as an important place of trade often visited by the

The Scandinavian merchant vessels brought not only the wares of
Scandinavia to the British Islands and other countries of the West; they
likewise brought merchandise from the remote East. From the most ancient
times, indeed, the Northmen had maintained connections with the eastern
countries; which was a natural consequence of their having emigrated
thence into the North, and left friends behind them there. By means of
these connections, metals otherwise totally unknown in the North, and
especially gold, were certainly brought thither at a very early period
from the mountains of the East. Subsequently, in the fifth and sixth
centuries, when fresh migrations from the East had taken place, a closer
connection was opened with the eastern Roman Empire, and particularly
with Constantinople, so that coins of that empire, and other valuables,
began to be circulated in the North. After the Scandinavian colonists,
too, had conquered kingdoms for themselves in the countries which now
form modern Russia, and taken possession of the city of Novgorod, a
regular commercial _route_ appears to have been opened, through Russia,
between Constantinople and the North, by which the Varangians passed,
who entered as body-guards into the service of the Emperors of the East.
But as far as regards trade, Novgorod and the Scandinavian colonists in
Russia promoted a connection with Asia, which was of far greater extent
and importance.

Before the passage to the East Indies by sea was discovered, and
particularly before the Genoese and Venetians began to trade in the
Black Sea and on the coasts of Asia, the main road from Arabia and the
countries round the Caspian Sea to the Baltic and Scandinavia, lay
through Russia, along the great rivers. To judge from the Oriental coins
found both in Russia and in the Scandinavian countries, this commercial
road must have been used from the eighth until far in the eleventh
century, when it was broken up by internal disturbances in Asia, and by
contemporary revolutions in Russia and the North. The road ran either
from Transoxana (in Turan) to the countries north of the Caspian Sea,
whence the merchandise was then brought along the river Volga to the
Baltic; or else from Khorasan (in Iran), through Armenia, to the Black
Sea; whence the Khazars and other people again conveyed it up the rivers
farther towards the North. How considerable this trade must have been
may be seen from the numerous hints in the Sagas, as well as from the
still-existing Arabian accounts of merchants who in those days visited
the coasts of the Baltic for the sake of trade, where considerable
trading places, such as Sleswick and many others, are mentioned; but
still more than all these, from the very great number of Arabian coins
that have been dug up both in Russia and Scandinavia. In Sweden, and
particularly in the island of Gothland, such an immense quantity of
these has been found at various times, that in Stockholm alone above
twenty thousand pieces have been preserved, presenting more than a
thousand different dies, and coined in about seventy towns in the
eastern and northern districts of the dominions of the Caliphs.
Five-sixths of them were coined by Samanidic Caliphs. Together with the
coins, a great mass of ornaments has been dug up, consisting of rings
and other articles in silver, which are distinguished by a peculiar
workmanship. On the whole, it appears that silver first came by this way
into the North, where it was not generally circulated before the ninth
and tenth centuries, and consequently at the time when the trade with
Arabia was in full activity.

These discoveries of Arabian coins in the north of Europe, but which are
confined to the shores of the Baltic, the German Ocean, and the Irish
Sea, undoubtedly prove that Scandinavia, and particularly the countries
on its eastern coasts, together with the islands of Gothland, Öland, and
Bornholm, must have been the principal depôt for Arabian merchandise. It
was the trade with the East that originally gave considerable importance
to the city of Visby in Gothland; and it was subsequently the Russian
trade that made Visby, in conjunction with Novgorod, important members
of the German Hanseatic league. As long as the Arabian trade flourished,
Gothland was the centre of a very animated traffic. Even now an almost
incredible number of German, Hungarian, and particularly Anglo-Saxon
coins, of the tenth and eleventh centuries, is dug up in the island. The
collection of coins in Stockholm comprises an assortment of Anglo-Saxon
coins, mostly the product of these discoveries, which, for extent and
completeness, surpasses the greatest collections of the sort even in
London and England.

The important and extensive commercial intercourse between Scandinavia
and England, to which this so decidedly points, can also be traced in
England itself. Oriental or Arabian coins, struck in the countries near
the Caspian Sea, are dug up both in England and Ireland in conjunction
with the very same kind of peculiar silver rings, and other ornaments of
the same metal, that are also found with the Arabian coins in
Scandinavia and Russia; nay, they are sometimes dug up, as in Cuerdale,
in conjunction with coins of Danish-Norwegian kings and jarls; a fact
which still further confirms the opinion that they were brought over to
the British Isles by the Northmen. This connection with Arabia through
the countries of Scandinavia may probably have brought to England, as
well as to the North, such a mass of silver as enabled the Anglo-Saxon
kings to mint that surprising number of silver coins, which appears at
once in such forcible contrast to the want of silver in the preceding
centuries. The ancient Britons had little or no silver before the Roman
conquest. The Romans, who had large silver mines in Spain, certainly
brought silver money with them into the British Islands; but after the
overthrow of their dominion, a want of silver again prevailed, and
continued, as the coins show, until far into the eighth and ninth
centuries. Silver was consequently introduced into England and
Scandinavia, generally speaking, about the same time; and there is
undoubtedly far greater probability that it was brought into these
countries in the same way—that is, from Asia through Russia—than that it
should have come into England through the Moors in Spain; of whose
caliphs there are very rarely any coins found in England, and between
whom and the English the intercourse at that period seems to have been
but very limited. In the treasure found at Cuerdale the rings and other
silver ornaments were for the most part broken, and twisted, or even
melted, together. Something similar has been observed in the treasure
trove in the countries round the Baltic, and in Russia. This clearly
proves that silver, as an article of commerce, was brought from Asia to
the North, where it was melted and converted into ornaments and coins.

As long as the Norman expeditions lasted, and on the whole as long as
the Scandinavian supremacy at sea sufficed to protect the Scandinavian
merchants and their ships, they continued to make voyages on their own
account to the countries colonized by the Northmen. Thus the Anglo-Saxon
coins dug up in the island of Gothland indicate a brisk and
uninterrupted commerce between Scandinavia and England from the time of
the Anglo-Saxon king Edgar (959-975) down to the death of Edward the
Confessor and the Norman conquest (1066). But from that time, and
particularly after the year 1100, there is a remarkable decrease in the
Anglo-Saxon coins found in Gothland; which is a natural result of the
interruption of the previous connection, through the hostile relations
that ensued between the descendants of William the Conqueror and the
Scandinavian kings, who steadily continued to claim the crown of
England. Later in the middle ages the countries of Scandinavia fell more
and more under the commercial yoke of the German Hanse Towns; whilst in
England, on the contrary, a freer and healthier state of commerce was
continually developing itself. The Danish king, Canute the Great, made
it a point of the utmost importance to conclude commercial treaties with
various foreign nations; and the Scandinavian merchants settled in
England essentially contributed to make these leagues profitable. Old
authors expressly notice the influence of these merchants on British
trade. We also find evidence of it not only in their great number, and
the weight they possessed in several English towns,—especially London,
where they had their own churches, markets, and courts of law, and
where, as before stated, they even at times decided the election of a
king, as in the case of Harald Harefoot,—but also in the names of money
afterwards retained in the English language, as “March” and “Ora,” from
the Scandinavian “Mark” and “Ore.” It was a natural consequence that
commerce should at the same time make great progress, as the numerous
Scandinavian settlers in England, and the Danish conquest, had infused a
new and hitherto unknown life into everything relating to navigation,
without which no animated trade could have flourished in the British

The ancient Britons were by no means a seafaring people. They appear to
have confined themselves to short coasting voyages between the islands,
and over the Irish and English channels. They had, therefore, no fleet
to protect their coasts from the attacks of the Romans. Their vessels
consisted either of the trunks of trees hollowed out, or of small frail
boats formed of interwoven branches, or wicker-work, covered with hides.
The Celtic nations have, on the whole, never been remarkable for their
love of the sea, or of a seafaring life. On the contrary, they seem to
have derived from nature a decided antipathy to it; and even to the
present day it is very striking to observe how unwillingly their
descendants venture out to sea. They prefer, under all circumstances, a
landsman’s life, even in remote and barren mountain tracts; nay, their
disinclination for everything relating to a seaman’s life is carried so
far that they neglect, in a way almost incredible, the rich fisheries on
the western coast of Scotland, and on the greater part of the coasts of
Ireland; although, in the last-named country especially, famine carries
off the inhabitants in shoals. In those villages where fishing is
carried on to any extent, the inhabitants are in general descended from
immigrant foreigners. Thus it is said that the fishermen on the west
coast of Ireland are descended from Spaniards; and, to judge from their
appearance, the assertion finds some confirmation.

Nor were the Anglo-Saxons a seafaring people, in the proper sense of the
term. They comprised, it is true, Jutes, Angles, and Frisians; but the
Saxons were the most numerous, and the Saxon disposition has always
clung to a life ashore. It was natural, however, that the art of
navigation should gradually develop itself among the Anglo-Saxons as
they advanced in civilization and refinement. But how little they were
at home on the sea, even in the time of Alfred the Great, is shown by
the feeble resistance they were able to offer to the Danes. It is true
that Alfred had large ships of war built in order to protect the coasts;
but he was obliged to man them, in part at least, with Frisians. We are
further told that these ships were much larger than those of the Danes.
Yet the history of the tenth and eleventh centuries affords no proof
that these ships were able in the long run to prevent the conquests of
the Danes, or that they served to increase the Anglo-Saxon skill in

Even the Greeks and Romans, however much they distinguished themselves
in other ways, as in literature and art, did not make any remarkable
progress in seamanship. Their navigation chiefly consisted of trips
along the coast or voyages across the Mediterranean; and if an
adventurer was now and then bold enough to pass the Pillars of Hercules,
or Straits of Gibraltar, out into the Atlantic Ocean, in order to sail
along the west coast of Europe to the British Isles, or countries still
farther north, it was regarded as a great exploit. Regular voyages
thither were scarcely known; nor do the Greek and Roman ships appear to
have been well adapted to keep the sea in the wide and stormy Atlantic.

It was reserved for a land washed by the waters of that ocean—the
Scandinavian North—to build the first large “sea-going” ships, capable
not merely of successfully conveying, in calm weather, and under
favourable circumstances, a solitary daring navigator over the Atlantic,
but of affording, in spite of storm and tempest, a secure passage over
its enormous waves. It is only by duly considering how much experience
and talent must have been exerted, and, above all, how many calculations
must have been made previous to the building of such a vessel, and
before the art could be acquired of steering it with safety through
breakers and in storms, that we shall perceive how much it redounds to
the honour of Scandinavia to have made these great and most important
advances; which, by founding modern navigation, by extending commercial
intercourse to a degree before unknown, and by thus uniting parts of the
globe which were previously separated, may be said in a manner to have
changed the face of the world.

Even before the time when the Danes conquered England, the Northmen had
long possessed large and splendid sea-going ships. The Norwegians, in
particular, were then constantly making voyages across the Atlantic, to
the Shetland Isles, Iceland, and Greenland; nay, they undoubtedly
reached the continent of America several times; of which Scandinavian
and German historical traditions, as well as internal probabilities,
bear witness. For, first, it was a natural consequence that a people who
could navigate the dangerous and ice-bound sea that surrounds the coast
of Greenland, and who could establish considerable colonies both in
north and south Greenland—traces of which are still preserved by runic
inscriptions, ruins of churches, and the foundations of numerous
houses—should also be able to sail to the coast of America, the
navigation to which was always attended with less danger. And, again, it
would have been very strange if the Northmen, who sailed without a
compass, should always have succeeded in reaching Greenland, and never
have been driven by storms to the neighbouring coast of America. It was,
besides, just in this manner, according to the statements of history,
that America was first discovered. It is quite another matter whether
traces of these early visits of the Scandinavians could really be still
found in America, which there is good reason to doubt.

The above-mentioned voyages, in the ninth and tenth centuries, are
sufficient proofs of the excellence of the Scandinavian ships. It is
not, therefore, to be regarded as pure exaggeration if the Sagas use
strong expressions in celebrating the war-ships of that time,
particularly the galleys, or, as they were called, long ships; and
amongst others that magnificent royal vessel “Ormen hin Lange” (the long
snake), which bore the Norwegian king, Olaf Trygvesön, in the celebrated
sea-fight of Svöldr (near Greifswald) in the year 1000. These long ships
were also called “Dragons,” because the stems were frequently ornamented
with carved, and even gilded, images of dragons; or else were beheld
there figures of vultures, lions, and other animals, ornamented with
gold. These long ships had sometimes crews of several hundred men.
Other, and partly smaller, ships had different names, such as “snekken,”
“barden,” “skeiden,” “karven,” “barken,” and several others. Both
Scandinavian and English chronicles dwell on the description of the
splendour with which the fleets of the Danish conquerors, Svend and
Canute, were adorned. Magnificent images glittered on the prows; the
sails were worked, or embroidered, with gold; the ropes were of a purple
colour; and on the top of the gilded masts sat curiously-carved images
of birds, which spread out their wings to the breeze.

[Illustration: [++] Sailing Ship]

With the exception of very imperfect representations carved on rocks and
runic stones, there are no images left in the countries of Scandinavia
of these ships of the olden time. But the celebrated tapestry at Bayeux,
in Normandy, on which the conquest of England by the Normans is
depicted, is a contemporary evidence of the appearance of the Normanic
ships; and the accompanying woodcut taken from it, representing probably
the ship in which William the Conqueror himself sailed, will clearly
prove how splendid they really must have been. Both this and the rest of
the Norman ships in the tapestry perfectly agree with the contemporary
Danish and Norwegian ships, just as we know them from the Sagas, even to
the shields hung out along the bulwarks. This, however, is nothing more
than what one might naturally expect, since the Normans and Danes, on
the conquest of Normandy, must have brought such ships with them, as
well as that art of ship-building which they afterwards carried to
greater perfection. For this, however, they found no models in the
wretched vessels of the Franks and Bretons. But their steady connection
with the Scandinavian fatherlands, at all events through the Danes and
Norwegians in England, communicated to them those improvements in the
form and arrangement of ships which the very extensive ship-building of
the Northmen, and their long and uninterrupted voyages to Iceland and
Greenland, must gradually have produced. That influence on maritime
affairs, which, on the whole, was exercised by the Scandinavian settlers
in Normandy, showed itself also in the circumstance that Scandinavian
names of ships, together with other maritime terms, passed into the
Romance language; as, for instance, _flotte_ (_Dan._, Flaade; _Eng._,
fleet), _verec_ (_Dan._, Vrag; _Eng._, wreck), _bord_ (_Dan._,
Skibsborde, Rand; _Eng._, ship-board), _windas_ (_Dan._, Vinde, Spil;
_Eng._, windlass) _mast_ (_Dan._, Mast; _Eng._, mast), _sigler_ (_Dan._,
Seile; _Eng._, sails), _esturman_ (_Dan._, Styrmand; _Eng._, steersman),
_eschiper_ (_Old Northern_, skipa; _Eng._, equip), from which are
derived the now commonly used French words, _équiper_, _équipage_, (and
with us Danes likewise, eqvipere, Eqvipage-mester; _Eng._, master of

As a consequence of the Danish-Norwegian immigrations, the art of
ship-building must also have necessarily developed itself in a similar
manner in England, on whose eastern and north-western coasts the
descendants of the Vikings had everywhere spread themselves, both by the
sea and on the rivers. Christianity certainly put an end to the life of
the Viking. “Söhaner” (sea-cocks) were no longer to be found, who
scorned “to sleep by the corner of the hearth, or under sooty beams.”
But the Vikings’ spirit was not therefore dead. The Scandinavian
colonists could never entirely degenerate from their fathers, who had
joyfully “ridden on the backs of the waves,” and who in the icy sea, and
on the Atlantic Ocean, had greeted the storm only as a welcome friend,
which assisted the oars and speeded the merry passage. Among the Vikings
were many like the Danish chief made prisoner by King Athelstane at the
siege of York in 927. The King treated him well, and retained him in his
hall more as an equal than a prisoner. But in a few days the chief fled
and put out again to sea; for it was, the chronicle adds, just as
impossible for him to live on land “as for the fish to live out of the
water.” The immediate descendants of such men, for whom a seafaring life
was a necessity of their very nature, must have continued to dash
through the water, particularly when, as in England, they were settled
near seas and rivers. During all the internal dissensions and foreign
wars that occupied England in the first centuries after the conquest by
William the Norman—and which ended by binding more firmly together the
various Celtic, Teutonic, and Scandinavian races which composed its
population—the maritime affairs of the English were no longer confined,
as in more ancient times, only to commerce with the nearest neighbouring
countries. Through the mother countries of Scandinavia, and especially
Norway, they continued during the early part of the middle ages to
maintain a lively intercourse with the distant Scandinavian republics in
Iceland and Greenland. But when, in the thirteenth century, the
independence of these republics was overthrown, and they were placed as
tributary countries under the Norwegian crown, the free trade that had
previously flourished became much more restricted. The consequence of
this was, that the navigation to Greenland from the north decreased more
and more, until, in the fifteenth century, when the Scandinavian
population of Greenland had been annihilated by sickness and by the
assaults of the natives, it entirely ceased. What also much contributed
to this was, that the trade which the Northmen themselves carried on
with Iceland became gradually, and in the fifteenth century was almost
entirely, although illegally, transferred to the English, who under the
guidance of their Scandinavian kinsmen had found their way thither. Hull
and Bristol—which latter place is named as early as the twelfth century
as the port for ships from Norway (and Iceland?)—were the two English
harbours whence this trade with Iceland was carried on. There are even
some who think that Christopher Columbus during his stay in these
harbours, through conversations with Iceland navigators, and possibly by
a voyage to Iceland itself, obtained information of the ancient voyages
of the Northmen to Greenland and America; and that he was thus first
completely confirmed in his opinion, that a large and unknown continent
must lie in the far west, across the Atlantic Ocean. But even if this
supposition be unfounded, or destitute as yet of certain historical
proof, may it not at least be probable that Columbus had heard in some
other way of the Northmen’s former voyages to Greenland; and that this
might have had some influence on the resolution he afterwards formed to
set out across the Atlantic on a voyage of discovery towards the west?

But under any circumstances, the regular voyages of the English to
Iceland were certainly connected with the subsequent complete discovery
of the New World. They had served to make them familiar with more
extensive voyages on the open ocean, and thus essentially contributed to
foster that daring Viking spirit, which they had inherited from their
Scandinavian forefathers, and which in process of time was to become so
important in cementing the connection between the Old and the New World.
No sooner was the latter a second time discovered than the Vikings’
spirit again strongly displayed itself in a renewed form among the
English people. There was the same lofty tranquillity, the same daring
and contempt of danger, that characterised the Vikings of ancient times.
But the English seaman had now more experience and knowledge, and quite
other means were at his disposal than had ever before existed. He
therefore entered on his first voyage to the New World with undaunted
courage, and not only soon became familiar with that ocean which his
Scandinavian forefathers had ploughed in the remote days of antiquity,
but also opened a way to new lands over seas before unknown. Thus was
established that maritime supremacy which has been one of the most
important props of the wealth and power of England.

The first accidental discovery of America by bold adventurers from the
remote north took place so early, and under such peculiar circumstances,
that neither Scandinavia nor the rest of the world derived any use or
benefit from it. After a transient glimpse, the golden treasure again
sank beneath the waves. It lay, nevertheless, in the dispensations of
Providence, that the descendants of those Scandinavian adventurers
should bear an essential part in raising the re-discovered treasure, and
in making it productive for mankind. And had not the Scandinavians, by
their numerous settlements in the British Islands, engrafted on the
population a skill in seamanship before unknown, together with a daring
spirit of enterprise, England, in spite of its fertility, its wealth,
and its favourable maritime situation, would scarcely have succeeded in
solving such a problem as that of closely knitting together lands
separated from each other by the Atlantic in all its breadth and

You may also like