Seminar CLXXVI: buying control of Norway

I feel as if I ought to be catching up on backlog with this posting frequency, and yet I remain in May 2013 with the seminar reports, on the 6th of which month the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford was graced by one of my academic friends of longest standing, Dr Elina Screen. Although almost every time I see Elina I badger her for more of her work on Emperor Lothar I, as I know only too well can happen, sometimes numismatics gets in the way of Carolingian studies, and at the time of this seminar Elina had just seen emerge from the presses under her auspices the first of two volumes cataloguing the Anglo-Saxon coins that survive today in Norwegian collections.1 Her paper, “Norway in the Age of Cnut (d. 1035), through the Coinage Evidence”, thus functioned not least as a kind of advertisement for what one can do with such work, once that work shows one what the evidence actually is, and it led to some surprising conclusions.

Pointed Helmet type silver penny of King Cnut of England, struck at London by the moneyer Godric, 1023x1029

Obverse and reverse of Pointed Helmet type silver penny of King Cnut of England, struck at London by the moneyer Godric, 1023×1029

The thing about coinage, you see, and especially Anglo-Saxon coinage in Scandinavia, is that there’s a an awful lot of it. I was fond of telling students that there is more coinage of King Æthelred the Unready in Stockholm than is known in all of England, which I think is true though we can’t be sure as they’ve never managed to count the stuff in Stockholm. Norway isn’t quite so favoured, but nonetheless, Elina’s two volumes catalogue 3,200 actual coins, including some previously unknown types, as well as a myriad of fragments that were surely one of the most grumpily impossible source material any medievalist I know has ever tried to work with. Almost all of this is from hoards, because Norway doesn’t allow metal detecting so the mass of single finds that we have from England or Denmark isn’t available (and it must be said that much of Norway is not exactly detector country). So the question is less what does this all tell us, as the sample is just too large to evaluate in aggregate, but more what are the patterns and oddities? So here some suggestions from the paper.

  • Despite their number, the English coins are a poor second to Islamic dirhams even this far west, and German coins are very close behind the English ones; the English ones have the great advantage, however, that their manufacture can be dated to within about five to ten years because the English coinage was called in and renewed so frequently.
  • Some of the coins found are pierced, as if to be worn as jewellery, but it’s not that many, only 46 in total, and most of those early, so we seem to see Norway getting used to coinage here (it didn’t start striking its own till the reign of Harald Hardrada).
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area of Norway closest to England, Rogaland, shows 64% of the English coin finds, but it also shows 59% of all early medieval coin finds, so it is obviously different.
  • Obverse and reverse of a silver penny of King Henry II of Germany struck at Deventer in the modern Netherlands, 1002x1014

    The quantity less known… Obverse and reverse of a silver penny of King Henry II of Germany struck at Deventer in the modern Netherlands, 1002×1014

  • Among the finds in general, the Pointed Helmet type of Cnut (as in the first image above) shows an unusual proportion of die-links. That is, the dies used to strike the coins (hand-cut, and therefore identifiable) recur more frequently in this coinage than in the others, 47% of the finds being ‘linked’ by at least one die to other finds, and specifically 61% of the coins of this type struck at London, which led Elina to suggest that at least one part of this sample was a big batch of coins fresh from the London mint, hardly circulated before they went into the ground.
  • Coins do seem often to have been used as foundational deposits when putting up churches, and there was some discussion in questions of the possibility that this was because, being marked with a cross, they were considered Christian objects, but Elina reckoned that little else in the way that they were treated suggests this and thought that this behaviour was probably more to do with the fact that they were an available form of wealth that could easily be sacrificed.2

While the hints and suggestions about conversion to Christianity that Elina pulled out of this evidence (since that was ongoing in Norway at this period and ought, one feels, to be visible somehow) were thus a bit ephemeral, the concentration of hoards in Rogaland led to an unexpected yet surprisingly sustainable conclusion. We know, you see, from a variety of written sources, that Cnut’s efforts to gain control in Norway involved money, which after taking over England was something he had an awful lot of.3 Elina’s handout has the following bits from the Occasional Verses of the skald Sighvat, for example, apparently relating to the threat Cnut presented to King Olaf Haraldsson (1015-28):4

“The king’s enemies are walking about with open purses
Men offer the heavy metal for the priceless head of the king.
Everyone knows that he who takes gold for the head of his good lord
Has his place in the midst of black Hell.
He deserves such punishment.”

Obverse and reverse of Short Cross penny of King Cnut, 1029x1036, probably struck by Eadred at London

I should probably point out that as far as we know Cnut didn’t strike in gold! This is the obverse and reverse of a silver Short Cross penny of King Cnut, 1029×1036, if I’m reading it right struck by Eadred at London

“The king of England calls out a levy, but we have got a little army and smaller ships.
I do not see our king afraid.
It will be an ugly business if the men of the land let the king be short of men.
Money makes men break their faith.”

An ugly business it was, in the end, as in 1028 Cnut took a fleet to Norway and drove Olaf out, and when Olaf returned in 1030 to retake the kingdom he was killed fighting his own people.5 But how was that achieved? Well, probably with bribery of recalcitrant aristocrats in Rogaland. Not everyone in Norway was keen on the rise of kingship there.6 This could be exploited by Cnut, and we seem to see him do so; he spent more time in Rogaland than anywhere else in the country, of those recipients of bribes the sources let us identify all but one were based here, and the period of such activity matches that of the issue of the Pointed Helmet type, 1023-1029, so it does seem quite likely that the reason we have so much of that issue apparently uncirculated here is because Cnut arrived with sacks of it, some fresh from London, and handed it out. I thought this was pretty clever history, and it is nice to be able to work from such large samples down to a specific action. Not quite a smoking gun, but rather more than 30 pieces of silver

1. Elina Screen, Norwegian Collections, part I: Anglo-Saxon coins to 1016, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 65 (Oxford 2013) and Norwegian Collections, part II: Anglo-Saxon and later British coins 1016-1279, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 66 (Oxford forthcoming). As for this paper, I believe it’s under revision for publication as Elina was giving a new version of it at Leeds just gone

2. For this kind of aspect Elina relied explicitly on the work of Svein Gullbek, to wit his Pengevesents fremvekst og fall i Norge i middelalderen (København 2009), which I not only haven’t read but, I confess, couldn’t read if I tried.

3. The classic piece on this is D. M. Metcalf, “Can We Believe the Very Large Figure of £72, 000 for the Geld Levied by Cnut in 1018” in Kenneth Jonsson (ed.), Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage in memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand (Stockholm 1990), pp. 165-176, since which time it’s become clear that, yes, we can.

4. Taken from Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), nos 18.16 & 18.19, my line-breaks (sorry, Sighvat).

5. Elina’s reference here was Timothy Bolton, The Empire of Cnut the Great: conquest and the consolidation of power in Northern Europe in the early eleventh century (Leiden 2009), which I haven’t seen.

6. I imagine the Bolton must cover this, but what I know of that does is Sverre Bagge, “Early State Formation in Scandinavia” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der Frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 145-154.

4 responses to “Seminar CLXXVI: buying control of Norway

  1. Bolton does indeed refer to Cnut’s Norwegian campaign – I quote from the concluding remarks of his chapter 9 (pp. 287–288): “Like much of the government of England and Denmark, the extension of Cnut’s authority over Norway was only possible through the use of native collaborators. […] However, […] he could not consolidate his hold over the local and central government in Norway […]. The wealth and power of the Norwegian elites, the relative novelty of a single-kingship, and the survival of Óláfr Haraldsson and his heir Magnús, forced Cnut to invest great effort in attempts to financially and ideologically canvass the support of these elites.
    Furthermore, the amount of English wealth which Cnut invested in Norway in this period raises questions regarding his motivation for seeking the Norwegian kingship. We have no means of assessing how much the conquest of Norway cost Cnut, but we must take into account the period of bribery in 1026–8, and after that a more wholesale campaign of buying support from the already relatively wealthy Norwegian elites. Any tax on the Norwegian economy no matter how punitive could not have significantly repaid these debts. It appears that Norway was won at a substantial financial loss.“
    Regarding the mentioned ”motivation”, Bolton seems to imply that this could be linked with imperial aspirations that he investigates in his chapter 10. This is, however, the weakest part of the book, in my humble opinion. See also my review (in German) of Bolton’s book:

    • Hullo Dominik, always pleasant to see a face I know here. That logic does seem a little strange: how many early medieval rulers took over kingdoms with a balance sheet in mind? I imagine that Cnut saw that he had the resources to attempt it and stopped his profit-and-loss accounting pretty much there. What’s wrong with the old idea of finding kingdoms for one’s (quarrelsome, half-related) sons?

  2. I am a coin collector and re-enactor who’s persona is a moneyer from England circa 1000 so I love it when you have articles on coins and their role in that time period.

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