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First Swedish coins modeled on English
By Bob Reis
August 14, 2017

Editor's Note: This is the first of a nine-part series. Read the second part here, the third part here, the fourth part here, the fifth part here, the sixth part here, the seventh part here, the eighth part here, and the ninth part here.

Last article we were in Swaziland, now we’re starting Sweden. I am experiencing something like jet lag.

But let me start Sweden by discussing the market. I live and write in the U.S., where collectors of Swedish coins are about as rare as working steam locomotives, but there is a market. In Sweden. As you might imagine, it is a small market, Sweden being a “small” country, population-wise. But it is, in global terms, quite well off. It might be correct to state that demand equals supply for the “good” stuff, though not for the usual suspects. What are the usual suspects? Pretty much everything since the decimal reform, I’d say, in my opinion. Even NGC MS-67 stuff. Sure, it’s expensive, but the buyers are skeptical. But nice medieval stuff – top-end, first king in high grade for example – four-figure prices. They go quickly.

Interesting historical point: There were Swedes before there was Sweden, and there is no formal agreement on the founding date of the nation. There was the accession of a certain 16th century king whose reign is generally considered the start of the modern state. Before that there were, let’s say, competing claimants to various parts of Scandinavian territory, kings in Norway and Denmark, local chieftains everywhere. Some of them were Swedes, sometimes depending on whether one considers some particular people and their leader as Swedes at that time.

But let’s go back to prehistory, as I like to do. Norway to the west has an Atlantic coast to go with its Baltic coast, Sweden has only the Baltic. Finland is to the east. Modern Sweden goes up beyond the Arctic circle. In the late Paleolithic era, all but a bit of the southernmost land was under the glaciers. So, no early Paleolithic archeology up north. In the south, around 1200 B.C.E., the Bromme culture, late paleolithic hunter-gatherers who made flake tools, knives, points but not axes, began to show up in Sweden. The earliest Bromme sites are in the Netherlands. They are found in northern Germany and Denmark, too. I think we can safely say that they had boats to cross the Baltic, that they didn’t trek to Sweden through Russia and Finland.

I had some crude flint scrapers I bought as “Bromme, from Denmark.” Thought the price was reasonable. Maybe I still have a few. It’s been more than a decade. Probably I paid too much.

A different style of stonework, the “Mesolithic,” appeared around 9600 B.C.E. The basic Mesolithic tool was tiny blades glued into shaped wooden or antler handles. Arrows were invented. Around 5300 B.C.E., pottery appeared, the culture named Ertebolle. I’ve seen Ertebolle potsherds for sale from Denmark. Undistinguished, cheap, very old.

There were two Neolithic cultures: the Funnel-beaker culture, starting around 4000 B.C.E.; and the Battle axe culture, beginning around 2800 B.C.E. The technical innovations were polished flint, decorated pottery, megaliths, rock art and herding.

Bronze began to be imported around 1750 B.C.E. Though Sweden has copper deposits, none was mined during the Bronze Age. Northern parts remained in the Stone Age during centuries of metal usage in the south. Iron began to be mined around 500 B.C.E.

Down in central Europe, the iron was brought by Celtic migrant/invaders, who also brought horses. There were no Celts in Sweden that we know of. The Swedish iron was found locally.

Artifacts from the European Bronze and early Iron Ages can be obtained. They usually come from central or eastern Europe. I’ve seen things from France, Germany, Poland, Bulgaria and Ukraine, but not from Sweden. The artifacts exist but are scarce in the market. Many countries restrict or prohibit private ownership of such things. I don’t know what the rules are in Sweden.

The Romans did not engage in any activity in Scandinavia, though perhaps they considered it, and they did know that it was there. Their ventures in Germany reached a northern extreme in 6 C.E. during the reign of Tiberius, when a Roman army was defeated in the Teutoburg Forest a bit north of Osnabruck. By Roman times, Germanic peoples had become the largest ethnic constituency in Germany. The situation is less clear in Scandinavia, though a Germanic element was certainly present by the 4th century C.E. there as well. The other known ethnic group in Scandinavia was the people now known as Sami (when I was a kid, they were referred to as Laps). The first reference to Finns is a Runic word carved on a rock dated to the first century C.E.

Germanic peoples interacted with the Romans in two ways: voluntarily and involuntarily, by which I mean there was independent trading and personal adventuring and war and slavery. Slaves were acquired by predation and voluntary sale of excess family members, the predation being conducted both by Romans and by fellow Germanics. Germanic males were considered valuable as fighters, being generally big and feisty. Germanic women by virtue of many being exotically blond, sturdy and strong. There was also trade conducted, favorite products being amber and furs. And free people, mostly or entirely males, made their way south to get jobs in or related to the Roman military. People from Sweden were in that mix, but there were not that many of them. How do we know? Not many Roman coins to be found in Sweden.

In the 1st through 4th centuries C.E. apparently agriculture spread northward (warming climate), and military and political assemblages gradually got larger. There is evidence of raids from the lower continent along the Swedish coast, and (found in Wikipedia) evidence that the locals were strong enough to bring the raiders to grief. Hilltop forts began to appear, meaning that there were violent characters assembling in large groups and marauding.

Roman coins are actually found on some islands, Gotland in particular. Gotland is a big island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. It is well-placed for trade, has a nice climate for Sweden (Sweden likes to note that it has a milder climate than Norway and Finland) and has the strategic advantages (and disadvantages) of an island. Through quite a few centuries, wealth accumulated on Gotland. Many hoards of coins have been found there.

The mainlanders seemed for a long time to lack respect for coins. Indeed, favored trade items early on were nicely worked bronze cups.

It’s as if they went, “So what do you do with this gold and silver stuff?”

The answer being, of course, “You can buy stuff with it and you can make jewelry. Your wife’s gonna love you more.”

The Swedish response for a number of centuries was, “Let’s talk about these cups and daggers.” They were melting down coins and making their own jewelry.

But while the Roman Empire was aging and getting creaky, the German tribes out there were starting to find coinage useful and were starting to make their own (Celts of course had been making coins for their own use for hundreds of years). If we mosey ahead a few hundred years to, say, 500 C.E., we find that waves of migrants have appeared out of Asia. All kinds of ethnic groups: Huns, Avars, Goths, Slavs. The migrations came from eastern central Asia (probably there was a drought) and proceeded in all directions except north. Generally the migrants eventually encountered agricultural bureaucratic nations using coinage. Frequently the migrants conquered the settled governments. Generally the victors eventually adopted the practices of the conquered and eventually disappeared into them. Thus, we encounter, toward the end of the western Roman Empire and in the following few centuries, all sorts of coinages by migrating entities suddenly possessed of newly conquered cities. Examples are the Hun- and Turk-related coins from northern Pakistan to Kazakhstan, the variously Gothic and later Frankish coins of central Europe, the Saxon coins of England.

Those of us who have found ourselves interested in coins of the European “Dark Ages” know that in the continent the stylistic progression of the coinage was devolved, “barbarous” imitations of Roman coins; then small and compact coins with simple designs in all three coinage metals; then thin, wider coins, almost exclusively in silver. In England they skipped the barbarous imitation stage for the most part, pretty much going straight to the small, dumpy Anglo-Saxon series of thrysmas and sceats, followed by broad and thin silver pennies. Why am I mentioning English practices in an article about Sweden? You’ll see.

While the sophisticates down in England were trading south, were substantially Christian and had kings, and while the Scandinavian Danes were pretty much at that level of organization, up in Sweden it was, in the 8th through 10th centuries C.E., local warlords, mostly pagan and illiterate. They were making their way south to trade and raid, and they were accumulating, among other things, bullion. Most of that bullion was silver. A lot of it was melted down and made into jewelry, but plenty of it was saved as it came and put in the ground. Frequently there were cut chunks of jewelry in the pot. We call it “hacksilver” today. The guy goes off roaming and brings back stuff. He dies, and the hoard stays in the ground until the future. A lot of those hoards are found on Gotland island.

The most common constituent coins of the Dark Ages silver hoards are Islamic dirhams, of which hoards many of the coins are from the Samanids in Afghanistan. And later, pennies, a lot of them from England.

The later coins of the Anglo-Saxon English series includes issues of the Danish invaders. They were the high style of the period and were imitated on the continent and in outlying regions like Ireland (Hiberno-Norse series), Netherlands and Norway. And around the Baltic as well: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Crude and clumsy imitations of Anglo-Saxon coins, found somewhere, issuing authority undetermined. They are found in Sweden. There seem to be a few for sale as I write this. The sellers in Baltic countries.

There was this phenomenon called “the Vikings.” The general idea is that population was increasing in Scandinavia and there got to be an excess of males, too many to inherit whatever there was to pass on to the next generation. They went wandering to seek their fortune. Some of them went down rivers through Russia, where they set up trading posts, one of which eventually became Moscow. In Ukraine Scandinavians, known down there as Varangians, came to control Kiev in the late 9th century. Some of them got all the way to Byzantium and became soldiers in the army. In western Europe the tendency was more in the direction of pillage and rapine. They were generally referred to as Northmen, or Norse. Later on they came to stay in northern France (Normandy) and Ireland, where they gradually took on local cultural traits, among which the use of coinage.

Now we have to talk about Swedes and Geats. They are tribes mentioned in Beowulf, similar in many ways, and probably spoke the same language. Geats were more southerly and westerly, including the island of Gotland. Their territories were described as Gotaland. Swedes were more northerly and easterly, from Stockholm north until Sami territory, in a zone called Svealand. This was the 8th to 12th century. Borders were fluid or nonexistent, and rulers were local and ephemeral. The kingdom of Denmark, separated from modern Swedish territory by a mere 7.5 miles of water, held a good chunk of the southwestern part of Sweden but lost it in modern times, relatively speaking.

So now we get to the conundrum of when can we really start talking about a country called “Sweden,” where that country is today? There was a guy, Olaf, called today Skotkonung (people argue about what that epithet means), ruling, for the first time, both Svealand and Gotaland. His dates of rule were circa 995-1022 C.E. and is called the first Swedish king.

Wikipedia describes a complicated and typically medieval kingly war tale. A previous king of Svealand, Eric the Victorious, a pagan Viking with numerous raids to his, as it were, credit, forced Danish King Sven Forkbeard into exile. Then Eric died. Sven came home in triumph to Denmark. Then he married Eric’s widow. Eric’s son, Olaf, came of age and went out for revenge against his new stepfather. Sven had to leave again. Negotiations ensued, and an understanding was reached. Denmark and Sweden became cooperative allies, doing business instead of pleasure, I mean war. That’s the story – corroborative testimony and evidence from other sources is lacking.

Business at that time was substantially carried on with the aid of silver pennies of high fineness in the English fashion. Olaf was the first person in Sweden to issue coins with his name on them, and the word “REX.” There are several types, really Anglo-Saxon looking, basically copies of Aethelred II but with different legends. They have the mint name on them, Sigtuna, near Stockholm. They are available.

There are big holes in the known history of Olaf Skotkonung’s reign, but it was characterized by fitful and inconclusive wars with his neighbors, intrigues and broken promises regarding dynastic marriages, and internal conflicts. The general picture is of a monarch checked by noble power and popular opinion.

The dynastic puttering around is kind of interesting: King Olaf was related by blood or marriage to everyone it seems: the king of Kievan Rus, the duke of Poland, the Norwegian and Danish royals of course. The marital intrigues included a promise to Norway of a daughter for a royal son, promise broken when that daughter was married to the king of Kievan Rus, remonstrance from Norway, war threatened by Sweden, expressions of outrage from the Swedish people including a public and personal threat to the king’s face to kill him if he did not properly fix the Norway situation, ending with the loose cannon and unknown to the king marriage of another of his daughters to Norway. Olaf has come down to us with three reputations: pleasure loving and negligent as well as haughty and warlike as well as indecisive and ineffectual. Go figure.

Public opinion in Sweden was a factor that was not present on the continent because of the absence of the institution of serfdom. Serfdom arose late in the Roman Empire when an imperial decree declared a permanent military emergency and required everyone to stay where they were, to keep doing their jobs forever, to make sure their descendants did the same thing, and to obey the orders of their local military leaders, the counts (comes) and dukes (dux). They had nobles in Scandinavia, too, but peasants were freeholders rather than servants tied to their lands, and they had some say in things. A major activity of nobles was organizing and leading Viking raids. They had to recruit free people to crew the ships. They couldn’t just order people to do their bidding.

One of the features of medieval European coinages from the 11th century was the introduction at intervals of new types. This was done as a tax collection measure. Various methods of revenue collection were employed. Demonetization or devaluation of the old types was the normal procedure: you had to bring in your old money to exchange for new coins and a fee would be charged, or perhaps taxes had to be paid with the new money. In the medieval context, with difficulty of access of outlying regions, one could expect best compliance with decrees in and around the capital, lesser cooperation farther afield. If one didn’t exactly require cash for business, one might want to hold back the old money for export if favorable circumstances emerged, or perhaps just put it in the ground for some hazy future, which is how we get to see them, the original owners never returning for some reason.

Olaf Skotkonung issued at least four different coin types, all close copies of issues of English king Aethelred II. Perhaps the idea was to get them into the general Scandinavian circulation. Hardly anyone could read the legends on the coins. The recoinage-as-taxation idea was likely not a factor in Sweden (just my guess), nor was Olaf in a tributary relationship with Aethelred. I’m thinking the motive was more like, “Look, I’m a modern king, got my own coinage.” Kind of fits with the available information: weak king trying to appear strong.

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