‘Dark Ages’: Commerce

Trade was greatly disrupted by the end of Roman rule, when the monetary economy collapsed; coinage only came back into use about two centuries later. The growth of towns in the 10th century prompted what has been called ‘the first industrial revolution’.

Old Sarum, Wiltshire, where a mint was established in the 11th century

Old Sarum, Wiltshire, where a mint was established in the 11th century

TIN AND SLAVES

Commerce in England declined dramatically after the collapse of Roman imperial rule. Two products, however, were always in demand. Cornish tin was probably bartered for Mediterranean luxuries, and evidence of the latter (in the form of pottery and glass) has been discovered at Tintagel Castle. And throughout the period there was a thriving trade in slaves.

Irish slavers first carried the Briton St Patrick to their homeland, and Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) famously encountered Anglian boys in a late 6th-century Roman slave-market. The most highly organised slavers of the period were the Vikings, who operated a major market for Irish slaves at Chester.

The Church did not object to the slave trade in principle at this time, discouraging only the export of Christian slaves to pagan lands.

Decorated Saxon comb made out of bone, found at Wharram Percy deserted medieval village

This decorated bone comb, dating from 650–850, was found at Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village, North Yorkshire. Wharram Percy may have been the site of an annual Saxon market, where goods like this would have been sold.

WICS AND BURHS

Eighth-century commerce was concentrated in ‘wics’, trading camps on the coast or around navigable estuaries. The most important were Hamwic, near Southampton, Gippeswic (Ipswich), Eoforwic (York) and above all Lundenwic.

When Viking raids later made wics unusable, commerce retreated to the fortified burhs established during the wars of King Alfred. Under royal protection, trade was easier to tax. Most burhs became market towns, and Alfred’s son Edward the Elder decreed that none should buy or sell outside them.

Before the Viking wars, there were only a handful of towns; by 1066, there were more than 100.

CURRENCY

Many burhs – including Lydford Saxon Town in Devon – also housed mints producing that basic aid to commerce, coinage.

Coins had gone out of use in the early 5th century. English kings began to mint them again in about 600, at first in gold and then from about 675 in silver, which was much more useful as it enabled lower value transactions. King Offa of Mercia (r.757–96) was the first to produce the standard silver penny. These coins bore the monarch’s name (and generally his portrait), together with that of the local moneyer who struck them and guaranteed their purity.

Coins were also minted by the Danish settlers of northern and eastern England.

A gold coin minted at Old Sarum, Wiltshire, bearing the name of King Æthelred  (r.978–1016). The coin was discovered in Sweden, suggesting that it may have been paid to the Danes as tribute money or Danegeld.

A gold coin minted at Old Sarum, Wiltshire, bearing the name of King Æthelred (r.978–1016). Thousands of these coins have been discovered in southern Scandinavia, exported in bulk as ‘Danegeld’ (tax) paid to hostile Viking armies in the late 10th century.
© Royal Coin Cabinet, Stockholm/Gaberiel Hildebrand

VIKING TRADE

For Vikings, coins were a usefully portable form of loot. The Lancashire Cuerdale hoard, buried in about 905 and the largest ever found in Britain (40kg of silver), included some 7,000 coins. About 5,000 of these were minted in Danish England and 1,000 in English England, while 1,000 came from continental Europe and Arab lands.

The Vikings were international traders as well as pirates, though, and Danish settlers were quick to establish fortified market ‘boroughs’ of their own in eastern England.

The most important was Jorvik (York), apart from Dublin the greatest metropolis of the western Scandinavian world. Extensive excavation there has shown that it soon expanded beyond its old Roman walls.

This 7th–9th-century enamelled copper end for a leather strap was discovered in excavations at Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village. An extremely versatile metal, copper was used for a wide variety of objects from clasps and jewellery to bowls and drinking vessels.

This 7th–9th-century enamelled copper end for a leather strap was discovered in excavations at Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village. An extremely versatile metal, copper was used for a wide variety of objects from clasps and jewellery to bowls and drinking vessels.

TOWNS AND CRAFTSMEN

Skilled crafts, such as fine metalwork, had long been nurtured by kings and the Church, but only for prestigious gifts or altar adornments. In the 10th century the growth of towns resulted in an increased demand and with it concentrations of craftsmen sharing ideas and spaces to work.

Towns like Stamford started mass-producing wheel-thrown and kiln-fired pottery. York craftsmen produced timber barrels and bowls, and bone and horn combs and knife-handles. Leatherworkers, cloth-dyers and coppersmiths set up workshops, and even blacksmiths and armourers came to work in the new commercial hubs.

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