When Vik­ings didn’t rely on mo­bile money trans­fers

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Har­aldr Hardrade – known in English texts as Har­ald III Sig­urds­son, with the ep­i­thet “the Ruth­less” – was said to be a strong-willed and bru­tal guy. He was Nor­way’s king from 1046 un­til he was killed in the Bat­tle of Stam­ford Bridge in 1066. Mur­der and bribery no doubt con­trib­uted to his hold on power. He liked to sur­round him­self with oth­ers of the same tough cal­i­bre – and then some. This story can be found in the Old Norse kings’ saga ‘Morkinnskinna’:

The Ice­lander Hall­dorr Snor­res­son was one of the tough­est men in the king’s army, a faith­ful and long-serv­ing war­rior in Byzan­tine, with lives on his con­science. On the eighth day of Christmas, the soldiers were to re­ceive their wages in the form of the king’s sil­ver coins. But around this time the coins were al­ready be­ing minted with a large pro­por­tion of cop­per.

Hall­dorr held his pay on a flap of his cloak. The sil­ver coins didn’t look pure. With a swipe of his other hand, he scorn­fully scat­tered them all onto the ground and said,

“Why should I serve the king any longer when I don’t re­ceive my pay­ment in pure sil­ver?”

Hall­dorr re­fused the king’s coins. He wanted real sil­ver, but it didn’t help that other ser­vants of the king ac­cepted the coins as pay­ment. Nor was Hall­dorr swayed by warn­ings that the king would see it as an in­sult if his long-time ser­vant did not ac­cept the coins.

“Never have I been so de­ceit­ful dur­ing my ser­vice to him, as he was when he paid me,” Hall­dorr told Bard, the king’s en­voy.

Bard brought this mes­sage to King Har­ald and asked for Hall­dorr to re­ceive pay­ment in the form of “good sil­ver”. The king ini­tially thought that this was un­rea­son­able, but Bard then asked if Hall­dorr’s courage, their long friend­ship and the king’s gen­eros­ity were not rea­sons enough to make an ex­cep­tion. At the same time he re­minded the king of Hall­dorr’s “con­tentious dis­po­si­tion,” which prob­a­bly meant some­thing quite dif­fer­ent at that time than it usu­ally does now. “Give him the sil­ver,” said Har­ald the Ruth­less. One of Nor­way’s strong­est rulers ac­ceded to Hall­dorr’s de­mands. But why did he in­sist so ve­he­mently, when it could have cost him his life? Didn’t he trust the king and his cur­rency?

Hall­dorr was a for­eigner in Nor­way. He was re­turn­ing to Ice­land, ac­cord­ing Jon An­ders Ris­vaag, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Nor­we­gian Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (NTNU) Univer­sity Mu­seum.

Ris­vaag is the mu­seum’s nu­mis­ma­tist, or cur­rency ex­pert, and be­lieves he may un­der­stand the rea­son for the Vik­ing’s aver­sion to the king’s im­pure coins. Money has al­ways been de­pen­dent on two things.

“You need con­fi­dence in the pay­ment method and a cen­tral power ap­pa­ra­tus that can guar­an­tee it,” says Ris­vaag.

From early times, a coin’s value was linked to the amount of pre­cious metal in it. For­eign sil­ver coins were used in Nor­way long be­fore mint­ing started there in 995, and the sil­ver con­tent was more than 90%.

But un­der King Har­ald, coins were minted with steadily less sil­ver, down to as lit­tle as 30%. This was a way for the king and his ad­min­is­tra­tion to save and earn money. At the same time, the cen­tral author­ity would guar­an­tee that these coins were worth as much as be­fore.

The king’s word was per­haps good enough in Nor­way, and there the money could read­ily be used as a means of pay­ment. The king him­self vouched for the coins’ le­git­i­macy de­spite the de­creased sil­ver con­tent, and his power ap­pa­ra­tus made sure that the peo­ple fol­lowed the king’s de­crees. Big protes­ta­tions weren’t a good idea, ei­ther.

But once back home in Ice­land, Hall­dorr couldn’t count on peo­ple to ac­cept coins with lesser amounts of the pre­cious metal. There it was weight of the sil­ver that mat­tered, not the king and his peo­ple far away on the main­land.

So what does this mean for us to­day? Quite a lot, ac­tu­ally. Trust and power are still the ba­sis for a cur­rency’s value.

When you sell tick­ets to sup­port the school band and ac­cept an elec­tronic money trans­fer as pay­ment, you’ve ac­tu­ally as­sessed the sit­u­a­tion in the same way Hall­dorr did. The dif­fer­ence is that you ar­rived at a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion – you trust that the trans­ac­tion will go through with no prob­lems. Which is usu­ally the case.

Nor­we­gian au­thor­i­ties have de­cided that the Nor­we­gian krone (NOK) is le­gal ten­der in Nor­way, where you even trust the banks as in­ter­me­di­aries, and the banks can no longer just fail. State power and guar­an­tees sup­port the law.

Phys­i­cal cash has largely dis­ap­peared and re­placed by num­bers in our ac­counts.

That might beg the ques­tion whether we lose any­thing by ex­clu­sively re­ly­ing on elec­tronic money trans­fers?

Ris­vaag doesn’t think so. “We’ve al­ready lost any­thing that could have been lost. This is sim­ply an ex­ten­sion of dis­con­nect­ing from phys­i­cal means of pay­ment. It’s a nat­u­ral de­vel­op­ment,” he said.

Coins and ban­knotes are on their way out. There aren’t nearly as many phys­i­cal means of pay­ment as there is money in the world.

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