The Germanic peoples were traders as much as or more than they were raiders. The Sutton Hoo ship burial includes both Anglo-Saxon jewelry in which garnets had been cut and fitted in imitation of eastern enamelwork and exotic imports including a huge Byzantine platter that would have been over a century old when buried, and an Italian silver dish whose ornamentation suggests it may be late Roman. An East Anglian king in the first half of the seventh century thus had considerable treasure that demonstrates trade contacts with the eastern Mediterranean.

In fact it is common to date Germanic graves by the foreign coins they contain as much as by the style of the native objects. Viking hoards commonly contain a wealth of foreign coins along with the silver rings that were commonly used for cash at home.

The silver itself was imported from the Danube and also from the Far East via the Silk Road, which went ultimately as far as China. Silk, spices, and jewelry also came in from the East; the best swords were made in German areas, but used carbon steel imported from what are now Afghanistan and Iran. Wine, glass, and pottery were imported from Southern and Western Europe. Slaves were both imported and exported; other goods the Germanic peoples exported were overwhelmingly raw materials, such as furs, feathers and down, sealskins, walrus ivory, amber from the Baltic, iron ore, and tin from Cornwall. But salt fish was also exported, and before the Norman Conquest, English embroidery was renowned. (Graham-Campbell 78, and map p. 79)

Sometime after 700 C.E., this appetite for trade led the Scandinavians to start founding towns that are the templates for the modern western city, based on economics rather than a ruler's residence. They seem to have evolved out of seasonal market centers with booths, and in some cases, such as Kaupang, there is disagreement about whether a town truly came to exist. They were all centers for craftsmen as well as traders.

In the first decade of the eighth century, Ribe was established on the west coast of the Jutland peninsula in Denmark, at a confluence of land and water routes, and developed into a permanent town. Its craftsmen specialized in jewelry. By the second half of the ninth century, it was the most important trading center in Scandinavia. It is Denmark's oldest city and the only Scandinavian town in continuous occupation since the seventh century; but the town center had shifted across the river by the end of the Viking Age, to a better defended location.

In the mid-eighth century, Birka was founded on an island in Lake Mälaren, which was then open to the sea (Stockholm would later be established 30 km away, on the coast). It was a jumping off point for trade with the East; the name is a Latin version of a word for "marketplace" and the Old Swedish name for the town is unknown. It was abandoned in the tenth century, superseded by Sigtuna.

Sometime before 770, Aarhus (Old Danish Arus, Old Norse Áróss) was founded on the east coast of Jutland, presumably as a trading center. It remained small until the twentieth century but is now a large city.

In about 770, Hedeby was founded at the base of the Jutland peninsula, where its fortifications were integrated into the Danevirke; it became the largest Scandinavian city (although it was destroyed and abandoned in 1066 and the site is now in Germany). It is across a tidal inlet from Schleswig, which was founded soon after and used to be connected to it by bridges; that town has remained in continuous occupation and given its name to Schleswig-Holstein.

In about 780, Kaupang was founded in Vestfold in Norway, at the head of an inlet where a sheltered harbor allowed ship repair and loading. In the eighth century it was Norway's largest trading center, with about 1,000 people; it was probably the first significant town in the country, although some believe it remained seasonal. Ohthere calls it Sciringesheal, Skiringssal in Norse. It was abandoned early in the tenth century.

Dublin was founded in about 841.

After 866, York was also a Viking trading town, as Jórvík. When the Danelaw was established in 954, the Scandinavian kingdom of which it was the center became once more part of England, but it retained its own laws until after the Norman Conquest. By 1000 it was the second largest city in England. The largest was London, which had been a great trading center under the Romans and had begun to re-establish itself in that role starting in the seventh century.

Map created by Briangotts, Wikimedia Commons

The Volga trade route (in red) and the Trade Route from the Varangians to the Greeks (in purple). Other trade routes of the 8th-11th centuries shown in orange.

[1. Varangian Trade Routes map image from]


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