30 April 2014
Historian Marianne Vedeler explores the many trade routes for silk and how its production and trade were organised in the ninth and tenth centuries. ...
The precious and rare silk finds from the Viking Age are an expression of plurality, of cultural meetings and of change. From the hands of producers and tradesmen from a variety of places and cultures, silk products found their way even to the Viking lands of the far north. People over a large part of the world used similar products for different purposes and interpreted them with varied meanings.
SILK ALONG THE GREAT RUSSIAN RIVERS
Silk may have been brought northwards along different routes. One of these went from Scandinavia through Central Europe and onwards to the production areas of the East. Still, it can be argued that the main trade routes for silk probably went along the Russian rivers.
A general growth of urban settlements with strong connections to Scandinavia emerged both in the Baltic countries and in Russia and the state of Great Moravia between the 7th and 9th centuries. Scandinavian merchants travelled through the newly established Rus areas in the 9th and 10th centuries and people of several ethnic origins brought goods through these areas to the Viking lands.
From the Rus northern strongholds you could either travel southwards, sailing along Dnepr to the Black Sea and finally reach Constantinople, or you could go further east, along the river Volga to the trading hub of Bulghar connecting the northern trade with the northern silk roads to Central Asia and China.
SILK FOR THE RICH AND MIGHTY
Silk from the Viking Age has so far been found only in high status graves in Scandinavia. The medieval sagas also refer to silk as a sign of high social status. It is therefore likely that silk was used as a status marker and a strengthener of authority in the Viking world.
Some of the oldest silk textiles found in Viking graves were excavated in the Oseberg ship burial. Here, a variety of textiles were found in the burial chamber of two women buried in the early 9th century. The silks found here were produced in two main areas. The majority probably came from Persia. The other main area of production was Byzantium, meaning in and around Miklagard, which was the Vikings’ name for present-day Istanbul.
From a preserved negotiation agreement between Rus and the Byzantine emperor dated to the year c.945, we learn that if a Rus merchant lost a slave on Byzantine territory he could be compensated by the payment of two pieces of silk per slave.
Even if we do know neither the size nor the quality of these pieces of silk, it becomes clear that silk represented significant monetary values.
In the Orient, silk was essential for symbolizing power and strength. There was an entire hierarchy of different silk qualities and patterns reserved for civil servants and royalty. Both production and trade were therefore strictly regulated. In Constantinople, restrictions were imposed on the sale of silk to foreign lands. Most likely, the bulk of the silk imported to Scandinavia was of medium or below-medium quality.
The use of silk fabrics as status markers in the production areas as well as in Scandinavia indicates an exchange of knowledge about the silk value, both economically and culturally. Knowledge of social, aesthetic and economic value of silk must have been communicated across ethnic boundaries through economic interaction.
MORE: Viking Scotland map
Professor Marianne Vedeler is the author new book, Silk for the Vikings, published by Oxbow books, which takes a closer look at the trade routes and the organization of production, trade and consumption of silk during the Viking Age.
(Image copyright Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo)