Icelandic Saga Money

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During the medieval era the Icelanders were among the most literary people in Europe and left a written record in sagas that mirrored the manners, morals, and practices of their time. These sagas tell of blood feuds resolved with the payment of rings, usually silver rings, and of a monetary standard of cloth.

The cloth was called wadmal, spun from sheep wool and woven on handlooms. Virtually every Icelandic farm had the wherewithal to make its own wadmal. Values, including taxes, were expressed in units of wadmal, a piece of cloth 1 ell long and 2 wide. An ell was approximately the length of an arm.

Wadmal came in two standard qualities, a plain white cloth that carried the least value, and brown or brown-striped cloth that traded at a higher value. The term wadmal continued into the modern period as a measure of value for land. Early evidence shows that 120 ells of wadmal equaled 1/3 mark of silver, but after 1280 cloth had appreciated to 96 ells of wadmal to 1/3 mark of silver. The term mark, the monetary unit of account in modern Germany, originally referred to a length of cloth, but evolved into a measure of a certain weight of silver.

Large transactions brought into play metal rings, mainly silver and gold rings in later times. One account describes them as massy rings of gold with other rings hanging from them, suggesting that they were not intended to be worn on the finger. In Icelandic sagas rich persons generous with their wealth were ring givers, or breakers or scatterers of rings. In the Icelandic epic, Burnt Nial, the hero was known as “He that lavisheth rings in largesse,” a reference to his generosity. Those who despised wealth were described as haters of rings. Before the arrival of silver and gold, segments of spiraled rings of metal were cut off, weighed, and passed as money.

References to chiefs or heroes distributing rings as acts of generosity can be found in the English medieval epic, Beowulf, and in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Ring money figures largely in the monetary history of Denmark and Sweden.