24a The Anglo Saxon view of the outside world

The Anglo Saxons seem a very insular bunch – what was their view of the outside world, how much interaction did they have? A good deal more than we might suppose.

24a The Anglo Saxon view of the outside World




Offa's imitation Dinars The summary is that Anglo Saxon England has a good deal of contact with the western European seaboard. And that its Kings had relationships as far afield as Rome and the Holy Roman Empire.

But it seems that they had relationships with the Islamic world too. This is a picture of an extraordinary coin – a coin issued by Offa of Mercia very late in the 8th Century for the Pope. It is a copy of an Islamic, Abbasid coin, with the inscription 'there is no god but allah alone’. Hopefully, the Pope couldn't read Arabic. And of course many English left England in 1066 to serve the Byzantine Emperor in the Varangian guard, to escape the Norman tyranny.

Map of the world in 11th Century: the Anglo saxon viewHere also is an 11th century Anglo Saxon map of the world. Louise C of the Historum Forum writes: 'A mappa mundi is a depiction of the world as a place of experiences, of human history, of notions and knowledge. It's more like an encyclopedia. It's certainly not – and was never intended to be – a chart to be followed by travellers.

More than likely, a mappa mundi would have been a conversation piece in a rich man's house. A fashionable – and expensive – ornament to prompt after-dinner discussion. For journeys people needed not maps but travel tineraries, and that is what they had.'

Once you get beyond Byzantium it's clear that even traders would have only hearsay to repeat. None the less, it's pretty clear that Anglo Saxon England was a good deal more connected than you might think.

Trade, and trade with the outside world

Trade was based around the local Burghs or Ports; Edward the Elder specifically ordered in his laws that all trade be done there – no doubt so that he could tax it. Trade would not always have been in coin; while English silver coins were relatively high quality, by no means everyone would have had access to coins, so trade in kind was often the way things were done.

And yet there would of course be lots of stuff not available in the neighbourhood, and Merchants took advantage of this. Merchants faced many obstacles; there was no credit – so all stock had to be bought up front. The roads were rubbish, so rivers were preferred where possible. If travelling by road, good protection was a must against the robbers and brigands.

Despite all of this, there is lots of evidence of trade throughout the period. By the 11th Century towns have grown; all numbers are very approximate, but London the biggest probably 10-12,000, York 8,000, Norwich and Lincoln 5,000, Thetford 4,000, Oxford 3,500. Coastal towns with a large amount of external trade – such as Ipswich and Southampton were probably about 1-1,500.

As to what exactly got traded with whom and in what quantity, the evidence is painfully slight. But here are a few things.

External trade

Good old Bede in the 8th Century talks about sending to Gaul for Glassmakers, and the Abbot of Monkwearmouth did the same in 756. There are over 300 glass items in graves from there period, which indicates considerable trade. Most glass came from the Northern Gaul or Rhineland, and there's a grave in Sussex with a vessel from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Swords also sometimes came from the Rhineland – Raedwald's sword at Sutton Hoo, for example. In the same burial, cowry shells, amethyst beads and bronze vessels from Coptic Egypt show similar evidence of widespread trade at this early point.

In the 8th Century, the quality of English coinage indicates strong external trade. Offa has a dispute with Charlemagne, and as a result Charlemagne temporarily banned English merchants from the ports of Northern Gaul, and Offa reciprocated. So clearly there's enough trade to make a ban painful. Later in the correspondance, Offa agreed to ensure that English woollen cloaks traded with France remained the same length – so we are exporting garments, then.

We know that trade with Scadninavia, Frisia and the Rhineland is strong throughout the period, from pottery items found in burials and quernstones. Frisian and Scandinavian traders were probably the biggest carriers of trade, but we do know that there were English carriers too – an 8th century charter exempts the Bishop of Worcester's two ships from duties, for example. And we now that the English had at least some share of trade with the Mediterranean. in 1027, Cnut negotiates hard with the Emperor and Pope to get a good deal for English traders.

What did England produce for home use and export?

  • England produced Iron for use locally and probably abroad, from mines in the Forest of Dean and Kent.
  • Cheese was exported to Flanders
  • Pottery, especially in Stamford and Thetford
  • Textiles were probably exported – those woollen cloaks, the skills that produced the Bayeux tapestry (made in England).
  • Salt making was an important industry around the Wash, the coast of Sussex and in Cheshire
  • Lead and silver) was produced in Derbyshire
  • Fishing was important for many coastal towns – particularly Dunwich, Southwold and Yarmouth

The oldest and most obvious trade was in Slaves. It's not just the Vikings that raided England for slaves; the Anglo Saxons raided the celtish lands such as Wales and Cornwall and took slaves. Bristol was a centre for slave trading, as it was to be in it's later history, sending slaves to Ireland. William of Malmesbury wrote:

'You might well groan to see then long rows of young men and maidens whose beauty and youth might move the pity of the savage, bound together with cords, and brought to market to be sold.'

Slave trading was banned at the Council of Westminster in 1102. But it's clear that for the Anglo Saxons it would have been an important part of the their external trade.

The evidence that England was a wealthy trading nation is there in the vast gelds paid to the Danes, and in the continuingly high quality of the English coinage. But it's difficult to see more than glimpses of how that wealth was generated.

10 thoughts on “24a The Anglo Saxon view of the outside world

  1. Interesting topic. Here’s a follow-up question. Just how much trade did England have with the rest of the world and what were the commodities?
    I’m especially interested in where all the gold they used to pay off the Danes and Vikings came from.

  2. Hi Pete – thanks for the question; I’ve updated the post above to include what I know ! As ever, what we don’t know is far outweighed by the snippets of information we do have.

  3. Thanks for dedicating a whole podcast to the subject! Really interesting stuff there, completely blew my assupmtions apart with regards to how much interaction there was and how far a field!
    The coin sent to the pope had me laughing out loud while listening on earphones outside, luckily no one around to see me!

  4. Hi Thomas – well it was only a short podcast ! It was a good question though, I enjoyed looking into it. The coin thing made me laugh too. I really hope nobody told him …

  5. Ah yes, the notorious Allah coin…always a crowd pleaser to students! In fairness, from what I have read. it was probably not an oversight or goof-up, but a reasonably familiar coinage in the markets of the west. Still ironic, though!

    1. Interesting – I should read more; you think the coins would be reasonably well known?

  6. David, I’ll dig out the stuff I read an send you the cites (I am not even CLOSE to qualified to have an opinion!) I understand that “deep in the weeds” scholarship on AS coinage is flourishing, much new information in the past 10-20 years, and that the story of the Allah coin as a screw-up or insult is probably a modern anachronistic take on it…I think I recall something about similar Moorish coinage being used throughout the West in markets, probably moving up from Spain and Italy, and being copied. But who knows?

      1. P.S., Forgot to include the cite…oops! Episode231 – Anglo Saxon Economics and Money with Professor Rory Naismith
        by Jamie on February 11, 2017 You know he BHP already.

        BTW, I e-mailed Prof. Naismith after I listened to the show to thank him, and got a very nice response. Seems a very open and affable bloke, extremely knowledgeable, and not at all stuffy.

  7. David, check out Jamie’s interview last year at Cambridge specialist in AS coinage and economics. They talk about the “Offa” coin starting around 40 minutes in. Obviously, it’s a bit more detailed discussion than appropriate for your format, but I think you’ll be interested…the whole interview is really good.
    I see we’re now getting to old Henry Tydder now in THoE,one of my personal “love to hate ’em” villains, but on the other hand: it’s about time the Welsh got some innings! I’m looking forward to it, but I’m a ways off, yet: just starting your tour through the Plantagenet. It’s a treat to be here!

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