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.
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.
Here 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.
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.