By Sirpa Aalto
Mirator, Vol.10:1 (2009)
Abstract: This article deals with passages in the Kings’ sagas that have to do with trade, commercial travel and hospitality as an institution. Passages concerning commercial travel do not play a major role in the Kings’ sagas, but can provide information about the trade activities of Norwegians and Icelanders in the High Middle Ages. The article argues that trade and hospitality were inseparable until the High Middle Ages; merchants had to visit the emporium in the role of guest in order to have the protection of the local chieftain or lord.
Introduction: The works written about trade in Scandinavia in the Viking Age and in the Middle Ages cover almost everything one can think of: merchandise, merchants, trade routes, vessels, emporia etc. However, quantitative methods are difficult to apply in this field of study due to lack of sources. This does not mean that trade cannot be studied at all; laws and sagas written down before the end of the thirteenth century reveal details about trade. The problem is how to pose questions in order to get answers. Trade can be studied, for example, as a social contact between people. Communicative situations between locals and foreign merchants are particularly interesting, from a number of perspectives: the manner in which the trade itself was conducted, how foreigners were received, hospitality as part of trade, which laws or regulations concerned trade.
When it comes to the contemporary sources, the Kings’ sagas in general say very little about these matters, which is due to the nature of the sagas: they depict first and foremost the internal feuds in Norway and lives of the Norwegian kings. There are, however, very few other sources to be used. Despite the sporadic nature of the accounts concerning trade and hospitality in the Kings’ sagas, the following information can be found: the foreign merchants mentioned in the sources are usually Germans, Englishmen or Danes, which is probably representative of trade relations at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and maybe earlier. Both foreign merchants in Norway and Norwegian merchants abroad sometimes had conflicts with the locals, the reasons for which vary. The tradition of hospitality, continuous since the Viking Age, was part of the trading business. The merchants bought their status and personal integrity in a foreign country by giving gifts (later taxes) to the ruler. We have no direct examples of this in the sagas but giving precious gifts is described as a part of hospitality and the strengthening of friendship. As such, trade relations depicted in the Kings’ sagas can provide information about the kinds of contacts Icelanders and Norwegians had with foreigners, and their encounters with the otherness of these foreigners.