The Development of Merchant Identity in Viking-Age and Medieval Scandinavia
By Lars Christian Benthien
MA Thesis, University of Iceland, 2017
Introduction: The medieval era in Scandinavia was not a time defined exclusively by violence, as popular histories so often remind us. The scholarship of the period has long sought to problematize the Romantic notion of a heroic, martial Viking Age, drawing attention to the greater nuances and complexities of the interplays of power and law, gender and sexualities, technologies and trade that characterized early Scandinavian society. Where a hundred years before the field had been completely dominated by discussion of “great men” and under the sway of the Whiggish notion of a progression towards the goal of the establishment of the modern Scandinavian states, it is now scarcely possible to find a study upon which this social-historical turn in the scholarship has not left some impression.
Histories now abound on the rise of Christianity and its collusion with the early kingships to produce the later medieval Scandinavian states, and the social milieus of all the stock characters of medieval Scandinavia – the martial lord and his retainers, the bishops and his priests, the free farmer and his household – have all been studied in extensive depth, with the exception of one figure: the merchant. As often as the wares of the medieval Scandinavian merchant are displayed in museums, and as often as their activities figure in studies of economic history, the identities, ideologies and cultural conceptions of the merchants themselves remain infrequently studied.
What, precisely, did a medieval or premedieval Scandinavian merchant do? What were the expectations placed upon them, and how did they figure into the broader society of the medieval Nordic world? They do not fit neatly into the old trifunctional model of prehistoric European societies as initially proposed by Georges Dumézil, nor do they have a place in the traditional historiographical model of the medieval “feudal economy” (whatever we may take that to mean.)