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The Low Countries and the Northern Seas

Book Contribution - Chapter

The Low Countries of northwestern Europe in the early medieval period occupied a crucial position as a hinge between the advanced production and rich elites of the Frankish Kingdom and the maritime realms of the Baltic. In the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. The inhabitatants of this region were maritime actors in the exchange of goods and ideas from the different corners of Europe. Ohthere would have encountered them in the large ports of trade in the river deltas of the Rhine, Meuse and Schelde rivers.
The trade centre of Dorestad near Utrecht in the Netherlands is the most important of these early port towns. Between the late 7th and the middle of the 9th century, Dorestad became probably the most extensive, well-developed and intensively populated trade port of the contemporary northern world. It was a hub in the early-medieval trade network that connected Scandinavia with Gaul and England with Central Europe. Dorestad comprised at least dozens if not hundreds of jetties for ships to dock. The range of goods went from prestigious small scale ornamental objects (coloured glass, tesserae for mosaics, amber, silver and gold ingots) to bulk commodities like amphora and quernstones from the Mayen region in the Rhineland. Wine was traded extensively to other centers along the North Sea, likely in the so-called Reliefband amphorae or in large wooden barrels.
Centres like Dorestad as well as Quentovic in northern France, among others, are regarded as the first new towns in Northern Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. None of these new towns succeeded Roman town sites, with the exception of Cologne on the Rhine. They instead seem to have been connected with networks controlled by the aristocracy and royalty of the 8th and 9th centuries. Research has long focussed on luxury items, with the interpretation that the emporia were centres of elite gift-exchange, where the aristocracy controlled the social and political distribution of these prestigious items. Today, it is clear that large quantities of everyday bulk goods were also traded here. The trade of quern stones, lead, copper alloys, antler combs, wool and woollen cloth, raw iron and ceramics in the North Sea basin and beyond shows a vibrant economy of production and exchange - much less self-sufficient than researchers once believed.
In the last 15 years, new archaeological research has shown that the network of the production and trade settlements was more complex than previously understood, and many more people had access to luxurious commodities. Imported and/or luxurious goods that were once thought to occur only in the large new ports also appear at rural sites in the Low Countries, Great Britain and Scandinavia. A range of large and small private and public markets and local trade centres existed in between the large ports, ranging from coastal free farmers' settlements, aristocratic and non-aristocratic rural estates to smaller ports, for instance near abbeys with craft production.
The network of these new northwestern European urban centres in the 8th and 9th centuries North Sea basin was also connected to the trade of human 'goods' - slaves - exchanged for silver and other commodities originating from the Byzantine territories and neighbouring caliphates. We may ask indeed if this input of silver bullion by the contemporaries of Ohthere was an important stimulus to the development of exchange in crafted and bulk products in the Frankish Low Countries.
Book: The World in the Viking Age
Pages: 34-35
Number of pages: 2
Publication year:2014
Keywords:Vikings, Trade, Low Countries