What was the cost to hire an entire Viking army?

In the Viking Age, if you saw this from a distance, you were about to have the worst day of your life. Of course these guys are friendly since their shields are still in place. Courtesy of Adobe Stock.

A large contingent of trained, well armed warriors could hire themselves out as mercenaries for a nice wage during the Viking age.  Vikings at War by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike gives us a specific example.

Edmund Ringson reached a good deal with Prince Jaroslav in Novgorod back in 1016.

Jaroslav needed to defend himself from his brother, who had already killed off a few other brothers.

Edmund, having been exiled, had 600 warriors with him.

Let’s look at their one year deal.

Prince Jaroslav would provide a great hall for the company, which obviously means provide housing for all the troops.

He would also provide all the food they wanted, with the description in the book of “the best provisions.”

So up to this point the Prince essentially agreed to provide all the living costs for a year since near-subsistence farmers spent essentially all their time providing themselves and their family food and shelter.

The serious part of the wages were one ounce of silver per man per month. Ship captains would get an extra half ounce per month. I will add my wild guess that Edmund got a multiple of the base; I will assume 10 ounces of silver per month.

Another interesting feature of the comp package is that Edmund agreed the pay could be in kind with beaver or sable furs accepted for payment, with the caveat that Edmund was allowed to determine the value of any furs.

Let’s look at that package in terms of total cost for the army and the pay for one warrior.

Pay for army:

Here is the total package:

  • 7,200 oz – 1 oz/month x 12 mo x 600 soldiers – base pay
  • 120 oz – 0.5 oz x 12 x 20 ship captain, assuming 30 men per ship
  • 120 oz – 10 oz x 12 x 1 commander
  • 7,440 oz – total of silver, or equivalent in furs (as valued by Edmund)

In addition, Yaroslav built housing, which I’ll assume was several halls in order to lodge 600 warriors.  He also provide plenty of food for the 600 soldiers to eat for a year.

Oh, and they got a share of any booty from battle.

So how did each of the warriors fare from this deal?

For a year’s service, plus travel time there and on to their next ‘work location’, they each were paid:

  • Housing for a year
  • Sufficient food for a year
  • 12 ounces of silver, with nice furs as substitute for silver

Ship captains would have walked away with food and housing for a year plus 18 ounces of silver.

For context, most people in Scandinavia worked all year for somewhat above subsistence, meaning most families had a small amount of surplus production with which they might buy an extra cow or some extra land.

A Norse ounce of silver at the time was 26.5 grams. Today we measure a troy ounce at 31.1 grams.

Furthermore, the books says this was at a time when either a cow or slave could be bought for 2 grams of silver. I don’t buy that price for cows, since everything else I’ve seen suggests about 2 ounces of silver for a cow. That is a difference by a factor of 13.

Since I’m an accountant, I’ll makes some more calculations:

. warrior ship captain
pay per month, in ounces          1.0             1.5
pay per year, in ounces        12.0           18.0
grams per ounce        26.5           26.5
pay per year, in grams      318.0         477.0
equivalent troy ounces (today)        10.2           15.3
troy pounds today          0.9             1.3
avoirdupois pounds today          0.7             1.1
price of cow at the time, grams silver, assuming author’s amount          2.0             2.0
pay after food & lodging expressed in cows      159.0         238.5

Like I said earlier, I don’t agree with that indicator of 2 grams for a cow. I think 2 ounces is more likely an accurate price.

That means after having been provided food and lodging for a year, which is essentially comparable to a year’s earnings for a farmer, the warriors would have this much wealth to take with them:

. Warrior Ship captain
Norse ounces of silver for year’s pay 12 18
Cost of cow 2 2
Pay after food & lodging expressed in cows 6 9

A warrior would have enough to buy 6 cows. A ship captain would have enough to buy about 9 cows. The surviving Vikings would be quite rich.

That was at time when one extra cow could mean the difference between surviving until the spring thaw or your family dying of starvation during the long, harsh winter months.


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