Another guess at value of a sword and other defensive armament circa seventh century.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is viking-weapons-adobe.jpeg

Viking weapons and armors set. Viking warrior equipment. Sword, axe, spear, pike, bow, arrows helmet shield. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

A big part of what you see on this blog is me slowly putting together pieces of information about ancient finances. As I come across tidbits providing insight to ancient days, you can watch me gradually build my knowledge.

Several years ago I came across some references to prices of defensive armament back in the seventh century or so, but got stumped when trying to sort out the valuations expressed in terms of gold pieces. A reader explain why I was confused and got me back on track. So, I’ll take the next feeble step in my learning journey.

Think back to your high school algebra class when your teacher told you to show your work. That’s what I will do. This allows you to check my logic and math. You can also assess my assumptions for yourself. You can then modify my calculations if you have different assumptions, such as for the value of gold in the Middle Ages.

Ancient pricing

Mentioned in my post Cost of weapons in Northern Europe in mid 7th century the book Vikings at War book by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike provided some pricing information from the 7th-century Frankish legal text, Lex Ribuaria (or Ripuaria)

The lawbook provided the following prices when restitution was necessary:

  • Chainmail coat – 12 solidi
  • Helmet – 6 solidi
  • Sword – 3 solidi
  • Sword and scabbard – 7 solidi (the premium of 4 solidi for merely a simple scabbard doesn’t make sense relative to the extensive, specialized work needed to create a sword)
  • Shield and spear – 2 solidi

The first assumption I’m going to make is these prices have some validity in relation to the Viking era. Although there is around three centuries difference in time frame, inflation was not as severe an issue then as now. The bigger issue is prices in Frankia would be lower than the prices in Scandinavia due to the transportation costs involved, which were far higher than than they are today.

Another assumption is those restitution prices have a strong correlation to actual market prices of the items.

I’m going to assume the two different prices for sword compared to sword & scabbard reflect two dramatically different levels of quality. A scabbard is minor compared to the value of a sword.

Convert prices to gold content

Confusion in my post Can’t make sense of one indicator of price of sword during Viking age arose because the gold content of a Frankish solidus was different than the gold found in a Byzantine solidus.

Reader Peter Bone helpfully provided the following comment on 2/8/21, which I will quote:

“Part of the problem is that the Franks used the term solidus (a Byzantine gold coin weighing 1/72 of a Roman lb- so about 4.5 grams) to refer to a smaller gold coin (tremissis or triens in Latin) worth 1/3 of a solidus (about 1.5 grams of gold). The usual exchange rate for gold and silver in the 4th-10th century was 1:12. So a Frankish “solidus” is worth 12 silver deniers (or pennies, for Anglo-Saxons) weighing about 1.5 grams. The Roman (and Frankish, and Anglo-Saxon) lb had 12 ounces, each worth 20 deniers/pennies.”

Thanks Peter!

How I convert Peter’s comments:

  • Frank solidus or tremissis or triens = 1.5 gram of gold = 12 silver pennies
  • Byzantine solidus = 4.5 grams of gold = 1/72 of Roman pound
  • 3 Frankish solidus = 1 Byzantine solidus

Now I can keep working.

First, a few comments about measuring precious metals. The troy system is used when measuring precious metals.  One troy ounce has 31.103 gram.

Here in the United States when thinking of weights we naturally go to the avoirdupois weight system. An avoirdupois ounce has 28.3496 grams.

So, a Frankish solidus would have 1.5 grams of gold, or 0.0482 troy ounces.

Next step is to convert solidi into grams and ounces:

conversion ratio 1.5 31.103
solidi grams troy oz.
chainmail coat 12 18.0      0.579
helmet 6 9.0      0.289
sword 3 4.5      0.145
sword & scabbard 7 10.5      0.338
shield & spear 2 3.0      0.096

That leaves us with what seems to be two different qualities of sword costing 0.14 Troy ounces of gold and 0.34 ounces, or about 1/7 and about 1/3 ounces, respectively.

Convert ancient prices to modern dollars

Previous post calculates an Estimate of price of silver and gold in Viking age. Here are the low and high point of my estimates along with an average of the low and high. I will use the average as a point estimate:

low high point est.
gold      3,600      5,000      4,400
silver         450         625         550

Now to convert those grams of gold into a price that makes some sense to us today:

conversion price 4,400
troy oz price est. rounded
chainmail coat     0.579      2,546      2,500
helmet     0.289      1,273      1,300
sword     0.145         637         600
sword & scabbard     0.338      1,485      1,500
shield & spear     0.096         424         400

This brings us to price of $2,500 for a coat of chain mail and prices of $600 and $1,500 for lower quality and higher quality swords.

Upon reflection, those amounts intuitively make sense.

Comparison to modern weaponry

With 60 seconds of research online, I found some places that offer level IIIA Kevlar vest for $600. Adding two level III plates (which increase protection from handguns to small rifle calibers) at around $100 each would get you level III Body Armor for something around $800 today. Intuitively that make sense to the extreme amount of work (perhaps a year worth of effort) to fabricate a complete set of chain mail armor in the Middle Ages.

Perhaps a good comparison to the Viking or Frankish sword would be a modern rifle or shotgun. A sword then and rifle now represent state-of-the-art weaponry for a foot soldier. Previous discussion of swords and modern weapons provided some values for comparison. See One usable indicator of the value of a Viking sword. How many weapons could you buy today for that price?

A few reference points for rifles:

  • $1,764 – Springfield M1A, .308
  • $1,245 – Armalite AR-10, .308
  • $974 – Ruger Mini-14, .223
  • $704 – S&W M&P15, .223

A few reference points for shotguns:

  • $2,219 – Browning, Citori over/under, 12 gauge (high end shotgun)
  • $574 – Remington 870 tactical, pump, 12 gauge
  • $390 – Mossberg 500, pump, 12 gauge

A very rough comparison would be a modern Springfield M1A and the high price range mentioned in Lex Ribuaria.

An S&W M&P15 or Remington 870 is roughly comparable to the lower-priced sword.

A Mini-14 would be in between the two prices.

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