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Sverre Sigurdsson and the Norwegian bracteates


Nap

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Sverre, king of Norway, 1184-1202.  That's certainly not a household name.  If you were to try to name a famous medieval Norwegian, assuming you don't just blank out, you might recall Harald Fairhair, the first recognized king of Norway.  Or perhaps Eric Bloodaxe, the adventurous Viking who also left his mark in northern England.  And maybe Harald Hardrade, the "last Viking", who made his bones in the Varangian guard of the Byzantines, before becoming king of Norway, and finally dying at the battle of Stamford Bridge (against Harold Godwinsson, the "last Anglo-Saxon", who himself would be dead just a few weeks later at Hastings).

But Sverre is not well remembered.  Sverre was a product of the chaotic 12th century, in which rival dynasties and relatives vied to be rulers in the medieval state of Norway.  Sverre, called Sigurdsson, might have been the son of Sigurd Munn, one of the prior kings.  Or he might have made that up to justify his claim.  Sverre became leader of the Birkebeiners, a rebel group in Norway that ultimately gained power in the 1170s and 80s.  However, king Sverre had the opposition of the church, and a group of disaffected nobles called the Baglers, who supported the prior regime and doubted Sverre's paternity.  Sverre himself ended up excommunicated, and Norway placed under interdict.  The conflict would continue after Sverre's death.

Sverre is an interesting character from a numismatic perspective, because of the large amount of coins of his that survived. In 1840, a large group of coins was found in Dæli, Norway. A few pennies in Sverre's name were found, but the majority of coins were bracteates. These extremely thin small coins were the main currency of the Birkenbeiner party during these troubled years. Because of the presence of the pennies with Sverre's name in the hoard, it is possible to attribute these otherwise minimally marked coins.

Coinage in Norway had come to a halt in the late 1000's, and ceased for more than 50 years.  Norway seems to have picked up on the bracteates from northern Germany shortly after they became established there.  The bracteates are found with single letters, and many letters are represented. These are thought to represent mints, but it is not certain whether that is truly the case. This coin, with the 'A', may be for Asloia (Oslo).

In other parts of Europe, bracteates were produced with a high degree of artistry.  Not so much in Scandinavia.  With a few exceptions, bracteates have fairly basic designs in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.  Frequently, and not just for Sverre, it's just a single letter.

Here is a bracteat from Sverre 'Sigurdsson'

sverre-1-v.jpg.b1eab6559df48c35ac357e6b95ab865a.jpg

These coins are paper thin, and I was fearful to handle it and photograph, lest my klutzy hands drop or bend it.  It is about 14mm, not all that tiny for a medieval coin, but only weighs a whopping 0.06 grams.  Many known examples have edge damage, which seems quite understandable.

As for the Dæli hoard, the finder did the right thing and turned it in.  The hoard went to a museum.  Most of the coins remain there.  A few pieces were sold in the 19th century to collectors, and these sometimes feature glue residue on the reverse as they were glued to cardstock (for their own protection!)  This example does not have residue, but I think it possible that it too is from the Dæli hoard.

Edited by Nap
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Well, I don't think I've ever heard of him or seen that coin type before, even though the other rulers you mention come up a lot. Perhaps he just stayed in Norway, even though England was in turmoil at that time too and the Vikings would previously have taken advantage. Thank you for filling in nearly 20 years...

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"But Sverre is not well remembered.  Sverre was a product of the chaotic 12th century, in which rival dynasties and relatives vied to be rulers in the medieval state of Norway.  Sverre, called Sigurdsson, might have been the son of Sigurd Munn, one of the prior kings.  Or he might have made that up to justify his claim.  Sverre became leader of the Birkebeiners, a rebel group in Norway that ultimately gained power in the 1170s and 80s.  However, king Sverre had the opposition of the church, and a group of disaffected nobles called the Baglers, who supported the prior regime and doubted Sverre's paternity.  Sverre himself ended up excommunicated, and Norway placed under interdict.  The conflict would continue after Sverre's death."

Wow, @Nap, you nailed it, as far as this period being underrepresented in anything you see online about Scandinavian and especially Norwegian coinage.  That's a fantastic example!  (2nd edit:) Best of luck handling it; I'd be scared, too.

...But Snorri Sturlusson's Heimskringla, his epic cycle of sagas about the kings of Norway, ends with this period, when dynastic conflict was only accelerating from the already dramatic precedent of the prior century, starting with the deaths of both Olaf I and II (no relation), both in battle.

Snorri's own death, in 1241, echoed this level of drama, happening in his native Iceland.  After a sojourn in Norway, he returned home, only to fall victim to the similarly accelerating violence between a shrinking number of godis /gothis, or local chieftains.  As late as this, the primary political issue was whether Iceland should remain the (initially resonantly proto-democratic) commonwealth it had been up to that point, or formally unite with the Norwegian crown, which Snorri advocated.  ...As with Norwegian dynastic conflict, you can compare that to the less politically fraught family feuds which had punctuated Icelandic life over the preceding three centuries and more.  (Cf. that many of the Icelandic sagas about various regions of the island, such as Njal's Saga and the Eyrbyggja Saga.)

...Many thanks, @Nap, for reconnecting me with the crucial significance this whole period interval, just starting (from here) with what what was happening historiographically.

Edited by JeandAcre
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On 7/13/2023 at 6:15 PM, AETHER said:

I guess it was a dark time for coins. 

There are lots of these periods in history, where coin production had a seemingly cataclysmic fall, and coinage either stopped or became extremely minimal.  Politics, wars, disease, loss of precious metal sources, among other things.  Sometimes the accident of discovery of a large hoard makes coinage of a guy like Sverre suddenly obtainable- without the Dæli hoard we probably would have very little material from his reign, and attribution would have been extremely challenging.

 

On 7/13/2023 at 6:55 PM, John Conduitt said:

Well, I don't think I've ever heard of him or seen that coin type before, even though the other rulers you mention come up a lot. Perhaps he just stayed in Norway, even though England was in turmoil at that time too and the Vikings would previously have taken advantage. Thank you for filling in nearly 20 years...

Certainly not a household name.  Sverre had his hands full at home, he did not have time to go invade elsewhere.

Interestingly, it's recorded that King John of England sent Sverre some mercenary troops to help with his fight against the Baglers.  Both John and Sverre had a challenging relationship with the church and were excommunicated, so perhaps they found common cause there.

 

On 7/13/2023 at 8:24 PM, JeandAcre said:

...But Snorri Sturlusson's Heimskringla, his epic cycle of sagas about the kings of Norway, ends with this period, when dynastic conflict was only accelerating from the already dramatic precedent of the prior century, starting with the deaths of both Olaf I and II (no relation), both in battle.

It's a shame Snorri didn't have more to say about Sverre, but Sverre has a rather lengthy saga of his own, which I haven't yet finished.

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