Some reflections on the Early Medieval Åland – settlement reduction or continuity
by Jan-Henrik Fallgren
There are some major unresolved and frustrating problems when it comes to Åland’s Iron Age, and the early historical periods. In particular, whether or not there has been continuity between the Viking Age settlement and the settlement known from the earliest written sources. There is today, and has been for some time, various opinions concerning this subject. However, since Lars Hellberg’s classical study of the place-names on Åland from 1980, many researchers believe that the archipelago was deserted between c. AD 1000 to at least the 12th century. Others have pointed out that at least some of the settlements show continuity from the Viking Age to the end of 13th century. The fact that no coins are found on Åland from the end of the Viking Age, has also been put forward as an important argument for the former opinion, or at least showed that the Ålanders suffered economically from a serious loss from the geopolitical map, due to the collapse of the earlier important east-western trade route during this century.
Strangely enough, also the speedy shore displacement during the late Iron Age/Medieval Period has sometimes been mentioned in connection with the presumed desolation, or as one of the causes of population decline. This is really odd. In other geographical contexts, for instance the Mälaren Valley, a speedy shore displacement has always been regarded as something positive and beneficial for the contemporary agrarian economy and for the growth of the population. Both osteological and paloebotanical analyses reveal that the agrarian Viking Age economy on Åland was based on the same kind of farming practise as everywhere else in north-western Europe during this time period; that is an agricultural system based on cattle breeding, alongside with crop growing on a minor scale. Therefore, this land elevation must have been similarly beneficial to the agrarian economy of Åland, as rightly pointed out previously by Birgitta Roeck Hansen, Johan Callmer and Kristin Ilves.
As mentioned above, the Iron Age and Viking Age agrarian economy on Åland appears to have been exactly of the same type as in other parts of north-western Europe during the early medieval period, i.e. farming based mainly on animal husbandry together with small-scale cultivation of essentially barley, on few and very small fields. Actually, this was characteristic for all north-western early medieval kin-based, tribal societies, stateless petty kingdoms, ranked societies, traditional societies, or whatever you would like to call them, before what has been labelled the “cerialization” and “manoralization” of Europe occurred, when the feudal estate-system was born. These transformations started in the western parts of Europe (Frankish) during the 8th century, but accelerated strongly only when the reformed Catholic Church from the 10th century onwards got a firmer grip on the political and ideological situation in Europe and thus could incorporate several larger kingdoms and regions in their economic and administrative system. However, these momentous changes did not arrive to our part of the world until the 13th and 14th centuries.
Before these radical economical and agrarian changes during the early medieval period, all social contracts, bonds and agreements within kin-based, tribal societies and petty kingdoms with their gift-giving economies, was confirmed and sealed by the receiving or giving of basically three different types of media; ale, livestock and women (neither pre-feudal nobility or kings built their wealth or social positions by some major land ownership or estates, instead it was food-rent and hospitality from free clients, and these clients obligations to participate in war and plundering, that gave pre-feudal lords and kings their social positions and economical resources). And of course, if there were access to exotic objects, like glass vessels, silver or other precious metals in the form of foreign coins, or melted down and remoulded coins to prestige objects; these were also part of such socio-economic transactions and situations, such as tribute, payment or fiefs by lords or kings to clients. However, absence or lack of coins or precious metals in those kinds of societies was not a problem or a catastrophe, and, above all, it would never have made people to abandon their fields and farms, and it did not lead to starvation. They did not live in a market economy. So any drop off from the geopolitical map, or the fact that the silver trade was interrupted for the people on Åland during the 11th century, could hardly have caused any serious crisis in the agrarian economy or society at large (except, perhaps to a few individuals). Above all, it would not have been the cause of any possible depopulation of the islands.
…to be continued 🙂