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Scandanavia and the Northern Seas


Tamsin Hekala

    Conflict is an easy first look at the past. Who did what to whom in the context of battle is relatively simple. Such events have a specific timeframe, reasonably clear actions, and definite outcomes. It is also simple to choose a side. That relative simplicity for the reader makes the history of war, conflict, and violent times popular. The Viking Age is one such time of conflict.
    The Viking Age is defined by the viking raids. Although the period properly begins with the first recorded raid outside of Scandinavia, Lindesfarne Abbey (795), and ends with the defeat of Harald Hardradi at Stamford Bridge (1066); it is simpler to start and end with clean century breaks 800-1100. During that three hundred year period ships with Scandinavian warriors engaged in hit and run raids throughout Europe. Our perception of Norse society and people is defined to a greater or lesser degree by those raids.
    One view of the Vikings is that of the blood thirsty pagan barbarians descending upon peaceful monks or settlements without cause. It is a view based on the horrors described in letters to victims of the raids, from survivors of raids, and general concern by possible targets about those raids. The opposing view is that of our ancestors when they were noble savages. This point of view is based upon the Icelandic sagas and the romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century. Noble savage or vicious raider the reality lies between the two extremes. Viking raids were merely one part of a complex adaptation by the Norse to the marginal lands of Scandinavia. Raids were certainly a portion of that adaptation, but so too were explorations, foreign settlement, trade, and extended subsistence activities at the homebase.
    The first question asked about the Viking Age is why the sudden explosion out of Scandinavia. There have been several popular theories. One maintains that the Norse were responding to political repression directly attributable to the consolidation into kingdoms during the ninth century. Another school of thought says that there were too many people for the available land. Current scholarly opinion favors a modified population argument based on current ecological theory about the carrying capacity of land. There was an increase in population during the period and there was also political unrest. The combination created a situation where activity outside the local area was inevitable.
    As for the apparent sudden appearance of Norse raiders on the European scene this too is a misconception. The raiding activity was certainly not new to the far North. Legal and archaeological evidence points to a long standing pattern of raiding in Scandinavia proper. The expansion into Christian Europe was merely a broader venue not new activity as far as the Norse were concerned. Raid was a part of the Norse world well before the first documented raid in the Christian south.
    It is through the raid patterns that we have our first insight into the political world of the Norse. Initially the raiding groups were smaller. Ninth century organization was based upon local leaders with close personal connections who raided areas distant from the homebase. However, by the end of the Viking Age the raids can be defined more properly as national in character and scope. The configuration of the raiding parties reflects the transitional aspect of Scandinavian society. During the late ninth and early tenth centuries Norway, Sweden, and Denmark all underwent political consolidation. At the close of the tenth century and into the first decade of the eleventh century all the newly consolidated nation-states transformed themselves from pagan outsiders to Christian monarchies. Religious transformation formalized the consolidation of royal power. The eleventh century raids reflected the economic and political concerns of consolidated power since they were intended as conquest, expansion of influence, or incursions for tribute.
    Economic activities were fed in part by the viking raids. Food production was limited enough to warrant annual exploration, trade, and raid activities. Exploration for land or food stuffs created the migration patterns that peopled Iceland, Greenland, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and the Faroes to the west and established the Scandinavian city kingdoms in the east. Trade extended the Viking world into Russia, England, Ireland, France, Sicily, and Constantinople. Raid provided additional resources such as tribute silver, raid booty, and slaves.
    None of the expansion activities could have been possible without Viking ships. The combination of overextended home resources, increased population, and the new technology of shallow draft keeled ships were central to the apparently sudden appearance of the Vikings. Although there were several different types of ships used by the Norse the one that invariably springs to mind is that of the sleek Gokstad warship. Such ships were not only fast, the trip to Iceland was only a week, but also able to sail in very shallow water depths--3 or 4 feet. The development of ships and maritime skills was necessary along the coasts of Norway. It was far easier to sail to a neighboring settlement than it was to go overland.
    Settlement patterns in the North were also dependent upon water and coastal access. Despite regional adaptations, Viking settlements are distinct from non-Viking settlements. Most notable is the use made of available food ecosystems that were further afield than the standard pattern of continental populations. It should be noted that Viking settlement patterns were a holdover of neolithic and iron age settlement patterns. Highly conservative settlement and food production is typical of marginalized groups. The typical Viking settlement can best be described as a central hold that anchored a series of food production zones.
    Zone one was adjacent to a population center, holding, or hall and comprised kitchen gardens and household industry activities. Zone two had barns, granaries, and hay fields. Zone three was a foraging area that could be individual ecosystems such as forest, riverine, or oceanic food sources or a combination of those systems. Zone four was transhumance pasturage. Zone five was wilderness that was used for primarily for hunting. Zonal food foraging and production uses a combination of agriculture, gathering, pasturing, and seasonal migration to fully utilized all available food sources in an extended area. Additional features of Norse settlement and food production methods included annual crop burn off and swidden farming techniques.
    So standard was the zonal use of land that it is a key defining feature of Norse settlements be they individual holdings, villages, or cities. Thus the zones may be found in Iceland which has single family households, in Sweden's villages, in Denmark's ringforts, in Viking Age York or Dublin, or in the northwest corner of Spain. The impact of that zonal division exists into the present. Contemporary Scandinavian countries still recognize pasturage routes and rights first mentioned in Viking Age law codes.
    Thus, the effect of the Vikings on the rest of Europe was more than piratical burn and plunder. Additionally was an increase in maritime technology, legal restructuring, landuse, and emigration. The establishment of Norse colonies throughout Europe had far reaching repercussions. Western migration created new settlements in unpopulated areas such as Iceland and Greenland. Western movements also were responsible for the establishment of Viking cities and regions in England and Ireland. Normandy, as a buffer state, was also created by the Frankish kings. Eastern migrations created Novgorod and Kiev. Movement to the east also created trading routes that extended to Constantinople.


    Our source material for the vikings is based upon three distinct groups of primary source material: public documents, literature, and artifacts. The public documents include the Diplomatarium Islandicum, Diplomatarium Danicum, Diplomatarium Norvegicum, Diplomatarium Orcadense, the Norwegian and Icelandic Chronicles, early histories, and the law codes of Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden. Literary sources are primarily the Icelandic family sagas. Material culture finds are particularly rich and include: the Gokstad ship burial, rune stones, the Oseberg ship burial, the York dig, a number of hoards, and settlement sites such as the Trelleborg ring fort.

Recommended reading

    The following are general books on the Viking Age. Some, like Du Chaillu and Brondsted, while older are still quite useful in discussing the vikings and information on viking artifacts. Jones's A History of the Vikings and Foote and Wilson's Viking Achievement are still the most commonly used general histories on the vikings. Rosedahl's works contain more current archaeological information.

Du Chaillu, THE VIKING AGE, 2 vols.
Else Rosedahl, THE VIKINGS
Helen Clarke and Bjorn Ambrosiani, TOWNS IN THE VIKING AGE
Peter Foote and David Wilson, THE VIKING ACHIEVEMENT
Else Rosedahl and David Wilson, FROM VIKING TO CRUSADER
Brondsted, THE VIKINGS

Copyright (C) 1996, Tamsin Hekala. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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