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The Vikings - Why They Did It

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In England in 789, a West Saxon reeve1 named Beaduheard, went to meet a trio of ships of 'Northmen' who had landed at Portland. As he did not know what they wanted - he may have assumed they were traders - he tried to compel them to sail on to the king's town. Not to be told what to do, they killed him. Little did Beaduheard know that he was to assume the unenviable role of being the first recorded victim of the Viking age. Although sea-raiding by Northmen was known much earlier2, most authors agree that the raids that began in the 790s were unprecedented in their intensity. Indeed, the Viking 'phenomenon' continued in some form till circa 1100. This entry addresses the most problematic question of what made them do it? What are the origins of the Viking phenomenon? But first, a definition or two.

Exploding a Few Myths

There is a naive assumption that all Scandinavians were Vikings. This was not so. 'Viking' is a word which describes a certain type of Scandinavian. 'Viking' is actually a present active participle which came to describe an occupation (ie, 'I'm off Viking!'). It is not an ethnic term, even though it is used to describe the people of Norway, Sweden and Denmark (but not the Finns and Lapps). The actual term is obscure in origin, but might have something to do with the word 'vic' (or 'wic') which describes a river estuary and therefore a popular avenue for attack. People who went viking tended to be adult males (with exceptions). It was a specialised type of activity involving both raiding and trading that some did for just a season, or for a number of seasons, then continued to be farmers, which is what most Vikings actually were. But there were some career Vikings who did not wear horned or winged helmets; this fallacy seems to have been the composer Wagner's fantasy.

Why?

Now, back to the question of origins of the Viking phenomenon. There are a couple of explanations which can be dispensed with fairly quickly. For example, there is no evidence for any external pressure or threat preceding the Viking period, such as the Germanic barbarians probably experienced from migrating Asiatic barbarians in the 4th Century. Nor does there seem to be any evidence for a climatic disaster, such as motivated the Asiatic barbarians themselves.

One of the most popular explanations offered for the Viking phenomenon is that overpopulation created a need for more land - especially in mountainous Norway - and thus the Vikings were largely motivated by a desire to colonise. Peter Sawyer, for example, in 1971 said that the first raids on Britain, by the Norwegians, were a by-product of the colonisation of the Orkneys and the Shetlands, and that the Norwegians were more interested in settlement than in plunder3. There have emerged more recently, however, a couple of problems with this explanation. For a start, Sawyer in 1982 reneged somewhat by saying that there is now no good evidence for any population pressure in the 8th Century. Patrick Wormald added that what has been taken for overpopulation was just population concentration due to economic expansion and the mining of iron ore. In a further point, Wormald states that there is no clear evidence for any Viking settlement until the mid-9th Century: some 50-60 years after the raids began. Thus, colonisation seems to have been a secondary feature of Viking activity: the success of the raids opened the way for settlement, but were not motivated by it, at least not initially.

So, if not overpopulation, then what? More recent explanations of origins have focussed around the role of trade. Most authors agree that there is evidence of renewed economic expansion in Scandinavia in the 8th Century. Most authors also agree that economic growth promotes predatory activity as much as it does commercial activity; and in the maritime sector this means piracy. Indeed, D Wilson states that the distinction between a pirate and a merchant is often a fine one - though our reeve at Portland might disagree. Thus, as trade expanded, so did the number of sea-borne warbands preying on it. Sawyer explains that the early Viking raids in Britain were simply the spill-over of Baltic piracy facilitated by the coincidental development of the ocean-going Viking ship.

The development of the Viking ship is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Viking activity - it facilitated the act of 'viking' but it can't act as a cause. One can trace the development of ships back several centuries but the fully developed Viking ship was almost certainly only developed by the late 8th Century. Its advantages included size (thus allowing for ocean travel), the shallow-draught keel (18 inches in some designs), their flexibility in movement (they could take a displacement of 6 inches across the beam) and the use of sails as a complement to oars, as well as sails that could be swivelled. The ships were therefore more useful for long-distance trading; and the shallow draught allowed them to be 'beached' across a great range of coastlines and to navigate far up rivers.

The development of the ship to this level seems to have been a direct result of long-distance trade, and the consequent piracy. But also, the Scandinavians were always oriented towards the sea. An extensive coastline limited the population, especially that it was so much broken up by fjords, such that travel and transportation overland was very difficult. The lack of fertility of the land meant there was little land that could be farmed (thus a pastoral economy). The answer to these limitations was to undertake many of their activities by sea. And thus we have the development of decent ships. So, the technology came together about the year 800. This is a very good explanation for the date, but not that it was a cause.

It must also be recognised that the circulation of goods is inherent in the activities of Germanic warbands themselves. Members of a warband have to be rewarded, as we are reminded in Beowulf. Moveable wealth is the cement of the lord-follower relationship in this type of society. While moveable wealth can be obtained by peaceful means, it is often easier, and more 'heroic', to obtain such wealth via plunder. Here Wormald recommends that we remember one of the basic meanings of the noun viking, that of a sea-borne military adventurer. It is perhaps significant that, in Egil's Saga, Thorolf sends Thorgils to England to buy foodstuffs. Returning triumphant with a sack of flour does not have quite the same heroic appeal as with gold cups and croziers. So, the increase in trade opened up more avenues for obtaining this wealth, and once one Viking raid was successful others were bound to follow.

However, in terms of the origins of the Viking phenomenon, it has to come back to economic development in Scandinavia in the 8th Century, the development of ocean-going ships, the particular heroic ethic in Scanadinavian society and the lure of plundering moveable wealth.

Vikings, after all, were Vikings.

Bibliography

  • The Vikings Brondsted, J
    Penguin Books 1965

  • Historical Atlas of the Vikings Haywood, J
    London: Penguin Books 1995

  • The Vikings Kirkby, MH
    Oxford: Phaidon Press 1977

  • Egil's Saga Palsson, H and Edwards, P (translation)
    London: Penguin Books 1976

  • The Age of the Vikings (Second Ed.) Sawyer, PH
    London: Edward Arnold 1971

  • The Causes of the Viking Age in R.T. Farrell (ed.) The Vikings Sawyer, PH
    London: Phillimore & Co 1982, pp 1 - 7

  • The Vikings and their Origins Wilson, DM
    London: Thames & Hudson 1970

  • Viking studies: Whence and Whither? in RT Farrell (ed.), The Vikings Wormald, CP
    London: Phillimore & Co 1982, pp 128 - 153

1The chief magistrate of a town or village - quite an important person.2For example Hygelac, who is also mentioned in the epic poem Beowulf, was killed in a raid into Frisia in the 520s.3 Peter Sawyer is a big 'revisionist' of the Viking image.

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