A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS
- Life before the Vikings’ Arrival
- The Raiding Vikings
- The Ninth Century
- The Tenth Century
- The Eleventh Century
- Weapons and Tools
- Dress and Jewellery
- Towns, Earthworks and Camps
- Coins and Weights and Measures
- Runic Inscription
- The Viking Way of Life
- Religious Beliefs and Burial Customs
- Poetry and the Viking Spirit
- Epilogue: The Viking’s Place in European History
Life before the Vikings’ Arrival
Over a thousand years ago in the churches and monasteries of northern France was heard the prayer: ‘From the wrath of the Northmen, O Lord, deliver us.’ This prayer was amply justified. The Northmen were the Vikings: Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, whose plunderings ranged from private acts of piracy and coastal raids to formidable invasions in quest of new land to colonize. Viking activity started before 800 A. D., and more than two centuries elapsed before it ceased. During this period the Vikings left their mark not only on Western Europe, but also right through the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Asia Minor; in what is now western Russia, Scandinavian commercial enterprise linked Byzantium and Arabia with Sweden.
Now how could all this happen? Why did Europe permit the Danes and Norwegians to rule large parts of England, Ireland, and France, and the Swedes to form a ruling class in western Russia? Why was Scandinavia strong and the rest of Europe waek? What inner forces led to the Viking raids?
To answer the first question one must examine the centuries immediately preceding the Viking Age, and try to assess the political, commercial, and social development of the time. The most important examination of this period is by the prominent Belgian hisorian, Henri Pirenne. One of his theories is that the real dividing-line between ancient and medieval Europe fell, not in the migration period (c. 500), but during the reign of Charlemagne (c. 800). The break with the past, he maintained, went deeper in 800 than in 500. Let us examine Pirenne’s argument more closely.
The lands which formed the late Roman Empire – ‘Romania’ as it was called in the fourth century – formed a unit surrounding the Mediterranean, the great Roman Lake. The Mediterranean did not divide countries, it linked them together. It formed the route ‘along which travelled religion, philosophy, and trade’. The cults of Egypt and the Orient spread across it, the worship of Mithras, Christianity, and, later, monasticism. Along it were carried treasures and luxury goods from the east; ivory, silk, spices, papyrus, wine, and oil. In return the west sent its exports, in particular, slaves. The common currency of this immense Empire was the Constantinian gold solidus. This great commercial system was in the main organized and run by enterprising Syrians and Jews.
What was the effect on Romania when the Germanic migrations took place in the fourth and fifth centuries? The western dominions, including even Italy, were conquered by invading Germanic tribes, and political control over them was lost. This was a catastrophe indeed; yet it did not mean – as was once thought – the end of classical culture in the western half of Romania.
In the first place, the Germanic invaders formed only a small minority in the conquered lands. Exact figures do not exist, but historians have made the following estimates: there were about 100,000 Ostrogoths in Italy; in Spain and southern France there was a similar number of Visigoths, and there may have been a further 25,000 Burgundians in south-eastern France; the Vandal army which crooed the Straits of Gibraltar to North Africa is thought to have numbered 80,000 men – or scarcely more than one per cent of the inhabitants of the flourishing North African province of the Roman Empire into which it was absorbed. It is highly unlikely that these Germanic hosts received reinforcements from their native lands; on the contrary, their numbers were certainly reduced by the effects of an unfamiliar climate.
It is quite clear that Germanicization of the conquered territories took place only to a limited extent. It was presumably complete in those areas where Germanic languages are later found, in other words, in only a small northern strip of the Roman Empire. Apart from this, the only linguistic manifestation of Germanic influence is a number (about 300) of loan-words into French. No Romance language shows significant influence on phonetics or syntax. What evidently occurred in Italy and western Europe shortly after the migrations was that the conquering Germanic peoples were virtually absorbed into the local populations. Germanic types have to be sought for among the inhabitants of present-day Italy. Blond people still to be found in North Africa presumably descend from per-Germanic inhabitants.
In this way Romania survived the occupation of its western part; the classical traditions – though constantly decaying – were continued. Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Vandals, and Franks were left to rule their new countries, which they did on exactly the same lines as the Romans before them. In these new states the King was all-powerful, as the Roman Emperors had been. The Germanic peoples conquering these countries did not destroy classical culture; quite the contrary. For centuries they had been neighbours of the Roman Empire, and had learned to respect what they saw. It was not surprising, therefore, that they copied Roman social and political institutions, at any rate in their outward foms. During this time, however, intellectual life and education declined. The Church was the only intellectual power to assert itself but, as in Roman times, the Church was subservient to the secular authority, and civil servants were recruited from the laity, not the clergy. The new Germanic territories, like the late Roman Empire, were ruled by absolute governments; laymen held the administrative offices, while the finacial basis was the king’s taxes and duties collected mainly in minted gold. These states were in fact not national states; they continued the pattern of the former Roman satellites and provinces. Indeed that pattern was renewed, when in the sixth century, the armies of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian reconquered large areas of the old Western Roman Empire; and under him the Mediterranean once again became a Roman lake. Then came a Germanic reaction, from the Lombards. They crossed the Alps and settled in northern Italy, but even this event did not break the general lines of development , for they too were Romanized in the course of time. Life remained the same. As before, the Syrians and Jews were the main importers of luxuries from the Orient. The Mediterranean countries maintained their close contact with each other so that, for exampl;e, African camels were imported as beasts of burden into Spain and France. The small French town of Narbonne is typical of the time; in the late sixth century Goths, Romans, Jews, Syrians, and Greeks lived in it side by side. The Germanic rulers of western Europe governed their countries through men of Roman education, traditions, and habits. Latin and literacy continued, though in decline. In short, the face of western Europe had changed but slightly under the new rulers.
Then, in the seventh century, came the real catastrophe which was to lead to the most important event in European history. This catastrophe was the rise of Arab power, and swift and violent attack on the West. Mohammed died in 632 and two years later the storm broke. At this time the Byzantine Empire, whose provinces surrounded the eastern Mediterranean, stood at the height of its power. The Emperor Heraclius had defeated the Persian army at Nineveh in 627 – though admiitedly suffering heavy losses which left him militarily weak. No immediate danger seemed apparent to the eastern Roman Empire, least of all from the Bedouin Arabs. The attack gained advantage from its unexpectedness.
In 634 the Arabs crossed the Jordan. They captured Damascus in 635 and the whole of Syria in 641. Nothing seemed to stop this fanatical army, whose military methods were new and whose contempt for death was unbounded. At one stroke it relieved Byzantium of its most valuable provinces. Later, the Arabs ventured upon se-borne warfare and were checked only by the Byzantine secret weapon ‘Greek fire’, a primitive type of flame-thrower.
In the following sixty to seventy years they pushed resistance aside right along the North Africa coast, and in 711 crossed the Straits of Gibraltar. By the next year the whole of the Spanish Peninsula was in their power. They pressed further north into France, and were not decisively stopped until twenty years later, by Charles Martel at Poitiers, and thrust back to the Pyrenees. In the meantime, they had extended their rule to include Sicily and the southern part of Italy. The coasts of northern Italy and southern France were raided, and there was no fleet there to take up the battle against the attackers. The western Mediterranean had become an Arab sea.
There is a marked difference between these Arab conquests and the Germanic invasions of two or three centuries earlier. The Arabs were not absorbed into the conquered peoples, principally because their was a religious war. Their Mohammedan monotheism was quite irreconcilable with all other religions, not least with Christianity. The Germanic tribes, on the other hand, had either been Christians themselves, or had practiced a polytheistic faith which tolerated other religions. Further, the Germanic peoples had been culturally inferior to those they conquered, and quite prepared to adopt their civilization. With the Arabs it was just the opposite. They brought with them their own faith and culture; they did not require the conversion of the conquered people, feeling for them nothing but contempt. They demanded only unconditional surrender. Wherever they came Greek and Latin were displaced by Arabic. If the subjugated peoples wished to survive they had to accept progressively the religion and language of their conquerors.
What were the consequences for that part of Europe which had fought and avoided the Arab invasion? The Frankish Empire, the power which finally brought the Arab threat to a halt, was on the threshold of its golden age. But they did the centre of gravity of western Europe shift at this time from the Mediterranean countries with their rich and flourishing commercial life to the poorer agrarian, Frankish territories of the north? First and foremost because of the destruction of southern trade. The Arab invasion had cut the Mediterranean in two. In the eastern half, where the Byzantine Empire survived under the protection of a strong and efficient fleet, trade still continued. In the west the Arabs had wiped it out. Western Europe’s most important country, France, underwent a revolution. All the goods which until then had been imported by Syrians and other merchants from the Orient disappeared – the papyrus, spices, oil, silks, and gold. More important, many of the native traders of southern France were weakened or ruined. In their place appeared oriental merchants who acted as intermediaries between Christian and Arab worlds. An immediate consequence of the loss of trade was a sharp decline in royal revenue, leaving the king more and more in the hands of the landed nobility. This was the main reason for the political and social eclipse of the Merovingians in the seventh century. Southern France, of course, was more affected by these changes than the northern Frankish provinces: its towns decayed while the north, whose society was essentially based on landed property, held its own. It was thus from northern Frankish teritory that the ancestors of the later Carolingian dynasty, of Pepin and Charlemagne, came. They were Belgian landed stock from the area round Leige, where even today the family name Pepinster survives.
Profound differences are to be observed in the condition of France under Carolingian rule in the eighth or ninth century compared with the state of things under the Merovingians in the sixth and seventh . The economy was now based on agriculture instead of commerce; silver had replaced gold as the monetary standard; the Church had ousted the laity. Latin was a learned language spoken only within the Church (oddly enough as the result of the missionary activities of Anglo-Saxon England); among the laity vulgar Latin was replaced by regional dialects. The practical, flowing, cursive script which had been commonly used for commercial purposes between individuals was replaced by an elegant, carefully formed minuscule which was to become the basis for the later medieval scripts of Europe. The so-called Carolingian Renaissance with its concentration on the language and literature of Greece and Rome was limited to scholars and did not penetrate to the ordinary man.
These views were expounded by Pirenne in his controversial book ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’. Not all his claims can be accepted – for example he dates the beginning of the Merovingians decline around 640 – a time when Arab interference with Mediterranean trade had hardly begun. But on the whole his views are sound. His principal thesis is that there could have been ‘no Charlemagne without Mohammed’, that the development of the Carolingian Empire is only comprehensible with references to the Arab advance into western Europe. The impulse of the Arab drive produced an agrarian and militarily powerful France, oriented now towards the north.
The strength of the Frankish Empire at the beginning of the ninth century certainly did not favour the Vikings. Warned by the sporadic raids that occurred about 790, on the coasts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and to some degree France, Charlemagne fortified his northern coasts with a chain of watch towers, beacons, and garrisons. As a result France was free of Viking attacks during Charlemagne’s lifetime, despite the fact that at this very time relations between France and Denmark were distinctly strained, indeed they were on the verge of war.
It will be remembered that Charlemagne had cruelly put down the Saxons of north-west Germany, forcibly converting them to Christianity, and so had extended his frontiers to the Elbe. Thus his lands marched with those of the western Slavs and the Danes. The Danish king, Godfred, was both audacious and active, willing to attack both the Slavs along the Baltic and the Frisians of the North Sea coasts. He did not stand in awe of the powerful Frankish emperor, and was quite ready to attack him too. But at the critical moment he died (in 810), and simultaneously Charlemagne’s attention was diverted to Italy. Peace reigned again, and the northern pirates respected Frankish power as long as Charlemagne lived.
It was not to last long. At the great emperor’s death in 814, his son Louis the Pious succeeded to the Empire. Gradually it began to disintegrate, the Franks became weaker and the country’s coastal defences in the north were neglected. Two decades later the Viking raids began, and for the rest of the century northern France was the scene of brutal attacks, planned on a great scale and always launched from the sea. Denmark was the main source of aggression.
In the eighth century England was divided into a number of small kingdoms: Mercia, Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria, and others. The most powerful of English kings in the last decade of the eighth century was Offa of Mercia (who took the title of Rex Anglorum). By the time of his death in 796 he dominated, directly or indirectly, the whole of southern England. He was the first English ruler to carry any political weight abroad. On good terms with Charlemagne, at least at times, he was a man of such strong character that had he lived longer he might well have proved a bulwark against the Viking assaults on England. But for a generation after Offa’s death southern England was divided by internal squabbles until, in 825, Egberht of Wessex established control over all south-east England, and for a time even over Mercia itself. His successor was his son Athelwulf. This royal power in the south of England was quite inadequate to keep the Vikings off. Neither Northumbria not Scotland was strong enough in the ninth century to organize an efficient defence against Viking attack.
Ireland, a primitive and divided country, was another easy victim, as the Norwegian invasion shortly after 800 proved. The Irish certainly resisted, and their annals from 807 onwards are full of battles with the Norwegians pressing in from the sea: battles which, if we are to believe the chroniclers, the Irish frequently won. For all that, the Irish failed to keep the Vikings out, and after a generation of battles the Norwegians were firmly settled in many places in both west and east of the island.
Before concluding this review of the raids on western Europe we must consider one important point which does much to explain the supremcy of the Vikings: the fact that all their raids were launched from the sea. The Vikings were skilful navigators, more confident on the sea than either the Anglo-Saxons or the Franks, and they had far better vessels. Certainly they were not trained and unbeatable sea warriors: more than once we read about their defeats by Anglo-Saxon fleets along the English coasts. As shipbuilders, however, they were outstanding. They built fleets of fast and roomy ships designed for the transport of their armies, and used them with speed and mobility. It was this mastery of ships, unexcelled over most of Europe, which gave them such decisive advantages in their attacks upon so many coasts. The development of these Viking ships can be traced right back to the migration period. Some of the earliest relevant archaeological discoveries, such as the boat found at Nydam in South Jutland, Denmark, show a large open rowing-boat without mast or sail, and with only a rudimentary keel. Of course archaeological finds are fortuitous, and a solitary boat does not prove that such vessels were standard. But other finds, such as the carved and painted stones in Gotland, illustrate the slow evolution of the sail from the sixth to the eighth centuries – from a small, not very useful,square piece of cloth set high on the mast to the magnificent sails of the Viking vessels. Concurrently with this, other developments, particularly that of the keel, turned the boat into a ship.
It is strange that the sail should have taken so long to appear in the north, for it had been known from time immemorial by the Romans and Greeks in the Mediterranean. From literary sources we know also that it appeared in Holland in the first century A.D., for Tacitus tells of the Batavian chief, Civilis, who, during a review of his fleet in the year 70, copied the Roman custom by letting his men use their coloured cloaks as sails. Caesar, indeed, records that, about a century earlier, the Veneti, the seafaring tribe of the French Atlantic coast, used sails of heavy leather. Sidonius Apollinaris, Bishop of Cleremont in 470, describes the Saxons returning home with ‘swelling sails’. It seems strange, then, that sails took so long to reach Scandinavia, stranger stil that they took so long to reach England. As late as 560 the Byzantine historian Procopius wrote of the English ‘these barbarians do not use the sail either but depend wholly on oars’ – a statement that appears to be borne out by the large, mid-seventh-century royal ship with neither mast nor sail, discovered at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia.
It can truly be said then that the Anglo-Saxons, the Franks, and the Irish could not compete with the Vikings in seamanship or navigation. It is significant that none of these peoples ever launched reprisal attacks on the Vikings were able to harry and conquer such large areas of western Europe, yet it does not account for their penetration of eastern Europe, where there was no sea for them to display their mastery on, but where they nevertheless were successful.
In the eighth century the difference between Denmark and Norway on the one hand and Sweden was already an organized and ancient kingdom (based on Uppland), strong enough to engage in colonial expansion beyond its frontiers. These extensions of its territory were partly into Lativia and Estonia, and partly farther eastwards towards the southern shores of Lakes Ladoga and Onega. The base for these operations were Uppland (where the Sviar lived) and the island of Gotland in the Baltic. If such drives as these are regarded as Viking raids, then clearly the Swedish Vikings were making their mark on Europe well before their Danish and Norwegian counterparts.
Shortly before the Second World War there were discovered near the little town of Grobin (not far from Liepaja or Libau) on the Lativian coast, some prehistoric graves containing objects of Gotlandic type which were ascribed to a rather older period than the Viking Age. Swedish and Latvian archaeologists, continuing excavations on the site, unearthed an extensive burial place containing at least a thousand cremation graves whose arrangement and contents unquestionably pointed to eighth-century Gotland. Soon afterwards another graveyard almost as big as the first was found, and clearly from the same date, but this time the contents undeniably indicated a central Swedish and not Gotlandic origin. This site too had cremation graves, but with the difference that each grave was covered with a mound. The central Swedish cemetery moreover was a strictly military one, whereas in the Gotland one there were found many women’s graves, and more jewellery than weapons; factors suggesting that this was a civil cemetery established in peaceful conditions. These discoveries appear to confirm existing suppositions about political conditions in Sweden in the period before the Viking raids. The Gotlanders were peaceful traders, the Swedes (Sviar) ,en of war. The Grobin discoveries suggest that a Swedish military garrison was stationed there, and that the Gotlanders were settled there as traders.
If we turn from archaeological to literary evidence, we find in Angar’s disciple and his successor as Archbishop Rimbert, Angar’s disciple and his successor as Archbishop of Bremen) a reference to the fact that the people of Courland, which we now know as Latvia, had been attacked by both the Swedes and the Danes, and that the Swedish king, Olaf, at the head of a large army, attacked and burned a town called Seeburg defended by no less than seven thousand warriors. On this evidence the Swedish archaeologist Birger Nerman, who conducted the excavations at Grobin, has posed the question whether the two cemeteries could in fact have belonged to this old Seeburg. Grobin is far more likely, however, to be the garrison town which the Swedes founded after Seeburg’s destruction, but the literary and archaeological evidence cannot be fully reconciled in this particular case. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence of an eighth-century (pre-Viking) Swedish expansion eastwards, which in the course of the ninth century was to lead to colonization of the area around Old Ladoga, just south of Lake Ladoga. We shall examine the significance of these movements towards Russia later: meanwhile let us look at what was happening in south-east Europe and in western Asia.
In the eighth century two powers were established in those areas; both so strong, and both so remote from Scandinavia as to exclude any likelihood of clashes with the Vikings. The first of these, based on Constantinople, was the Byzantine Empire, the successor of the old Eastern Roman Empire; the second, a relatively new one, was the Arab Caliphate with its capital at Baghdad. The Byzantine sphere of interest to the north lay along the shores of the Black Sea and from the Crimea into the plains of the Ukraine. The Arabs, who had already subdued Persia in the seventh century, were also pressing in a northerly direction towards the south and west Siberian steppes (the ancient Scythia). In the eighth century these regions were inhabited by Turkic nomads, and between them and the Byzantines there extended, north of the Caspian Sea, the vast independent Khaganate of the Khazars, with its capital, Itil, in the Volga delta (their ruler bore the Avar-Turkic title ‘Khagan’). These Khazars closed the broad gap between the southern slope of the Urals and the north coast of the Caspian, and they prevented the Turkic nomads from spreading west, providing a peaceful frontier with the Byzantines from the Caucasus to the Crimea. The Khazars also checked the movement northwards into Russia of the Bulgars, who whereupon forked in two separate directions: one moving into the Balkans, the other settling on the Volga bend in their own Khaganate with its capital at Bulgar. As time went on these two Khaganates – the Khazars in the south and the Bulgars in the north – dominated and organized the great trade along the Volga. Little is known of the condition of central and western Russia at this time; the probability is that, as in the other Slav territories right up to the Elbe, these regions were divided among loosely related tribes lacking any political homogeneity, while the vast impenetrable forests blocked any significant movement of people or culture.
Such then, was the general state of Europe and western Asia in the period preceding the Viking advance. Of the three great powers of the time, the Franks were too strong for the fierce northerners, while the Byzantines and the Arabs were too remote to become involved with them. Beyond the dominions of these powers there was weakness.
Of the background to Viking activity all that remains to be examined is the internal condition of the three Scandinavian countries during the seventh and eighth centuries. Once again we turn to archaeology for evidence, as reliable literary sources are lacking.
There is no doubt that Sweden was the most advanced of these countries, as numerous magnificent finds from Uppland and Gotland testify. There is clear stylistic influence from the southern Germanic tribes, and there must have been cultural connexions between them and the Swedes via the Baltic, despite the presence of Slavs in the intervening area of north Germany. The situation confirms the early semi-historical accounts of the ancient kingdom of Uppland. Of Scandinavian monarchies, that of the central Swedes was the oldest and most powerful. Its strength is suggested by the eighth-century expansion, mentioned above, to the lands bordering the Baltic and the Finnish-settled regions round Lake Ladoga. Uppland established contact, also , with Finland in the east and Norway in the west. Archaeological finds prove Swedish-Norwegian cross-connexions along the ancient trade route which leads through Jamtland to Trondelag. Further, in the eighth century Norway had direct sea connexions with Merovingian France, as Norwegian grave-goods show Norway, too, seems to have had a virile and active population, though the land was divided among a number of tribes lacking unified leadership.
For Denmark the archaeological evidence is scanty, though in recent years it has been established that an individual culture existed in the easteren areas of the land – Zealand, Skane, Bornholm – distinguished by its manufacture of weapons and its artistic style. The lack of archaeological finds may be misleading. While it is reasonable to draw positive conclusions from a wealth of archaeological material, it is dangerous to draw negative ones from a lack of it. Why are the archaeological finds scanty? Not necessarily because the land was weak and thinly populated. Perhaps because custom decreed the burial of only small (symbolic) grave-goods, or even none at all; or because the religion forbade the burial of gifts to the gods; or because the appropriate settlement sites lie under modern towns. The absence of treasure hoards may just as well indicate peace and prosperity (so that there was no need to conceal possessions in the earth) as under-population. In short, poverty of archaeological material does not necessarily indicate economic poverty. Indeed, when the first gleams of light fall upon Denmark’s history (c. 800), the figure we encounter is that of King Godfred, a warrior powerful enough to take up arms against Charlemagne himself. This does not suggest a weak country, and it also shows that kingship was known in Denmark at this date, though we do not know how large an area was under Godfred’s rule.
We have now answered our first question about the strength and weakness of Europe inside and outside Scandinavia at the beginning of the Viking era, and their underlying causes. But what of the internal factors that were to launch the Vikings on their countless and widespread raids over a period of more than two centuries? One thing is immediately obvious, that more than one factor must have been at work. Let us examine some of the theories put forward by historians and archaeologists.
‘Over-population’. This was the thesis put forward by Johannes Steenstrup. He referred to what he called the ‘Norman tradition’, preserved in a number of literary sources, both west European and Scandinavian. This tradition applied, he thought, first and foremost to Denmark, though the rest of Scandinavia could also be included. It was to the effect that, at the beginning of the Viking Age, the Scandinavian lands were over-populated, a circumstance which would explain the common west-European accounts of the enormous size of the Viking armies; like storm-clouds, swarms of grasshoppers, waves of the ocean, and so on. There are also many reports of the thousands lost in battle by the Vikings. Though allowances has to be made for natural exaggeration, these accounts must contain a grain of truth.
The reason traditionally advanced for this over-population was the widespread practice of polygamy among the Vikings, who rather prided themselves on the number of sons they could beget: it was common for them to have concubines, mistresses, and under-wives: Streenstrup also cites as further evidence of over-population the northern practice, particularly among the lower classes, of killing off unwanted infants by exposure.
The Norman tradition contains two further points which, if they are correct, may help to explain the Viking raids. The first is the mention of compulsory exile of young men, ordained from time to time as a result of over-population (though this is probably not historically accurate). The second is a point of fact. The Vikings adhered to a system of primogeniture; and this would have created a surplus of young men ready to seek fame and fortune outside their home country. On the whole it is probable that Scandinavia was over-population at the beginning of the Viking Age, and this must have been a contributory cause of the raids.
‘Internal Dissensions’. The Scandinavian laws of succession were such that, whenever a new king, earl, or ruling chieftain secured the succession, he was likely to leave at least one ambitious and discontented ‘pretender’, who would go abroad to seek influential alliances or wealth, so that on his return he could press his claim with more force. This sort of situation is not a sufficient cause to account for widespread Viking invasions.
‘Social Differences’. Under this heading comes the suggestion that certain classes or elements of the population of Scandinavia were compelled to leave their native lands. however, there is no evidence of anything of the sort happening. The early Viking raids do not have been connected with social distinction in Scandinavia.
‘Foreign Pressure’. This can be discounted. There is no evidence for it. The early Viking raids bear no similarity to the great movement of the migration period.
‘Climate Disasters’. A frequent cause of migration in history has been the failure of crops, and consequent famine, due to changes in climatic conditions. This was the reason for the frequent and sustained attacks of Asiatic nomads against their neighbours. It was probably a factor in the Hunnish attack on Europe, which itself led to great migrations, and possibly in the Cimbric raid from Jutland in the time of the Roman Republic (at the close of the second century B.C.). Scandinavian geologists, working on the peat-bogs, have discovered evidence of many variations of climate in the north, but none datable to the early ninth century. moreover, the early Viking raids were in no sense migratory movements. The Vikings had every intention of returning with their loot and glory.
‘Mercantile conditions’. Here undoubtedly is a major cause of the Viking raids the most important of all. As we saw earlier in this chapter, when the Arab invasion disrupted the trade of the western Mediterranean and southern France, there was a corresponding growth in the mercantile activity of northern France. The Rhine became a great thoroughfare, and new trading opportunities developed on the coasts of the North Sea, particularly for the commercially-minded Frisians, living mainly in what is now Holland. As early as the eighth century, Frisian trade was well established in the North Sea countries, and when Charles Martel acquired Friesland in the year 734 he revived the Frankish North Sea trade through the skill and experience of the Frisians.
Up to that time it had not been easy for Denmark, especially southern Denmark, to participate in the North Sea trade. In the first place the Elbe was not a Scandinavian river, and secondly there was a dearth of good harbours on the west coast of Jutland. To reach the Baltic from the North Sea all vessels had to round the dangerous northerly point of Jutland – the Skaw (Skagen) – and many captains no doubt preferred the straight run to Norway. Soon after 800 the situation changed. The great emperor of the Franks subdued the Saxons and extended his northern frontier right up the Elbe. To prevent any further expansion the Danish king, Godfred, built a mighty earthwork, which is now called the ‘Danevirke’ (Danes’ [defensive earth-] work). this barrier was to serve a dual purpose: as a protection against attacks form the south, and also to shelter a new trade-route running across the south of Jutland from the Eider in the West to the Slie Fjord in the east, which cut out the long and perilous voyage round the Skaw. This new trade-route, the eastern and more vulnerable section protected by the Danevirke, offered attractive prospects of wealth and power for the Danes.
The opportunities for getting command of trade-routes, ardently exploited as they were by the northern countries, also stimulated an activity which in the past invariably followed the large-scale development of trade – piracy. Where ever seas and coasts were not defended, pirates preyed upon commerce; and the Vikings pirates were not slow to do so.
The expansion of trade, and the lure of the great riches which could be gained from piracy, were undoubtedly two of the most important factors behind the Viking raids.
In appraising these factors there is one which must not be overlooked – the Viking way of life. Thinking here of their deposition as we know it to have been: proud, adventurous, with a yearning for glory, a desire to excel in battle, and a scorn for death. These qualities of heroism and virility, combined with their mercantile skills, made them a powerful and dangerous race. Early monastic historians, in their of the Vikings, emphasized the cunning, cruelty, and treachery of this warlike people. The sagas, on the other hand, show them in a different light; telling of the boldness, generosity, frankness, and self-discipline of these famous warriors. No doubt in the aggregate they possessed all the qualities, complimentary and otherwise, which were ascribed to them: the Vikings were not all alike. But one thing they did all have in common: a daring resoluteness that made their period the greatest in the history of the North.