The Viking Era by R. A. Cranwell
“Set justice aside then, and what are kingdoms but fair theivish purchases? ….if the thievish ragamuffins grow to be able to keep forts, build habitations, possess cities and conquer adjoining nations, then their government is no longer called thievish, but graced with the eminent name of a kingdom, given and gotten, not because they left their thievish practices, but because they may now use them without danger of the law.
Elegant and excellent was that pirates answer to the great Macedonian Alexander, who had taken him. Alexander asked how he durst molest the seas, he replied with a free spirit, ‘How durst thou molest the whole, world? But because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief. Thou doing it with a great navy art called an emperor. ‘ ”
St Augustine. City of God: iv,4.
This quotation appears as the preface to one of the most recent works about Vikings, and throws an interesting light on what has come to be regarded as the Viking achievements. We often think, maybe, of the Vikings in terms of flaxen haired warriors, from mystic lands, steeped in legends of Valhalla and the family of the northern gods of Odin, Thor and Freya.
But they were scarcely held in such high esteem by the people whom they plundered. To be fair, though, they were really no worse than the average brigands or armies at large in Europe at the time, which is generally accepted to have been between 800 and 1150.
The origins of the Vikings are somewhat more recent than that of the Lapps, but settlement in coastal and southern areas of Scandinavia was certainly well advanced over two thousand years ago. They took to sheltered inlets along the whole of Norway’s coastline as far as the Lofoten Islands, although their first settlements were probably in southern Sweden and Denmark as they migrated from the fringes of northern Europe.
For the most part their settlements were much as they remain today in the Faeroes, a group of islands which still follows in much of the traditions of the Viking way of life. The villages, or in the case of Norway, the isolated farmsteads, were built as a) Isthmus villages; b) Bay Head villages; c) Sound villages and d) Villages in steep or inaccessible localities.
Their requirements of a site were few, but vital to long term settlement. They needed access to the sea and a place to draw up a boat. They needed access to large areas of grazing land and a reasonably level and well drained patch of land for a farm house and maybe to grow some grain.
From each of these original sites grew a string of villages, some much further inland as the need for resources to sustain and expand the local economy grew. Some villages grew up near sites of iron ore excavation which they processed and sold in bars or rods to produce weapons or tools; still others settled near outcrops of soap stone – a soft rock which is easily shaped with metal tools.
They produced bowls, mugs, containers of every sort and ornaments. These small and isolated settlements steadily came under the influence of local chieftains, who rivalled one another, competing for more and richer territories. Some trade existed, based on the small villages in the mountains and on the fish surpluses from the coast moving inland.
But it really began to flourish when the Vikings encountered the peacable Lapps as they controlled more and more territory. Instead of spending time hunting for themselves, the Vikings soon discovered that they could extract furs, amber and walrus ivory from the Lapps merely by terrorising them. This soon became established in the form of “Tribute” which in the dark ages was a fancy term for protection rackets.
Even before they really moved onto the great sea faring raids the Vikings in Southern Sweden had travelled to the east and were known as “Rus”; the princes of Kiev, it is said, bore many physical and social, (anti-social?) traits from Scandinavia.
By the eighth century, Arab traders were operating in the Ukraine and other Southern areas of Russia as they ventured northward from Constantinople (Istanbul). The silver dirhams which the Arabs paid with were much sought after by the Vikings to melt down for ornaments, since coinage in those days was in the weight of the composition (gold or silver) rather than merely having a face value like today’s coinage. The Lapp tributes brought handsome prices for their rarity and luxury values in the Middle East and Southern Europe.
Direct trade with Europe, though, was somewhat limited to the towns of northern Germany and Russia, up until the 8th Century, when the advent of modern technologies from the south of Europe brough fresh horizons for the Vikings. The new technology was the use of masts in ships which enabled them to undertake long sea voyages in boats which were previously rowed by up to 8 men on an oar. This was a turning point, not only in Scandinavia but also for the future development of Europe.
The expansion of trade was rapid. The Vikings visited the shores of Europe all along the Atlantic coastline, burning villages, stealing and capturing people to carry back to their inlets. Sometimes captives were enslaved in the Viking homelands, where a class of slaves had always existed but often now, they were taken further afield to be sold to the Arab traders.
Originally, of course the majority of these raids were as plundering expeditions but the frequency of their attacks soon enabled the Vikings to establish supremacy in the areas they went to and the Northern islands of Scotland had soon become part of the Viking kingdoms.
In most places virtually no resistance was met. In France, however, not only did they not offer much resistance, they actually gave huge areas of territory over to Viking control in Normandy to try and avoid more damaging attacks further inland towards Paris. This type of event was of great significance, for it not only gave the Vikings an opportunity for much greater cultural influence (culture? It was the money they were after!), but it also prompted changes of attitude by the competing chieftains.
After all, if you controlled a large area of land, you were scarcely going to get the best benefit from it by constant plunder. In Britain, too, substantial areas around Dublin and Northumberland were Viking settlements, but it was not really until 867, when an attack on East Yorkshire made York the Viking capital of a Northern kingdom, that their influence was anything other than that of murderous barbarians.
By this time Viking chieftains had influence over significant parts of Europe, but it must be remembered that although they were united by a roughly similar language throughout Scandinavia, the chieftains never acted in any unified fashion, for they were still all competing with one another to build their own little theivish kingdoms. But even at the height of their influence, there never existed any mechanisms of large scale government,(such as systematic law enforcement or taxation), nor, indeed, anything to unify their actions.
Thus, we find numerous individual raids on London and the Southeast, which was already a prosperous area. One raiding party of some 60 longboats, landed and burned villages along the Thames Estuary, and then threatened to attack London unless a suitable ransom was paid. The ransom paid, £15,000, would probably be as many millions today, if not more. So they were pretty successful international gangsters. They were shrewd too, for having once received the ransom, half of them sailed homeward while the other half were paid on a retainer basis to protect London from attacks by other marauding groups – mercenaries, too!
In the areas they attacked, one of the effects was to drive people from the countryside and into the towns – which were safer. The towns were also made safer from attack by a great spate of fortress building from which we see the evidence in the dozens of small fortified towns of Northern France. However, it also created new centres of population which initiated the commercial and educational centres which persist up until the present day. The duration of this period was really 800 to 1150 although sporadic attacks occurred after that.
The principal reason behind the fading of this era was the spread of Christianity from Northern Europe and also at times through the conversion of chieftains whilst away on raids. This had some effect, certainly on the softening up of attitudes to their neighbours, but the main by-product which came with Christianity was the closely linked system of Church and State, which was a significant import.
By this time the areas in which the Vikings were settled were controlled by ever smaller groups of Chiefs, probably as few as 4 at times. Large numbers of conversions brought an additional perspective to the competing chiefs, for if they gained the approval of the Church, they would also surely gain the approval of the population.
This proved to be the case, and by the year 1200, the secular and religious rulers of Scandinavia were very closely linked. Tax collectors were appointed, judges, armies under one command (although tribal wars continued to affect the balance of power). Religious and administrative centres, seats of learning, again, closely linked with the Church were all in existence in the 12th century, and for the first time laws were written down.
Some of these laws can be quite instructive in understanding something of Scandinavian society and their general way of life. For example, if a freeman were killed, a monetary compensation was to be paid to relatives. Not so unusual, you might think, until you find out that the compensation was payable to relatives as distant as fourth cousins, (people who only had a common great-great-great-parent).
So if young Sven was killed in some local skirmish, then all his relatives up to fourth cousins were to be compensated by the equivalent relative of the slayer, and the degree of compensation was determined to minute but exact amounts. Thus we can see that very complex relationships existed within family groups, (even though it is now unclear whether all such compensation was paid) and that those relationships were probably much closer than we could imagine today.
Even so, it seems that it was only rarely true to say that massive extended families lived together in the long houses which we associate with the Scandinavian era. They were much more in use as meeting houses and halls for the many special occasions in the calendar. It seems more likely that people lived in close communities but with separate buildings for each family group, and shared outbuildings. Some records do support the idea of large and communal houses in places too.
A frequent feature of households was the long fire of charcoal in a trench, at which several family groups may have shared. The walls of the farmhouse at Stöng in Iceland were about 6 feet thick, of turf laid on 2 courses of stones. The farmhouse was buried under ash in volcanic eruptions of 1104, and there are few such well preserved remains in mainland Scandinavia.
Sleeping was on the large raised platforms, which again were probably covered with dried turf, as good insulation; keeping warm was of vital importance. In the sack of Dublin by Vikings in 1000 AD, it was noted that common items stolen were bedding and feathers.
Storage was always a problem, for although separate buildings were constructed for byres (cattle stalls), and smithies where the specialised equipment was probably kept, the household goods were more difficult to deal with. Cupboards were unknown, and so many things would be hung upon the walls or piled up on the floor. Some chests have been found as well. Windows, too, did not exist as we know them, for they were simply holes in the walls that could be conveniently blocked up.
The basic home economy was largely derived from agriculture, in which large numbers of slaves were used, from hunting and from fishing, of course, people such as story tellers, craft workers and embroiderers would never starve through the long hard winters because their skills were so valuable in making life tolerable.
Summer months saw the movement of stock to pastures in the uplands where a goat or cowherd would spend the entire season, watching over the animals, making butter and cheese. In Autumn, the weaker animals would be killed off for food over the winter and dried, salted or pickled. Sheep and goats could survive much of the winter with little help, but cattle were kept inside and needed, it has been estimated, over a ton of hay each to survive the winter.
Crops grown were oats, barley and rye, all of which require lower temperatures and poorer soils than wheat, for example. Brassicas, cabbages peas and hops were all common and were greatly supplemented from the wide range of wild fruits. In dire straits even acorns could be used to make a sort of bread and the seaweed which often fed stock in the coastal areas would be eaten by humans too.
If the life of the Viking seems harsh, then the lot of the slave must have been unbearable for many. It is estimated that over 10,000 people inhabited Iceland by the year 1100 of which only 2,000 were recorded, i.e. they were the freemen, since slaves technically did not count as people really. Records in Scandinavia showed that 15 to 18 slaves in a household was not uncommon. Slaves could escape bandage by buying their freedom, but this was a very unlikely occurrence, since the extent of commerce in which they could engage was extremely limited.
In Sweden for example, the limit to which a slave could engage in trade was to purchase a knife. Freedom could also be won by fighting on your master’s account when under attack by enemies. Slaves were allowed some human activities too. Men and women could associate together, although no slave marriage was recognised in law at all, except by the 13th century by permission of their owner. They were not judged to be of responsible character, but this sometimes worked to the advantage of a slave:
“Now a freeman and a slave commit a theft together; It is the freeman who Is the thief and the slave shall not lose by it, for the man who steals by his slave, steals by himself”
Also whereas a slave who killed a freeman, (and there must have been quite a lot of rebellion), could never be named as his slayer or gain any credit from the act; there were instances when a slave was perfectly entitled to kill freemen:
“A thrall has greater rights than a freeman in one matter. He has the right to kill on account of his wife, even though she is a bondmaid, but a freeman has not the right to kill on account of a bondmaid, even though she is his woman”
We can see, if only from this quotation alone, that women’s roles in Viking Scandinavia, were treated as insignificant. The lot of the slave too, changed significantly under Christian influence. Previously the old or infirm and the children of slaves were killed or taken out and left to die in the cold. Now the new and seemingly classless religion gave rights of baptism, marriage and burial to all adherents. So the potential for social change was quite substantial but as in all cases where property is involved change was slow.
To round off, it’s worth looking briefly at the sort of things Vikings did for enjoyment in their spare time from plundering etc. There were the two most common pastimes of drink, and women as paid entertainment for the better off male Vikings. (Men’s history is as usual the only recorded history). Lowlier folk contented themselves with word games, riddles and board games; chess and checkers (draughts) were well known, and of course embroidering and story telling.
Music must have been common too, but of all the Nordic instruments, the remains of only the harp have been found. Travelling tinkers and musicians were common as were jugglers and acrobats, but musicians of the itinerant variety were about as well thought of as many rock musicians are today, (part of our Viking inheritance), as shown by this final quotation from a law in Vastergotland in Sweden:
“If a player is wounded, one who goes with viol or drum, then a wild heifer is to be brought to the raised middle of the meeting place. Its tail is to be shaven of hair and well greased. Then the player is to be given newly greased shoes. Then he is to hold the heifer by its tail and the heifer to be lashed with a sharp whip. If he can hold it he shall have this fine animal and enjoy it as a dog enjoys grass. If he cannot hold it, then he shall have and put with what he got, shame and hurt”
This is the writing of Robert A. Cranwell (1986) and you can read about his trips of taking people around the world at his website Amateur Emigrant: