Post-classical history



What is a woman that you forsake her,

And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,

To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

RUDYARD KIPLING, ‘Harp Song of the Dane Woman’ (1906)1

Explaining the beginnings of the Viking Age is to enter into difficult and contentious territory. We can observe the Vikings’ arrival in the written sources, and glimpse what they wanted and how they went about getting it. But to question why people from northern Europe suddenly began to risk their lives on the wide ocean and brave the unknown dangers of foreign lands is another matter. To make progress on this front requires consideration of where the Vikings came from – not just geographically, though this is important for understanding the economic and political pressures that affected them, but also culturally. The structure of society in the pagan north, the shared values and beliefs – these were critical factors in pushing people towards the ‘Viking’ way. Ultimately, these are questions to which there can be no firm answers, only suggestions and reconstructions and ideas placed in the minds of people we cannot hope to know, but by doing so we can perhaps inch a little closer to understanding what made the Vikings tick.

Despite the very limited information provided by the written sources, it is clear that the people who were raiding Britain at the turn of the eighth century came from somewhere in the ‘Danish’-speaking (that is, Old Norse-speaking) north-east and – most importantly from the perspective of Christian writers – were heathens. In the year 800, the Baltic was a pagan lake. The people who had turned their attention to Britain came from the west of this region – from what is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden – but all of the neighbouring lands to the east were also inhabited by pagan peoples, by Baltic and Slavic tribes in (moving clockwise around the Baltic coast) modern Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia (again), Poland and Germany. It would be wrong to draw very firm distinctions or borders between these groups – as in Britain, it is better to try to forget everything we know about the way that the storms of history have left their tide lines on the map. The formation of modern north-eastern Europe – its political geography and its religious and ethno-linguistic fault-lines – has been the result of more than a millennium of often catastrophic upheaval that lasted well into the second half of the twentieth century. The people who formed Viking raiding parties could have been (and in later centuries demonstrably were) drawn from all over this wider region.2

To the south and west was the Carolingian Empire, a great swathe of Europe – corresponding to most of modern France, northern Italy, western Germany and the Low Countries – united under a Frankish king (the Franks were a Germanic tribe who had begun to settle the Roman province of Gaul in the fifth century and who give their name to the modern nation of France). That king, in the same year, had been crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo IX, a title that confirmed him as the sanctioned champion of an aggressive Christianity and the successor to the authority of the long-defunct Roman Empire in the west (the eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, centred on Constantinople – modern Istanbul – remained a going concern). That king would come to be known as ‘Karolus Magnus’: ‘Charles the Great’, or Charlemagne. By the time he received the imperial crown, Charlemagne had already redrawn the boundaries of Christendom in western Europe. In particular, a series of bloody campaigns against the pagan Saxons of northern Germany – effectively completed in 797, though revolts continued until 804 – had brought the boundaries of Frankish Christian Europe into contact with the pagan Scandinavian and Slavic tribes of the Jutland peninsula and western Baltic littoral. These wars had been exceptional for their combination of extreme brutality with religious zeal. In 772 Charlemagne ordered the destruction of the Irminsul, a holy tree or pillar central to Saxon worship.

Ten years later, in a particularly notorious incident, he had 4,500 Saxon prisoners beheaded on the banks of the River Weser near the town of Verden, apparently in retribution for their involvement in a revolt against Frankish domination. This was followed by laws that made death the penalty for refusing baptism.3 The violence of Charlemagne’s Christian mission prefigured the Crusades by three centuries.

Whatever the precise nature of the religious beliefs of the Saxons, it is likely – as we shall see – that they were shared, at least in part or in outline, by their neighbours to the north in what is now Denmark. Indeed, an inconsistent but interconnected network of beliefs, stories and rituals extended from the borders of the Frankish world throughout the Baltic world, linking together people of markedly different linguistic and cultural backgrounds through broadly compatible world-views and systems of social hierarchy. It is certain that Charlemagne’s bellicose Christian foreign policy would have sent ripples of alarm shuddering out across the Baltic. Kings, chieftains, priests and priestesses would have wondered how long it would be before their traditional way of life and their political independence would be snuffed out beneath the hooves of Frankish horsemen, how soon they would see their timber halls burning and their sacred groves falling beneath the axes of Christian missionaries.4

This fear and uncertainty prompted a range of reactions. Some, like the Slavic Obodrites, did a deal with the superpower to their west, accepting Charlemagne as nominal overlord, providing the Empire with military aid and, in return, maintaining a level of political and religious freedom. They did this, admittedly, under duress: Charlemagne had invaded their territory and taken hostages. The Danes, for their part, provided shelter to Charlemagne’s enemies and took steps to defend their landward border with Saxony by reinforcing the ditch and rampart structure – the Danevirke (literally the ‘Dane-work’) – that divided Germania from the Jutland peninsula.5 As Charlemagne’s conquests in Saxony became established geopolitical facts, Danish kings increasingly found themselves having to deal directly with Frankish power.

In 804, the Danish king Godfred arrived with his fleet and ‘the entire cavalry of his kingdom’ at Hedeby (Schleswig) on the Danish border.6 It was a show of strength and, after a diplomatic exchange with the emperor, he departed – feeling, presumably, that he had roared loudly enough to convince his Frankish neighbours that the Danes were not to be trifled with. In 808, however, he apparently changed his mind, this time crossing with his army into Obodrite territory to the south-east, sacking a number of Slav settlements and burning the coastal trading settlement at Reric. The Obodrite inhabitants of the town, on the Baltic coast east of Jutland (close to the modern German town of Wismar), may have been accustomed to paying tribute to the Danish king. If so, the alliance with Charlemagne put an end to that, and also gave the Frankish Empire a friendly port on the Baltic. It was probably for both these reasons that Godfred, after destroying the town, deported its traders to Hedeby, placing them – and their tax revenues – firmly within his own sphere of control.7

Charlemagne hardly leapt to the defence of his allies. The Frankish Royal Annals describe how he sent his son Charles to wait at the banks of the Elbe to make sure that no one entered Saxon territory; the Obodrites were left to their fate. Once the Danish army had withdrawn, the Franko-Saxon army crossed the river and burned the fields of those Slavic tribes who had allied themselves with the Danes (and who had probably done so in order to avoid similar treatment from the Danish king; this has ever been the fate of small tribal communities – the weakest always suffer the most). Some fairly empty diplomacy followed in 809 – conducted, so it would seem, to give both sides an excuse to shore up the loyalty of their various Slavic allies. Godfred, however, had not finished baiting the Empire.

In the summer of 810, Charlemagne was at the great palace complex he had commissioned at Aachen (now in Germany), the new capital of his hard-won realm. The cathedral at Aachen still incorporates a building – the Palatine Chapel – built as part of the original palace in the 790s by the architect Odo of Metz. The extraordinary scale and lavish attention to detail of the building, with its many-coloured marble floors and tiers of rounded portals – the eight sides of the central vestibule surrounded by the sixteen-sided outer perimeter – are the monumental vestiges of the staggering wealth and imperial grandeur of Carolingian power at its apogee. Gleaming white stone, green porphyry and blood-red Egyptian granite, frescos and mosaics, marble and bronze – the remains of great civilizations of the past were being gathered together, literally building a new empire.8

In 787, Pope Hadrian I wrote to Charlemagne agreeing to let him take from Ravenna ‘mosaic and marble and other materials both from the floors and the walls’, and the emperor’s biographer – Einhard – describes him having marbles and sculptures brought from Rome and Ravenna to adorn the palace at Aachen.9 The most startling of all the surviving fixtures of the Palatine Chapel, however, is the throne. Raised on a dais of six steps, the simple and unadorned seat exudes a living presence from the vaulted shadows. Though it has been sat upon by thirty-one German kings since Charlemagne’s day, it is indissoluble from the memory of its first master, the first Holy Roman Emperor. It is easy to indulge the imagination by picturing the great ruler brooding here amid the magnificence of his rule, chin resting on one hand as he gazed on the holy altar to the east, considering the price of power and the promise of salvation.

In June 810 Charlemagne’s eldest daughter, Hruodtrude, died and the emperor may well have found himself in sombre and reflective mood; whether he ever burst from his throne in rage or retreated to it in search of holy guidance can never be known, but the events that followed can have done little to improve his mood:

he received the news that a fleet of two hundred ships from Denmark had landed in Frisia, that all the islands off the coast of Frisia had been ravaged, that the army had already landed and fought three battles against the Frisians, that the victorious Danes had imposed a tribute on the vanquished, that already one hundred pounds of silver had been paid as tribute by the Frisians, and that King Godofrid [Godfred] was at home.10

The chronicler, evidently concerned that his Frankish readership would find this all rather hard to swallow, felt compelled to affirm that ‘that, in fact, is how things stood’. As if this were not bad enough, the elephant which Charlemagne had been given by Harun al-Rashid, caliph of Baghdad, died suddenly soon afterwards: a bad summer indeed.

Charlemagne, of course, was not prepared to let Godfred’s belligerence stand. He began to raise an army and would no doubt have pursued his opponent with all of his customary zeal, had not the Danish king died as suddenly as the elephant, apparently murdered by his own people (who would, understandably, have been worried that their king’s pathological warmongering was leading them into the teeth of Charlemagne’s war machine; before his death, Godfred had reportedly boasted that he was looking forward to fighting the emperor in open battle). What the Annals fail to conceal, however, is the extent to which the Frankish Empire had been rattled; Godfred, one might say, had given even Karolus Magnus the willies.

This may all seem like something of a digression: what, one might ask, do the border wars of Frankish kings have to do with the story of Viking Britain? But the story of Godfred and his dealings with the emperor brings a number of issues into perspective. Firstly, it highlights the critical point that, at precisely the same time as the first Viking raids in Britain were taking place, continental Europe was dominated by a mighty superpower at the height of its strength. Charlemagne’s Empire was economically and militarily superior to any other regional power, and its presence fundamentally affected the way in which rulers dwelling in its shadow (including Anglo-Saxon kings) could operate. New avenues for raiding may well have become markedly more appealing than once they had been. Secondly, it highlights the political and economic importance of towns and trade and the maritime technology by which these could be exploited, defended and harassed. Places like Reric, Hedeby and the coastal settlements of Frisia formed part of a much larger network. Such networks, and the opportunities for long-distance trade they presented, opened new frontiers for the most ruthless and entrepreneurial individuals – particularly those with access to effective maritime technology.11

Finally, the belligerent career of Godfred indicates that by the late eighth and early ninth century there were individuals in parts of Scandinavia who were able to wield resources and military power that had the potential, at the very least, to disrupt and dismay their most powerful neighbours. They were, moreover, human beings (not merely the demonic hordes of clerical imagination) – people who dealt in the pragmatic realities of early medieval politics and trade. They were people with aspirations towards lordship and power on an increasingly grand scale; and, to achieve and maintain it, they would need the trappings, the wealth, the loyalty and the prestige that society demanded of them.

At over 260 feet in length, the house at Borg on Vestvågøy is – by any standard – a massive structure. Dark, squat and muscular, the great hall holds fast to the Norwegian soil, its eaves reaching almost to the ground. It is a dwelling of the earth, rooted in the soil, rising from it like the gently arching back of some giant slumbering beast. In winter, if the snows come – despite the latitude, the Gulf Stream keeps the Lofoten Islands relatively warm – it is given back to the landscape: one more gentle mound among undulating drifts of white – betrayed, perhaps, only by the thin drift of wood smoke that rises from the roof-spine. And though massive, it represents an utterly different expression of power from that expressed by Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen. Where the Palatine Chapel soars, tiers of columns and arches reaching upward to heaven, the long-house at Borg spreads in the horizontal, hugging the skyline, long, low and narrow (only around 30 feet wide). Aachen is an expression of a cosmopolitan outlook, its stylistic cues taken from the architecture of Rome and Byzantium, its fixtures literally transplanted from elsewhere – signifiers of a pan-continental imperialism, rendered in imported stone. Borg, on the other hand, is a creature of the vernacular. Its form – the long, bow-sided plan and gently curving roof-line – is peculiar to early Scandinavian architecture, an evocation perhaps of the curving keels of the ships which defined northern life. More fundamentally, the hall itself is built from the very tissue of the land: the trees that were felled to raise its skeleton, the turf blocks that were cut and stacked to flesh it and to bind it to the earth. The hall is fashioned from its environment, moulded into a new form, clinging to the shores of a sheltered tidal estuary (Inner Pollen), the glittering peaks of Himmeltinden and Ristinden looming to the west.


The traveller rides from his ship on the lakeside, up, past outbuildings and over fields, to the great house hunkered in the snow, atop the low hill before the mountains. There are four doors along its eastern side, but the southernmost entrance is grander than the others, with its pillars and lintel carved with the images of writhing creatures, biting and twisting and gripping each other in a tangle of sinuous limbs and gaping mouths. The traveller dismounts and a thrall-boy appears from another door; he runs to take the reins of the horse, leading it away towards the north-easterly end of the building. The traveller follows for a few steps, catching the soft shuffle of heavy feet inside, a low whinny, the hot stench of dung and warm animal bodies. Cattle and horses, pungent and comforting: a homely smell. He smiles and turns back to the carved portal, ducks his head and passes through.

Inside the cold violet of the Lofoten dusk gives way to a deep orange glow of firelight, bouncing from tapestries and the rich umber of the timber walls. The flames cast shadows that set the carved beasts wriggling on the pillars that run in two aisles down the length of the building. Between them the long hearth lies sunken in the floor, flames licking up to light the rafters, heat filling the hall that extends to the right of the door. There are older men seated at benches along the sides of the hall, and they rise as he enters, bringing the wide world indoors, shaking the smell of winter from his cloak.


The long-house, as experienced today, is a reconstruction of the building as it may have looked between the early eighth century when it was constructed (on the site of an earlier, sixth-century building), and the mid-tenth century when it was demolished. The original hall lay a few hundred yards to the east; the position of its timber pillars, long since rotted away, are marked now with modern posts, its outline clearly visible from the air. At 270 feet in length, the building was 30 feet longer than Westminster Hall. Unlike that great sepulchral eleventh-century chamber, however, the hall at Borg was the social hub of a whole farming community, and saw all of life swirling through its portals. Archaeological investigation of the site suggests that the building was divided into five rooms. The largest of these – at the north-east end of the building – was a cattle byre and stable-block, a home to precious animals over the cold, dark winter months and a source of living warmth to the human inhabitants of the building. Perhaps for obvious reasons, the slope on which the building stands drops away to the north-east, meaning that the north-east end of the building lies around 5 feet lower than the part of the building that contained the domestic and human-centred areas – nobody wants a river of shit pouring through their living room all winter.12

Objects found in the rest of the building give clues to the various uses to which the apparently communal spaces were put: whetstones and spindle whorls, sword fragments, iron tools and arrow heads indicate the sorts of activities that men and women would have undertaken from and in the building – weaving, hunting, farming and preparations for the possibility of violence. There were also a number of what are known in archaeological circles as gullgubber – thin gold foils struck with images that are most commonly believed to depict mythological scenes – leading to the suggestion that the communal activities that took place here included religious or ritual functions as well as social and practical ones.13 The evidence seems to suggest that, unlike the hierarchical and authoritarian structures of the Christian Church, with its professional priesthood and purpose-built temples, Viking religion – at least at the beginning of the Viking Age – was personal and domestic. It is probable that, at places like Borg and elsewhere (such as Lejre in Denmark or Gamla Uppsala in Sweden), the principal heads of individual estates would have adopted the role of cult leader alongside their more prosaic responsibilities, perhaps taking the lead in making sacrifices of animals (blót) and in depositing the valuables that have been discovered in earth and water in these places. Gullgubber, precious objects already invested with mythic symbolism, would have made appropriate offerings.14

It has been suggested, with varying degrees of emphasis, that religion played a role in the violence doled out to churches, monasteries and Christian communities – that the Vikings, aware of the impending threat posed by aggressive Christian nations, turned on the most visible and accessible symbols of this religion in a sort of pre-emptive strike (or not so pre-emptive if, as one might argue, Charlemagne’s Saxon wars were regarded as the first demonstration of what awaited all their pagan neighbours). In such a war of cultural self-preservation, it would have mattered little whether the churches and monasteries were situated in Frankia or in Britain. The symbols were the same, and thus – it is argued – the political identity of their creators would have been regarded as part of a homogeneous bloc, a united threat to tribal culture and independence. Indeed, such was Charlemagne’s power that the whole of Christian Europe, Britain included, can in some respects be seen as lying within a Frankish sphere of influence.15 It is hard to imagine how the events of the late eighth and early ninth century could have failed to leave a deep and negative impression on communities around the Baltic, particularly about the nature of Christian faith and the character of its practitioners – violence, terror and subjugation would have seemed the inescapable outriders of the cross.

The destruction of the cross-slabs at Portmahomack can, from this perspective, be seen as evidence for an ideological component to Viking raiding. Just as a raiding army might harass the lands and dependants of an enemy king in order to force a confrontation, the Vikings – it could be argued – were directly and deliberately targeting the houses of God and his personnel. It is, it must be said, easy to get carried away with the idea that the Viking Age began as a pagan religious war. But as even the most frequently cited exponent of this thesis – Bjørn Myhre – has pointed out, Christianity should be seen in the light not just of its spiritual content but of the political affiliations it affirmed.16 For Charlemagne, as for many other European monarchs, Christianity represented a powerful toolkit of symbols, hierarchies and rituals through which he could emulate the political and military achievements of the Emperor Constantine and, by extension, Roman imperial power as a whole; simple soul-food it was not. Cultural vandalism directed by pagans towards those same symbols (if that is what Carver uncovered at Portmahomack) might therefore be better interpreted as a statement of defiance against rampant Frankish imperialism – not anything ‘anti-Christian’ in the strictly religious sense.

However, what seems to have been much more important than any of this was the acquisition of wealth. This term is a little abstract – in modern culture ‘wealth’ tends to be measured by fairly crude standards: the amount of money in a bank account, the relative value of share prices, projected tax receipts, quantity and quality of property, land, assets.17 ‘Wealth’ in the early Viking Age, however, can be seen as a rather more expansive concept. Luxury goods – such as the English and Frankish glassware also discovered at Borg – were highly prized for their intrinsic quality and usefulness, and ownership of them was, as now, one index of achievement. But such assets also performed key social functions, and their ownership hinted at broader networks or the potential to forge them. In the early Middle Ages, gift-giving between lords and their retainers (as well as between rulers) was the basic agent of social cohesion and a measure of relative political substance; in return for weapons, jewellery and luxury items (and the expectation of more), men would pledge loyalty to their lords as warriors. This relationship was the fundamental basis of the war-band, and bonds thus forged were subsequently invested with and cemented by solemn oaths and a code of heroic ethics.

The system was very similar in Britain and had endured for centuries: the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin (describing events of the fifth century, but written any time between the sixth and thirteenth centuries), for example, describes the operation of a war-band of this nature – its constituents paid in advance for their loyalty and support in battle with mountains of food and rivers of booze.18 In Old English and Old Norse poetry, however, this relationship had developed into a material exchange, driven in part by the desirability of the goods being produced in Frankish and, to a lesser extent, Anglo-Saxon workshops. By the Viking Age this had crystallized into a general expectation of the role of a monarch, expressed most succinctly in Old English maxims (‘the king belongs in his hall, sharing out rings’),19 but also repeated through a mind-boggling number of ‘kennings’ in skaldic verse – an economical means by which to emphasize the virtue of any given ruler: ‘lofty ring-strewer’; ‘thrower of gold’; ‘eager, wolf-gracious bestower of friendly gifts’ …20

The ownership of precious objects was thus a symbol of the quality of one’s social connections – not merely personal riches, but a visible symbol of the patronage of a powerful lord; perhaps even, ultimately, signifying the potential to dole out gifts to one’s own dependants. The ability of important individuals to acquire prestigious objects was, therefore, an absolute prerequisite to the exercise of power, and generosity was seen as one of the two fundamental pillars of exemplary lordship. The other pillar, however, perhaps less immediately appealing to modern sensibilities, was the ability to provide an unending diet of human corpses to satisfy the sanguine cravings of wolves, ravens and eagles.21 The king or warlord who could demonstrate himself to be both open- and bloody-handed was likely to cement his reputation – ideally in verse – and the ownership of portable wealth spoke to both of these qualities.

Happily, these two traits dovetailed neatly. It is quite obvious how a Viking warlord, seeking to improve both his reputation and the size of his war-band, could kill two birds with one stone by violently extracting wealth from foreign shores and doling it out among his followers. Such a socio-economic system, however, has its drawbacks. Though its mechanisms are straightforward, its demands necessarily mushroom: increasing war-bands require increased resources, increased resources require larger and more frequent raids, larger and more frequent raids require larger war-bands, and so on.22

Of course, there are other ways of acquiring portable wealth, and it seems that Scandinavian traders were pioneers in exploiting the trade networks that had developed around the North Sea during the eighth century. We have seen already the keen interest that Godfred took in securing access to Baltic and North Sea trade, but there is no reason to separate the acquisition of goods through trade from the violence enacted elsewhere. Books, exhibitions and school textbooks often make a great deal of the characterization of Vikings as either ‘raiders’ or ‘traders’, with the public encouraged to view the Vikings through one or other of these lenses. This irritating meme is, in essence, a product of the academic debates of the 1970s and 1980s – debates which, while important at the time, have tended to perpetuate the wrong sorts of questions. It is obvious, of course, that raiding and trading were never mutually exclusive phenomena; the Viking slave-trade is the most obvious manifestation of this false dichotomy. The burning, killing and plundering that accompanied Viking activity around the coasts of Britain and Ireland were carried out by the same individuals who might have been found weeks later hawking their captives in the Hedeby slave-market or peddling bits of plundered church furniture in the bazaars of central Asia. Nevertheless, the evidence for peaceful trading is plentiful, and Scandinavian traders must have been a familiar sight at major emporia like Ipswich, York and Southampton. Indeed, it is probably as a result of such trading expeditions that Scandinavians came to be aware of the wealth of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the geography of the British coastland and the location of monasteries and the wealth they housed. It also, presumably, allowed for an insight into local political fault-lines that ambitious men might hope to exploit.23

None of this can really diminish the possibility that the earliest raids were the outcome of individual initiative, with their subsequent popularity among Scandinavian seafarers a reflection of the ease and profitability with which monasteries could be divested of their valuables. This comes close to a Victorian view of Viking derring-do, a tendency to explain the Viking Age by the hot-blooded ‘pith and pluck’ of Nordic men that drove them to adventure. But it cannot be denied that human agency would have had a disproportionate impact in an age when populations were small, and when stories of young men returning from overseas, their boats sitting low in the water with treasure and slaves, would have spread fast and far. To the farming communities of Norway, stretched out along the narrow strip of cultivable land, eager for the social and economic capital to resist political pressure from the south, such apparently easy wealth would have seemed to present opportunities on a scale previously undreamt of. There is unlikely to have been a shortage of volunteers for future expeditions, or a dearth of ambitious chieftains planning new adventures. Perhaps the lord of Borg was one of them.


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