The Viking Age, spanning from the late 8th to early 11th century, emerged from a mixture of factors that shaped the socio-economic and political landscape of Scandinavia.
As the Vikings did not have a written history, it’s not fully understood why the Vikings ventured from Scandinavia so frequently since the end of the 8th century, but it’s clear that no single event caused the Viking Age. There are many multifaceted and intertwined theories and factors that have been recognised by historians as having converged and contributed to create the environment that fuelled the Viking expansion, including economic pressures, political fragmentation, technological advancements, social structures, and cultural influences.
Here we look at the key elements that contributed to the onset of this transformative era.
1. Fractious kingdoms
The political landscape of Scandinavia was marked by fragmented and often fractious kingdoms. Tribal communities, each with its own chieftains, vied for power and resources, creating an environment ripe for both internal conflicts and external exploration. The lack of a unified political structure facilitated individual leaders’ ambitions to seek fortune beyond their borders.
Indeed according to Icelandic Ynglinga saga (based on earlier writings of Norwegian skalds), after Harald Fairhair brought Norway under his control, many minor chieftains decided to leave rather than live under his rule, preferring to go raiding or settle elsewhere.
Longships were a technological innovation that played a pivotal role in the Viking Age. Dating back to the early Iron Age, these long streamlined canoes and boats were powered by oars, which worked well in coastal waters. Various forms of ship were developed within the period, their use and power determined by the number of oars.
Longships were characterised by their shallow draft, which enabled them to withstand travel in open rough seas, navigate in shallow inland rivers into the interior of other countries, as well as make beach landings – crucial for surprise raiding tactics. Smaller longships were also light enough to transport over land, enabling Viking crews to move them between waterways with ease.
Their thin, streamlined hull, symmetrical at the bow and stern, allowed for swift changes in direction, while advancements like keels and detachable rudders improved stability and led to the widening of the hull. This also allowed for the addition of a sail, enabling the longships to reach unprecedented speeds of up to 15 knots. A longship could leave Norway and reach the eastern coast of England in under a week.
The clinker building method of overlapping planks made longships faster to build and lighter, providing Vikings with a strategic edge in both trade and raiding activities.
3. Lack of women
One intriguing factor that might have contributed to Viking expansion was a scarcity of women in Scandinavia. This scarcity, whether real or perceived, is suggested by historical records and sagas. The shortage of potential brides could have fuelled the incentive for young Viking men to seek partners beyond their home shores, leading to migrations and the establishment of new settlements.
Furthermore, the treasures brought home from raids abroad would have been enough for young men to afford to pay a bride price (paid by a man to a woman’s family for her hand in marriage), increasing their chance of marriage – a further incentive to join raids.
Inheritance laws played a significant role in shaping Viking society. The Vikings practiced primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited the bulk of the family’s wealth and land. Without wealth or land to farm, this left younger sons with limited prospects. Many of these younger sons sought wealth, fortune and status elsewhere, either through trade or by joining expeditions, contributing to the outward expansion of Viking activities.
5. Climate and weather
The climatic conditions during the Viking Age may have played a role in triggering migrations. A period known as the Medieval Warm Period (c. 950-1250 AD) created more favourable conditions for agriculture in western Europe, including Scandinavia, potentially supporting a growing population. Simultaneously, combined with their shipbuilding prowess, the warming climate could have opened up new routes to the Vikings for navigation, encouraging exploration and expansion, particularly in the now ice-free seas of the north Atlantic.
6. Political strife
In 782 AD, Emperor Charlemagne crushed a Saxon rebellion near the Elbe River. Afterwards he ordered 4,500 prisoners to be baptised in the river – drowning them as a lesson to other potential rebellions. Forced conversions were common under Charlemagne’s rule, but this event, ‘The Massacre of Verden’ had a royal connection. The Saxon leader, Widukind, was brother-in-law to the Danish king, and news of the massacre reached the Danish court, fuelling Danish resentment.
Danish raids on Frisian coasts (modern-day Netherlands) immediately intensified, including an assault on the trade port of Dorestad. The subsequent attack on Lindisfarne monastery a decade later may have been connected to the Verden massacre, suggesting political strife as a potential cause preceding the Viking Age.
7. Relatively easy targets
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there had been many small, unruly kingdoms across Europe, which often couldn’t maintain the armies they needed to provide security. This left a power vacuum which, along with their battlefield skills and superior boats, made it relatively easy for the Vikings to exploit.
Approximately 300 hundred years later, England was divided into numerous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms such as Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. Settlements and wealth often concentrated on the coastline and rivers, as it was much faster to trade by boat than crossing over forested land. A lot of wealthy places, like coastline monasteries and other Church properties, were dangerously exposed.
Even in warfare, Christian fighters would almost never have attacked such sites, and subsequently Church properties were unprotected, despite usually holding vast amounts of wealth. However, as the Vikings weren’t Christians, they had no problem with attacking them, viewing Church property as an easy target to amass wealth quickly. The infamous Lindisfarne raid in 793 AD in northeastern England marked the beginning of such attacks, unsettling the European religious world.
Later, the Vikings took advantage of internal conflicts in Europe to extend their activity further inland, with some Frankish rulers (modern-day France and Germany) even paying them to avoid attacking their subjects.
8. Trade and economic incentives
Vikings were also skilled traders. Following the collapse of Roman-era trade routes, the desire for valuable commodities such as silver, gold, and exotic goods had driven the Vikings to establish trade routes, ranging from the British Isles to the Mediterranean and even to the Silk Road. Trading activities contributed significantly to the prosperity of Viking communities.
Archaeological discoveries such as whetstones in settlements such as Lade (an important waterway on a peninsula bordering the Trondheimsfjord) in northern Norway, suggest early trade links between remote Scandinavian regions and more urbanised southern Baltic regions as early as the start of the 8th century. If trade had also indirectly been established between Lade and the English Channel at this time, contact from that trade may have inspired the Vikings to shift focus from trade to more lucrative raiding.
As Europe increasingly became Christian, Christian traders refused to trade with Vikings, potentially prompting them to intensify raids to compensate for lost income or to assert their power. Some Viking traders may have adopted Christianity to secure better deals, but by the end of the Viking Age, most had fully embraced Christianity.
9. Linguistic and cultural influences
The interconnectedness of languages and cultures in medieval Scandinavia also played a role in Viking expansion. Shared linguistic roots and cultural ties facilitated communication and collaboration among the various Norse communities. This interconnectedness allowed for the exchange of ideas, technologies, and exploration strategies.
10. Desire for adventure and exploration
In addition to economic motivations, the Vikings were driven by a spirit of adventure and exploration. The allure of the unknown, desire for fame, and the challenge of navigating uncharted waters motivated many to undertake daring journeys. The saga literature, while often mythologised, reflects this spirit of exploration that defined the Viking Age.
Raiding, far from being solely about violence and accumulating wealth, also functioned as a means of social capital – proving a platform for individual Vikings to distinguish themselves and earn recognition for their skills, reliability, and courage, thereby building reputations among their peers and superiors.
The religious landscape of the time, centred around the Norse pantheon, influenced Viking attitudes and actions. Norse paganism emphasised the role of the Norns – three wise women spinners who determined each person’s fate. This belief, tied to the concept of a predetermined lifespan, influenced Viking perspectives on death.
Death in battle was considered honourable, and the assurance of an afterlife in Valhalla, where warriors were rewarded, fostered a warrior culture. The prospect of glory in battle and a distinguished place in the afterlife motivated many Vikings to participate in raiding and warfare.
12. Economic boom and population pressure
The economic boom triggered by early Viking raids and trading might have played a role in the population growth of Scandinavia. Despite its large landmass, the region’s inhospitable conditions led to a continuous struggle for resources like arable land. As prosperity increased, so did the population, intensifying the need for alternative solutions.
Consequently, the Vikings, seeking new opportunities and wealth, engaged in an increasing frequency and intensity of expeditions that eventually evolved into extensive trade networks.