Vikings: Bad-Boy Raiders or Traders?


The Vikings of Scandinavia embarked on greater spatial as well as institutional mobility at one point after having fared as a largely homogeneous group boasting a comparative advantage in their ship building fit for coastal fjords and long-range sail alike. When zooming in on the seemingly discontinuous turn, which in hindsight appears a matter of timing, one starts wondering about the rationale behind such a sustained presence amidst a severe milieu, in the first place.

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Irrespective of the causality with an eye on whether the barbarian raids were largely an aftermath of the Roman downturn in the Age of Migration as opposed to prior impact, the present study will subject the Viking legacy to scrutiny in line with the grand trends looming on many a level at the time, as well as with respect to the stages that could be gradually sequenced while proving intertwined. Among other things, it will be shown how technical advancement had facilitated their expansion beyond either contractual raiding or guarding, whose intermediary nature was an aspect of trade in its own right.


The fact that their British campaigns occurred ahead of their Continental expansion may have been due to the timing overlap between the stages at which their naval technologies had grown adequate for off-shore travel, alongside the Anglo-Saxon society having emerged as a success model in terms of both affluence and literacy. An island might have appeared more of a sure game and prey as compared to the continental mainland from the standpoint of the sea craft profile. Since it would be awkward to speculate of any regular engineering science back then, optimal construction design must have taken them centuries to evolve experimentally as well as experientially, and hence was difficult to mimic or replicate, much less countered early on until after the English Saxons had learned to build smaller ships, in addition to ocean outbound cargo keel craft, as one alternative to the Scandinavian long-ships that enjoyed lesser maneuver in shallow coastal fords, let alone inland rivers. Despite slow modifications overall, war ships were following suit far faster in response to developments on the other side, which could be thought as one ironic instance of rewarding escalation, or a virtuous circle of technical development.

When weighing in between the seemingly polar extremes of raiding versus trading, a tossup could be more appropriate, bearing in mind that the Angles and Saxons had once invaded the Brytonic lands likewise. For that matter, it was perhaps the control over major trading traffic that was of interest to all the rival parties involved, early crusaders not least. Finally, the Vikings were far from the only threat the British Isles were confronted with, in which circumstances the former would be deployed as guarding patrol for the Southern England so regular it may have accounted for the establishment of Danelaw, among other things.

The climate and soil conditions turning increasingly adverse starting from about the mid-500s, and inter-tribal pressure mounting at about the same time with the advent of a post-Roman non-system, may have afforded a window of opportunity for learning by trial and error leading up to sustained settlements. As one long-term or indeed meta-trend, Grabowski has detected that the mutually reinforcing patterns of spatially diversified crop rotation had declined by the Viking Age throughout the Swedish mainstay.

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On the other hand, trade-centered proximity as well as raid-driven follow-up attacks would at times result in escalatory stand-off, as the Carolingian Empire and the barbarians were playing a zero-sum game of spreading the Christendom versus resisting the institutional spillover, respectively. Somehow empirically, it was not until after preponderant conversion that the Viking identity was observed to have turned less aggressive, whether it be throughout the eastward expansion (what would come to be known as the Varangian presence in Byzantium and Kievan Rus) or the Western European domain, save for the late coalescent crusades.

Although this identity never emerged intact, much less dominant, the cultural interchange was largely two-way, as can be showcased in the loanwords pertaining to a hierarchy that decided the distribution of property rights for legal purposes, e.g. eorls and ceorls as opposed to cyningcs or later cyngs or distinguished from the earldorman bureacracy in Brytonic hinterlands and thegns or thanes in Kievan Rus. In any event, as the derivatives of their law emerged in forms as diverse yet entangled as Aethelberht’s English law versus the French Norman law, they would find themselves in a better position to engage in contractual arrangements while enforcing royal and now-Catholic polities throughout the Scandinavian homelands.

In light of controversial annals, as pointed out in Harris and Ryan, semantic and institutional impart appears far more plausible and rich in implications. For the same token, as Coupland has observed, post-hoc myth of allegedly excessive, Yanomamo style cruelty or unmotivated ways has neither measured up to evidence nor outmatched whatever abuse attributed to the incumbent Franks or the rest of the no-longer-extant barbarians.

As the ‘tragedy of commons’ adage has it, whilst nomadic setups result in accelerated dissipation of the local resources, it takes longer to learn more domiciled styles and sustainable economics. However, one mixed or proxy strategy the Vikings resorted to early on was about indirect impact via corrupt, stooge type host administrations, which garnered tributes and effective rule alike. For instance, Sawyer has suggested that, even though Aethelred of Mercia once had to raise taxes in order to pay the Viking outsourced guard, it was not until the early 1000s that the Danes started posing a threat to the empire prior to the Norman Conquest. On the other hand, if they ever transfered a model of governance across Europe, it remains to be seem whichever has had the more pronounced impact, prior English or posterior Norman.

The otherwise disparate British cultures may have merged, at least in the interim run, toward a shared identity as a response to the commonly perceived Viking enemy. On second thought, the Scandinavian, ragnarok-centric mind and ways might not have been deemed at odds with either the christened Europe’s apocalyptic expectations or the Papal plans of piety-and-awe based control. Inasmuch as the sinners on either side were seen as a scarecrow or curse to each other, the Rome still enjoyed the go-between or umpire type leverage. Apart from the political causes, however, it may have been the ‘shape-shifting’ patterns in art and the unconscious alike that underpinned the Norse geographic and cultural flexibility. This could be compared with some regularities, whether similar or adopted, as in the dynamic English place-names ending with –inga, yet contrasted against hierarchical patterns detectable early on. Put simply, the inherently hierarchic institutional structure was largely vivid or adaptable by design.

In other words, the resultant institutional opposition was rather mixed or unstable in the mid-800s through late 1100s, by which time the heretofore heathen Scandinavia had turned less of an unwieldy whole, as the now-Christian hierarchy built upon a host of small-scale rulers whose boosted ambitions would force each to cooperate with Rome first and foremost, while possibly defecting on inner coalitions.


Insofar as evidence can be compared to, as well as discerned from, the overlapping trends of the Viking Age and Dark Ages, there does not appear to be any major divergence between the Continental versus Viking developments in technology or prevalent patterns of governance. Part of the reason could lie in the fact many of the Germanic tribes had co-existed from the outset while intensifying rivalry as well as institutional and trade interchange amidst major challenges they were all increasingly exposed to following the Roman heyday. Coalitions were unstable from day one hovering anywhere in between ally raids and defecting. Whilst the Scandinavians had boasted a long-evolved technical edge, pertaining to naval design, still the spillover that resulted from proxy fights and outsourcing alike would facilitate institutional convergence at later stages, with the unique Viking identity or modus operandi dissolving ex post. One tentative corollary could be that, whereas it was long-term comparative advantage that would inform trade, raiding was driven by short-lived absolute advantage.

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