“They (the Vikings) were not ignorant barbarians. They knew exactly what kind of military and ideological pressure they were up against.”(Bjørn Myhre)
Whenever we hear of Vikings we are presented with the idea of completely unprovoked attacks by ignorant barbarians who performed acts of cruelty and sacrilege more or less for the fun of it. This is a stereotype that needs to be seriously revised. More and more historians begin to agree that the first Viking attacks were the direct result of Christian provocations and a very real threat against Scandinavian culture and religion and a means to secure ancient and very important international trade routes. This article is a continuation of the article on Iron Age Migrations, see here.
The Viking Age…
It is common to say that the Viking Age began with the attack on Lindisfarne monastery in 793 AD and lasted until the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when king Haraldr Hardráði (Hard-Ruler) fell. In Britain, even small groups of Vikings operating with three to six ships could wreak havoc, and such raids crushed existing power structures and paved the way for the establishment of the kingdoms of England and Scotland. In Ireland, the Vikings established the first great cities. In the continent they influenced the divisions of the Carolingian Empire and established the realm of Normandy which had an enormous influence on the history of France, England and Italy. Also Norway became a kingdom of its own as a direct result of the Viking Age.
But Viking raids had been going on in Scandinavia a long time before the early 9th century. The various sagas suggest centuries of Viking fleets in the Baltic and Finnish oceans and along the Scandinavian and North European coasts, and Viking chieftains had settled in Aldeigjuborg, Russia, at least by 752 AD. But the raids were given a whole new character from the end of the 8th century AD onwards.
The Christian, Frankish Threat
It is now often believed that the Viking raids from Scandinavia from the start were attempts to ward off the Frankish expansion. Even in the early 8th century AD the threat from the south could be felt in Scandinavia. The Danes in particular could not but see the danger of invasion from the south and began building large defensive fleets and other ocean-based defensive systems. This was intensified when the Frankish leader Karl Martell (714-741) pillaged Friesland in 734 AD and killed their military leader.
This Frankish victory so close to Denmark was the main reason why the Danes built such a strong naval military fleet, yet even as early as the 720s they had built their first canal defensive system, the Kanhave Canal. Another system of defense was to place poles in the ocean close to the entrance to important ports and power centers. The first Danish maritime military base in Schlei is dated to 734 AD and the first constructions of the great wall known as Danevirke began in 737 AD. The Danevirke was a sort of northern European “Chinese Wall” – the palisade was 4-5 meters high, and from the top the Danes could view well the flat landscape to the south. The Danevirke was North-Europe´s largest defense construction in its time and lasted until the 11th century AD.
Charlemagne (748-814 AD) became the new Frankish king from 768 AD and spent his entire career expanding his realms in all directions. He also forcefully converted his new subjects to Christianity. In the year 782 AD he force-baptized 4500 unwilling Saxon (the Saxons of contemporary Germany south of Denmark) men by the town of Verden, close to present day Bremen. After baptizing the men, he decapitated all 4500 of them. The massacre was but one in a series of similar outrageous acts against heathens who refused Christianity. Adding to this important religious centers were destroyed and priests and priestesses were murdered, raped, tortured, and so on… The Franks were fought ferociously under the leadership of the Saxon king Widukind who used guerilla techniques as the only means by which they could stand against the Frankish land-army.
The Saxons found natural allies in the Danes and many Saxon refugees went there to tell the tales of massacres, sacrileges and abuse. King Widukind himself went to Denmark in 777 AD and received both moral and practical support from the Danish kings, who also made sure to strengthen the Danevirke wall. When Charlemagne continued his aggression against the Saxons in 798 AD, he sent a representative (diplomat) to the Danish king Sigfred at Lejre (Hleidargard, and ancient royal seat and the very one in which Beowulf once met with his monsters…), a Frankish attempt to stop the Danes from supporting and receiving Saxon refugees.
Democracy versus Dictatorship
But the Danes had heard the tales of Widukind and the Saxon people many times already and understood that their fate could easily also become the fate of Denmark. Reports spread to Norway, since the ocean way between Denmark and important Norwegian power centers in Viken, Agder and Rogaland was very short. It was not only the massacre in Verden and the new religion that frightened them (or, perhaps, angered them… but also the realization that Charlemagne´s empire threatened the very core of their cultural and political system.
Charlemagne had crushed the old Saxon societal order where the political and still quite democratic parliament-system played such an important role. Fortunately we have some detailed descriptions of this from the monk Lebuini who was a missionary among the Saxons in 770 AD and wrote down his observations:
“It is the custom among the Saxons that once a year they hold council by the river Weser…There came usually all the chiefs from all the various areas (tribes) as well as 12 chosen nobles, 12 free men and even 12 less free men (slaves? Vassals?) There together they renewed their laws, made decisions in important court cases and decided what to do in the year´s coming peace and war operations…”
Indeed, other sources confirm that there were some 36 “parliament-men” representing the highest political power in all public cases among the Saxons. To compare, the Icelandic parliament had to begin with 36 leaders. We may reasonably assume that this custom was general among all the Germanic-Scandinavian tribes.
Charlemagne understood that this kind of decentralized democratic ruling system threatened the kind of rule that he wanted, and promptly forbid it entirely as soon as he conquered Sachsen during the 780s. He wanted absolute power monopoly and introduced his own laws overruling all others. Thereafter he also introduced Christianity with violence and the death penalty to all heathens and heretics.
The Very Real Threat
Scandinavian people had never before encountered such a dominant threat against their cultural, political and religious traditions. The way in which Charlemagne ruled was completely at odds with all their traditions. They had seen how he went forth in Sachsen, and saw that he also made attempts to gain influence in England and managed to make an alliance with the English people in 793 AD. It was easy for Scandinavians to see that the alliance between England and Frankland was dangerous and could be a way of strengthening the forces against Denmark. Norway lay right next in their path.
Norwegians allied themselves with the Danes in their common interest against further Frankish expansion. In 787, the Franks had established a missionary station in Bremen very close to the Danish border at the time, and represented a possible military challenge against the Danes. They had seen for themselves that Christening under Charlemagne´s “protection” was strongly associated with military and political submission.
With their intelligence-network in the form of traders, the Danes and the Norwegians gathered the information (confirmed in writing) that they were on the Anglo-Saxon missionary agenda. They had also seen and understood the consequences of Frankish missionary activity. Around 791 Charlemagne had gained so much power that he could go against Denmark.
Christian “Vikings” versus Heathen Vikings…
Like the heathen Scandinavians, Christian Charlemagne also based his power on pillaging just like the Vikings. His officers expected many great gifts, and Charlemagne could only comply by expanding militarily and pillaging his new subjects. The Frankish pillaging has been called an “Orgy of Conquests”. Charlemagne´s officers and soldiers were motivated by the prospect of spoils.
The Saxons fought relentlessly against the Franks for almost thirty years until they were thoroughly crushed. In 799, Charlemagne chased all the old Saxon clans away and gave their lands to his own men. More than 10 000 free people were exiled and made into serfs. Even the defeated Saxon noblemen were made into serfs, and in this and many other ways the entire Saxon population was thoroughly humiliated.
Charlemagne´s alliance with the English and the way his expansions negatively affected the important and age-old Scandinavian international trade with prestigious goods from Asia and southern Europe was another serious threat. They also remembered how they had earlier been able to stand up against the Roman Empire (The Franks were by themselves and the entire Catholic world considered the new Roman Empire, only now it was also “Holy”).
The Scandinavians and the Danes understood that they could not stand up against a Frankish land-army. However, they were the masters of naval warfare. They wanted to scare the Franks away. Some historians believe this was the reason for the rapid development of the famous Viking Ship constructions that began in this age. They used some years to build up a new fleet, and before the end of the 8th century this particular kind of war ship was tried out and deemed forever after successful.
The first Viking attacks were most certainly meant to frighten the Franks out of their wits and a majority of them were consciously directed against Christian holy places and monasteries. As Bjørn Myhre writes about the Vikings: “They were not ignorant barbarians. They knew exactly the kind of military and ideological pressure they were up against.”
Indeed, the many and vicious Viking attacks did have a preventive effect: They showed the Franks and the English what kind of revenge they could expect if they tried to advance further north.
Of course, the expeditions proved very lucrative and worked well to increase the power of ruling elites…
The most important source to this article is Torgrim Titlestad´s “Norge i vikingtid (Stavanger 2011)