How Did the Viking Seafaring Tradition Develop?

Ask any schoolchildren today what they first think of when you say the word ‘Viking’ and you will find that the overwhelming majority will think first of their ships (or, woefully, their horns, but that’s a wholly different problem). Indeed, the most indelible mark the Vikings have left on the world is the awe and wonder associated with their powerful and advanced seafaring tradition. The origins of this tradition stem back further than one might expect, and it didn’t begin with the Scandinavians. Instead, it appears seamanship and the various technologies that led to the infamous Drakkar were the product of cross-regional contact between several Baltic populations who, over time, parted ways to create the political and geographic distribution that existed at the beginning of the Viking Age.

As far as historians can tell, the first recorded exodus from the Baltic region by way of seafaring was done by the Franks. As the Roman Empire consolidated in the 4th Century, their withdrawal from the British Isles was plagued by raids along the Armorican coast carried out by a seafaring Germanic tribe, the Franks. Yes, these are the same Franks who would later dominate the geo-political landscape of Europe in the 9th and 10th Centuries, but with Rome still in control, they had yet to make any considerable incursions into France. Their only solution was to strike at sea where they had an advantage—an advantage which stemmed from a shared seafaring tradition among the Baltic tribes who had long established trade routes by way of sea.

Rome withdrew further and eventually collapsed, a series of events which allowed the Franks, among others, to fill the vacuum of power. As the Franks withdrew from the Baltic to populate lands further south, they abandoned their seafaring traditions, leaving yet another power vacuum in the north. As Clovis was being baptized, a new civilization was emerging in Scandinavia, one which relied heavily on seafaring for trade and warfare, which they had learned from their predecessors. For three hundred years thereafter they honed their craft and improved their technology, culminating in the creation of their infamous ships. How exactly they developed their tools and techniques is still mostly unknown, although there are some impassioned scholars who have recreated them over the years, each with a slightly different idea.

Thus in retrospect, it is no real surprise that a powerful seafaring population emerged in the Baltic states considering the long, shared tradition that had existed there. It is also not difficult to imagine that part of the genius behind the Drakkar’s design was the fact that these populations moved around frequently and had experienced travel by sea and river, inspiring them to create ship designs that were both seaworthy and adaptable to river travel. This last point is of course pure speculation, but the possibility is there. The fact remains, the Baltic region had, for several centuries, begun to develop a seafaring tradition that created the conditions required to develop the most advanced seafaring technology in Europe at the time.

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