Academics currently stand divided over the precise cause of the first raids by Scandinavians. The leading theory suggests that a combination of overpopulation and a reduction in food due to a brief climatic cooling period forced the Vikings to set sail for new lands. While this is no doubt a part of the broader picture, one may hardly say that it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. A myriad of socio-economic factors contributed the inevitable exodus of Scandinavians from their homeland, but their appearance in the historical record was certainly abrupt. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes it seem as if the first attack on Lindisfarne had come out of nowhere. What, then, caused the sudden launch of attacks across Christendom? The true source for the beginning of the Viking Age may have been a spat over religious dogma rather than economic incentives.
In the early 8th Century, a brief period of warming gave rise to population growth across the European continent, including Scandinavia. Many parts of the continent prospered and trade increased between previously isolated settlements. Recently uncovered evidence suggests that trade opened up between Scandinavia and Northern Mainland Europe as early as the second decade in the 8th century. This indicates that the Scandinavian maritime tradition must have already been well developed and that population movements may have begun over a century before the great Viking invasions of Britain and Ireland. Trade, it seems, was the force behind the development of their maritime tradition, not warfare.
If trade between Scandinavia and mainland Europe had developed seven decades prior to the accepted beginning of the Viking Age (793 A.D.), the theories behind the causes of Scandinavian expansionism must be reevaluated. The theory behind climate as a chief cause still stands, but in light of trade having been well established, the political landscape of the late 8th century thus becomes a key factor. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the launch of the Viking Age occurred around the time of Charlemagne’s aggressive campaign to christianize the Saxons of Northern Europe.
In 791, Charlemagne, the leading monarch in Christendom, closed all of the ports of the Frankish empire to trade with non-christians (this is mentioned in both Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne and in the Royal Frankish Annals). His goal was to force the Saxons and Frisians to submit to his will and to the church through what we today might consider to be a trade embargo. The Saxon Wars were a bloody, drawn out conflict that proved to be a major thorn in Charlemagne’s side, not least because despite his restrictions on trade, they continued to rebel against him. What he did not see, or could not see, was how economically tied the peoples of Northern Europe were to their Scandinavian neighbors—neighbors who became increasingly reliant on trade to support a population suffering through a series of poor harvests. What Charlemagne had done, in essence, was to cut off Scandinavia’s lifeline.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the first attacks carried out by the Vikings were against monasteries. Although they left no written record to tell us exactly why they attacked holy sites first, it is not a very big leap (although it is still a leap) to conclude that it was, in part, retribution for Charlemagne’s holy war against the pagans and the ensuing economic hardships it caused in Scandinavia. As further evidence of this assertion, we need look no further than the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which described the events at Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. According to the Chronicle, the Vikings took priests down to the water and drowned them. Some scholars (myself included) believe this was a direct message to the Christians in reference to the massacre of Verdun. Therefore, the wars in Saxony were intrinsically tied to the launching of 3 centuries of raids and colonizations.
In closing, the debate continues. To my readers I must remind you that nothing is certain in Scandinavian studies. We have evidence accompanied by disputed interpretations of that evidence. As a refresher, read my previous post about the true nature of Viking studies. The theory proposed above is but another name in a proverbial hat to be discussed and debated. I encourage conversation. Let me know what you think. Do you agree with my assertion that the catalyst for the beginning of the Viking Age was Charlemagne’s holy war in Saxony? Why or Why not? I look forward to your responses.