What caused the Viking Age? Historians, archeologists, and other academics have long sought to clearly define its root causes. What inspired the Vikings to raid? What triggered their sudden expansion across the world? Theories to explain it abound, from climatic changes in the early medieval period to political causes, such as the Massacre of Verden. Sociological reasons have been proposed as well, including the idea that a bride price had to be paid to a woman’s family for marriage, and so young men left home to raid to afford it. While all of these may have played a part, a new study suggests the root cause of the Viking Age may have had less to do with all of these problems and more to do with trade.
The study, published in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology, examines the location and provenance of whetstones to establish probable trade ties between geographic regions across the Baltic region. Most of the whetstones analyzed came from the settlements of Lade and Borg in what is today Northern Norway. Dating of the quarry sites and the stones reveals the whetstone trade had likely established ties between these remote regions of Scandinavia and the more urbanized southern Baltic regions, such as Ribe, beginning in the early 8th century. The study authors offer further evidence of these ties by citing the discovery of reindeer antler combs from Norway found in Ribe, Denmark that predates the presupposed timeline for the establishment of trade.
What makes the analysis of the whetstones significant is their geographic dispersion. Where the antler combs have only been found in Southern Denmark (to date), the whetstones have been found at sites all along the English Channel (see map below).
If trade between Lade and the English Channel, even if not direct, had been established in the 8th century, the resulting contact from that trade could have inspired sea captains to shift their focus from trading to raiding, as was often done when the latter proved more worthwhile. As the study authors note: “This evidence, set in the context of the contemporary surge in production and trade around the southern North Sea and English Channel, the early urbanisation in southern Scandinavia and the Baltic, and the political integration in southern and western Scandinavia, allows us to suggest immediate reasons for why Viking ship commanders turned their activities overseas in the late 700s. The evidence also sheds light on why, after the initial ‘scouting phase,’ raiding in three decades since c. 806 took place predominantly in Ireland and Scotland, and why Vikings in the mid-830s began overwintering overseas and took up raiding in England and the Frankish Empire.”
The study authors make clear that trade, while potentially a driving factor for setting off the Viking Age, remains but one of a multiplicity of causes that have already been examined. In their own words, “The paucity of evidence regarding the acute constraints and opportunities of Viking-ship commanders of the 780s–850s is probably the main reason why, compared to general conditions, the search for immediate causes, or ‘trigger factors’, has been less intense and successful—Barrett finds the enterprise ‘unrealistic.’”
To read the full study, CLICK HERE.