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What Started the Viking Age?

512px Charlemagne At Head Of Army

We know what we know about the Viking Age primarily from two sources: writings of the day (or soon thereafter) and archeological finds. The early primary sources about the Vikings were predominantly written by Christian clerics who made obvious efforts to demonize them because Christian monasteries were the primary targets of the first raids.

The first recorded attacks at Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. and at Noirmoutier in 799 A.D. set a precedent for the relationship between Christendom and the pagan north. The initial violence between the years A.D. 793 and 835 occurred peripherally, meaning it remained contained to coastlines. This is the period that is most romanticized in popular culture-rugged bands of marauders making sudden appearances to sack and loot monasteries for their silver.

The authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the attack on Lindisfarne thusly: “In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 [June] the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.

Historians have several hypotheses on what began the Viking Age. The most pervasive and accepted of the hypotheses, or at least the one that is most commonly regarded as a root cause, is the change in climate that occurred in the early middle ages, which warmed the weather in Northern Europe and caused a rapid increase in population unusual for Scandinavia. This in turn led to overpopulation and when the weather cooled again, the land could no longer feed everyone. From this point, the need to leave and raid became a matter of survival.

Most, if not all, historians draw upon a combination of several hypotheses, each a part in the larger picture. These range from territorial disputes to diplomatic tensions with neighbors, and nearly all of these factors seem to have played a part. Yet most of these factors were ongoing trends, akin to Europe on the eve of World War I. It was all ready to boil over, and all the situation needed was a catalyst. The question therefore becomes: what event acted as the catalyst for the Viking Age?

In 792 A.D. the Emperor Charlemagne was just wrapping up his conquest of modern day Poland when the Saxons, under the leadership of a man named Widukind, rebelled against him. Charlemagne’s response was swift and bloody. During their battle near the Elbe River, the Franks took 3,000 prisoners. To teach the rebels a lesson, Charlemagne ordered the prisoners be baptized in the Elbe, where the priests recited their benedictions, and the Frankish soldiers held their victims underwater until they drowned.

The event, thereafter dubbed “The Massacre of Verdun” was no more gruesome than many of the other acts committed by the Carolingians in the name of their god, but this event was different. Widukind, the leader of the Saxons, was brother in law to the king of the Danes, Sigfred. News of the massacre undoubtedly reached his court, and as such would have (and this is conjecture) deeply angered them. It was yet another brutal, violent display of power by Charlemagne, the latest in a long series spanning decades.

From what historians can tell from the sources they have, Danish raids along the coast of Frisia (modern day Netherlands) intensified almost immediately, leading to an infamous raid on Dorestad, to which Charlemagne supposedly bore witness, if we are to believe the account given by the chronicler Einhart in his work Two Lives of Charlemagne.

The very next year, the attack on Lindisfarne occurred, and what happened there has led some to believe that there was a direct connection. A source about the attack by the twelve century English chronicler, Simeon of Durham, who drew from a lost Northumbrian annals, described the events at Lindisfarne thusly:

“And they came to the church at Lindisfarne, laid everything to waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasure of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea…

Some historians have taken their last passage to mean that the Northmen purposefully took priests to the water to drown them in order to make the point that they were retaliating against the encroachment of Christendom on Denmark. Is this proof that the Massacre of Verdun was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back? Admittedly, the evidence is minimal, but there is no doubt that the Viking Age was, in part, sparked by poor diplomatic relations with the Franks, and they may have even been a catalyst.

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This Post Has 13 Comments
  1. I was about to ask which sources tell us about the “deep hatred for the Christians”. After reading the rest of the post, I no longer need to ask the question. After the Elbe, I wouldn’t be a fan of Christians either.

  2. Interesting article. It was news to me that the monks from Lindesfarne was drowned in the sea ( an eye for an eye? ). I remember reading something similar to this a few years ago. The theory was, like yours, that the incident at the Elbe was the last straw that triggered the attack on Lindesfarne and the beginning of the Viking Age.

    In the centuries before the Viking Age , in addition to the improvement in climate and technology ( including the production of iron and ships), the increasing trading activities of the people who lived in Scandinavia had led to a significant increase in its population. Before the incident at the Elbe, Christian rulers had introduced several laws that led to the ban of Pegan traders in Christian countries. In the beginning it was sufficient for the Pegan traders to conduct a Christian baptism. Later were required to be practicing Christians. This meant that the population in Scandinavia did not get the necessities via trade which they depended.

    And when it finally was the threat of being invaded, forcibly converted to Christianity and even slaughter, the choice was to defend themselves. And the best form of defense is known to be attacking, yes?

    Construction of Danevirke support the theory of threat to Pegan Scandinavia from the Christians, decades before the Viking age( year 793 ). Danevirke is one of the largest military facilities in North Eruope from prehistoric times and consists of several embankments with a total length of approx . 30 km to effectively block the overland access to Denmark. According to written sources, work on the Danevirke was started by the Danish King Gudfred in 808. Fearing an invasion by the Franks, who had conquered heathen Frisia over the previous 100 years and Old Saxony in 772 to 804. Carbon-14 dating however dates the initial construction to be in the second half of the 7th century, and Dendrochronology suggests that construction began not very long after 737.

    Your article has made me look at both the invasion threat and the trade embargo teory. From year 0 expanded agriculture and especially grain cultivation in Norway followed by population growth. Your information about Charlemagne’s conquest of modern day Poland, as well as northern Germany, leads me to believe that there may be more to the trade embargo than I can find sources for. Especially for coastal Norway who do not have land areas particularly well suited to grain cultivation. Trade routes from these areas went to Rome Kingdom / Germany / France in the period 0-800 AD. Later, the trade routes went east to eg. Russia. These parts of Norway where most of the people lived, had perhaps become dependent on imported grain to feed the growing population. Periods of shortage of imported grain has been a problem for coastal Norway, and especially northern Norway until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The large increase in potato cultivation as of 1840, ending the possibility of periods of famine and led to a large increase in population, with subsequent emigration to America from 1860 to 1910. Norway and Ireland had the highest emigration to America, compared with the proportion of the population. It is said that this was caused by the potato.

    After an evening of reading your article and research in various theories of what started the Viking era, I believe that the aggressive actions/politics from Charlemagne and other Christian kings against Pegan populations / countries necessitated a response for survival. If it just had been an famin caused by nature, I belive people will have emigrated, peacefully.

    1. Wow, great comment!

      I think what you are doing is the right thing to do: looking for multiple plausible causes to the Viking Age. As I mentioned, most historians think that a combinations of all of the above contributed to the Viking raids. And yes, Charlemagne’s bellicose foreign policy undoubtedly threatened the Danes. In fact, the Danes were raiding the coasts of Frisia as early as the 780’s, although these are not generally attributed to the Viking Age because they were considered to be ‘business as usual’. They coincided of course with the bans on pagan trade in Christendom.

      I encourage you to continue your research for it is incredibly interesting material, and we are all enriched for it. Thank you for your post!

      1. Your article was interesting. Where did you get your source that Charlemagne drowned the Saxon prisoners? I searched the internet and I couldn’t find it anywhere.

  3. […] Historians have several hypotheses on what began the Viking Age. Most famous of the hypotheses lies in the climatic changes of the early middle ages which warmed the weather in all of Europe and caused a large population growth unusual for Scandinavia. Most historians draw on a combination of several hypotheses, each a part in the larger picture. While several factors contributed the initial raids, what event acted as the catalyst for centuries of attacks? A little known series of events in the late 8th century involving the Franks and the Saxons may have sparked the Viking Age in the same way the assassination of Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I. The conditions for the Viking Age were all in place warm weather, larger population, naval advances, technology advances, and a deep hatred for the Christians in the south. What event, then, caused the launch of thousands of ships westward? In 792 A.D. Emperor Charlemagne (yes, the one credited with inventing public schools) was just finishing his conquest of modern day Poland, as well as northern Germany up to the Danevirke, a barrier build along the southern border of Denmark to repel the germanic tribes. Charlemagne believed it was his duty to spread Christianity across the known world, and he did so through conquest. One of his more notorious exploits took place along the Danevirke in sight of the Danes who watched in horror as the Franks defeated the Saxons. The Franks took 3000 prisoners. For the original version including any supplementary images or video, visit https://cjadrien.com/2014/04/02/what-started-the-viking-age/ […]

  4. […] We know what we know about the Viking Age primarily from two sources: writings and archeological finds. The writings are all written by Christian sources particularly, monks who unfairly misrepresent the Vikings because they were the primary victims of the raids. Early in the Viking Age, the focus of the Scandinavian pirates in Western Europe remained fixed on coastal monasteries. Later, the Vikings would attack further inland, but the initial violence (A.D. 793-835) occurred peripherally. The Christians blamed themselves for angering their god. Historians have several hypotheses on what began the Viking Age. Most famous of the hypotheses lies in the climatic changes of the early middle ages which warmed the weather in all of Europe and caused a large population growth unusual for Scandinavia. Most historians draw on a combination of several hypotheses, each a part in the larger picture. While several factors contributed the initial raids, what event acted as the catalyst for centuries of attacks? For the original version including any supplementary images or video, visit https://cjadrien.com/2014/04/02/what-started-the-viking-age/ […]

  5. […] Adrien What Started the VikingAge? We know what we know about the Viking Age primarily from two sources: writings and archeological finds. The writings are all written by Christian sources particularly, monks who unfairly misrepresent the Vikings because they were the primary victims of the raids. Early in the Viking Age, the focus of the Scandinavian pirates in Western Europe remained fixed on coastal monasteries. Later, the Vikings would attack further inland, but the initial violence (A.D. 793-835) occurred peripherally. The Christians blamed themselves for angering their god. Historians have several hypotheses on what began the Viking Age. Most famous of the hypotheses lies in the climatic changes of the early middle ages which warmed the weather in all of Europe and caused a large population growth unusual for Scandinavia. Most historians draw on a combination of several hypotheses, each a part in the larger picture. While several factors contributed the initial raids, what event acted as the catalyst for centuries of attacks? For the original version including any supplementary images or video, visit https://cjadrien.com/2014/04/02/what-started-the-viking-age/ […]

  6. The Vikings said even to scythe meant that a man could do 12 man’s work. This means that with one could be 92% of the population released to military service in the summer.

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