However, this rudimentary tax helped lay the economic foundations of many medieval European kingdoms.
Viking traders, as well as raiders
Whilst we all love reading the gory details of a Viking raid in the Norse sagas or watching its bloody depiction on the big (or little) screen, people from Viking societies were so much more than mere bloodthirsty and ravenous warriors.
One of the lesser-known facts about people from Viking societies is aside from raiding and causing havoc throughout the North Atlantic world, they were one of early medieval Europe's greatest traders.
People from Viking societies ventured across open waters to establish settlements in Greenland, Iceland, and throughout much of Eastern Europe and the Eurasian steppe. They then connected these remote settlements with well-established trade routes that linked much of Europe.
Raiding and trading often went hand in hand. Perhaps a raiding party could be sent to an area, say a coastal community, to gauge what was there and what treasure could be looted in the short term.
However, if the area was prosperous or had established trading towns, short-term raiding may well give way to long-term trading and establishing trade links.
This would ensure that, by either the point of a sword or a persuasive sale, people from Viking societies would accumulate wealth.
Perhaps this dual approach to gaining money is best exemplified by what nowadays is called the "Danish yield" or, in the Old Norse tongue of the Vikings, Danegeld.
- READ MORE: Viking money and economy: How did they work?
A British land tax
Viking warriors weren't the first heavily armed thugs to impose a tax or protection racket on helpless communities. However, they did so ruthlessly throughout the early medieval period, especially in the British Isles.
The Great Heathen Army began its invasion of Anglo-Saxon England in 865 CE. Over the course of more than 13 years, a series of Viking armies, sometimes unified, sometimes not, trampled all over the British Isles and would eventually conquer an area from the Scottish borders to southwest England.
Only the kingdom of Wessex, under Alfred the Great, stood firm – yet the Vikings often trampled through his kingdom as well.
This area was soon to become the Danelaw, the area where the laws and the language of the Danes (Anglo-Saxons assumed that most of these Viking invaders had crossed the North Sea from Denmark) held sway.
Part of this law involved extracting payment from the local population, akin to a Viking land tax. If they paid, they were left to their own devices.
If they refused, whole communities could be punished and put to the sword. Crops would be burnt, women ravaged, and the men slaughtered.
This was known in the local tongue as gafol, meaning "tribute" or "tax."
As the era progressed and the Anglo-Saxons pushed back, this payment was soon turned into a land tax to pay for the Viking armies.
When the Danelaw formed the English third of the Great North Sea Empire, established by Cnut the Great in 1016 CE (encompassing most of Norway and Denmark), the Danegeld was retained as a land tax to fund his armies.
The extracted amount varied significantly. An early instance was in 991 CE when over 10,000 "Roman pounds" of silver (3,300 kilograms / 7,275 pounds) was paid after the Vikings' victory at the Battle of Maldon.
Aethelred the Unready (but not the stingy, apparently) was advised by the Archbishop of Canterbury to buy off the Vikings rather than continue fighting them.
Compare this to the 72,000 "troy pounds" (26.900 kilograms / almost 60.000 pounds) paid to Cnut the Great (King of Denmark, England, and Norway) some twenty years later in 1016. This allowed Cnut to help pay off most of the vast fleet that helped him seize the English throne.
As the Viking influence waned in the British Isles, from the mid-1050s CE onwards, so did the tax payment. It was eventually abolished just a decade before the Norman conquests of the British Isles by the last King of Wessex, Edward the Confessor.
It was the Normans themselves who gave this tax its distinct name to differentiate it from their own land-based dues and tributes.
The walls of Chateau de Caen, built by William of Normandy, encapsulate the transition from Viking raider origins to the establishment of lasting Norman dynasties in Europe. Photo: Pecold / Shutterstock
Laying siege and acquiring land in the Frankish realms
Across the English Channel, local communities throughout the Frankish realms also saw the Danegeld imposed upon them.
The first recorded instance of a tribute similar to the Danegeld being paid to the Vikings came from Frisia, part of the Frankish realm, in 810 CE.
This would be the first in a long list of coastal communities throughout modern-day France, Germany, and the Low Countries that would have to pay more than their fare share to ward off Vikings.
An early warning was given when the small town of Antwerp did not cough up – it was burned down by Vikings in 837 CE.
Throughout the 9th century CE, the Frankish realms – once unified by Charlemagne and now splintered – saw unrelenting Viking incursions and invasions. Vikings seemed to be everywhere and anywhere at once.
They even raided as far inland as Clermont. Yet two places stood out for particular attention: the River Seine and the region between the Seine and the River Loire.
One of the most famous (though historically sketchy) Viking incursions was the sack of Paris in 845 CE.
Supposedly led by Viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok, a huge flotilla sailed up the river Seine and laid siege to the city. Only the payment of hundreds of pounds of silver prevented Paris from being put further to the sword.
Some historians may argue that the largest Danegeld ever paid occurred after the 911 CE siege of Chartres.
The resulting treaty saw Charles III, Holy Roman Emperor, cede a considerable region of his kingdom – between the rivers Loire and Seine – to Rollo, a Viking warlord. This area would become known as the "Land of the North Men," nowadays called Normandy.
The Danegeld is a significant part of Viking history, revealing how the Vikings interacted with diverse and evolving societies.
It also showed how Vikings were masters of the economic pressures of time and often held a tremendous advantage in power dynamics over various peoples, cultures, and communities.
The Danegeld was just one way that early medieval people tried to secure societal stability and peace in an era of political insecurity and war.
For more on the British Isles during the Viking era, head to the BBC History Extra website here.
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