In fact, their budding commercial nous was responsible for the development of interconnected trading towns across Northern Europe, foreshadowing the Hanseatic League by more than three centuries.
Things fall apart
Whilst Scandinavia was never part of the Roman Empire, there was a significant amount of indirect trade, with a steady flow of goods and people between the warmer and colder climates of Europe.
The Romans, often criticized for their conquests, were once described by Tacitus with the phrase, "They made a desert and called it peace."
Yet, the political stability of the Roman Empire laid the groundwork for establishing a network of trade routes.
By Late Antiquity, these pathways facilitated robust commerce between Africa, Asia, and Europe, reinforcing the saying that all roads lead to Rome.
This level of cross-civilizational trade led to the establishment of numerous Roman trading cities and towns, from Hadrian's Wall to the Atlas Mountains and from what is now Portugal to the banks of the Euphrates River.
When Roman authority and power collapsed in the 5th century CE, the fragmented successor states and kingdoms of the former Roman Empire built (literally and figuratively) upon these cities and towns.
Further north, in the Scandinavian region, there was neither formal nor informal Roman rule, so no Roman civitas were established.
As such, by the turn of the 6th century CE, the largest settlement in Scandinavia, at Uppåkra in Sweden, which had been established since the 5th century BCE, was estimated to have had a population of only several thousand.
In contrast, the Eastern Roman city of Constantinople had an estimated population of between 400,000 and 500,000 around 500 CE.
However, the advent and rise of the Vikings from c. 750 CE would forever change the nature of settlements in the Nordic region.
Nestled at the mouth of the River Liffey, Dublin's strategic location made it a prime Viking settlement, which would later play a crucial role in the bustling trade across Northern Europe. Photo: Alexey Fedorenko / Shutterstock
Strategic locations were key
The geography of the Scandinavian peninsula has made it, since time immemorial, not conducive for large settlements.
With its spine dominated by a huge mountain range, a lack of arable land, and, let's put it nicely, rather "inclement" weather, people in Scandinavian societies never reached the population heights of civilizations further south.
However, as people from Viking societies exploded and expanded outward from 750 CE, there was a need to establish towns in strategic locations.
Many trading towns were soon established in key strategic locations, especially along major waterways, such as rivers and fjords. This provided easy access to the sea for both the inflow and outflow of commerce.
Modern cities situated at the mouth of rivers, such as Dublin (founded in 841 CE), Novgorod (859), Waterford (914), and Oslo (1024), highlight the importance of river access in historical urban development.
Whilst Vikings may first have come to coastal communities to raid, many soon followed to trade and establish trade networks between northern and southern Europe that not even the Romans had established.
Soon, new social classes emerged, and wealthy merchants and traders became an influential and important part of Viking society.
Many used their increased wealth to fund not only new raids and commercial trips but also the funding of important religious and cultural institutions, like temples and, later in the period, churches.
The famous pagan temple at Uppsala was believed to be funded by Vikings who, before gaining wealth through raiding, might have first amassed their riches in trading and commerce.
Only they, in an era before the establishment of a state, had the resources to commission such a large-scale infrastructure project.
Established around the 8th century CE, Ribe is often recognized as the oldest extant town in Denmark, and it played a foundational role in the early Viking trade routes across Northern Europe. Photo: Yorick Leusink / Unsplash
Spread of technology and ideas
As the growth of trading towns increased in the Viking world, this also helped proliferate the spread of innovation and new technologies.
Viking traders would often bring back new shipbuilding techniques and navigation skills from societies far and wide.
Trade, for example, with the Abbasid Caliphate was centered around Baghdad, which was not only, for much of the early medieval period, one of the largest cities in the world but also the most technologically advanced.
This city was home to the renowned Bayt al-Ḥikmah, which not only housed the world's largest library but also served as one of the earliest public academies and hubs for intellectual research.
Innovations acquired from traders quickly made their way back to the Viking world, aiding them in developing a superior fleet of ships, which became advantageous whether they were exploring, raiding, or trading.
Technological ideas were not the only ones that proliferated; these trading towns have been credited with helping the long spread of Christianity throughout Scandinavia.
As Viking merchants traveled further, they not only encountered more Christians but also various Christian denominations.
From the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantine southern Europe to the Catholic strain dominant in Western Europe and Nestorianism in West Asia, Viking merchants encountered the full spectrum of the Christian faith while conducting commerce.
Conversely, these Christian traders also traveled to the various Viking trading towns, helping to germinate the seed of Christianity in the region.
Many Vikings converted due to personal interactions with these traders, and the religion soon took root – though the extensive Christianization of Scandinavia would continue until the 12th century CE.
Placed at the southern end of the Jutland Peninsula, Hedeby's position at the base of the Danish border made it a strategic nexus for trade, enabling goods to flow seamlessly between Scandinavia, Central Europe, and distant lands to the east and west. Photo: bluecrayola / Shutterstock
Hedeby and Birka
Perhaps the greatest example of a Viking trading town was Hedeby in Schleswig, northern Germany.
Established in the 8th century CE, this town was an early medieval realtor's paradise as it had the best location - at the crossroads of north-south trade between Scandinavia and Central Europe.
Nestled in the Schej fjord, it also provided sheltered access to the Baltic region.
It soon became an important center for crafts and, by the late 9th century CE, began producing textiles, pottery, and jewelry.
Unfortunately, it became a rich pawn in the struggles between the Vikings and surrounding peoples.
It was first sacked by the Obotrites, a Slavic tribe, in the 9th century CE before passing to the control of the Holy Roman Empire in 974 CE.
Despite its recapture by Vikings less than a decade later, its frontier position meant it was constantly in peril, even though it grew into the preeminent Viking trading town of its age.
It was eventually ransacked and destroyed by Harald Hardrada in 1050 CE, never regaining its former glory after this final sack.
Further north, around the same time Hedeby was established, Birka was also founded, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of Stockholm.
Like Hedeby, its strategic location along major waterways connecting the Baltic Sea to the interior of Scandinavia meant it soon became an important hub for commerce.
In addition to being a center of trade between Vikings and the peoples of the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, it also became an industry hub for producing iron and metals.
With increased wealth flowing into the town, influence grew, and it soon evolved into a political hub.
It is believed to have housed a royal palace as well as numerous religious buildings. A treasure trove for modern archaeologists, this once-influential Viking trading town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The story of Scandinavia's evolution from the early medieval to the high medieval period, transitioning from the Vikings to the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, owes much to the growth of the humble Viking trading town.
Money truly made the early medieval world go round, and these Viking trading towns played crucial roles not only in laying the foundations of medieval kingdoms but also in establishing the economic trade networks that later European generations would exploit so ruthlessly and efficiently.
For more on how globalized trade was in 1000 CE, visit the BBC History Extra site here.
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