In our article diving into the history of the Vikings, we explored what it means to be a Viking. Contrary to how popular culture portrays it at times, the word "Viking" doesn't refer to any specific set of DNA – Vikings were actually genetically diverse. Instead, "Viking" seems to be better explained as a job, or way of life. So, now, we're diving into the Viking economy – which is especially important because what the Vikings did is essentially who they were.
What, then, are the primary sources of the Viking economy? There are actually multiple, and we're dividing them into three groups: trading, raiding, and farming. All three played an important part in the upkeep of Viking society.
Pre-Viking Scandinavia was initially focused mostly on fishing and agriculture. Then the Vikings took to the open seas aboard their longships. Throughout the Viking Age, the Vikings explored, raided, and traded all the from Canada, across much of Europe, to Asia. At home, fishing and farming also went on. But this Viking Age change resulted in a massive boom for the economy of the Vikings, both for those who stayed in Scandinavia and those who traveled to other lands.
So, let's look at the Viking economy throughout the Viking Age, split into its three major groups: farming, raiding, and trading.
Not all Vikings (male or female) went on raids, and for those that did, it wasn't a full-time job. Instead, they spent their days growing crops or feeding livestock. If not farming, Vikings took on jobs such as fishing or crafting various goods.
Though it was also present in the Vikings' conquests overseas, the farming aspect of the Viking economy was also largely centered in Scandinavia itself. Agriculture in the sub-Arctic and Arctic landscape is more known for being arduous than abundant, so just a small amount of crop and animal diversity could be found on typical Viking farms.
Domestic animals such as cows, sheep, pigs, and goats were commonplace. Crops such as barley and oats were grown extensively, along with multitudes of hay. Additionally, wheat might have been considered a luxury trading good, as it was not commonplace in the Viking world. The farm wasn't the only source of food, of course; animals like reindeer and elk were also hunted, and fishing was widespread throughout Scandinavia as well.
Agriculture went beyond farming, however. This source of Viking economy also impacted the hierarchy of Viking society. Owning a piece of the earth was a luxury reserved only for some, and landlords enjoyed a special place in the community. The raw materials grown in their fields gave them the wealth needed to build ships and hire various artisans. Some landlords were so wealthy, they were recognized as chieftains and petty kings – which gave them the power to lead raids and, in turn, get even more out of trade.
While the Vikings always farmed and fished locally, they turned Scandinavian society upside down when they – with the help of their famed longships – added two novel sources of economy: trading and raiding.
Viking ships were the key to the Vikings' success in raiding. Sturdy enough to traverse the open seas, but simultaneously maneuverable enough to sail down many rivers (and right into enemy territory) longships were incredible pieces of the Vikings' technology.
At the start, Viking raids were hit-and-runs with no long-term organization behind them. The first killings and small plunders were carried out by Vikings who sailed from Scandinavia to Wessex from 787 on, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
"In this year  came first three ships of Norwegians from Hørthaland [around Hardanger Fjord]: and then the reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor, for he did not know what they were: and then they slew him. These were the first ships of the Danes to come to England."
During this incident, the Vikings landed in lands that are today part of the UK, and killed the king's local administrator, known as the reeve. The slaying happened after he ordered them to his base. The circumstances of the standoff are somewhat unclear, but it seems the Vikings took offense to being given an order – and then took back to the seas right after.
This set the stage for the most (in)famous early mention of Vikings. The following exploit that got them into the history books was the 793 raid of Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of northern England. Known as a holy island, Lindisfarne was home to a monastery that served as a significant pilgrimage center at the time. Northumbrian scholar, and tutor to Charlemagne's children, Alcuin heard about the Viking raid soon after it was carried out. Alcuin lamented the plundering in a letter to King Ethelred of Northumbria:
"Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples..."
The early raids, focused on England (such as Lindisfarne), resulted in precious metals and stones being taken from monasteries and churches back to Scandinavia, where the raiders would find themselves richer in their communities.
Vikings raids eventually turned into outright conquest. For example, a 6000-strong Danish army known as the Great Heathen Army landed in 865 in England. They took much of central Britain, and Viking influence there persisted for around a century. Over the years, Viking land continued to spread.
So why did the Vikings' early, unplanned – even sloppy – raids turn more systematic? Because of trade.
The aforementioned infamous Lindisfarne raid is thought to mark the official start of the Viking Age. But after it, Viking conquests became much more systematic.
Vikings didn't necessarily rummage and pillage for fun (though we can't speak for all of them…) – and certainly not out of boredom. Instead, Vikings' expeditions were more often than not aimed at establishing settlements on global trade routes.
Viking combat overseas transformed from quick raids focused on the valuable relics kept in Christian churches and monasteries to full-on conquests throughout Europe. Using their longships, the narrow, quick-moving boats built for fast raids, the Vikings were able to disembark quickly and suddenly vanish. The sailors spread their territory significantly through organized, well-planned efforts, colonizing parts of Europe and even Asia and Africa.
Raiding allowed the Vikings to obtain precious goods they otherwise would not, such as silver, and for those goods to be traded at important merchant towns on Danish and Norwegian land abroad. As the merchant settlements thrived, so did Viking leaders. As a result, chieftains were able to establish themselves more firmly in their local communities and organize more raids, continuing to repeat the cycle.
A depiction of Viking expansions, which could be indicative of a Viking trade map. Source: Max Naylor via Wiki Commons (Public Domain)
Scandinavian sailors developed many important trading towns during the Viking Age. Along rivers, trading posts were often set up, allowing for a large number of goods to flow from and to Scandinavia via longships. The settlement of Hedeby in northern Germany was one of Denmark's most important ports, due to its extensive network of craftsmen and merchants, and superb location by land and water. Ribe, located on Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, is thought to have been another important place of trade as it was located right alongside the Ribe River. Tradespeople could sail their ships close to the land, while other merchants could walk alongside the river and through the trading center.
Sometimes, money was involved. The type and amount of currency varied greatly depending on what was being traded, and where. For example, Vikings working with Arab merchants could amass what was considered great treasure: silver coins minted in the Middle East.
Slaves were also used in Viking trade.
Chieftains and wealthy Vikings probably believed trade was not only an economic but also a personal need, as they required luxury goods to reaffirm their status in society. Chieftains could've offered items such as furs, honey in return for salt, grain, spices, and various metals.
An impactful economy
So, with this brief overview of the three cornerstones of the Viking economy, we can look into how each individual element influenced, and was influenced by, the other two.
The Viking economy initially expanded from agriculture steads, and farming may well have been the reason the other two sources of Viking economy came about. As time progressed and the population of Scandinavia grew, arable land could've grown sparse, and some might have looked elsewhere to make a living. Whatever the reason, raids began to occur, which later turned to organized trade networks.
Taking huge advantage of rivers – and their technology masterpiece, longships – the Vikings came into contact with dozens of peoples, goods, and materials. The impact of Viking trade was monumental.
Through Russia, Vikings were able to set up trade routes to the Mediterranean Sea and the Silk Road. New goods like silk, spices, and glass, started to flow into Viking longships and communities. The Vikings traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland, over the Mediterranean to Constantinople, to the Black and Caspian Seas, and more.
Not only did goods flow through the Viking trade routes, so did cultures and ideas. For example, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all eventually became Christian by the 12th century, as they interacted with Medieval Europe. But that's a story for another time (read: article).
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