After the Vikings, the Swedish state came into being. It was also during this age that people living in Sweden began to dominate and settle from the surrounding Baltic region to deep into the Eurasian steppes. Without the Vikings, modern Sweden may not exist at all.

Origin stories

What academics and historians call "The Viking Age" stretches, in Sweden, from approximately 800 to 1050 CE. There are records of various peoples from what is now Sweden interacting with other European civilizations – most notably the Romans – however it was the Viking societies in Sweden that left the most notable historical footprint.

At the beginning of this period, multiple independent tribes were to be found in this area of Northern Europe. The Swedes were centered around Uppland, near Uppsala, whilst further south, in the lush agricultural areas of southern Sweden, lived the Götar. There were also other tribes, less well known, scattered throughout the region.

Without any historical sources, it is impossible to tell the story of how these tribes unified into a single kingdom. Perhaps the best knowledge we have of this is not based on historical fact but rather literary fantasy through the works of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and the Old Norse saga Ynglingatal.

Growth of Arab presented new opportunities for Swedish Vikings

Since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late 4th century CE, economic trade has ground to a halt within much of Europe. Though Sweden was not integrated into the Roman trade network, as it was on the periphery of the empire, economic activity still trickled between Roman subjects and the various tribes of Sweden. This soon halted with Rome's collapse in the West.

The Arab conquests of much of the Mediterranean basin, pushing as far north as the Pyrenees, soon began to spark the engine of European economic activity again. Trade routes between Europe and West Asia soon began to bustle once more. Goods flowing from the Russian steppes – especially fur, timber, and not to mention slaves – were an important source of trade between Arabs and Europe.

Sweden’s strategic position in Northern Europe, looking out across the Baltic Sea to Russia, would soon be capitalized by the growing Viking societies. Norse traders, settlers, and pirates (Vikings) would cross the Baltic and establish a firm foothold in parts of what is now Western Russia and Ukraine. These ‘Rus’ – as the local Slav populations would call them - founded cities like Novgorod and Kiev and would exploit the bustling trade south on the Dnieper river with the Arabs and Byzantine Empire.

What Swedish academics and historians have labeled the oldest town in the country, Birka, traces its roots back to Viking warriors who founded this city in approximately 800 CE.

Sweden’s strategic position in Northern Europe, looking out across the Baltic Sea to Russia, would soon be capitalized by the growing Viking societies. Photo: Barnabas Davoti / Pexels

The Christianization of Sweden

For the majority of the Viking Age, Swedish Viking societies were steeped in paganism and Old Norse mythology, practices, and beliefs. The first serious attempt of Christian missionaries to convert the "pagan heathens" was made by a Frankish monk, Ansgar, in the early 9th century CE. His only success was setting up a Christian church in Birka, but his successor was soon forced to flee the area.

Christianity secured a foothold in Sweden through the south. Here, English missionaries introduced the religion, and it soon became widespread in Västergötland. The influence of trade networks bringing this new religion was also evident as Orthodox Christian missionaries from the Byzantine Empire traveled to the Eastern European and Baltic areas and regions controlled by the Swedish Vikings.

It was not until a vast pagan temple at Uppsala was destroyed in the 11th century CE that Norse paganism was to decline in popularity, allowing Christianity to securely establish itself. 

The birth of a nation?

Christianity also helped forge the political structure of Sweden solidify and provide stability. Throughout the 11th century, the new and old religions, Christianity and paganism, battled not only for the souls of those living in Swedish Viking societies but also for power.

The first ruler of Sweden with substantial historical evidence arises from this time. Olof Skötkonung proclaimed himself King of all Sweden and was baptized into the Christian faith in about 1000 CE. Hailing from Västergötland, his support (as well as his sons – Edmund and Anund Jakob -  when they ascended to the throne) of the new religion saw it become well-established in Götaland.

Yet civil war and religious strife would follow throughout the remainder of the 11th century CE. Though Sweden had been "unified" under one King, it remained, practically, a loose confederation of provinces ruled by Viking warriors, noblemen, and the emerging aristocratic class.

By the middle of the 12th century, the establishment of Sweden as a unified and Christian nation was heralded by a papal decree. Sweden was integrated into the Catholic Church with an archbishop at Uppsala.

With the national beginning steeped in Viking history, Sweden had emerged, by the late medieval period, as a unified and Christian nation that began to, as the Vikings had done at the start of this period, exploit and dominate trade around the Baltic and Russian fringes.

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