Whilst Scandinavia is renowned for its natural beauty, it is not (apart from small areas of southern Sweden) known for its boundless arable land. 

The spine of Norway is dominated by the Scandinavian Alps, Sweden is full of forests and lakes, and Denmark is a collection of windswept islands. 

These natural borders have made agriculture hard (but not impossible) for Scandinavians since time immemorial. 

People living in the Scandinavian peninsula, borrowing a Bear Grylls catchphrase, had to improvise and adapt. 

Surrounded by water, people in Viking societies soon took to the seas to try and procure, by force or by trade, natural resources, food, and treasure. 

The story of the Viking expansion began in the Scandinavian peninsula. From there, the Viking influence stretched as far away as the island of Newfoundland in Canada, to the Sea of Azov, and everywhere in between. 

This expansion was largely built upon maritime activities, specifically maritime trade. 

Utilizing their advanced shipbuilding techniques, especially the famous clinker system for boat building, the Vikings sailed across vast oceans and seas to establish trade networks throughout western Eurasia. 

From 750 to 1100, the Baltic, Norwegian, and North Seas became Viking-dominated "ponds" crisscrossed by the flow of goods, commodities, and people. 

With their iconic longships as the backbone, Viking maritime endeavors reshaped trade in the early medieval world, linking distant shores from the Baltic to the Iberian Peninsula. Photo: BTBScanpix / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Utilizing all the resources of the natural environment 

Often going hand in hand with violent Viking raids and attacks on coastal communities was the more subtle establishment of trading networks and outposts. 

The natural geography of Scandinavia does not exactly lend itself to producing surpluses of agricultural products. 

Still, those dense Scandinavian forests provided a considerable surplus of timber that could not only be fashioned into their famous longships but traded. In fact, the timber trade was the backbone of the Norwegian economy well into the 20th century. 

In addition to timber, a diverse range of products enriched the trade. Furs, including those of sable, fox, and beaver, were in demand. 

Captured wild animals, especially falcons and bears, were highly prized by European royalty. 

A notable example is the gifting of a "white bear" by King Håkon of Norway to King Henry III in the mid-13th century, just a few generations after the traditional end of the Viking Age

One of the most odious aspects of Viking trading networks was their involvement in human bondage

Whilst the Vikings were not the only participants in the early medieval world's slave trade, some argue they were among the most successful practitioners. 

Their raiding expeditions and extensive networks along the vast river systems of Eastern Europe led to the capture of multiple Slavic peoples, who were then transported throughout the Viking world. 

Notably, great modern British cities, such as Dublin, originated from trading networks established by Vikings primarily for the trafficking of humans. 

Viking raids also saw them acquire wealth – often in the form of precious metals and treasure, stolen and looted from coastal communities or isolated churches and monasteries – that helped underpin their economic expansion throughout the early medieval period. 

For the Vikings, these raids could be likened to a particularly bloody visit to a modern-day cash machine – an easy and accessible way to procure wealth and treasure. 

The Spillings hoard, the largest Viking silver treasure ever discovered, can now be admired at Sweden's Gotland Museum. Photo: W.carter / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Silks, spices, silver, and swords 

So we know what the Vikings traded, but what did they want in return? 

Well, the answer is slightly more nuanced than just mere gold and silver. Yes, many Vikings did indeed want riches and treasure in the form of elaborate jewelry and precious metals. 

Huge hoards of buried Viking treasure have been uncovered throughout the former Viking world. 

The Swedish Island of Gotland, for example, was the site where the famous Spillings hoard, the largest yet uncovered, was found. Over 67 kilograms (148 pounds) of treasure was unearthed, including more than 14,000 silver coins produced in the Islamic world. 

They also wanted things that their home societies, back in the Viking world, could not produce. 

This included amber, textiles (including silk), and, for those with a sweet tooth, honey. 

Silk was precious since it was sourced from as far away as China and transported overland via the famous Silk Road trade route. 

Honey was particularly important in Scandinavia due to the region's lack of bees. Before the widespread production of sugar in the early modern period, honey was a prized condiment. 

Spices, often sourced in the Islamic world or East Asia, were also highly valued because they were essential for preserving and flavoring otherwise bland cooking in an era before refrigeration. 

Viking merchants and sailors profited immensely from trading salt with other cultures and civilizations, as salt was the primary method for food preservation at the time. 

Contemporary Scandinavian cuisine still features many salted foods, especially meat and fish, which can elicit divided opinions among the numerous tourists visiting these countries each year. 

Finally, swords and weaponry produced in the Frankish realms were among the most highly prized items for the Vikings. 

Somewhat counterintuitively, these weapons, forged by skilled Frankish artisans and blacksmiths, would often be wielded by Viking warriors against the very societies that had crafted them. 

Recognizing this, the Frankish Emperor, Charles the Bald, imposed an export ban on a specific type of Frankish sword, the so-called Ulfberht swords, during the second half of the 9th century. 

However, this didn't completely halt the trade in these deadly weapons. 

Archaeologists have uncovered more than 144 of these swords in Viking-era graves, primarily in Norway and other parts of northern Europe. 

Vikings highly valued the Ulfberht swords, inlaid with the inscription +VLFBERH+T or +VLFBERHT+, originating from the Frankish regions between the 9th and 11th centuries. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Forging trade networks significant both then and now 

Whilst Viking societies have historically been renowned primarily for their martial prowess, many individuals within these communities were, in reality, adept traders and merchants. 

Although frequently associated with violence, the Viking expansion narrative was substantially driven by economic incentives. 

Trade networks and routes that had metaphorically deteriorated following the decline of the Western Roman Empire were revitalized by Viking traders and merchants. 

Additionally, they pioneered new trade conduits – ones that connected Scandinavia to regions as diverse as the Iberian Peninsula, the Islamic World, and even as distant as India and China – channels of commerce the Romans could only have imagined.

Scandinavia's abundance of specialized natural resources – furs, timber, and salt – meant that trade surpluses could be achieved. 

Continuous raiding for treasure, coupled with the exploitation of humans into bondage, allowed the Vikings to amass wealth and influence beyond their Scandinavian homelands. 

Among the most coveted items for the Vikings were spices, silver, Frankish swords, and precious metals and textiles. 

The Vikings helped – though often with the point of a sword – establish trade networks, routes, and even cities that underpinned the global economy then and even today, more than a millennium later. 

The National Museum of Denmark has written more on Viking-era trade, available here

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