Some historians have cited population pressure or birth rates as a reason, whilst for others, it was the political weakness and riches of surrounding kingdoms. Others, too, have cited environmental factors and climate change. What made so many people want to leave their villages, families, and societies to travel throughout large parts of Europe, West Asia, and North America?
Many theories but little hard evidence
Emerging out of the Scandinavian peninsula from the late 8th century CE onwards, peoples from Viking societies set about dominating the Eurasian landmass and beyond for the next few hundred years. Just why they left their relatively lush and fertile (albeit cold) lands has been the source of fervent academic speculation.
As modern science helps unlock more of history's unanswered questions, historians, scientists and academics have put forward a number of theories to explain Viking expansion. Each has some basis in science and evidence; however, more than probably, it was a number of "pull" and "push" factors that saw Viking warriors climb into their longboats and sail across the seas.
Overpopulation and farming
Many in the Ancient Roman and Greek worlds knew about Scandinavia, albeit as a sort of mysterious northern land full of "fierce barbarians." Tribes of peoples had been moving south into "civilized" Europe since at least the very early 1st century CE. The so-called "Migration Period," which, in part, both caused and preceded the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, saw many tribes and peoples from Scandinavia move southward and westward.
By the 8th century CE, some historians have theorized that Denmark and Norway were particularly overpopulated. Denmark's relatively small landscape had been fully exploited, while Norway only possessed a small amount of fertile land mostly wedged between mountains. Too many people, perhaps, were competing for limited resources in both these countries, spurring many to travel to lands nearby.
This increased competition for resources and farmland led many to travel to remote and isolated locations. From Ireland to Iceland, many of these places were not only underpopulated but had a rich potential for farming possibilities. With the possible exception of Greenland, most of the places where the Norse settled had relatively better climates – thus larger windows for growing more productive crops and farming – than back home in Scandinavia.
The political fragmentation and strife in Europe
It cannot be stated how much the collapse of the Western Roman Empire absolutely shattered the political situation in Western Europe for centuries. Akin to societal collapse, the political, societal, and economic security that Rome had built dissipated, and soon hundreds of smaller political entities emerged. The traditional historical view is that by the late 8th century CE, following Rome's collapse in the West, these areas were further weakened by the movements of peoples (many of them violent invasions) for hundreds of years.
From the kingdoms of the British Isles to the Frankish kingdoms, many of these new political entities did not have the martial skills or organization needed to successfully fend off Viking warriors. Furthermore, the Vikings' longboats – designed to both sail on the ocean and upriver – meant that they could be flexible in their raids and attacks.
Many of Europe's now most famous cities, from London to Paris to Pisa and Sevilla, felt the violent wrath and rage of the Viking war machine.
The Vikings' longboats meant that they could be flexible in their raids and attacks. Photo: Flore W / Pixabay
Newly emerging trading routes
One of the key outcomes of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was the shattering of trade routes that linked much of northern Europe to the south and also as far abroad as the West, Central, and even East Asia. The rise of Islam throughout West Asia and North Africa, from the 7th century CE onwards, helped mend some of these long-forgotten trade routes and networks.
As many peoples from Viking societies pushed across to the Baltic region, Eastern Europe, and the Russian steppes, they came across lands full of commodities and goods to be traded. Utilizing the many river systems of the Eurasian landmass, traders from Viking societies made it far away as Constantinople and even Baghdad, two huge cities of civilizational importance.
Conversely, silver dirhams, produced in Muslim provinces of West Asia, have been found as far away as the island of Gotland in Sweden and Revesby in Lincolnshire, England. This cross-cultural and cross-civilizational trade was an important factor in many traders, merchants, and entrepreneurs leaving the comfort of Scandinavia to seek their fortune abroad.
Pillage, plunder, and women
Many who left Viking societies were young men, often warriors. The lure – even to this day – of treasure, adventure, and women has fuelled many a young man to leave his home and seek fortune and fame. The beginning of the so-called "Viking Age" dates to 793 CE, when a devastating raid on the Church of St. Cuthbert on Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast of England, sent shockwaves throughout Europe. These "pagan seaman" (as one Anglo-Saxon chronicle described them) saw an unprotected church full of treasure and loot. Not for the first time, a monastery was attacked, and valuables were carried off by these fierce Viking warriors.
A common joke in Norway today – albeit crude, sexist and dated – is that Norwegian women are so beautiful because the Vikings carried off the cream of Europe's women centuries ago. It is true that as part of these Viking raids, women, as so often in history, were raped, ravaged, and forced to become slaves. Many were either sent back to Scandinavia or taken with Vikings to help settle new colonies, from Iceland to Greenland and beyond.
With the help of scientific methods that are increasingly sophisticated and advanced, there is hope that one day historians and academics can confidently explain exactly why many peoples from Viking societies left Scandinavia. Until then, a combination of these theories is the best answer.
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