Let me start out this post by saying that I had half a post written that I intended to put up this week. But when faced with more information, that research totally derailed my supposition. Which happens, oddly enough. I am not too proud to say that sometimes I’m wrong. (I can see the recons fainting as we speak.) So, I was left with nothing, but as I was posting a third-party article due to some research into the other area, my warped brain came up with the title: Chicks Dig Warriors: The Viking Lonely Hearts Club. So, I’m going to write about why the Viking Age began and why our ancestors decided to rape, sack, and pillage — as well as extort — most of Europe.
Chicks Dig the Longboat
I ran across this article about why the Vikings raided: a shortage of girls. Now, I get that young men were trying to impress the girls back home in the hopes of wooing them away from being a concubine to a richer and more powerful man, or maybe looking for the Viking equivalent of a mail order bride, (but one you had to go get). That being said, I’m going to put forth some other ideas that will probably suggest that it was a multitude of factors and not just polygyny. So, let’s take a look at what caused our ancestors to terrorize the Christians.
Polygyny, or Something Else?
It’s easy to point out that a dearth of women would have caused a fair amount of unrest. An article by the Telegraph points out that a South American tribe had more aggressive men when polygyny was practiced. They point to the Yanomami tribe and say the Vikings were like that, only the comparison doesn’t fit well. The Yanomami are hunter-gatherers in the Brazilian rainforests. The Norse were primarily farmers in a very difficult place to farm.
Resources are very different between hunter-gatherers and farmers. Hunter-gatherers have few possessions–just what they can carry. Quite often, the possessions are communal. For example, a cooking pot may be shared by the community. Therefore, there is more attention paid to the basic necessities of food, water, shelter, and, of course, reproduction. Since food, water, and shelter are often already covered by the environment (especially in a rainforest), the need to reproduce become paramount when polygyny occurs.
While polygyny could have played a role in the Viking Age, archaeological evidence has shown that women have gone ashore with the men. If the men were really that hard up for dates, all they had to do was look in their own longships. If there were really women joining the men on voyages, then we can only assume that there were other reasons the Norse decided to raid.
It’s All About the Resources
I’m a real fan of Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. In it, Diamond hypothesizes that it is the environment that shapes culture. I really do believe that. The contention for resources drove the Viking Age in ways that historians are still trying to piece together. While mates are indeed a viable resource for discussion, I would add that there was more than simply looking for love. I don’t think that the Viking raids were the Norse version of a lonely hearts club. To come up with that oversimplifies things. I really suspect that it was the lack of resources for survival that spawned the Viking age.
I did some quick research and found that in 1967 (that’s as far back as I could find), the percentage of arable land in Sweden was just shy of 7.6 percent. In Norway, the percentage of arable land was even less at a bit more than 2.7 percent. Now, granted, those are modern day numbers, with modern day populations, but even if we accounted for lower populations and less modernization, I’d bet the percentage of farmland wasn’t that impressive. What that did for freemen was require them to work for someone else’s farm in exchange for food and a place to live. Those who inherited the farm had a way to make enough food for themselves. Those who didn’t were stuck trying to eek out a living.
Land was at a premium in Scandinavia when it came to farming. The Norse considered three slaves were the minimum needed to handle a farm with two horses and a dozen head of cattle. Unless you were an exceedingly wealthy farmer, the cost of running a farm was expensive, just in the cost of purchasing slaves alone. That’s assuming you didn’t go raiding for them, and in that case, you can rest assure that someone had to manage the farm while you were gone. So, in a lot of ways, having more than one wife was probably prohibitive for most of the common folk. Those with the real wealth could probably have several wives, (namely the royalty), but in a place with limited resources, it probably wasn’t too common for everyone else. What was more likely is laxness in relationships. (After all, if Sven is gone for three years, it’s doubtful either Sven or his wife is going to remain celibate.)
So, land was a valuable commodity for the Norse populations. That left a fair number of those in the “Karl” classes looking for work and a way to better their circumstances. Any increase in population would guarantee that there is a surplus of people looking for something to do. That probably includes young men, and women, looking to increase their opportunities.
We’ve Seen this Play Out throughout the Middle Ages
Getting rid of the excess population is nothing new here. Throughout Europe, it was not uncommon for nobles to send their sons and daughters who were unlucky enough to be secondborn or later into the clergy. They did this to ensure their firstborn male heirs would inherit their estate without contention. Girls were used as collateral for forging alliances with influential families. Your family increased in wealth and stature by being associated with families greater than your own. If you had several daughters, you could get in good graces by sending your youngest girls to the Church to become nuns. Or, you could at least get rid of a daughter who for some reason wasn’t marriageable by having her take the vows.
“Have Fun Storming the Castle”
So, let’s say you have a bunch of young warriors (both men and women) who have no prospects in Scandinavia. They can either fight among themselves in various raids on other Norse groups — which, incidentally, they did — or they can go out and seek their fortune preying upon some hapless monks in Lindisfarne and look for some lands they can settle down in and start their own farms. Seems to me the choice is pretty obvious. Why fight against people who you know are as good in fighting as you are? Why not fight someone else who isn’t part of your clan anyway? Makes perfect sense. And yes, while it might be to gain more station and more goods (thereby more chance at finding a mate), the practicality of being well off is far better than working as a farmhand and hoping you’ll have enough wealth to support a family. Having wealth from going Viking meant that you could possibly buy land and property in your own country, thus having a better future.
The Viking Longboat
The one thing that made all this possible was the advent of the seaworthy Viking longboat. Without that key piece of technology, I’m certain that the Norse would have stayed squabbling amongst themselves. Had it not been for such a fast and seaworthy craft, it’s unlikely that we would’ve seen so much movement.
There are possibly other reasons for Viking raids, such as getting back at the Christians for forced baptisms and persecution. Those are certainly reasons worth considering. In a later post I may offer my analysis, but in the meantime, I’d argue that the advent of the longboat combined with the need for Norse free men and women to find a way to improve their fortunes was the real reason for the Viking Age.
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