Viking movement beyond their homelands had been happening for hundreds of years prior to the beginning of the "Viking Age" in the 790s. The event which is considered the beginning of the era is the raid on the treasure-laden defenseless Monastery of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast of England in 793CE. The driving forces that caused the Vikings to spill from their homeland at this time were a shortage of arable land to sustain the population, poverty and new advances in their shipbuilding which made surprise attacks, trading and settling overseas possible. The age of the Vikings lasted for about 300 years from 800 to 1100CE and changed Europe and the course of its history forever.
By the early 7th century the population of Scandinavia was booming, forcing people to move north into the bitterly cold mountains and forests where no one had tried to live before. The unforgiving climate and with so little good land to farm, any increase in population would have lead to a devastating famine. There were too many men at home, both chieftains' and farmers' sons, and so "Out they must", it was said, "for the land cannot contain them." (Ferguson, Pg. 14-15).
Contrary to common beliefs the Vikings were not just brutal thieves, they were also men in search of better place to eke out a living for their families. Many expeditions out of Scandinavia were men in search of places with good farmland and a forgiving climate as well as places to trade with. After brutal sea crossings in their powerful long ships many found what they so bravely sought in Iceland, the Faroë islands, Greenland, Newfoundland, Normandy and parts of England, Ireland and Scotland. As well the Vikings founded the Russian city-states of Kiev and Novgorod along trade routs south-east. Not all of the new main Vikings colonies were successful though. Some eventually returned to the homeland like the settlers of the Newfoundland colony. The Iceland, Greenland and Faroë; Island colonies flourished and prospered and still hold ties to Scandinavia to this day. Others like the settlements in Britain and Normandy assimilated into the indigenous population of the regions. Viking expansions were considered to have been a success spreading Viking influence over half the world.
The Vikings not only sought good land and climate abroad, they also wanted wealth to make life more attractive. The expeditions with this goal were often the most brutal. The most easy targets were the undefended monasteries which often contained great amounts of wealth. An account of the Lindisfarne raid shows the brutality and terror the raiders brought with them wherever they went. “They plundered, they trampled upon the holy places with filthy feet, they dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy Church. They killed some of the monks, and took others away with them in chains; they drove them many out, naked and loaded with insults, and some they drowned in the sea."(Ferguson, Pg. 5) The Vikings did not only launch brutal raids, they also traded, an industry that would bring wealth and foreign goods into Scandinavia. The extent of Viking trade in Britain is seen in the extensive amount of Viking goods that have been excavated over the years.
The Viking Era would not have been possible had there not been technical advances in their shipbuilding leading up to the Viking Age. These new types of true warships were about 25 meters long and about 3 metric tonnes fully loaded on average, but drew 1 meter of water making surprise beach landings for raids possible. Not only could were these ships convenient for beach landings, they were also very sturdy and could handle rough sea voyages. To prove this a Norwegian team rebuilt a replica of a preserved Viking ship. Their results are as follows: "It's seaworthiness for ocean crossings was demonstrated in 1893 when an exact replica sailed from Norway to Newfoundland during stormy weather in precisely 28 days."(Magnusson, pg. 25) The warship was not the only type of sea-worthy vessels built by the Vikings. Another type of boat called a "Knörr" was built using the same technology as a warship, but deeper to hold more cargo. This type of ship was good for long sea voyages used for settlers and traders to foreign lands. As a great advantage both of the main types of ships could be portaged over land expanding the Viking's exploration and trade further afield.
The push-factors discussed in this essay are not the only reasons the Vikings left their homeland. "Among the many possible driving forces we could list greed, imperialism, love of adventure, natural aggression, opportunism, bloody-mindedness, or simply wanderlust." (Magnusson, Pg. 33) It could have been several of these factors as well as a shortage of good farmland, poverty and new advances in shipbuilding, but most likely it was a combination of all of the factors that set the stage for the Viking Age. It was a dramatic time that changed Europe forever. In the relatively short span of 300 years the Vikings crossed half the world in their magnificient ships, opened new trade routs and founded city-states, colonies and countries. This determined people found what they set out for and never looked back.
1. Ferguson, Sheila. Growing up in Viking Times. Batsford Academic and Educational Limited, London 1981.
2. Magnusson, Magnus. Viking: Hammer of the North. Orbis Publishing Limited, London 1976.
3. Magnusson, Magnus. Vikings! The Bodley Head Limited, London 1980.