Explaining Viking Expansion
By Darrin M. Cox
Master’s Thesis, West Virginia University, 2002
Abstract: Current scholarship regarding Scandinavia has neglected to give all but a cursory glance at the factors involved in Viking expansion. This thesis studies and explains employment opportunities, political motives, and societal norms as separate, individual motives that perpetuated Scandinavian migration, conquest, and adventure from the eighth through the eleventh centuries AD. Afterwards, these investigations are used to describe the various and sometimes conflicting forces of expansion that led to the formation of the Danelaw in England circa AD 870. Over time, the eventual adoption of Christianity and feudal relationships within Scandinavia would bring expansion as well as the Viking Age to a close.
Introduction: Modern conventions of history dictate that the Viking Age began with the infamous raid of the Lisdisfarne monastery in AD 793 as reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This event signaled the starting point of a time when “heathen” men from the north, who over time became collectively known as “Vikings,” suddenly spilled into the world, launching a three hundred year barrage of devastation on the towns, countryside, and religious centers of medieval Europe. This age lasted until AD 1066, when Harald Godwinson defeated Norwegian King Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Viking influence, whether for good or evil, spread from their homelands in Scandinavia, across the North Atlantic, through the Carolingian Empire, down the rivers of modern day Russia, and into the Byzantine Empire.
The image of the Viking has changed considerably over the years however. Due largely to the acknowledgement of recent scholarship that Scandinavians were the first Europeans to set foot on the North American continent, Viking studies have become increasingly popular in America. These investigations are revealing that Scandinavians were also traders, politicians, farmers, and adventurers instead of just the savage, bloodthirsty thieves reported in contemporary Christian documents. However, while these studies have managed to reverse a good deal of the negative press levied against the Vikings by writers of the time, surprisingly little work has been done to document why Scandinavians were pushing out beyond their boundaries to such a great extent and why it happened so rapidly. Unfortunately, when researchers do give explanations, they are brief and mentioned only in passing.