What caused the Viking Age?

VikingsWhat caused the Viking Age?

By James H. Barrett

Antiquity, Vol.82 No.317 (2008)

Abstract: This paper addresses the cause of the Viking episode in the approved Viking manner – head-on, reviewing and dismissing technical, environmental, demographic, economic, political and ideological prime movers. The author develops the theory that a bulge of young males in Scandinavia set out to get treasure to underpin their chances of marriage and a separate domicile.

Introduction: The Scandinavian diaspora of the late eighth to mid-eleventh centuries AD known as the Viking Age was both widespread in scale and profound in impact. Long-range maritime expeditions facilitated a florescence of piracy, trade, migration, conquest and exploration across much of Europe – ultimately extending to western Asia and the eastern seaboard of northern North America. This diaspora contributed to state formation and/or urbanism in what are now Ireland, Scotland, England, Russia and the Ukraine – not to mention within Scandinavia itself. It was one of the catalysts leading to fragmentation of the Carolingian empire and it created the semi-independent principality of Normandy.

As one of the last ‘barbarian migrations’ of post-Roman Europe, it is also among the best documented. Its study is thus uniquely important for an understanding of European history. It also provides good examples of three processes of relevance to the archaeology of the wider world: the potential impact of small-scale but highly militarised non-state communities on neighbouring ‘complex societies’, the development of transnational identities in a precapitalist world and the seaborne colonisation of islands. Studying the causes of the Viking Age is potentially as illuminating and complex as interpreting the decline of the Roman Empire.

Many discussions of the causes of the Viking Age have been conducted in contexts that are regional. Others address the problem within broad narratives. Yet others challenge the relevance of the Viking Age as a socio-economic watershed or a useful unit of analysis.

The hesitancy in some quarters to view the ‘Viking’ diaspora as meaningful may ultimately owe its roots to a reaction against the gross misuse of Viking Age archaeology as racist propaganda by the National Socialists and others between 1920 and 1945. Nevertheless, there is a problem to resolve, and to understand the early Middle Ages in Europe one must consider developments both within and between regions demonstrate that Scandinavian material culture was highly regionalised in the period under consideration.

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