On January 6, 793, the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the east coast of England, was raided by the Vikings – the first recorded attack by the Norse on the British Isles. The Vikings killed many of the monks, enslaved others, and looted their religious relics.
Historians have put forward many ideas on why the Vikings began raiding throughout Western Europe in the late eighth-century, including a reaction against encroaching Christianity, a desire for land overseas, or just to make money in order to pay for the cost of marrying women back at home. While making a fortune was certainly a factor for the Vikings, one historian suggests that fame and glory were also important reasons for travelling long distances to attack faraway lands.
In his article, ‘What really caused the Viking Age? The social content of raiding and exploration’, Steven P. Ashby, a medieval archaeologist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, outlines the many factors that would have prompted Norsemen – both the elites and the regular men – to conduct their raids across Europe. He believes that while economic reasons were important, “one must consider the possibility that the rationale was the desire not for wealth that was falling into short supply in Scandinavia, but rather for a form of wealth or prestige that had not been – and could never be – available without leaving those shores.”
What would make an individual fare overseas in pursuit of portable wealth? The demand for resources that could be used in various forms of exchange must have been an important component, but it does little to explain the particular types of artefact that were brought back to Scandinavia from raids on the Continent and the British Isles. It is worth noting that these objects are not just silver; at least on the basis of the material still available to us, artefacts were not routinely melted down and recast, and though they were often cut up or adapted in various ways, in many cases original elements are preserved.
For example, items like silk, decorated metalworks, jewellery and religious artefacts would be kept by the Vikings, and often buried with them. Instead of just melting them down or selling them, the Vikings valued them as objects of prestige, to show to their friends and neighbours as proof of their exploits and how they were able to acquire things from far-off lands. “Unusual form, materials or ornament thus spoke of exotic places, people, objects and behaviours,” Ashby writes, “invoking a sort of spiritual foreignness or even supernatural quality in addition to mere geographical displacement. The unknown holds great power, by virtue of its very mystery. This power could be transmitted to the owners of these goods, investing them with a certain political and ideological legitimacy.”
This would explain why many Christian artefacts and artworks would be kept by the pagan Vikings – they could even be seen as magical items. But Ashby adds it wasn’t just having the goods that offered prestige to the Vikings, as it was just as important to get them by going overseas and acquiring them in warfare. Honour was important for both elites and commoners in Norse society, and one way of gaining it was in taking part in these raids. Ashby notes that:
individuals implicated in low-intensity forms of warfare (such as raiding) tend to attain elevated social status, while the heightened experience of the military context provides the opportunity not only for the doing of great deeds, but also for the display and recognition of skill sets and personal qualities that might otherwise go unnoticed. Individuals might be lauded for their strength or speed, courage or cunning, for skills in combat or caring for the sick, for sailing or ship repair. It is easy to imagine that this was the means by which warriors received their ‘eke-names’, and this alone may have been justification enough for a young, ambitious man to want to join a raiding party. This situation has been recorded in diverse non-western societies (see examples cited above), wherein raiding provides something of an initiation experience for some individuals, and an opportunity for others to gain prestige by proximity to, and association with, members of the warrior aristocracy. Followers also had the opportunity to create and maintain relationships with other members of the retinue, through communication of shared values and bonding through experience. The formation of such group identities and dynamics may well have been a key motivating factor for many freemen involved in overseas expeditions.
He also believes that the first successful raids in the late eighth-century would have had a ‘snowball effect’ – as the stories spread of the Vikings’ victories in places such as England, it would have encouraged future generations to try even greater exploits – to make bigger and better raids, and go further away from Scandinavia.
“On the face of it, these proposals are uncontroversial,” Ashby concludes. “Popular accounts of the Viking Age do, after all, suggest that raiding activity was motivated by the search for treasure and fame, fortune and glory. Conversely, however, archaeological explanations have frequently sought to explain the phenomenon in rather reductive economic (or at best socio-economic) terms, and any reference to the significance of travel in and of itself has tended to be oblique or implicit, rather than explicitly theorized (notwithstanding some awareness of Helms’s work). While it is not my intention to underplay the economic lure of raiding, trading and settlement, it is necessary to throw a light on their sociological content.”
The article ‘What really caused the Viking Age? The social content of raiding and exploration’ appears in the June 2015 issue of the journal Archaeological Dialogues (Volume 22, Issue 1). Click here to access the article from Cambridge University Journals. You can also learn more about Steven Ashby’s research on his university webpage.