Medieval Scandinavia: Power Dynamics in the Viking Age

By Beñat Elortza Larrea

In the first article on a series about the rise of kingdoms in medieval Scandinavia, Beñat Elortza Larrea examines the society and power dynamics found in the Viking Age.

The far-flung travels and ferocious raids of the Norsemen of the Viking Age have long captured the popular imagination. The deeds of famous saga heroes such as Ragnar Lothbrok or Harald Fairhair are well-known nowadays, not least due to their recent portrayals in mass media. The way Scandinavian societies functioned and evolved is likewise fascinating. By the turn of the thirteenth century, the once-feared Dani and Norþmenn of the continental and insular chronicles lived, behaved and thought remarkably similarly to their neighbours to the South – but how did this shift occur?


Early Medieval Scandinavia should be understood as, if not relatively homogeneous, a region with meaningful shared characteristics both from a cultural and geographical point of view. Large parts of the Scandinavian population – the Sámi and other Finnic peoples notwithstanding – spoke a number of dialects that were largely mutually intelligible; their socio-political institutions were similar; and they worshipped the same pantheon of Norse gods – albeit with distinct regional differences. From a geographical perspective, the importance of seas and waterways is difficult to understate: from the closely-knit Danish archipelago to the deep Norwegian fjords and to the broad Swedish lakes, ships and sailing were absolutely central to the Scandinavians. The sea was a means of transport, the source of protein-rich sustenance, the explorers’ trail and the highway for the war-fleets sailing to wealthier coasts. These common traits help us understand the society, political organisation and power dynamics of Viking Age Scandinavia from a wide viewpoint.

Local magnates and war-band leaders did not simply sprung to life at the beginning of the Viking Age; although written sources are scarce, archaeological evidence suggests that a well-organised military elite existed in Scandinavia from centuries prior. We know, for instance, that as early as the third century AD an impressively equipped army sailed from modern day Norway and Sweden to Jutland, where they were soundly defeated. By the Migration Period – c. 400-550 –, powerful magnate complexes began to be built around Scandinavia. These residences were centred on a large longhouse, which was itself surrounded by smaller buildings and a number of dependent farms. The members of the social elite who lived in these halls had developed expanding networks of followers, which allowed them to accrue wealth without having to work the land themselves; they further strengthened their position of power by hiring and maintaining semi-professional armed retinues.


Scandinavian society in the Viking Age

From a societal perspective, early Viking Age Scandinavia had relatively horizontal power structures, at least when compared to contemporaneous European states such as Frankia or Anglo-Saxon England. One of the most important – and arguably, largest – groups was that of the allodial farmers, those who owned the land they worked. These individuals possessed full rights, and were crucial for the functioning of their local þing, the all-important assembly that doubled as a decision-making organ and as a legal court.

Below the landowning farmers, there were other free men, such as those who rented land – tenant farmers – or farmhands, who worked in other peoples’ lands and functioned as part of their household. Slaves were quite commonplace; although large estates run entirely through slave labour did not exist, most households would have a modest number of slaves who were used as labourers, often engaging in unpleasant or arduous tasks such as dunging the fields or taking animals on grazing trips. The status of women was marginally better than elsewhere in Europe, but by no means were women seen as equal to men; Scandinavian societies were intensely patriarchal and, a few exceptions notwithstanding, it was near-impossible for women to own and run their own farm, for instance.

The importance of the free, land-owning peasantry as the backbone of society did not mean, however, that these societies lacked an elite group. The upper layer of society was composed of powerful regional leaders, who dwelt on the aforementioned complexes centred on longhouses. It is unclear how these elites came into being. With their permanent armed retinues, these magnates had the ability to enforce their supremacy – at least locally – through the threat of violence, but they also seem to have performed certain aspects of Norse religious life. It is likely that these individuals were members of shrewd land-owning dynasties who solidified their position throughout several generations, but it is also possible that belonging to sacralised kin-groups further strengthened their status in society. Their combined social, religious and military status made these magnates strongmen in their own regions, and held considerable sway in the assemblies’ decisions.

The main methods used by the magnates to accrue further wealth were tribute and trade. Tributes were exacted from the magnates’ dependents, as mentioned above, but tight control over sea routes was also an efficient way of securing income. The manor of Avaldsnes is an excellent example; perched on a low ridge on the island of Karmøy, north of Stavanger, this magnate residence overlooked a narrow channel along the Norwegian coast. Ships would use sheltered passages such as this one instead of risking sailing on open waters, and would have to pay tribute to do so. Control over waterways must have been a natural means of income for the aristocracy; it is no coincidence that archaeological finds in Avaldsnes go back 3,000 years.


Organising seasonal – and sometimes permanent – marketplaces also contributed to the magnates’ wealth. These markets took place near the elite’s compounds, who provided safety to merchants in exchange for a chunk of their earnings. Some long-distance high-quality goods sold in these places, such as glass beads, eastern silk or Frankish weaponry, were also used by the magnates as status markers. Short-distance plundering expeditions, whereby neighbouring communities were attacked, must have taken place in Scandinavia, but due to the relative poverty of the region, this approach could not have been a particularly efficient method of external exploitation. This situation would nevertheless change dramatically with the onset of systematic expeditions against the Western European kingdoms.

The impact of Viking raids on Scandinavia

The motivations behind the first waves of Viking raids in Western Europe have been debated frequently. It has been argued that they were a pagan response to an increasingly expansionist Christianity, or that it was population growth and several poor harvests that led the Scandinavians to seek better conditions elsewhere. It is likely, however, that the main motives behind the raids were seeking new trade opportunities, abandoning the limitations of rigid regional dynamics back home and, lastly, simple opportunism.

Another fundamental change that made these plundering expeditions possible was the evolution of the Scandinavian ship. From the Migration Period onwards, ships had been built using clinker-building techniques, which made them shallow and fast vessels; it seems that, nevertheless, sails were not widely adopted until the eighth century. Through the introduction of sails, the Scandinavian magnates now had fast ships that could cross large expanses of open water safely, as well as row upriver for long distances.


I will not focus on the impact of the Viking raids abroad, but rather on the changes that they generated back in the Scandinavian homelands. Continued expeditions into the British Isles and the Carolingian kingdoms, as well as along the Baltic shorelines and the Dnieper, Dniester and Volga river basins in Eastern Europe, led to a considerable accumulation of wealth by the Scandinavian elites. This newfound prosperity, combined with the military expertise accumulated during successive campaigns, placed the Viking magnates in a position of power back home, and it also gave them the ability to recruit larger armed retinues.

These developments were not, of course, merely limited to the economic and military spheres. Scandinavian presence abroad, coupled with the permanent occupation of regions along the western European coastline – such as the Danelaw or Normandy – placed Viking leaders in close contact with Christianity, its conceptions of sacral kingship, and the ideology of rulership and legislative activity prevalent in Continental Europe at the time. The ideas of God-chosen dynastic rulers and the importance of permanent bureaucratic institutions would be an invaluable asset to establish more lasting methods of governance in Scandinavia.

The formation of permanent trading centres should not be underestimated either. By the early eighth century, there were four such towns in Scandinavia: Hedeby and Ribe in southern Jutland, Kaupang on the western side of the Oslo Fjord, and Birka in the islands of Lake Mälaren. These emporia lay along the Baltic trading routes that connected East and West, and precious long-distance goods, as well as slaves, were exchanged in them. As permanent, specialised urban centres, these trading towns attracted a good deal of foreigners to their streets, including missionaries; Saint Ansgar, for instance, visited both Hedeby and Birka several times, managing to build a church in the former.

All the changes and innovations mentioned above would pave the way for the permanent unification and consolidation of the medieval Scandinavian kingdoms. During the Viking Age – and possibly earlier – there were attempts at creating larger states, most notably by Horik I in Denmark, during the mid-ninth century, and by Harald Fairhair in Norway from the 870s onwards. While these magnates were successful, their political and military gains would be rather short-lived, as their conquests depended on the leaders’ own prestige and power in order to endure. Later efforts by other shrewd and calculating aristocrats in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, on the other hand, would lead to the establishment of permanent kingdoms.


Beñat Elortza Larrea has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, and he is currently finishing a Bernadotte postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Gothenburg. His research interests include state formation in medieval Scandinavia, military history from a social perspective, and maritime societies in the Middle Ages. Click here to visit his page on

Top Image: Detail of Vikings invading England. Illuminated illustration from the 12th century Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund – Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.736 fol. 9v