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Where did the Vikings go? The Decline of Norse Piracy

By Declan McClean

Piracy captures the popular imagination in a manner unlike many other occupations. Popular conceptions of swashbucklers and treasure islands are frequent motifs in film and literature, but in reality, the story of piracy goes back further into the Classical period and the mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’. The medieval period also witnessed pirates, with many able to name the conflict between the Turks and Hospitallers of Rhodes. One popularly known cadre of pirates is the Vikings, with their dragon ships being emotive images; even amateurs have some awareness of Norse raids against the British Isles. However, one of the less well-understood aspects of the Viking Age is its end. Where did the Vikings go?

It is easy to declare an answer to this question along the lines of a general historical account of the tenth century onwards into what most understand as the ‘Middle Ages’ of castles and knights. One might assume that, in the centralization and stratification of Europe, conflicts became less frequent but greater in intensity as the great kingdoms and duchies of the period formed, leaving little room for piracy of the Nordic sort. However, such an explanation ignores the changes in Scandinavian society that were taking place at the time, and it fails to account for the reasons the Norse turned to piracy in the first place – an essential question when understanding why they later stopped.

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Firstly, to examine the society that produced the Vikings, it is understood that the word “viking” itself simply means “pirate,” denoting an occupation rather than an ethnic or cultural group. “The Vikings” were not a cohesive group but often unrelated individuals who were mainly farmers but would raid to accumulate capital. To go “a-viking” was seen by the Norse as a somewhat ignoble occupation, fit primarily for young men to gain experience and wealth, with a common trope in Norse literature being a young man going off for several years before returning home to marry and settle down, such as in the tale of Gunnlaug Wormtongue. Unlike the pirates of the Caribbean who were professional sailors, often recently in service of one of the great navies of the time, the Vikings were essentially irregular warriors, with only occasional exceptions such as the Jomsvikings.

This entrepreneurial character of Norse piracy was directly produced by the specifics of society in Scandinavia at the time, which was far less hierarchical than in Europe, with a class of largely equal, free, landholding farmers rather than the stratified arrangements of feudalism developing in Europe. It is unsurprising that feudalism was first transmitted to the low-lying fields of Denmark rather than the geographically disparate fjords and mountains of Norway which made early administration and centralization more difficult. This process meant that a large number of now landless men could no longer afford to equip themselves as raiders due to the burdens of their rent.

In the same way as the Carolingians had unified their territories, so too did the Norse kings, developing their royal power and creating their own dynasties. This allowed them to harness the violent impulses of their subjects in expansion, such as the various wars of England’s crown in the early eleventh century in which Norse kings such as Canute the Great used their claims to expand their holdings across the North Sea. However, while kings such as Sweyn Forkbeard would still assemble large raiding and conquering expeditions, they now sought to administer their territories rather than plundering them and returning home, in particular engaging with the local nobles and bishops rather than simply murdering them.

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This engagement was perhaps motivated by military necessity and the growing ineffectiveness of small attacks of the traditional “viking” pillaging that had characterized earlier centuries. Some monasteries simply moved inland, and in England Alfred’s “burh” system of forts and roads made local responses much quicker. As irregular shock infantry, relatively lightly armed and armored, the Vikings were unable to stand against professional forces, especially cavalry, with an ironic episode occurring in the year 1000 when Norman knights (themselves descended from Viking settlers) repelled an Anglo-Saxon attack in Cotentin in which the English were likely armed in the same manner as the Norse, fighting on foot with axes.

The Changing Viking

However, equally we must look to internal change in Scandinavian society at the time for an explanation of the greater (relatively) peaceful engagement with the rest of Europe. In Iceland, for example, Thorsteinn Kuggason, a godi (a sort of priest or judge), advocated for the use of compensation and formal outlawry in the development of Icelandic legal procedure, rather than the reliance on blood feuds to resolve grievances, deeming the later to be unchristian. This does not necessarily mean that Norse men no longer desired to raid and to acquire wealth, and indeed there are examples of the dichotomy of Norse culture and Christian religion coming into conflict. In The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People, the hero of the tale is advised by King Olaf of Norway to cease raiding due to its unchristian nature, though the king acknowledges this is Bjorn’s preferred occupation.

Given this proclivity, we might as well ask whether raiding actually stopped, or if it just transitioned to other forms. Many Norse warriors went east to Gardariki (Ukraine) and Holmgard (Novgorod) with the descendants of Rurik, a Rus Viking chieftain ruling Russia from AD 862 to 879. Similarly, many runestones in Scandinavia record memorials for relatives who died in Byzantine service as mercenaries. This service proved sufficiently profitable that men would return and raise runestones commemorating their own victories. The demand for and subsequent emigration of Norse fighting men across the medieval world proved so great that one of the oldest written laws of Sweden, the Västgötalagen, contains provisions against heirs inheriting when they were in Greece. Even the later king Harald Hardrada accumulated great wealth while fighting in the east, specifically in the service first of Yaroslav of Kiev and later as the commander of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard. Harald’s reign in Norway was notable for centralization and territorial unification, possibly as a result of his experiences in the much more bureaucratically developed Constantinople.

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This concern with migration is mirrored in contemporary accounts of the Norman peoples of Rouen, whose duke was described by one chronicler as dux pyratorum or “leader of pirates” due to the large numbers of Norse settlers who resided in Normandy. Given this clear international activity, it is even possible to argue that the sort of entrepreneurial expeditions that characterized the Viking Age continued, at least for a time, both in trading and warfare, though now under different forms – though this hypothesis becomes less persuasive as the motivation and specifics of such travel move further and further away from the “original” piracy of Ragnar Lothbrok and his contemporaries.

We understand the piracy of the Caribbean to be the particular result of geopolitics of the time, including the extraction of resources from the colonies and the mercantilist policies of the age leading to large numbers of sailors in the service of various states protecting their trade. These sailors turned to piracy to use their skills whenever the European powers were occupied, but they were eventually destroyed by the greater ability of England, France, and Spain to project their power. We may understand that a very similar thing happened to the Vikings, who emerged and flourished under specific geopolitical and cultural conditions, but who eventually faded away due to changes in their situation making piracy a less profitable occupation, and one that was no longer culturally or religiously permissible to practice. The Vikings did not ‘go’ anywhere, but the people who became Vikings no longer had the opportunity or inclination to continue to do so.

Declan McClean is a civil servant interested in religion and culture in the Early Middle Ages.

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Further Readings:

Eiricksson, Leifur, Sagas of Warrior-Poets (Penguin Classics, 2002)

Brown, R. Allen, The Normans (Boydell Press, 1997)

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

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