By Terri Barnes
One question that has puzzled scholars for a long time is what sparked the Viking Age? Why did Scandinavian men start sailing away from their homelands in the 8th century in order to raid and attack much of the rest of Europe? One of those scholars was archaeologist James Barrett who posed the question “What caused the Viking Age?” in 2008 and concluded that one of the more likely hypotheses was that in 8th-century Scandinavia there existed a “youth bulge” of unmarried males who needed to set sail and raid in order to raise bride-price wealth. In 2016 Ben Raffield, Neil Price, and Mark Collard further expanded on this idea and argued that polygyny and social stratification were the causes of the imbalanced ratio favoring males which sent those surplus young men looking for bride wealth and/or female captives to suffice as concubines where a legitimate wife could not be bought.
While compelling, these theories seem a bit too narrow in focus. We know legal marriage was important in Norse society primarily for legitimizing children and inheritance, but was obtaining a woman really so important that it could drive an escalation into large-scale raiding activity within a century? Both polygyny as a cultural practice and social stratification were already in place in Scandinavia long before the start of the Viking Age, so even though they may have been contributing factors there had to be something more that caused the raiding fire to explode in the mid-to-late 8th century.
Another common conception of the earliest Viking raids, particularly for raids in the West, is that they were somewhat unsophisticated affairs carried out by farmers who were simply fulfilling a desire for adventure, and that their success was largely due to better-than-average seafaring abilities and a doggedly determined spirit. But was it really that simple, or are we underestimating the scope of their enterprise? Being mindful that, as with all historical phenomena, an explanation for what kicked off the Viking Age will never be reducible to just one cause, it can be argued there were more overarching cultural and economic factors in Scandinavia than simply an excess of young males in need of women to marry or farmers who were bored. This article will do just that through arguing for what I’m calling the “Walter White Theory.” Let me explain.
In the television series Breaking Bad, the main character Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who initially embarks on low-level engagement in the world of illicit drug production and sale (methamphetamine), using his knowledge of the chemical process for a good cause: he had to raise money for his family’s future security because he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But over the course of six seasons, Walter ends up plunging ever deeper into the dark world of cartels and drug trafficking, ultimately becoming a monster who is consumed by greed and power. In the end his response for why he did it was simple: “I did it for me. I liked it, I was good at it, and I was alive.” His continued involvement in a life of danger, violence, and crime was not because he had to; he ultimately did it because he wanted to and he could.
And therein lies an important distinction which describes where the Norse were situated not only at the beginning but as the Viking Age progressed. Catalysts such as a thirst for adventure, better ships, or the want of a bride may certainly have played roles as important push factors in much the same way that Walter’s cancer drove him toward the illicit drug trade. But ultimately it was the result of the critical intersection between cultural values, economics, and the rise of a powerful leisure class in Late Iron-Age Scandinavia that were the most important factors for causing and defining the Viking Age.
To explain this hypothesis the arguments here engage approaches from anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and particularly Thorstein Veblen’s theories of economics, history, and human behavior. Veblen, though more widely known as an economist, wrote a fair amount about sociology, human history, and the Viking Age in particular owing to his own ancestry as a first-generation Norwegian-American. He became a prominent intellectual figure in America and was affiliated with important institutions such as Cornell University and the University of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, at the time a hotbed of progressive thought. He was deeply critical of the assertion of predatory power, a practice in which he believed the Vikings excelled so he studied them and their culture intensely.
Veblen was intimately familiar with the agricultural life of the bænder, the independent free farmers who had worked the land for centuries in Norway going back even into the Viking Age, as both his mother and father had come from this class of traditional farmers. He also wrote a translation of Laxdæla saga and was well-acquainted with the Icelandic saga literature and the law codes. It is to Veblen’s theories of power, ownership, evolutionary phases of human development, and institution of a leisure class that we turn to describe the cultural and economic dynamics in Scandinavia that led to the raiding which normally marks the advent of and characterizes the Viking Age.
The Cultural Imperative
This is not new. For decades scholars have looked at underlying cultural reasons as push factors for why Vikings became more active in the 8th century. Were the Norse somehow special or different from other medieval actors in their worldview? Barrett asserted that without having a culture based on honor and fatalism it may have been difficult to get men to agree to dangerous voyages from which they might not return. However, he countered that in the European Middle Ages honor and fatalism were not unique to the Norse and so dismissed somewhat cultural ideology as a critical contributing factor. But deeply embedded cultural beliefs and values should not be dismissed so easily.
Historian George M. Frederickson has noted that a particular spirit was part of Scandinavian – particularly Norwegian – culture during the Viking Age and beyond. Certain men who became raiders did so because at heart they were wanderers and vagabonds, “who have a temperamental aversion to farm work and a vague longing for a new existence. They have an irrepressible tendency to dream of faraway lands and drift around the countryside getting into trouble.” Veblen agreed, stating the Vikings possessed a “sagacious spirit of adventure” that allowed them to achieve business success without parallel. These seem like romantic generalizations, except when we look in hindsight at what Vikings did they ring pretty true. And they got to do it in a glorious way. Rather than the irksome method of staying home and simply farming to earn their way at least some of them could leave on ships and return with the spoils that increased their wealth and elevated their status in society, or they could die in the process which also elevated their status and repute as brave warriors – a true win-win situation.
In addition to that wandering spirit, Norse culture in the Middle Ages also embodied what Veblen called “pecuniary emulation,” which meant that men desired and struggled to emulate those above them in social status by accumulating wealth and the power that such wealth afforded them. The desire for power, in his mind, was not absolute in human beings but only evolved relative to other human beings through what he called invidious comparison. Viking culture was predicated on men being mindful of each other’s successes and keeping score. This competition is what Veblen believed caused the development of culture and became the basis for the creation of what he called the “leisure class.”
Vikings also lived in what he termed the “predatory phase” of human evolutionary development. Because of the competitive struggle between men jockeying for position and advancement, the predatory phase is characterized by warfare, barbarism, honor, aggression, clannishness and self-aggrandizement. Further, being a predatory culture required two elements to be in place:
(1) the community must be of a predatory habit of life (war or the hunting of large game or both); . . . the men, who constitute the inchoate leisure class in these cases, must be habituated to the infliction of injury by force and stratagem; (2) subsistence must be obtainable on sufficiently easy terms to admit to the exemption of a considerable portion of the community from steady application to a routine of labour.
By the 8th century, both of these elements were in place in Viking Age Scandinavia. As a militaristic medieval culture it was no stranger to warfare and men who obtained or achieved through force. Likewise, the ability for the home communities to afford to have several men (eventually reaching into the hundreds or thousands) leaving for long stretches of each year to raid and/or trade suggests an adequate population for providing subsistence was in place to enable the community’s survival in their absence.
There is another important distinction that Veblen makes about this. When a society has a rising elite class of powerful men, a particular division of labor is required to make that possible. The entire community, as part of a cultural norm, distinguishes between activities that are worthy and interesting and those irksome tasks that are not. For Vikings on the make, honor and pecuniary repute were only obtainable through exhibiting prowess in predation and exploit. The sagas are replete with accounts that contrast and uphold the ideal of the brave and honorable warrior who exhibits dominance over others against men who are weak and cowardly. It is well-documented in both the sagas and law codes that the legal slur níð in Old Norse, which connotes such unmanliness, was one of the worst insults a man could hurl at another.
Their cultural value system is clear: as occupations, manly exploits like raiding and trading are worthy; the tedium of farming is not. This means others were required to perform the work necessary to sustain Viking communities at home and abroad. In 8th-century Scandinavia we find that the first requirement on Veblen’s list for what constitutes a predatory culture was actually fulfilling the second, thus showing the intersection between cultural values and economic interests that was the crucial mix for helping to spark the Viking Age. Men of a rising elite leisure class were seeking increased wealth, status, and power through war and predation, and on what did they prey? Those human beings who created the subsistence that made their leisure life and status possible in the first place. Therefore, next we turn our discussion to the two most important of those groups: women and the unfree.
Culturally-speaking, it is well-documented in the extant written sources that Viking Age Scandinavia was a stratified society in which women were subordinate to men. It should therefore come as no surprise that in a predatory culture which placed value on men using coercive force to dominate, that women would become victims of exploitation. According to Veblen, “In the sequence of cultural evolution the emergence of a leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership. This is necessarily the case, for these two institutions result from the same set of economic forces.” For Veblen, the predatory life brings with it the practice of plundering and seizing goods from the enemy, which then gives rise to private and individual ownership. He suggested that culturally-speaking the institution of ownership begins in the early stages of predatory barbarism, precisely the cultural stage in which Vikings lived.
Some goods plundered, such as food provisions, can be shared out with the community, but others cannot and therefore can become the private property of an individual. The “property” Veblen specifically meant here is women. For him it is not land, but rather captive women who are – in both an economic and cultural sense – the original form of private property. He is worth quoting in full:
The captives taken under rude conditions are chiefly women. There are good reasons for this. Except where there is a slave class of men, the women are more useful, as well as more easily controlled. Their labor is worth more to the group than their maintenance, and as they do not carry weapons, they are less formidable than men captives would be. They serve the purpose of trophies very effectually, and it is therefore worth while for their captor to trace and keep in evidence his relation to them as their captor. To this end he maintains an attitude of dominance and coercion toward women captured by him; and, as being the insignia of his prowess, he does not suffer them to stand at the beck and call of rival warriors. They are fit subjects for command and constraint; it ministers to both his honor and his vanity to domineer over them, and their utility in this respect is very great.
Several factors in this statement are relevant to early-Viking Age Norse culture, as their treatment of women was both economically and culturally driven. For one thing, we find that raiding often resulted in many more captive women than men. Also, when we look at the polygyny practiced as discussed by Raffield et al. we also see elite men “hoarding” women as property, which may have driven lower-status men to also take even more women captive as a result in order to compete (in accordance with Veblen’s emulation instinct discussed below). Veblen also argued that once taking women captive became normalized into a culture some of them ended up conventionally married to their captors. This was a new form of marriage, what he referred to as “ownership-marriage,” wherein the man became the master and which Veblen claimed was the origin of both private property and the patriarchal household. We know from at least one saga account that such marriages occurred in Viking Age society.
From an economic standpoint, women were valuable property that could be bought, sold, or otherwise traded. “Purchase” could take the form of buying female captives or slaves as well as payment of the bride price. The Icelandic law codes are clear that marriage contracts were simply business arrangements between men – the future groom and the bride’s father or male representative – with the woman merely the economic commodity being exchanged. Legally, the process was carried out in exactly the same manner as other property being sold such as land, a chieftainship, or a ship. If it was a good match, she served to elevate her family both economically and within the power structure of the culture. Her legitimate children became heirs which were important for the retention and passing of wealth from one generation to another. A woman, therefore, was both a form of and transmitter of wealth. Furthermore, communities in the Scandinavian homelands widely utilized the labor of women for the domestic and agricultural work needed to sustain them, particularly while the men were busy organizing and/or away conducting raids and trade.
Culturally-speaking, whether a legitimate wife or a captive concubine, all women served as trophies of the man’s prowess. They became visible symbols of the success of the leisure class man who owned and/or supported them and were the essential paraphernalia that signaled to everyone, friend and foe alike, his power and status. The Icelandic law codes clearly reflect women’s legal status as subordinate to men including, as Veblen also singles out, their inability to legally carry weapons. Achieving a culture based on social dominance of one human over another requires measures be put in place that do not allow the oppressed to strike back against their oppressors. And because women were “more easily controlled” in every possible way – legally, physically, socially – the conditions of their very existence reflected the institutionalized male-dominated culture in which they lived. Without adequate numbers of women to serve their every need, Viking Age Norse societies would have ground to a halt.
As Veblen and several scholars have shown, most recently Ben Raffield as part of The Viking Phenomenon research project, as well as Stefan Brink in his 2021 book on Viking Age slavery, the exploitation of humans as captives to profit from or to enslave was widespread in Europe both before and during the Viking Age, and Scandinavia was no different. Though written sources have long confirmed the Norse were looting and trading for more mundane commodities such as silver, luxury goods, or other provisions, for Vikings the trafficking in human beings was arguably the most lucrative means for gaining the pecuniary repute necessary for becoming an advanced society that could build a solid and powerful leisure class. Even in the Viking areas of Ireland by the end of the 10th century we find that “no son of a soldier or of an officer” (read: elite class) had to lift a finger to do any menial labor because there were so many foreign slaves present to do it for them. Raffield has shown that in England as well by the 9th century the Viking encampments there were much more than simple military bases; they were communities that acted as nodes of commerce that were both supported by (through their labor) and financed by (through their sale) human captives. Veblen claimed, as will be discussed further below, that slaving was the primary commodity for the Norse even well before the Viking Age proper.
The unfree the Norse preyed and capitalized on came from all over their medieval world, but closer to home some English monasteries had, over the course of the 8th century, become important religious pilgrimage sites, particularly those known to be targets of the earliest western raids such as at Lindisfarne Priory and Jarrow. This meant increased human presence of all types. In addition to the monks and other clergy who inhabited them, there were those lay people living in the local communities and also the religious pilgrims, all of whom would have provided many opportunities for capture, ransoming, and enslavement. Multiple sources attest that exactly this occurred. Others were simply purchased in any one of the active slave markets that existed in Europe and other areas of the Viking world.
But the fact that they were active slavers is not to confuse the Norse with, for instance, the ancient Romans in being a slaving society. Brink argues that chattel slaves within Scandinavia proper used to perform agricultural or other types of work did not number nearly as many as in the ancient world. It’s rather that as opposed to being a slaving society, the Norse were a society with slaves, most of which they viewed as commodities to be exchanged for other forms of wealth such as silver. Others have concurred that the majority taken were destined to be sold or traded, but even still, possibly as much as 25% of the population at home in Scandinavia was composed of the unfree or enslaved who were put to some type of labor service. The evidence for this as shown by Raffield and others is clear and may even be underestimated. This means there were ample hands present performing the daily work required to sustain Norse communities when men were absent on raids.
According to Brink, the unfree who directly helped to support Scandinavian society through their labor were owned and/or supported primarily by the upper class. As prestige items, they were part of the visible paraphernalia that Veblen claimed was necessary to signal the prowess of the leisure class. And whether they were farm or domestic workers, sex slaves, or servants, the variant types of unfree people that were “asymmetrically dependent” – again, mostly women – were critical for sustaining home communities and providing the necessary support for the financial, social, and political success of the elite leisure class in Norse societies.
What constitutes a “leisure class”?
Women and the unfree were the people largely making the leisure class possible, but what exactly is a “leisure class”? Simply put, it is a social distinction for people who are rich and powerful and who make sure the rest of the society knows it and functions to keep them in their elevated position. This is achieved largely through violent force and structurally through the legal system. In his most famous book The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen outlines its characteristics and singles out Iceland in the time of the sagas as a fair example of a culture with a burgeoning leisure class.
Leisure essentially means having the resources and freedom to be discriminating in how one spends their time, energy, and wealth. But it also means for the leisure class per se that there is a cultural expectation for how they should behave and what they should not involve themselves in, namely activities deemed too degrading and menial for their station. Veblen identified farming and other forms of manual labor as menial, while the “honorable” activities appropriate to the leisure class were warfare, governance, religious observances, and sports. This distinction easily applies to Viking Age Norse society as well.
Another signifier would be the feasting and drinking engaged in by men of the Viking leisure class, primarily the chieftains and petty kings. Providing such hospitality was explicitly a reflection of their prowess, not only in war or trade but politically as well. The act of hosting was not simply one of charity but a delicate game wherein influential men were required to share, both to display their power but also through being generous with their wealth to assuage envy and potential challenges for that power. This is not unique to the Viking Age Norse but is found cross-culturally in many parts of the world in predator societies from the patrons of ancient Rome to tribes in Africa and the potlatches of native North Americans.
But an interesting cultural twist to this hospitality that signifies a growing leisure class in Scandinavia by the 8th century can be found in the canon of Norse Mythology and specifically with the idea of Valhalla. As Snorri Sturluson recounts, this is the place where some of the bravest men slain in battle spend their afterlife. One has to be a special type of man to be one of the Einherjar selected for Valhalla because there he lives a life of elite privilege where his days are spent feasting, drinking, and fighting in preparation for the battle to come at Ragnarök – a glorified leisure life if there ever was one. Valhalla was reserved for only a chosen few, the most courageous and honorable warriors. But for the outsider looking in, the Norse belief in Valhalla is a clear sign of the existence of a leisure class among the living. The excess of feasting, drinking, and fighting those men engaged in and defined themselves by in their life on earth was simply continued in the afterlife.
Another leisure-class institution, according to Veblen, is the existence of a method for solving interpersonal conflict between men that is deemed to be honorable both in its mechanisms and for what it upholds. He specifically meant the duel. Viking Age Scandinavia was no stranger to dueling. Einvígi, an older form of dueling, existed there prior to the Viking Age, but Vikings knew of it and engaged in it. It was a form of no-holds-barred combat between two parties. Eventually, in Iceland and Norway it morphed into Hólmganga, a more-restricted and rules-based type of fight arguably best outlined in Kormáks saga. Hólmganga became a way to address feuds without resorting to unnecessary killing. Challengers and challengees both had specific roles to adhere to in order to preserve their honor. Once challenged, a man had no recourse but to respond or else lose not only his honor but his property that was generally the basis for the challenge.
For the elite who had more property to lose, such challenges eventually became problematic. According to Marlene Ciklamini, the duel was a legally-recognized means for solving conflicts across the North but was abolished “when it no longer safeguarded the interests of the aristocracy.” In Norway, dueling eventually became seen as akin to legalized robbery. In Iceland, Norway, and Denmark dueling lasted until the 11th century. But even with its abolition, the góðar in Iceland – themselves powerful, elite men of the leisure class – still found ways to profit from interpersonal conflict through their involvement in it as referees and negotiators. The leisure class was still preserving its honor but becoming more civilized in its methods for doing so.
As mentioned above, another Veblen marker of a leisure class is being able to distinguish between worthy and unworthy activity. Powerful men of leisure do not engage in mundane drudgery such as domestic or farm work. Their pursuits must reinforce their power by visibly adding to it somehow, i.e., through the spoils of war or luxuries successfully traded for. This is an instance where Raffield et al.’s polygyny theory should not be discounted entirely because women captives used as concubines or multiple legitimate wives would also be viewed as luxury status symbols and trophies, thus reinforcing the power and status of the men they were connected to. So, while this article argues that polygyny and the desire for additional wives was not the main reason for the raids, it certainly could have been a contributing factor because a man who possessed multiple women – from an anthropological viewpoint cross-culturally – was ipso facto recognized by the community to be important and distinct from the other men. As the saying goes, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” This cliché seems trite but for Veblen it cannot be overstated how important it is for an elite leisure class to be visible, and it is the basis for him having coined the phrases “conspicuous leisure,” and “conspicuous consumption.” That visibility also serves to create in other men Veblen’s “emulation instinct” – the desire to keep up with the Joneses.
Emulation as a Cultural Dynamic: Never Underestimate the Power of Competition
During The Vendel Period ca. 550-750 AD much of the foundation for the warrior ethos and competition that would also define the Viking Age as a solidly predatory culture had already been laid. The Scandinavian trade and piracy business had been building in the south-Baltic regions from at least the 6th century onward and possibly earlier. Veblen remarks that Scandinavian pirate raids dated so far back that it was essentially impossible as a phenomenon to draw a line between them and the overland raids of the Migration Period just after the fall of the western Roman Empire, as both were ubiquitous. He notes that particularly the Danish Viking trade was conservatively well-managed and geared toward long-term prosperity. It was also run by “men of good family and substantial standing in the community,” in other words, the leisure class.
This well-established syndicate eventually became known in Norway and the western isles. The western raids in the late-700s should therefore be viewed as the early attempts by the western Norse to “get in the game” already being employed to profitable effect by their eastern counterparts. They should not be discounted because they were more modest in scale (at least at the beginning) and closer to the Norse homelands; when beginning to build such an enterprise it is common to start small and local. These earlier raids were also, from a business standpoint, more speculative. The competition was fierce and often became violent, and not every coalition of Vikings could withstand it. Some of the smaller bands found themselves needing to consolidate with more powerful interests to survive. Nevertheless, the early western raids show us Veblen’s emulation instinct and desire to compete for wealth and reputation that are the hallmarks of the predatory phase and a budding leisure class were well underway, spreading their influence across the Nordic world.
It is also well attested in the anthropological literature that wealth inequality between men in most human societies creates the competitive conditions for some to become more aggressive and take more risk, particularly in honor-coded societies like the Vikings inhabited where saving face mattered a lot. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, for instance, have convincingly argued in multiple publications that – even in the modern era – the more economically unequal the society is, the more violent men become. When the emulation instinct kicks in, some lower-status men, and younger men in particular, perceive their only way to compete to increase their wealth and status is to undertake ever more risky – and even sometimes criminal – endeavors to achieve those goals. They want to prove they are worthy, and Viking raids would have fit the bill nicely. Again, we turn to Veblen and his predatory instinct:
The opportunity and the incentive to emulate increase greatly in scope and urgency. Tangible evidences of prowess—trophies—find a place in men’s habits of thought as an essential feature of the paraphernalia of life. Booty, trophies of the chase or of the raid, come to be prized as evidence of pre-eminent force. Aggression becomes the accredited form of action, and booty serves as prima facie evidence of successful aggression. As accepted at this cultural stage, the accredited, worthy form of self-assertion is contest; and useful articles or services obtained by seizure or compulsion, serve as a conventional evidence of successful contest.
By the mid-8th century, the Vikings had already embraced a socially-stratified, competitive culture wherein men were judged relative to one another based on aggression and successful prowess in war. This deeply embedded cultural drive to compete and gauge success based on accumulated wealth and power was a major factor in the raids that characterize the start of the Viking Age in the West.
The Economic Imperative
We have shown that to spark the Viking Age it was crucial to have an underlying culture which valued predation, competition, and the use of coercive force to obtain pecuniary repute. We now turn to the other critical factor that drove not only its beginning but the entire Viking Age raiding phenomenon: the wealth itself. In many ways, it was all about the money – the accumulation, maintenance, and growing of it in order to fund the ambitions of an elite leisure class of powerful men in Scandinavia.
Again, this is not new. Economic determinism has always been among the various hypotheses that have been discussed as a critically important factor. However, Barrett partially dismissed it – at least for the attacks in the West – by suggesting they were a rural and not urban phenomenon and therefore less lucrative and potentially not worth it. There has also been the question of whether an increased presence of Arabic silver in Europe starting in the 8th century caused a “gold rush” mentality of sorts, but there has been a lack of scholarly agreement about whether it was the absence or presence of this silver that caused the raids. Indeed it could be both. It is important to keep in mind that economic predation happens in times of dearth for enabling communities to survive, but it also happens in times of plenty, particularly when the infrastructure (wealth and technology) and will (cultural and political) are present to make it not only an attractive option, but physically possible. Vikings possessed both by the late-8th century.
It is worth noting that putting raiding ventures together was no mean feat and took considerable initial investment in manpower and materials, even for the earliest western raids, so these were serious business ventures. Ships had to be built and crews gathered, and weapons to protect the business had to be manufactured, all of which required a substantial supply of capital goods and labor. The increased need for such capital could easily fuel a shift from peaceful trader to violent raider. These were not impromptu affairs but had to be organized and well thought out.
Through investigation of Jómsvikingasaga, Saxo Grammaticus, Heimskringla, and Olafssaga Tryggvasonar, Veblen found that by the 8th century the Norse in the south Baltic were well on their way in having created such an infrastructure, and this has been supported by subsequent scholarly research. As Raffield et al. also relate, by this time all of Scandinavia was already structured around regional polities and petty kingdoms where odal rights to land and the appearance of royal monuments reflected stratification based on wealth and power. The beginning of the Viking Age came at a time when a sophisticated martial culture that was centered on petty kings who had become fabulously wealthy was already in place.
Likewise, the population had begun to recover and increase after the disruptions of the Migration Period and the climate disasters of the early-6th century. For Veblen, this combination of wealth and surplus population resulted in three very important economic factors upon which the Norse capitalized: (1) the financial ability to create the material infrastructure in ships and supplies (food, weapons, etc.) for prolonged voyages; (2) a population that had grown enough naturally and through the seizing of captives so that it was feasible to sustain the home communities in the extended absence of many men over the raiding/trading season; and (3) leaving on such an adventure provided just the perfect high-risk/high-reward opportunity for gaining the pecuniary repute that drove a competitive Norse leisure class culture.
As stated above, we also know they were already trading with many of the religious outposts in western Europe before the 8th century. A few ships with a few dozen men could easily accomplish this. And even though they could not sustain economic growth based solely on the loot obtained from them, rich as some of those places may have been, the early raids on isolated monasteries were easy targets and so provided a great place to start. Veblen correctly points out that the religious artifacts obtainable at smaller monasteries wouldn’t have amounted to enough wealth to even have funded the cost of some voyages in the first place. Sometimes the size of the haul simply could not have been financially worth it in a strict economic cost-benefit analysis.
At other times, Vikings didn’t even take all the portable wealth that was purportedly available to them, despite chroniclers having described them as having plundered or pillaged “everything.” At Lindisfarne Priory, which was famously sacked by a raid at the beginning of the Viking Age in 793, we know the Vikings didn’t take all the valuables they could, as many of those objects – some of them the most precious in the Priory’s possession—survived, unharmed, buried with Cuthbert, the priory’s patron saint. Even the world-famous Lindisfarne Gospels, which now reside in the British Library in London, were obviously not looted by Vikings. Therefore, when factoring in the cost of building ships, making sails, and crewing even just one boat, hits on monastic institutions – even if they were an annual venture – might not have generated enough wealth and probably represented merely an opening salvo for beginning to fund larger business ventures to come. Vikings, it seems, were long-term thinkers. But in order to grow their wealth, they ultimately needed bigger targets and more lucrative items to trade.
The answer to why they may have sought out and/or bothered with relatively smaller-value portable ecclesiastical objects lies partially in the Vikings’ primary commodity: the slave trade. Veblen is clear that their business enterprise essentially comprised only two things: piracy and slaving. In addition to ecclesiastical loot, as Norse piracy grew into the 9th century, human trafficking became the more lucrative option because, in part, the trade goods on offer from the Scandinavian homelands such as furs, walrus ivory, fish, amber, and wool – like the monastic “trinkets” as Veblen called them – could only generate so much profit. Trading Scandinavian goods exclusively was not enough to create the wealth that translated into power and status for the elite Norse both at home and on the international stage.
As mentioned above, it is well-attested that the medieval world they inhabited was rife with human trafficking. Here it is easy to agree with Brink’s assertion that the choice to engage in it and profit from it would have been obvious to the Norse because both supply and demand were clear and present. Veblen as well considered the slave trade to be indispensable to the long-term success of the Viking enterprise because of relatively assured market demand. It was the perfect high-value market for them to engage the opportunism for which Vikings are so famous. But given the constraints of the costs of capturing, transporting, and maintaining captives at scale – not only financially but socially and politically as well – it suggests their involvement was not haphazard or small-scale but rather an enterprise that must have been well-planned and organized, at least in some areas.
The international demand for slaves would have been high at times but also undoubtedly fluctuated as all markets do. Veblen notes the Norse had already been very active in the trafficking of human beings prior to the Viking Age to the extent that the number of slaves being traded had increased so much by the 8th century that it had driven prices down. Thus from an economic point of view the monastic raids which kicked off the Viking Age in the West can therefore be read, at least in part, as attempts to make up for this loss in cash flow by hitting weak and easy targets closer to home.
Likewise, some trafficking in human captives was more reminiscent of hostage-taking than of slaving because high-value people, such as bishops or members of the local nobility, seem to have been specifically targeted for the quick money to be made in requiring ransom payments for their release. Therefore, ransoming and looting smaller portable objects were simply the Viking version of a modern ATM where withdrawals of instantaneous resources could be obtained to tide them over until the slave trade picked up again, which it inevitably did.
Within a century, the wealth generated by trafficking in human beings and other portable goods proved that the gamble undertaken by the western Norse to get involved in the business at the beginning of the Viking Age was paying off – so much so, that Veblen called the successful Viking enterprise one of the world’s first business “trusts.” In simple modern economic terms, the now pan-Norse operation was corporate. Veblen studied the Vikings a lot and concluded the organized piracy they engaged in, primarily trading in slaves, was initially funded by the surplus farming wealth of powerful Scandinavian political leaders – the leisure class – and eventually grew into a sophisticated business syndicate with significant holdings in land and other forms of wealth. They were funded, in Veblen’s words, by jarls who “seemed to have found it an agreeable and honorable diversion, as well as a lucrative employment for their surplus wealth and labor supply.” Their excellence in shipbuilding, seafaring, and logistics enabled them to create the distribution networks necessary for expanding their operations, which they began to do in the mid-to-late 8th century.
By the mid-10th century, the number of boats, men, and money invested in the trade swelled so much that they were, in Veblen’s estimation, larger than any other form of profitable business at the time. The similarities with the dynamics of modern capitalist business practices and cycles is remarkable. As the Viking concern grew and the market became flooded with their trade, only the largest and best organized among them could withstand the cut-throat competition and survive. Some in the leisure class were driven out of business.
The stronger and more efficient among them survived in much the same way that Amazon squashes the “mom-and-pop” businesses of today, through consolidation and controlling an ever larger share of the market. Some men were concentrating their wealth and power to the extent that they were becoming the equivalent of modern-day “drug lords” or “mafia bosses” who eventually became threatening even to those holding political power. Veblen notes that by the late-10th century Scandinavian kings increased their efforts to restrict and regulate Viking piracy and trade. The syndicate was becoming too powerful.
Veblen viewed their achievement as the most classic example of the predatory instinct being put to profitable use and also described the various levels of the business that reflect the structured and all-encompassing ways it affected Scandinavian life. It makes the somewhat common view of farmers going off on occasional adventure seem rather naïve indeed:
It was also rather expected that young men who so went out on adventure and made good would follow up this piratical work for several seasons, before they finally settled down among their neighbors. However, this is only the smallest type. There were also vikings who followed this calling as a permanent business and sole occupation, and who grew old in the trade. So also there were businesslike undertakers who organised piratical concerns of a larger and more durable character, with hired crews and with considerable investment in equipment.
This was an extensive and far-reaching business. In short, the Vikings eventually became one of the premier cartels trafficking in stolen goods and human beings in the same way that Mexican cartels control much of the world’s illicit drug trade today. From before the Viking Age and onward, the Norse leisure class was building a successful, sophisticated, international corporation through trading in high-demand/high-value goods. The desired increase in their power and status could only come through the profit that their enterprise generated.
Because they could
There is no doubt something like a “Viking Age” as a historical phenomenon had manifold causes. One of the more recent to be suggested is there existed an excess of Scandinavian males, particularly, demographically-speaking, those of an age ready to find a mate. This was the result, at least in part, of the Norse practice of polygyny, and it meant young men eager to secure bride wealth to enable them to marry – or female captives to serve as concubines if they could not – set forth into the world in unprecedented numbers starting in the mid-to-late 8th century. While not denying that at least some of the young men who went on raids did so for this reason, based on the economic and anthropological theories of Thorstein Veblen this article has argued that the Viking phenomenon was driven by broader and deeper factors that by the beginning of the Viking Age were inextricably intertwined.
First, in early-Viking Age society there existed a cultural ethos that was the embodiment of Veblen’s predatory phase of human evolution wherein Norse life was built by men, for men, and based on warfare, aggression, honor, wealth, status, reputation, and power. It was a culture based on machismo and emulation where men intensely competed in essentially all aspects of life for material advantage and entry into the leisure class. Domestically, it was a culture which institutionalized male domination over everyone else in the society and required them – primarily women and the unfree – to support and make their ambitions possible. Abroad, it was one that viewed exploitation of property and other human beings wherever possible through violence and coercive force as the only worthy and honorable means for achieving their expansive goals.
That culture and worldview, in turn, supported what was the other critical motivation for the Viking Age: the drive for economic wealth. Simply put, their goal was to get rich because only wealth could convey the desired power and status that marked them out as successful. It also enabled them to gain the respect and renown they sought both at home and abroad. This economic drive necessitated creation of an international, well-organized, and efficient business model in order to achieve the cultural goal of supporting a strong leisure class who would one day elevate some among them into the position of king in the same tradition as other powerful European monarchs. The Viking Age did not start for want of women or bride wealth as a primary goal. Those were but small elements figuring into a much larger economic picture. The act of raiding conveyed not just desirable qualities such as courage and honor, but also helped men gain the vast amounts of wealth necessary to elevate themselves financially and socially as well as to keep their business enterprise operating and expanding in the long run.
This brings us full circle and back to our Walter White Theory. Walter initially embarked on a life of violence and exploit in a low-level way because of the profit to be made from it; he wanted to support and protect his family. In the end, the Viking Age in the West started in a similar way; men were looking to better their conditions through profiting from trade and smaller raids. Ultimately, however, they were absorbed into the wider world of a Viking syndicate that had begun centuries earlier in the south-Baltic region by becoming part of their distribution network. The western raids weren’t the “beginning” of a Viking Age per se in the 8th century; this was no historical turning point. They were rather simply part of the continuation of a profitable business and its expansion to an international scale.
The competitive leisure class who managed the enterprise did so with such business acumen that it is easily recognizable – and perhaps even laudable – in our modern corporate landscape today, and for those men on the rise in the West it fueled envy and the desire to emulate their success. They got in the game because of the promise of wealth. They stayed in the game because that wealth bestowed upon them the power and status their culture hungered for, and much like Walter White, they found they were good at it and they liked it. In the end, they didn’t do it because they had to; they did it because they could.
Terri Barnes is History faculty at Portland Community College and Portland State University. You can follow Terri on Academia.edu. She is especially grateful to Erik Dean for his thoughtful contributions and edits. She also thanks Ben Raffield, Justin Elardo, Joel Magnuson, Matt Ponesse, and Darin Harrison.
Terri Barnes is teaching a six-week online course on The Viking Age. Click here for more details.
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