Aug 9, 2015

Not just about the booty: New study sheds light on reasons for Viking raids

Leif Ericson discovers Vinland, by Christian Krohg.

The lure of the [Viking] raid was… more than booty; it was about winning and preserving power through the enchantment of travel and the doing of deeds.

Thus states a new paper by an archaeologists from the University of York, England, who has been trying to figure out just why, besides riches, the Vikings carried out the raids and conquests that they did.

“This provides an important correction to models that focus on the need for portable wealth; the act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself,” writes Professor Steven Ashby in the journal Archaeological Dialogues (the abstract is here).

The Vikings went on raids and set up colonies in England, mainland Europe and as far east as Russia. They went on voyages of thousands of kilometers to Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. The Viking Age lasted from the 9th to the 13th centuries AD.

“The cause of the Viking Age is one of our longest-lived debates,” Ashby writes. “A combination of push and pull factors and a catalysing environment instigated the late 8th-century escalation in maritime activity that ultimately led to social, political and religious transformation. Recent discussions have focused on the macro level, with little consideration of the individual gains to be made by raiding. This paper argues that rewards consisted in more than portable wealth. In the flexible hierarchies of the Viking Age, those who took advantage of opportunities to enhance their social capital stood to gain significantly.”

Ashby wanted to research the social reasons for the raids. The riches Vikings gained were an obvious lure, but what else would cause a man to leave his family and home sometimes for months at a time and put himself in grave danger of being lost at sea or wounded or even killed in battle? Previous research looked at political, demographic, technological and environmental reasons for Viking raids, in addition to the real wealth of silver and slaves, says a synopsis of Ashby's article in Past Horizons. Also, why did silver and other riches and slaves become important in Scandinavian society from the end of the 8th century AD onwards?



Territories and voyages of the Vikings (Wikipedia)


“I wanted to try to discover what would make a young chieftain invest in the time and resources for such a risky venture. And what were the motives of his crew?” Ashby told Past Horizons. “The lure of the exotic, of the world beyond the horizon, was an important factor. Classic anthropology has shown that the mystique of the exotic is a powerful force, and something that leaders and people of influence often use to prop up their power base. It is not difficult to see how this would have worked in the Viking Age.”

Acquisition of precious metals, especially silver and Anglo, Frankish and Celtic metalwork were tangible symbols of power and status and a mustering focus for more Viking raids. “Many of the large quantity of Christian artefacts found in Scandinavian contexts (particularly Norwegian pagan burials) escaped melting and recycling, not because of some form of artistic appreciation, but because they were foundation stones for power, and touchstones in any argument for undertaking military activity,” says Past Horizons.



Prow of a Viking ship in a museum in Oslo, Norway (Photo by Karamell/Wikimedia Commons)

Ashby said raids gave Viking rank and file men opportunities for violence and also a venue to gain notoriety among peers and the chiefs. “It was an opportunity to build reputations for skill, reliability, cunning, or courage. Just as leaders of raiding parties stood to gain more than portable wealth, so too their followers could seek intangible social capital from participation,” Past Horizons says.

Featured image: Leif Ericson discovers Vinland, by Christian Krohg. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Mark Miller
The Gokstad Ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Image: Grzegorz Wysocki (CC BY 3.0)
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