When many of us think about the Viking age, we often have images of men with long hair and an epic beard, holding a long sword or a giant Dane ax, while running across a field into a legendary battle. However, nothing can be further from the truth than just to think about the Vikings as people who were out for bloodthirst.
The Viking age was much more than just violence and conflict, diplomacy and peaceful trade among tribes and Kingdoms was also a big part of the activities in and outside of Scandinavia.
It is also important to know that the Vikings knew about the British Isles, and it was not something that was discovered by some rumor, or for that fact, by Ragnar Lothbrok as it was depicted in the show Vikings from the history channel. The people in Scandinavia were very much aware of the land to the west.
Trade was also not something that was new to the Nordic people, not only had they traded with each other since the bronze age, but they had also traded with people further away, such as on the British Isles.
I know that to a lot of you, this is a common fact, and I might as well explain what the color in the sky is… but the media, and even billion-dollar studios, that should have a big enough budget to hire an expert in the Viking age, keep misrepresenting the Vikings. I also know that there are some of you who will question my use of the word Viking, and wonders why I label all in Scandinavia as such, but for that you can check out my other video, called “what does the word Viking mean?“, where I address this issue since I don’t want to repeat it again.
To simplify in this article I have split the people in Scandinavia into three groups, the Danes, the Norwegians, and the Swedes. However, you should keep in mind that society consisted of multiple tribes and Kingdoms in the Viking age.
Prior to the Viking age trading took place at temporary markets or in very small villages along the coast in Scandinavia. And it is not until we enter the Viking age, that we start to see the first proper trading towns across Scandinavia.
Trade became more and more important but also easier to conduct, for instance, the development of the Viking ship had a profound role in the expansion of trade. Trade slowly started to become a crucial part of the local economy in Scandinavia, and it was therefore in the interest of the Kings to have towns that conducted this lucrative trade within their Kingdom, and they were prepared to fight for it.
The Vikings would eventually become a part of a huge trade network that spanned from Iceland to Constantinople, and from Ireland to the most remote parts of what today is Russia.
The first trade towns in Scandinavia were probably established by either Jarls or Royals who were the people from the upper class, and therefore had a lot of wealth and influence. There was a significant demand for luxury products by the elite, and products such as wine and Frankish glass, and silk from Asia were hard to come by at the beginning of the 8th century.
The first signs of what seems to be a permanent market in Scandinavia has been found in the city of Ribe that is located in the western parts of Denmark.
The Viking Trade Town Ribe
At the beginning of the 8th century (705 CE), it was either a King or a very powerful Jarl who gave permission to some of the local merchants to set up their tents and small wooden houses on a field right next to the town of Ribe in Denmark.
Ribe which already was a prominent town, would in the following decades become a well-known trade town among many of the traveling merchants.
The field was 200 meters long and 65 meters wide, and it was placed just next to the Ribe River. Which made it a perfect place to conduct trade since the merchants could sail their ships right up next to the marketplace.
The field was divided into small sections of 6-8 meters wide plots of land on either side, and they were separated by either small ditches or paths. The main roads were made from wooden planks, which made it ideal to transport heavy goods with horse-drawn vehicles.
Towns such as Ribe was not a place where ordinary people lived, they lived their lives out in the countryside in small villages on their farms. The people who lived in the towns were either the upper class which was called Jarls, or the merchants and craftsmen that made their livelihood from either producing or trading goods.
Most of the products that were produced in trading towns such as Ribe was sold as export, while the products that were brought to Ribe by foreign merchants were purchased by the local merchants and sold in the nearby villages, or by traveling from farm to farm.
A place that had a lot of trade like Ribe would, of course, attract unwanted visitors in the form of Viking raids. It was therefore very important that the King or the local magnate could provide the necessary protection, so the traveling merchants and craftsmen would feel safe enough to conduct their business in Ribe.
However, this was probably not something that was free, and there was probably a sales tax for those who wished to trade in Ribe, and the King always got his cut of the cake.
As I have often said, the past is not behind us, it is beneath us. Our soil is full of our history and the memories of our ancestors. And I am very happy that Ribe has gotten a lot of attention in the last few decades from the archeologists, and that the government has earmarked a lot of resources to help conduct more excavations in Ribe.
I believe that there are many more great finds to be discovered in Ribe, and the future has many more treasures from the past hidden from us, just waiting to be discovered.
The Viking Trade Town Hedeby
The ancient town of Dorestad which today is located in the Netherlands was an important trading town, before and at the beginning of the Viking age. Dorestad was founded in the 7th century, and it might have been established where the former Roman fortress of Levefanum was built.
However, at the beginning of the 9th century, the merchants began to stay away from Dorestad due to the many Viking raids, and Dorestad slowly lost its dominance in the trade network. Instead, the small town called Hedeby in Denmark started to become the new trade hub in the north.
Hedeby (Old Norse Heiðabýr, German Haithabu) was the southernmost town in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, and today it is located to the south of the city Schleswig in Germany.
Hedeby is located next to the river Schlei (Danish: Slien), which has direct access into the sea, and it made it easy for visitors to travel to and from Hedeby by ship. Placing the trade towns further into the land, instead of next to the coast, was a strategic move because in that way it was possible to observe if it was a friendly or hostile ship that entered the river.
Further south is the river Eider (Ejderen) where they had easy access to the North Sea. This was a shortcut through the peninsula of Jutland, and it would save the travelers the hassle of sailing around the entire peninsula of Jutland, this probably came at a fee to the local King.
The river Eider also marked the old Danish border, which separated the Danes, the Saxons, and the Slavic from each other. To the west beyond the marshlands were the border to the Friesians. Hedeby was connected to many other important Danish towns by the army road (Danish: Hærvejen), also known as the ox road. This was a 500 km long road that stretched from the Jutland peninsula in the north to the border in the south.
The town was known under many different names in the Viking age, sources such as poems and runestones also refer to Hedeby as, Sliesthorp, Sliaswich, Slesvic, æt Hæthum, and Haitha by. Another reason why Hedeby became an important trade town, was probably also due to the fact that the Danish King named Godfrey used his army to attack and destroyed the trading town of Reric in Northern Germany in 808.
The lives of the merchants and craftsmen were spared by the Danish King, if they agreed to move to Hedeby, and conduct their business from there instead.
Godfrey then ordered fortifications to be built around Hedeby to protect the town from unwanted visitors. However, it is unclear if he ordered new fortifications to be built, or if he simply repaired the ancient border walls known as Dannevirke and Kovirke that was located near Hedeby.
Dannevirke has been expanded and repaired multiple times, and two people who probably had a huge impact on these fortifications around Hedeby was Queen Thyra (Also known as: Thorvi or Thyre), and her son Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson.
How Dannevirke was built
We have an old Danish folklore here in Denmark about how Dannevirke was built, this saga has been told and retold for more than one thousand years to our friends and family. Sometime in the middle of the 9 century, Otto the Great, who was the King of East Francia, wanted to get the Danes under his thumb so he could collect taxes from them.
So Otto the Great traveled to Jelling where King Gorm the old and his wife Queen Thyra lived. Upon arriving he saw the beautiful Thyra and he immediately fell all in love with her. So King Otto told King Gorm that he wanted all the gold in his Kingdom, including his wife Thyra, and if he refused to follow his command, he will take it by force anyway.
King Gorm who was stupid and lazy sat on his throne and looked at him while he was picking his nose with an open mouth and blank stare. Wondering what to say, and he only manages to mumble a bit for himself because he was too stupid to think of an answer.
But then the smart and beautiful Queen Thyra stepped forward and bowed to King Otto and said, of course, we will do as you please. You can have all the gold in our Kingdom and of course, you shall have me as well, we are after all just a small Kingdom and you have such a big and mighty empire.
My King if you just give me one year, I will personally together with my close guards travel around the whole Kingdom of Denmark and collect all our gold and silver for you. When you come back here next year on the same date, all the gold and silver will be packed and ready for you transport back with you, and of course, I will travel with you back to East Francia and become your Queen.
King Otto scratched himself on the back off the head, and thought about it for a minute and said, yes that sounds like a good idea, and I don’t even have to do all the traveling around your Kingdom myself, okay Thyra, I will be back in exactly one year.
The next day, Queen Thyra began to travel around the Kingdom and collected all the silver and gold, but instead of collecting it for King Otto the Great, she used it built a wall called Dannevirke, which would function as a defensive fortification against the enemies from the south.
One year later King Otto returned to Denmark, but he was stopped in his tracks by a massive wall, that stretched as far as the eyes could see. On top of the wall, Queen Thyra and all her warriors stood and looked down, laughing and pointing at them, while making chicken noises at King Otto and his men.
During the 11th century, the water in the river Schlei began to rise, and it is estimated that it rose with 120 cm. Which made it more difficult to conduct trade from Hedeby, and the trade slowly began to move to other towns.
Other Viking trading towns in Denmark
While Ribe and Hedeby were very important Norse trading towns in Denmark during the Viking age, there were also other towns that are worth mentioning. Trading towns such as Odense on the island of Funen (Danish: Fyn), and Roskilde on the island of Zealand (Danish: Sjælland).
The town Århus (Aros) in northern Jutland was also very important, the town was founded close to the turn of the 9th century (890-899 CE), it is an interesting town that I think we will hear much more about in the future.
To the east on the fertile lands of Halland, Blekinge, and Skåne, the Danes had the trading town called Lund. Today these parts are no longer under Danish control, the areas were lost to the Swedes many centuries after the Viking age. This is not a list of all the trading towns in Denmark during the Viking age, but these are some of the most important ones.
Export from Denmark during the Viking age
If you want to trade with foreign merchants, you need something to trade with. The Danes sold products such as amber, dried fish, ceramic, slaves, and textiles, but also resold items to people in the south from the merchants that came from Norway.
The Viking Trade Town Birka in Sweden
For the Swedes, it was Birka that was the biggest and most important trade town during the Viking age. Birka was just like Hedeby located further inland, and the town was connected with rivers to the Baltic Sea to the east and south, if you were to follow the small rivers to the north from Birka, it would lead you to Uppsala.
This ancient Viking town was located on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren, which is about 30 Km west from the capital of Sweden. For good measure it should be said that Stockholm did not exist in the Viking age, it was founded many centuries later in 1252.
Mälaren is a huge lake and it spans 120 kilometers from the east to west, and at its greatest depth, it is 64 meters deep. The area around Mälaren was inhabited by a lot of Swedes, and there was a good reason for that. The area is rich, very rich in natural resources, and the export of materials such as iron and fur generated an enormous amount of wealth for the locals.
Birka was well protected, just like Hedeby in Denmark, and it had a defensive fortification around the town, that was guarded by local warriors. This town is not as old as Hedeby, it was founded sometime in the middle of the 8th century nearly 50 years later, but there have lived people here in this area for hundreds of years.
While Birka is surrounded by many beautiful rivers today, the landscape was not quite the same during the Viking age. For instance, the ground level was in general much lower back then, and the rivers around Birka is believed to have been almost 5 meters lower than what they are today.
Other Viking trading towns in Sweden
Some of the other important trading towns in Sweden that is worth mentioning is, Sigtuna and Södertälje, that are also located in the eastern part of Sweden. We also have, Skara and Lödöse, which is located in the western part of Sweden, and Uppåkra to the south. Köpingsvik on the island of Öland, and Visby on the island of Gotland should also be mentioned, Gotland was an island that saw a lot of trade during and after the Viking age, and it is in general an area of significant historical importance, and worth a visit.
Export from Sweden during the Viking age
The Swedes typically sold amber, beeswax, honey, iron, slaves, and furs. Falcons was also highly sought after by foreign merchants, a falcon was quite an expensive bird, and it was one of those luxury products that the upper class was interested in.
The Viking Trade Town Kaupang in Norway
Next, is the country of Norway, here there was a town called Kaupang in the Viking age, and that was located right next to the inlet called Viksfjorden (in the Larvik municipality), which was and still is a great place for fishing.
This location is one of the most fertile areas in Norway, and it was an area and a town that was highly sought-after. The ownership of this land switched back and forth between rulers, throughout the Viking age.
Kaupang was the first Norwegian trading town that we know of, and it was founded around 780 CE, which was about 20-30 years before the Danish trading town Hedeby. There is no doubt that this place used to be a market-place, not only have there been found many objects that indicates this, the name itself (Kaupangr) literally means market-place or trading place in old Norse.
Just like Birka was important to the Swedes, and Hedeby was important to the Danes, this town was of great significance to the Norwegians. Merchants and craftsmen would travel here from all over Norway to sell their products.
The founders of Kaupang could almost not have picked a better spot for the town, and the location is nearly perfect. It was easy to travel south to Jutland where there were many Danish trading towns, and the British Isles was around the coast to the west.
Other Viking trading towns in Norway
In the 10th century (997 CE), Olaf Tryggvason founded the trading town of Trondheim in northern Norway, or at least it was him according to the rumors. The town was originally called Nidaros (Old Norse: Niðaróss) ”Mouth of the river Nid”, but some people referred to the town as Kaupang (Old Norse: Kaupangr í Þróndheimi), which meant trading place or market place in Trondheim.
In 1049 CE the town Oslo was founded by Harald Hardrada, however, there have in the recent years been found evidence to suggest, that the city could be much older.
I think the town of Tønsberg should also be mentioned since it is the oldest town in Norway according to the sagas. The town was founded sometime in the 9th century by King Harald Fairhair. However, how much trade that was conducted from here, and if it even can be called a trade town is questionable.
Export from Norway during the Viking age
Norway is a country with many natural resources, and some of them more valuable than others. One of these resources were stones, for instance, Milestones (In Danish: Kværnsten). Milestones were in high demand in many parts of northern Europe because they were used for grinding wheat and other types of grain.
Soapstones (in Danish: Klæbersten) were also sought after, these stones were used to make objects such as cauldrons, drinking vessels, bowls, and many other useful items. The small soapstones were also useful, and they were used on the fishing nets, but also on the loom.
Grinding stones (in Danish: Slibesten) were also very popular, they were used for sharpening weapons, such as axes, swords, and spears.
One of the most valuable resources from Norway during the Viking age was iron. Iron was as you can imagine in very high demand, not only was it used to make weapons for war, such as spears and axes, but it was also used to make locks for their houses.
Other resources that were traded from Norway, were Falcons, dried fish, woollen, feathers, walrus ivory, and animal hides. Agricultural products were also commonly traded with foreign merchants.
Export from Greenland during the Viking age
In 982 CE Erik the red (In Norwegian: Eirik Raude), also called Erik Torvaldson (Old Norse: Eiríkur rauði Þorvaldsson) discovered new lands to the west. The land had an inviting fjord landscape, and lush green valleys, as far as he could see. He called it Greenland, and as you can imagine he probably came here during the summer months.
The people who eventually would settle here on Greenland began to sail south with products such as walrus ivory, animal hide, polar bear fur, falcons, and feathers.
Export from the Faroe Islands during the Viking age
After the first settlement was established on the Faroe islands in 825 CE by Grímur Kambans, they began to sail south again to the British Isles, with products such as walrus ivory, animal hides, and most likely also dried fish.
Export from Iceland during the Viking age
After Iceland was settled in 874 CE, products such as walrus ivory, falcons, furs, and woollens. Iceland was not really a destination for trade, so they merchants sailed their products south, most likely to trade towns on the British Isles.
Products imported to Scandinavia during the Viking age
The people in Scandinavia traded with people from all over Europe. The merchants either sailed north to one of the Scandinavian trading towns, or they sailed south to visit one of theirs.
The nordic people were interested in foreign products such as grain, herbs, ceramic, lignite (Also called: brown coal), slaves, fruit, nuts, glass and glass beads.
Some products that were considered very luxurious were, wine, spices, silver, tin, salt stones, sea salt, steel, gemstones, and jewelry made from gold or silver. The very wealthy people in Scandinavia imported silk from the Mediterranean and the far east.
The towns in the Viking trading network:
City fortifications (C)
Very important trade hub: (I)
List of Viking trading towns in Scandinavia (Not all are listed):
Hedeby (Old Norse: Heiðabýr) (I, C, G)
Ribe (Old Norse: Riba) (I, G)
Århus (Old Norse: Aros) (I, C, G)
Lund (I, C, G)
Kaupang (Old Norse: Kaupangr) (I, G)
Trondheim (Old Norse: kaupangr í Þróndheimi)
Birka (I, C, G)
Västergarn (I, G)
Visby (I, C, G)
Viking trade routes / Viking towns outside of Scandinavia
With the Viking expansion into literally all directions from Scandinavia, new towns and trade hubs were slowly established on the mainland and islands scattered throughout Europe. Since the Merchants was worried about being attacked by Viking raiders, and lose all their valuable possessions they would often travel in groups, and sometimes with hired guards. This meant they would not be an easy target, and the raiders would need a certain amount of strength to rob them of their goods.
It was not only the people who were merchants as a profession that joined these trade voyages. Local craftsmen that wanted to take a chance to make some extra silver coins, would occasionally join the crew and set sail to foreign lands. If these local craftsmen had to pay to join the voyages, or if the merchants just found it useful to have an extra pair of hands to row the boat, is something we do not know for certain.
Diplomacy between Kings and Queens across the borders was another way to ensure safe passage for the merchants. It also was in everyone’s best interest that the trade between towns, tribes, and countries would be as smooth as possible. The influential and powerful people who made this possible would, of course, take their fair share in the form of taxes from the goods that were sold in the markets.
York was called Jorvik by the Vikings
India has often been described as the crown jewel of Britain when India was under British rule, and what India was to Britain, Britain definitely was to the Vikings. The relationship between the Vikings from Scandinavia and the people on the British Isles began with raiding, pillaging, and trading.
However, while the journeys west probably was a great way to fill the pockets with bloodstained silver from the poor victims, the potential on the British Isles was far greater than sailing back and forth just to conduct raids.
In 865 CE the two brothers Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless led a huge army of Danish Vikings, called the Great Heathen Army towards the British Isles. The army disembarked in East Anglia and headed north. After one year of raiding the locals, the Danes arrived at the town of York in 866 CE. The Vikings defeated the Anglo-Saxons and the town fell under the control of the Danish crown.
York or Jorvic as the town was called by the Vikings, would slowly see a steady flow of migration flooding in from Denmark, and turning the town into one of their most important trading towns abroad.
York would a few decades later become a part of Danelaw (Also known as: Danelagh) which was an enormous area that the Danes had conquered from the Anglo-Saxons. It was called Danelaw, because the Brits that lived in this area, were under Danish law.
The Viking town Dublin
Another important trading town for the Vikings was Dublin, which was founded in 841 CE. Here the trade was mainly focused around slavery, but modern excavations also seem to indicate that shipbuilding, and possibly with the help from slavery were conducted in the area.
Trading towns in eastern Europe
Among the Scandinavians, it was mainly the Swedes that conducted trade in eastern Europe. The Swedes, or Rus as they were called by the Slavic tribes to the east, had multiple trading towns that were important to them.
The town called Staraya Ladoga (In Russian: Старая Ладога) located on the Volkhov River near Lake Ladoga, was one of the first trade hubs on the journey to the east.
A bit to the south along the river, they would arrive at Novgorod (Old Norse: Holmgaard) (In Russian: Новгород), and further down to the south were another important trading town, which was called Kiev/Kyiv (Old Norse: Kaenugaard).
If they Continued the journey from Kiev and south along the Volga river, they would eventually arrive at the black sea, and from here they could keep sailing south until they arrived at Constantinople.
Constantinople, or as it was known to the Scandinavians, Miklagård (Old Norse: Miklagarðr) which means the big city, was an important foreign trading town for the Scandinavians. It was here they had access to silk and other exotic trade goods from Asia.
To the east from Staraya Ladoga and along the river Volga, was were the Rus traded with the Bulgars on their way south, something that the Arabic diplomat Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (In Arabic: أحمد بن فضلان بن العباس بن راشد بن حماد) from Baghdad (In Arabic: بغداد) wrote about. This was also the route they sailed when they wanted to travel to the Caspian Sea (In Russian: Каспийское море). Again, these are not all the trading towns that the Norse visited, but it is some of the more important ones.
Foreign trading towns: (Not all are listed)
City fortifications (C)
Very important trade hub: (I)
York (Northumbria, England) (I, C, G)
Hamwic (Wessex, England)
Dublin (Ireland) (I, C, G)
Dorestad (Netherlands) (I)
Staraja ladoga (Russia) (I, C, G)
Kiev (Ukraine) (I)
Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) (I, C, G)
La Coruña (Spain)
Kim Hjardat – Vikingernes liv og færden 2013
Else Roesdahl – Vikingernes Verden 1996
Trade in the Viking age – Natmus