Please gather ’round the hearth, Hall Companions, for today we shall set off on another History Raid! This time, we’ll share the story of the Norse Homeland, the place from where the ‘Vikings‘ first came. What was their homeland like? What kind of environment was it? How did it shape their society? Who lived in there? And what kind of kingdoms were there? But before we get to answering those questions, make sure you’ve attended our last raid.
Norðrlǫnd: The Northern Lands
It goes without saying that Scandinavia was (and still is) a rather cold place; and it is hardly surprising, given such an environment, that the major enemy of the Norse gods are the Frost-Giants. But thanks to the warming currents of the Gulf Stream, their climate was surprisingly mild. This was especially beneficial for coastal regions such as the Lofoten Islands, which were able to engage in pastoral farming (the grazing of sheep and cattle) thanks to its warming affects, despite being so far north.
Yet, this alone was not enough to provide this harsh landscape with plentiful amounts of arable land (soil suitable for growing crops). The region of modern-day Norway, for example, only had two major areas for farming: the area around Trondheim in the north and the Oslo Fjord region in the south. Denmark, on the other hand, was much more prosperous in this regard. Despite being the smallest region of Scandinavia, it had the largest amounts of arable land, which was a major factor that allowed the Danes to become the wealthiest and most politically dominant Scandinavians during the Viking Age.
For those who could manage arable farming, the main crops were barley, rye, oats, peas, beans, and cabbage; but even then, the primary agricultural pursuit in medieval Scandinavia was animal husbandry, especially of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. Livestock was so important, in fact, that the prominence of a man was frequently based on the amount of livestock that he had. The social standing of a Norwegian traveler named Ohthere, for example, is described in regards to his animal captives:
He was a very well-to-do man, rich in the possessions which comprise their wealth, namely wild beasts. …He was one of the most prominent men in that land [Halogaland], yet he had no more than twenty cattle, twenty sheep, and twenty pigs, and the little that he plowed, he plowed with horses. 
But it is likely true that the Norse are better known today for their impressive skills at sea. While they did indeed farm the land and raise livestock, the Norse were also some of the best seafarers of the medieval world. Their homeland was surrounded by the sea, which not only offered them a relatively mild climate, but also a vast array of resources and opportunities. What their land failed to produce, the sea offered to supplement. And so the Norse frequently engaged in various maritime pursuits, such as fishing, seal and walrus hunting, and trade.
But the sea also played an important role in connecting the people of the North. Because Scandinavia was (and still is) covered with mountains, forests, and bogs, traveling by land was often a troublesome task. The region of Norway, for instance, is particularly dominated by a long range of mountains that the Norse called “The Keel.” The sea, however, offered a pleasant alternative for them. Its sheltered coastal waters, fjords, lakes, and rivers offered easier and safer routes for traveling. The long chain of islands and reefs along Norway’s coast, for example, formed a sheltered coastal passage for shipping. This route provided a safe was for traveling north and was known to the Norse as the “North Way,” which is where Norway got its name from.
Thus, life in the North meant maintaining a strong connection with the sea; and while the Norse worked the land and raised livestock, the sea was always an important aspect of their daily lives and helped shape their society. Ships became so important, in fact, that they frequently appear in Norse mythology, poetry, runic inscriptions, and burial traditions. So strong was their connection to seafaring that it was believed that the afterlife was best reached by ship, which is why so many Scandinavians (both chieftains and peasants) were either buried in ships, in ship-like stone formations, or with a symbolic item standing in for one.
Had the early Scandinavians not been such talented seafarers and shipbuilders, there would have never been a Viking Age nor any Vikings. But thanks to the geography of their homeland, the Norse built some of the most impressive ships in the medieval world, which allowed them to sail where no European had before. And in a future raid, we shall further discuss how the Northern environment contributed to the beginnings of the Viking Age. But for now, we shall move on to speak about the people who lived in such a land.
The People of the North
Prior to the Viking Age, the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden did not exist—the Norse Homeland was a place of several localized kingdoms, tribes, and chieftaincies. To the right is a very rough map illustrating some of the major Scandinavian peoples around the year 500 CE. It is by no means a complete picture, nor a completely accurate one, but it should at least give you all a general idea of what Scandinavia really looked like (politically) prior to the Viking Age. Many of these regions, especially the Granii, West Götar, East Götar, and Svear, had a dense concentration of fortifications due to conflict between these competing powers. This period, the Early Germanic Iron Age (400-600 CE), was a time of constant internal conflict between these competing tribes, of which this map only provides a simplified glimpse of the fractured reality of that time.
It was not until the Late Germanic Iron Age (600-800 CE) that the people of Scandinavia began to concentrate into ‘proper’ kingdoms. Based on archaeological evidence, three areas emerged as the primary centers of power in the North: the region of Vestfold, Jutland, and Uppland (illustrated on the map to the right). The evidence supporting this comes from prestigious goods and ambitious projects that have been found in these regions. The rich burial mounds discovered in Borre and Oseburg suggest that the Vestfold region was an emerging kingdom leading up the the Viking Age. Similarly, the burials discovered in Vendel and Valsgärde were likely the cemeteries for the royal dynasties of the Svear, from whom Sweden gets its name. As for Jutland, there was a canal and earthen barrier built during the early sixth century that indicates a strong centralized authority, likely King Angantyr, who has been described in foreign accounts as the king of the Danes, but likely only those in Jutland. Thus, these primitive states would eventually form into the medieval kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, but only toward the end of the Viking Age, around the year 1000 CE. The formation of kingdoms was a gradual process due to the fractured nature of Scandinavia before and during the Viking Age.
But that, my friends, is likely enough for one raid. It should be enough to know that the people of the North were not unified into the kingdoms that we are more familiar with today. Instead, they were fractured into various tribes and people of which I have only scratched the surface. In fact, there are many peoples that I have left out completely, such as the Sámi to the Far North. Alas, in all written history, choices are made that effect the story that ends up being told (but more raids can be done in the future to fill these gaps). I have likewise made my own choices, and so the picture I have presented here today is only one interpretation of these events. It is also a very generalized overview of several hundred years of development.
That said, these are the things that are important to take away from this post: the people of the North were divided into various tribes and chieftaincies, they often fought amongst themselves, and the development of centralized kingdoms took quite a long time to achieve.
ᚦᚬᚴ:ᚠᛁᚱᛁᚱ:ᛚᛁᛋᛏᚱ (Þǫkk fyrir lestr!) Thanks for reading!
Make sure to wander back for our next History Raid!
If you have any questions or concerns about the contents of this post, please feel free to send me a raven at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will make sure that your raven is well-received and happily fed before sending back a reply.
Endnotes and Resources
- John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 22. ^
- Ibid. ^
- Ibid., 36. ^
- Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald ed., “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan,” in The Viking Age: A Reader, Second Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 3. Those wild beasts also include reindeer. This source is from the late ninth century and was interpolated into an Old English translation of Orosius’ latin Historiae adverse paganos. ^
- Haywood, Atlas of the Vikings, 17-8. ^
- Ibid., 17. ^
- Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 72. ^
- Ibid. ^
- I made this map myself using Google MyMaps, but I heavily referenced the map from the following source: Haywood, Atlas of the Vikings, 25. None of these borders were ever considered definite. This map should only be used to provide a general glimpse at the division of Scandinavia around the year 500. One day I may return to this subject and map out these ‘kingdoms’ properly. ^
- Haywood, Atlas of the Vikings, 25. ^
- Ibid., 20. ^
- The information used to make this map comes from the following source: Haywood, Atlas of the Vikings, 21. Like the other map used in this History Raid, this map is also a generalized look at a more complicated picture. It should only be used to help illustrate where these centers of power sprung up, but not to argue for definite kingdoms or confident borders of any kind. ^
- Haywood, Atlas of the Vikings, 21. ^
- Each region experienced unification at different times. This date primarily serves to illustrate when these kingdoms had developed enough to take on a recognizable form (in relation to their modern ‘descendants’). But the unification of Scandinavian into medieval kingdoms will be the topic of a later History Raid. ^
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- I’ve actually spent more time writing about farmsteads and agriculture in the medieval North here in the Hall, so if you’d like to know more, read this post.