Seduction by longboat?

I’m amused by the latest theory about the Vikings.

When the Vikings landed at the holy island of Lindisfarne in 793AD it marked the beginning of hundreds of years of terrifying raids, which would earn the Norsemen a fearsome reputation as murderers and pillagers throughout Europe.

But the reason why groups took to the seas in the first place continues to divide historians, with some blaming over-population in Scandinavia, while others seeing it as a preemptive strike against the seemingly unstoppable march of Christianity.

Now a new theory suggests that the Vikings actually had matters of the heart on their minds.

Dr Mark Collard … believes that changes in society had led to a desperate shortage of marriage partners.

The growth of polygamy and social inequality in the Late Iron Age meant that richer men took many wives, or concubines, causing an in-balance in the male-female sex ratio.

Suddenly young poor men had little chance of securing a wife unless they became rich and well-known quickly, says Prof Collard. And raiding was a shortcut to heroism and treasure, he believes.

. . .

“So raiding was away to build up wealth and power. Men could gain a place in society, and the chance for wives if they took part in raids and proved their masculinity and came back wealthy.”

There’s more at the link.

That theory would make Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song‘ into a love ballad rather than a paean of conquest.  Sorry, I don’t buy it.

I think this theory stems largely from our own sex-obsessed culture, where everything is seen through the ‘filter’ of men and women and the ways in which they come together.  I accept that sex is a driving force in human relationships, but it’s not enough, in and of itself, to form and sustain a warlike culture like that of the Vikings.  After all, they traded far into what is today Ukraine and Russia, and formed the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, and reached Iceland, Greenland and North America, as well as raiding Ireland and Britain. That sort of expansion and outreach can’t possibly have been primarily driven by the need for women, wives and wealth.  (Besides, in Iceland and Greenland they’d only have found seals, and I doubt they would have made suitable mates!)

Still, it’s entirely possible that such drives were one of the elements that led to the Viking expansion – just not the dominating factor that Prof. Collard suggests, IMHO.



  1. A factor is certainly possible. The Zulu expansion/migration was arguably driven by the need to kill an enemy to prove manhood so you could marry.

    Arab Islam expanded on a very similar principle – conquest to get land and wives. Polygamy always leads to a lack of women for the lower classes of men, and they will do almost anything for a chance to get some nookie. Aggression goes up, and when directed outwards, makes an effective tool for encouraging the conquest of your neighbors, and theirs, and theirs. When you can kill to gain women, loot, and land, and your culture and religion actively approve, young men are given every encouragement to become violently dangerous to their external neighbors.

  2. I think it is more of a case that history is constantly being revised to conform to modern politically correct thought.

    I disagree with Minecraft Chucks first paragraph – the Vikings did not consider slaves (and any captive was a slave) as citizens. he descendants of a freed slave were not considered to be accepted as a member of society for seven generations. So is it likely that a slave taken as a wife would be accepted as being legitimate? Indeed, it would disenfranchise your won children for the next six generations.

    Neither is there any evidence from the sagas etc. that polygamy was accepted or normal. Viking fathers took pains to make sure their daughters married well.

    Although this is British and some of the references in it will be lost on a Non Brit, it richly summarises the revisionist attitude neatly:

    Phil B

  3. Probably the more important factor is the 'young, underemployed males' that tends to drive expansionist policies quite routinely or risk internal destabilization. Similar issues can be seen today….
    Speaking as a medieval historian, sex is wildly, wildly over-emphasized in today's revisionist history. I'd go so far as to say that we tend to have an obsession with it and are frequently incapable of any scholarly critique that doesn't turn on sex and gender. Furthermore, the obsession with sex is almost certainly an anomaly, only Ancient Greece (and to a lesser degree classical Rome) has the same level of sexual obsession in their art, literature, and philosophy.

  4. Well, Vikings were mostly Danish and Scandinavian, but their ranks were made up of anyone seeking hi fortune, although the leaders were Northmen. They were pirates. The event that permitted them to break out was the collapse of the Frankish coast guard due to the infighting of the sons of Charlemagne.

    Vikings sold their services as mercenaries and then later would turn on their employers, such as Charles the Bald. They found many rich monasteries in the British isles and set up Dublin as their slave trading post.

    Viking was as much a product of the overproduction of elites as anything and they were rather good at thinning the elites in the territories they attacked. The excess sons would head out to make their fortune raiding, no unlike how the non-first born of England headed out into the Empire to make their fortunes in India, et al, although there at trade and cultivation rather than raiding.

  5. The way I heard it, was that the Scandinavian women owned all the land, and ran the farms and such, so if the men wanted any peace and quiet they had to go a-viking. ^_^

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