The Nature Of Viking Society: Raiders Or Traders

The Viking period in Europe has been categorised by the raids that took place on the coastlines of Brittan, Ireland and Francia from the first raid upon Lindisfarne in 793 through to the settlement of the Duchy of Normandy in 897 some hundred years of Viking raids. The Vikings not only raided but also traded throughout the region as they were regarded as Artisans and craftsmen in the area of fine metal work. This duality of the Viking leaves the question where the Vikings a group of violent barbaric raiders who dabbled in a little trading on the side or a complex mix of both traders and raiders rather than as the position of past historians based upon narratives of Christian victims. The statement by Rodger Collins in his textbook Early Medieval Europe 300–1000 highlights the issue of the debate around Vikings as traders not Raiders in that though raiding was a part of Viking life the question remains how much of this raiding was done purely for the purpose of raiding how much was relating to trading activities, As Rodger Collins wrote ‘ …what is most remarkable about the Viking phenomenon is its complexity. Simply put, different groups of Scandinavians were doing different things at different times in different places for different reasons.’This quote defines the issue surrounding this debate, the reality is that as a group the Vikings were just that a collection of distinct groups in a wide range of territories for a wide variety of motives at different times doing an array of activities.

While we know that some of these groups were engaged in raids throughout the British Isles, Ireland and Francia through records kept by Christian chroniclers. The narrative of these monks was written in a manner that depicted to the Christian world that these heathen hordes had been sent by god to punish them for their sins. In these narratives the actions of the Vikings were characterized as uncivilised savage barbarian brutes that were sacking and looting of monasteries and other such religious sites. As the Viking raiding parties would have seen these sites as easy sources of income and slaves due to a lack of defences. Allowing them to take slaves and treasure at their leisure. Only to leave a trail of blood, smoking ruins and mayhem in their wake as they return to the seas. The Viking raids were also a method that young Viking men would have been able to distinguish themselves in battle as such actions at home within Scandinavia would have caused dishonour rather than earnt valour, though general banditry and murder still occurred it was not the accepted norm of Viking civilization. Further to the issue of distinguishing oneself on the battle field was also the issue of family inheritance as the second born or subsequent sons were unlikely to be provided for by their fathers will. The raids provided these sons with an opportunity to not only prove their valour in battle but also accumulate wealth that would provide for their own sons later in life.

The raids themselves also show the enterprising nature of the Viking as they would also ransom significant religious works or relics back to the monasteries for a cost in gold later to become known as the Danegeld. Chroniclers also record an incident where Charles the Bald was able to bribe a Viking raiding party of on hundred and twenty ships bound for Paris with seven thousand pounds of sliver in 845. Though there is no disputing that raids took place we can see that there are issues with the narrative of the chroniclers who were the victims of such raids and therefore wrote a biased and heavily filtered view of the raiding parties. Also, such writers could have been prone to exaggeration as can been seen with the account of Charles the Bald bribe of one hundred and twenty ships seven thousand pounds of silver work done by Peter Sawyer shows that at approximately thirty men to a ships company would have an invading force of three thousand and six hundred men dividing this payment amongst this size force would have meant a payment of about two pounds of silver per man in modern terms about the weight of two blocks of butter each. Though it is accepted that the Vikings were a brutally violent culture and ritual violence played a Viking raids formed only a small part of the general violence and banditry that characterised the 8th century, as kings, princes and chieftains, local lords and rulers fought each other for supremacy the main difference between other groups violence and thefts would be the reluctance of these Christian raiders to set the monastery’s or churches on fire something that Viking raiders had little issue in doing . This then challenges the view of Vikings solely as violent raiders as they were not the only violent raider just the most shocking to the chroniclers.

At the same time as groups of Vikings were raiding the coasts of Brittan, Ireland and Francia other groups were trading across Russia traversing the Volga to the Caspian Sea. The Vikings traded furs, amber, honey, beeswax, weapons and slaves from the north for silks and silver. Vikings were not only feared as raiders they were also respected and enjoyed a reputation as artisans and craftsmen working fine metal crafts and as ship wrights as the vessels used to reach Brittan, Ireland and Francia and Russia were the same vessels that they used to breach the interior of Russia via the Volga and later through the middle east. This leads back to quote from Collins the Vikings as group were a hugely complex as is the debate around them as traders not raiders though groups of Vikings engaged in both activities neither activity was the primary activity. As raiding would later make way for settlement as with Ireland by wintering over then permanent settlements. In the case of Francia settlement came as a direct result of the raids with the duchy of Normandy being created as Danegeld to end further raids; and in Brittan conquest of Saxon kingdoms while yes Vikings were raiders and traders, they were also settlers. Another possible argument in regards to raids is that raids are part of an economic strategy and that settlement happened about as way to stabilise that strategy and that the mobile nature of the raids made it hard to guarantee that income. Settlement meant a more stable income source either in the form of tradeable goods such as slaves and religious items for ransom or in the farming or manufacturing of tradable items such as livestock timber, honey, furs and craft goods as traded in Russia.

The 8th and 9th century Christian chroniclers’ records of the Barbaric hordes of Vikings sent forth to punish their sinful ways show a natural bias towards their own views at the shock of in the way in which Vikings destroyed their religious sites and would ransom back their scared items. They also show a tendency to exaggerate the narrative as is possible when looking at the seven thousand pounds of silver paid by Charles the bald and the size of the invasion force. We know that the raids happened as backed by archaeological evidence. The same can be said for trading though due the complexity of the groups involved to say that Vikings were raiders or traders does not consider the complexity of the nature of Viking society.


  1. R. Collins, Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000 (New York, NY: St Martin’s Press, 1991), pp. 313-36.
  2. C. Catling, Vikings: Raiders and traders, Current Archaelogy, Issue 245 (August 2010)
  3. H. R. Lyon, The Vikings in Britain (London: Batsford, 1977)
  4. P. H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, Scandinavia and Europe AD 700-1100, Routledge, 1984, pp. 85
  5. S. Coupland, Holy Ground? The Plundering and Burning of Churches by Vikings and Franks in the Ninth Century, Viator Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Volume 45, Issue 1, 2014, pp. 73-97.
  6. P. Kurrild-Klitgaard, and G. Tinggaard Svendsen. “Rational Bandits: Plunder, Public Goods, and the Vikings.” Public Choice, vol. 117, no. 3/4, 2003, pp. 255–272. JSTOR,
14 May 2021
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