Geography and history shouldn’t be memorized. They should be understood.
I recall vividly the middle school class about Vikings. In French history and geography class, we had learned about the fall of Rome (But why did it fall?), the arrival of the Franks from the east (But why did they arrive?), their creation of the Frankish kingdom under the Merovingians (How come they triumphed while the powerful Romans disappeared?), and the expansion into a mighty European kingdom under Charlemagne.
And suddenly: “Then one day, the Vikings come from the north, raid all the coasts, reach Paris (?!), settle Normandy, eventually take over England, Southern Italy (?!), and make it all the way to America and the Black Sea (!!).”
It felt weird, completely out of the blue, without any explanation. But as a kid, I didn’t know any better. I assumed this is how you learned history, so I just memorized it. But I had so. many. questions:
Why did Vikings appear seemingly from nowhere?
Why then and not before or after?
Why were they so powerful?
Why did they disappear just three centuries later?
So I looked into it and what I found was not only fascinating; it’s also a stark lesson for how we should manage incels today.
Why Did the Vikings Suddenly Appear in the 700s?
Up until the 700s, Scandinavians barely appear in European history. And then, they pour into it, using the North Sea as their playground. How was that possible?
This is the wrong question.
Here’s a better way to look at it: Every sea eventually gets colonized by one civilization. It happened with the Greeks with their Aegean, the Romans with their Mediterranean, Portugal and Spain with the Atlantic, Srivijaya around the Malacca Strait... After Rome fell, somebody was eventually going to take control of the North and Baltic Seas. The right question is then: Some region was eventually going to take over the North Sea. Which one was the most likely?
For a people to start expanding towards the sea, you need three requirements:
A system that pushes people to leave their homeland rather than stay.
Few alternatives to expand on land.
The Nordic regions were the perfect place for all three.
While the Romans were pushing north at the beginning of the first millennium, Germanic peoples were pushing south.
As I explained in A Brief History of the UK, the weak Romans left England in the 400s, a time when Germanic peoples were invading the empire from the east in what’s called the Migration Period.
The Romans were the main naval power at the time. Their disappearance created a void in naval power in the North Sea. But no other groups took advantage of this void, for several reasons:
All of Europe suffered from the Roman collapse. Populations shrunk at that time.
Trade disappeared with the Romans, so there was not a strong incentive to sail. Without trade to protect, piracy would disappear, and developing a naval power to counter piracy became worthless.
The Northern European plain is a vast and fertile region. Controlling it was more valuable than sailing the seas.
Most of the tribes in the Northern European Plain were either agriculturalist or nomadic herders. Either way, their main focus and experience was based on land.
Only coastal Germanic peoples like the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, or Jutes had any naval expertise, and for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, they mostly used it for invading England and the very occasional raid.
On the continent, the focus of politics was the Frankish kingdom, which kept growing in size and power until the 800s.
So England was a secluded backwater, the rest of the British Isles was barely populated, and the region of the Northern European Plain was busy with continental wars. None of them were in a position to control the North Sea.
And then you have Scandinavia.
These regions did have a good reason to focus on the seas.
The mountain range in the middle of the Scandinavian Peninsula is called the Scandes. The mountains there fall straight into the sea, which means there’s very few fertile valleys there. Only fjords are inhabitable, and even then, they’re never that big.
You can see that in the populations that exist to this day in what is today Norway: A few small points of light on the coast, and that’s it.
The people living in these fjords had big incentives to sail the seas.
Then you have the Jutland peninsula of Denmark, the Götaland region in southern Sweden, and the islands in between: All flat enough for some agriculture, and hence population. And because they were small, cold, protected by the sea, and hard to reach, they were much harder to conquer for peoples coming from southern regions. Protected and surrounded by the sea, they were prime candidates to focus on sailing. Indeed, there’s evidence of raids in the Baltic Sea in the early 700s.
With fertile land, they were also candidates to improve their agriculture. So a few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the peoples living in these Nordic regions started improving and expanding their agriculture and livestock farming.
At the same time, iron mining expanded, increasing trade with southern neighbors, and bringing wealth to the region. With it also came better tools, which improved agricultural productivity.
This also brought specialization, with some people focused on mining iron, and others on farming, which would have likely further increased the population.
The ingredients for Scandinavia to become the origin of North Sea invasions emerge:
1. A bigger population, thanks to better agricultural techniques and tools, and iron from regional mines.
3. A fertile but limited land, protected from southern invasions, but surrounded by sea, which pushed the locals towards the sea.
But why couldn’t Scandinavians stay put and keep growing in their own regions?
The rise of agriculture and livestock raising across the world went hand in hand with inequality: People could start accumulating their wealth by storing grain or pushing their herds to reproduce. The people with the most fertile land made more money, could invest in better tools, and further increased their productivity. They then could store more grain and grow their wealth and social standing.
Another factor might have increased economic inequality: the 8th century equivalent of NIMBYism. Around that time, the new Odal land rule emerged which gave people the right to claim as theirs the land where their family had lived for generations, and that land could never be sold outside the family. This meant that the families with the best land would always be the richest too.
From all this increased population, wealth, and inequality, small kingdoms started appearing, further cementing that inequality.
But here’s the thing: Inequality was not just economic. In many societies, economic inequality led to sexual inequality.
Polygyny—one man with many female partners—consistently existed in agricultural societies. The wealthier the men, the more female partners they had.
Since the Germanic Peoples already had a tradition of accepting polygyny, the growth in economic inequality might have just boosted it.
Concubinage was part of Viking society. A woman could live with a man and have children with him without marrying; such a woman was called a frilla. Usually, she would be the mistress of a wealthy and powerful man who also had a wife. The wife had authority over the mistresses if they lived in her household. Through her relationship to a man of higher social standing, a concubine and her family could advance socially, although her position was less secure than that of a wife.—Status of women in everyday life Nordic culture during the Viking Era.
The 9th-century Norwegian king Haraldr Hárfagri had numerous wives and concubines at the same time. At one point in the narrative, Haraldr divorces nine women in order to marry the Danish princess Ragnhildr (...). In his description of the Rūs court, Ibn Fadlān observed that the king was attended by 40 slave girls who were “destined for his bed,” while his 400 warriors were each provided with two slave girls.—Male-biased operational sex ratios and the Viking phenomenon: an evolutionary anthropological perspective on Late Iron Age Scandinavian raiding.
If the average man had only one wife, but the richest had several, most men quickly run out of female mates. That’s a problem.
Imagine that there are 20 males and 20 females in a group. Imagine that 9 of the middle-class men have one wife, two aristocrats have three wives each, and the leader has five. You end up with twelve men with all twenty women. That means 8 out of 20 men (or 40%) remain unmarried.
This is a problem, because unmarried men are unhappy and commit more crime. Faced with more competition for females, they become violent. Agricultural societies solved this problem with a neat trick: attacking neighbors. “If you conquer the other tribe, you can kill the men and steal their wives and money!” They sent their young to war, so they could steal the wealth and women they couldn’t access in their homeland.
Male mortality in warfare is higher in polygynous societies than in monogamous ones.—Warfare, Sex Ratio, and Polygyny, Ember, 1974.
Polygyny is strongly associated with the capture of women for the purposes of marriage.—Causes of polygyny: Ecology, economy, kinship, and warfare.
This likely happened with the Vikings.
Researchers have suggested that Vikings may have originally started sailing and raiding due to a need to seek out women from foreign lands. Rich and powerful Viking men tended to have many wives and concubines; these polygynous relationships may have led to a shortage of eligible women for the average Viking male. Due to this, the average Viking man could have been forced to perform riskier actions to gain wealth and power to be able to find suitable women. Viking men would often buy or capture women and make them into their wives or concubines.—Viking Expansion.
There’s very little written history from that time, so most of what we know comes from other sources like archaeology, linguistics, or genetics. For example, 80% of the male ancestors of today’s Icelanders are from Scandinavia, but only 37% of the female ancestors. The remainder comes mostly from Scotland and Ireland.
So this is why Scandinavians started sailing the North Sea and raiding its coasts around the 8th century:
The Romans left a power vacuum in Europe in general, and the North Sea in particular. After them, most of the North Sea’s bordering peoples were not in a position to control it: England was still a backwater, and the Germanic tribes in Continental Europe were focused on controlling the Northern European Plain.
Technological diffusion and local innovation in Scandinavia slowly improved technology and wealth. Better agricultural techniques, tools, and investments increased the population. Scandinavians slowly improved their sailing technology.
This population didn’t have an obvious way to find their own path locally, because there was little land, and the available one belonged to families and couldn’t change hands. With this land, the rich became ever richer.
This led to economic inequality, which led to sexual inequality, which meant most low-status men didn’t have access to wealth or females.
There wasn’t land, but there was lots of sea. And nobody else controlled it. So Scandinavian males took to the sea to raid and plunder wealth and women, becoming what we have come to know as Vikings.
What happened next, and why did they disappear soon after?
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