Monday, November 7, 2011

Welcome to Viking Mart!

Imagine walking into Walmart and some guy in a helmet and chainmail is working as the 'greeter.'  He raises his axe and shouts, "Welcome to Viking Mart!" 

When we think of Vikings, we think of raids.  A rowdy crew of tall warriors rowing up a river, beaching their ship and dashing into the nearest village.  Of course, if you're a villager, these Vikings are the epitome of evil and Dark Age misery.  If you're a Viking, you're trying to run back to the ship with a pig under each arm before one of the locals puts an arrow in your back.

But I recently read something that made me look at Vikings from a different angle--as merchants.  In Bernard Cornwell's novel THE LAST KINGDOM (which is about Saxons and Vikings in Dark Age era Britain), he mentioned that the dragon heads on the prows of Viking longships were removable.  Cornwell wrote that they would remove the dragon head to indicate they were coming to trade peacefully, and put it back when raiding.  Similar to pirates raising the skull-and-bones flag many years later. 

I'd never read this, but Cornwell is usually very exact about his research.  I found Gwyn Jones A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS, and delved in.  Inside was a picture of a pre-Viking dragon head from a Migration Age ship.  The bottom of the wooden figure has a long stem that could fit into a socket, which makes me think Cornwell is probably correct.

Of further interest is that the Vikings set up trading areas Jones called 'marts.'  An example of this is Birka, a walled trade town built on an island in Sweden in the 800s AD.  Earthen ramparts, wooden palisades and towers, and blockhouses full of guards protected the mart.  The shore is flat enough to land ships, plus the Swedes built jetties and breakwaters to cater to merchant ships.

While we usually picture Vikings in their 'raid' mode, it's important to understand that the rule of law functioned very well in their trade towns.  The only way to maintain a constant stream of imports and exports was to guarantee the safety of merchants who came there.  So although Vikings are known for chaos, in this case they were all about order.  Studies of the coins and manufactured goods in Birka revealed they hosted all sorts of traders--Frisian, Dane, German, English, Finn, Swede, Balt, Greek and possibly Arab.

The local merchants could only profit from the orderly sale of goods.  And the Swedish king benefited financially, too, which strengthened the monarchy in central Sweden for two centuries.  It's worth noting that while some Vikings were busy killing, stealing, and dying, others were running well-ordered marts where people profited from the rule of law and the free exchange of goods.

So welcome to Viking Mart!

(Sources:  THE LAST KINGDOM by Bernard Cornwell.  A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS by Gwyn Jones.  Super cool pic of ship from:


  1. Mark, thanks so much for this informative piece. As a true-blue Viking from Erik the Red's lineage, I am thrilled to hear something other than rape-and-pillage stories.
    Elaine Ash

  2. Glad you enjoyed the article, Elaine. Cultures, like individual people, are complex. And yet we often simplify them both down to stereotypes, which does them a disservice.

    That's cool about your ancestor!