Why Did the Vikings Vanish?

When moviegoers of my generation hear the word “Vikings,” we picture Chieftain Kirk Douglas leading his bearded barbarians on voyages of raiding, raping, robbing, and killing. There is much truth to that gory image: the Vikings did indeed terrorize medieval Europe for several centuries. In their own language, Old Norse, even the word víkingar meant “men who go raiding in boats.”

Nevertheless, there are other, more important and equally romantic, parts of the picture, captured in the beautifully illustrated, multi-authored book Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Besides being feared pirates, the Vikings were farmers, traders, colonizers, and the first European explorers of the North Atlantic. The settlements that they founded met very different fates. Viking settlers of continental Europe and the British Isles eventually merged with local populations and had a significant role in the formation of several nation-states, notably Russia, England, and France. The Vinland colony, the first attempt by Europeans to settle North America, was quickly abandoned; the Greenland colony, for four hundred years the most remote outpost of European society, finally vanished; the Iceland colony barely survived; and the Faeroe colony survived with less difficulty. Medieval Greenland society is especially instructive to us today, because it faced in severe form some thoroughly familiar modern environmental dilemmas: deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, and climate change. The Greenlanders’ response was to become hyperconservative, and to refuse to learn from a neighboring society whose successful solutions to those environmental dilemmas were demonstrated in front of their eyes. Greenland’s Vikings thereby perished.

The first five chapters of Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, the catalog of an exhibition that originated at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 2000 and will be on view at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa from May to October of this year, trace the history leading up to the Viking explosion that burst upon medieval Europe, from Ireland and the Baltic to the Mediterranean and Constantinople. Recall that all the basic ingredients of medieval European civilization arose over the previous ten millennia in or near the Fertile Crescent, running from the Jordan to the Euphrates rivers: the crops and domestic animals and wheeled transport, the mastery of copper and then bronze and iron, and the rise of towns and cities, chiefdoms and kingdoms, and organized religions. All of those ingredients gradually spread to and transformed Europe from southeast to northwest, beginning with the arrival of agriculture in Greece from Anatolia around 7000 BC. Scandinavia, the corner of Europe furthest from the Fertile Crescent, was the last part of Europe to be so transformed, and until then it remained Europe’s backwater.

Yet Scandinavia possessed natural advantages awaiting exploitation—especially the furs of northern forest animals prized as luxury imports in the rest of Europe, and (in Norway as in Greece) a highly indented coastline placing a premium on travel by sea. Sailboat technology from the Mediterranean finally reached Scandinavia around AD 700, at a time when climatic warming was stimulating increased food production and …

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