The Viking Society

Around year 800 the Iron Age transforms into the Viking Age. In Denmark it was a period of time with many changes. One of the most significant changes were that Denmark became one unified kingdom and almost as important the introduction of christianity. Soon the new circumstances make way for coin economy and the founding of many of the country's largest cities like Ribe, Aarhus and Roskilde.

In this section you kan read about the structure of society and city, the conditions of power, religion and everyday life in the Viking Age. 

Crown and State

The first union of the Danish areas into one kingdom possibly took place as early as the beginning of the Viking Age. Under the rule of Harald Bluetooth, king from AD 958 to AD 985, the kingdom had approximately the same composition as today. At the end of the Viking Age it was possible to speak of actual state formation, in which conurbation, the money economy, religion and administrative bureaucracy went hand in hand.

It is uncertain how the union of the Danish Kingdom took place. At the end of the Iron Age, just prior to Viking times, there were probably various tribes in Denmark. The areas occupied by these tribes are called chieftainships.

As there are no written sources surviving from that time it is difficult to say if there were many different tribes and only small chieftainships, alliances of tribes in large chieftainships, or perhaps just one large tribe in the whole of present-day Denmark, called the Danes. But in the course of the 8th century Denmark began to be of interest to the Franks. Missionaries were sent northwards – and they wrote about their experiences.

Organizing the Kingdom

We do, however, know from the archaeological record that there were some exciting changes in Denmark in the 8th century. Ribe was founded around AD 705, Danevirke was constructed at the beginning of the 8th century and was strengthened significantly in AD 737, the Kanhave Canal was dug in AD 726 and Haithabu was founded by AD 808 at the latest. The extent of these developments demonstrates that there must have been strong and controlling hands behind them. It was possibly chieftains and petty kings from Jutland who were responsible for the building work and development of urban centres, perhaps kings who ruled over the whole of Denmark.

In the second half of the 9th century, the Franks lost interest in Denmark and we, therefore, know very little of the royal powers at this time.

Around the middle of the 10th century there is again information on Denmark from written sources. This is due, in part, to the Christian missionaries active in the Nordic Countries. There are also descriptions of the various border conflicts between Denmark and the German emperor (the Frankish Empire had become divided up into three, now including a German Empire).

With Gorm the Old, the Jelling Dynasty began, and after this there are no longer gaps in the sequence of Danish kings. Gorm the Old died around AD 958 and his son, Harald Bluetooth, became king. Whether Gorm ever ruled over the whole of the Danish area or just Jutland is uncertain. But on his death, Harald Bluetooth writes on the Great Jelling Stone, also referred to as Denmark's birth certificate that he "won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian".

Harald Bluetooth and Svein Forkbeard

It was during the reign of Harald Bluetooth that the geometric ring fortresses were built. They are, for their time, construction works of enormous extent. At the same time Danevirke was reinforced and the 800.

In time with the increasing strength of the royal power and Christianity acquired a firmer and firmer footing, it is possible to begin to speak of actual polity instead of royal power. With the ecclesiastical organisation, with which the king was strongly allied, there began to be the kind of civil servants who could take care of the king's interests. These were people, who could read, and who were monks.

Kings and towns

Conurbation and royal power are strongly associated. The towns attracted trade, which gave revenues and prosperity. It was, therefore, important for the king to found and support towns.

We know from the Frankish sources that in AD 808 the Danish King Godfred attacked Reric, which was a trading place in Northern Germany. Godfred forcibly moved merchants and craftsmen from Reric to Haithabu. This was probably in order to out-compete Reric and create greater prosperity in Haithabu.

And perhaps the many Viking expeditions to England and the Frankish Empire should be seen in a similar light? That is as foreign policy practised by kings rather than random plundering expeditions. The market places and towns in foreign countries were disrupted and destroyed. The Vikings demanded "danegeld" in order not to plunder again and at the same time also ensured increased trade in Denmark. Perhaps foreign merchants were "persuaded" in this way to come to Denmark rather than trading in England and the Frankish Empire. As a consequence they annoyed the countries, which could otherwise be seen as a threat to Denmark, and at the same time increased Danish prosperity.