Early Danish Towns

It was in the Viking Age that the first actual towns in Scandinavia were founded. They played an essential role in the development of trade and in the administration of royal power.

Specially chosen places or sites for trade were nothing new in Viking times. As early as the Iron Age there were market places where merchants met several times a year. It is, however, first at the transition to Viking times that it is possible to see the appearance of well-structured and planned urban societies.

The early towns

The Viking Age's early towns, such as Birka in Sweden, Kaupang in Norway, Haithabu and, in part, Aarhus in Denmark, grew out of previous market places. Some emerged slowly out of a need for steadily greater and all-year-round activity. Others had, from the very beginning, the character of more planned urban structures, perhaps built up by the king or a local chieftain.

The early towns were primarily trading centres from where imported goods could be distributed out to the local society and, conversely, where locally produced wares could be sent out into the world. These towns normally lay by natural harbours on the coast or on fjords connected to the sea. Crafts and trade were the main occupations in the towns and they attracted many local and foreign merchants and craftsmen. A visit from a merchant coming from a foreign area meant the introduction of new goods and wares, for example Frankish glass and wine or silk and spices from the Orient.

The increased contact with foreign areas, not just through merchants who came to the town but also through trading and pillaging expeditions, resulted in many quality wares, in particular large quantities of silver.

Safety at the market places

As a result, the need for security around the trading activities became increasingly greater. On the market places and in the towns there was a requirement for a guarantor of peace and order; otherwise the merchants would not come. This guarantor was in many cases the king or a local chieftain who, in return, received various levies and privileges. In some towns the king owned the land and commanded various public servants responsible for the collection of taxes and the defence of the town. Up through the 10th century, towns were expanded, fortified and strengthened to such an extent that there lay clearly a powerful and wealthy person behind these developments. Similarly, there are examples of kings coming to mutual peace agreements for trade in and across their border areas.

Several of the early towns disappeared as a consequence of their location. New and different trade routes evolved and the development of cargo ships into larger, heavier vessels made it difficult to reach a town if the water in the area was very shallow. The central royal power could also have wished to locate towns differently on the basis of internal political and strategic criteria, and thereby prompted the emergence of new towns and the abandonment of the old. In Haithabu, an attack and burning of the town in the middle of the 11th century was a contributory factor leading to the town’s disappearance.

Faktum: Contact with foreigners did not just mean the introduction of new wares but also knowledge of new practices and other ways of living. The apostle to the Nordic Countries, Ansgar, visited Birka in AD 829, and in Denmark he was given permission to build a church in Haithabu around AD 860 and later also in Ribe.