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War on the Waterways: Maritime Conflict in the Viking Age in the North Sea Region
By Jordan Richard Thompson
Master’s Thesis, University of Oslo, 2014
Abstract: The ubiquitous Viking warship is perhaps the most high-profile symbol of early medieval Scandinavians. The impressive craftsmanship and gracefully curved lines of surviving examples express in a powerful way the centrality of these vessels to Viking Age Scandinavian society. From ship archeology and other sources, it is known that medieval Scandinavians were closely tied to the waterways for both peaceful and bellicose pursuits.
Perhaps less well-known is how other Europeans in the North Sea region used the seas, rivers, and lakes in warfare. The common narrative of the Viking Age is the struggle of Christian empires of Northern Europe desperately resisting marauding Scandinavians who raided and plundered in their untouchably nimble ships. The reality is that ship forces of impressive size were able to be raised by the Carolingian Franks on the European continent as well as the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. At various times, these forces were used to great effect in offensive operations of their own.
The great advantages of the ship were speed and mobility. Even a sizeable force of ships could slip undetected onto a land’s vast coastline and attack a target unexpectedly. If an overly-strong force were encountered on land, the crew could withdraw to their ships and make a speedy escape, or else sail around to attack the enemy’s rear or flanks. The naval warrior of the Viking Age saw his vessel as a floating, highly-mobile base encampment from where operations began and ended.
The capability of these three regions in profile to raise effective ship forces was not equal, however. Scandinavian society, which for centuries had cultivated a heavily maritime-oriented culture, was able to produce more skilled crews more consistently than the Franks or Anglo-Saxons.
Although the Christian lands commanded arguably more developed systems of military recruitment in their territories, the prohibitive factor for recruiting seamen was knowledge of seas, tides, and currents. If one did not have the skills to survive the many perils of the North Sea region’s disparate waterways, one could not hope to wage effective warfare. These skills were tied irrevocably to one’s profession, dictated by the regional economy. Though Britain and Francia were not without a significant number of fishermen and traders, the strong-men of these regions ultimately could not draw on a sea-wise population equal to that of Scandinavia.