Few written records exist of the Vikings before their conversion to Christianity. As a result, knowledge of the Germanic peoples of Scandinavia in the pre- and early-Viking period is limited. It rests on chronicles and records created by those who were frequently their enemies and victims, on archaeological and physical evidence, and on their own later literary reconstructions of their heroic past.
The social structure of pre-Viking and Viking Scandinavia depended on the links of extended families and ties made by marriage. Blood feuds and diplomatic marriages were a part of upper-class life. Though slavery played a significant part in the economy, as it did in the domestic society of the great households, the basic social structure was that of small, free farmers who owed loyalty (along with taxes) to the headman or patriarch of the family, or to the regional chief or noble. Such chiefs and petty nobles differed from their followers in wealth and power, but the distinction was more of degree than of rigid social boundaries or of hereditary nobility. When the chiefs became Viking leaders, their client farmers became their sailors and, on land, their soldiers. Because of the harsh climate and the many enterprises that took men away from home for extended periods, free-born women possibly enjoyed a base of power and responsibility for family and economic affairs not matched by women elsewhere in Western Europe.
In the harsh climate of Scandinavia the thinly scattered population lived by farming, fishing, and trading—mostly by sea. Viking political organization resembled that of other early Germanic peoples: a society of warrior chiefs and loyal followers. However, the Scandinavian world had never come under Roman or Christian influence, and its population was small and dispersed. As a result, these groups did not consolidate into kingdoms until around the time the Vikings began to venture on their raids in about 800. For several generations after the raids began, the bands of Danes or Vikings or Northmen, as they were known in Western Europe, arrived mostly as separate and small-scale undertakings, not as royal expeditions or large invasions.
The pre-Christian religion of the Vikings was similar to that of other Germanic tribes. They worshiped a number of gods, including Odin, the god of war and leader of the Norse gods; Thor, the god of thunder; and Balder, the god of light. Viking warriors believed that if they died heroically they would be called to dwell with Odin in Valhalla, his palace in the realm of the gods. Opposing the Norse gods were a host of evil giants, led by Loki. Vikings believed that both gods and men would eventually be destroyed in the Ragnarok, a mighty battle against the giants, but that a new, peaceful world would emerge from this disaster.
The basic economy of Scandinavia was agricultural. The short growing season sufficed to meet the demand for grain, for cattle and stock grazing. Because the people of this world mostly lived along the coasts, fishing played a significant part in their lives, as did sea trade. Even before the Viking raids began, the markets of Europe to the south were always interested in the raw goods of the North Sea and the Baltic. Furs, timber, amber, and slaves (mostly from Slavic regions) were primary commodities.
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