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Environment and Trade: Viking Age

Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, Vikings not only raided, but traded far and wide. Environmental and political contexts shaped this trade. 


  • Different environmental conditions cause different resources to be available in given regions.
  • Transporting goods to regions where they are not otherwise available offered opportunities for profit.
  • Trade routes and patterns depend on a combination of environmental, political, and economic factors.

The relationship between environment and trade during the Viking Era

Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, Scandinavian peoples—often referred to as Vikings—traveled widely, both raiding and trading. The environment of Scandinavia was relatively cool and not conducive to large-scale agriculture. This meant that Viking communities tended to be small and somewhat mobile, which in turn made it easy for them to engage in long-distance travel to raid and trade. Take a look at the map below for locations of Viking settlement and routes travelled. Unlike the empires with which they traded, the Vikings were not a single political community, but they did share many cultural traits, such as a common family of Norse languages.
Map showing areas of Viking settlement—in green—and routes travelled—in blue. Note the frequent use of rivers as routes of transportation! Image credit: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Goods that are easy to acquire are generally cheap. With the limited transportation technology of the Middle Ages, hauling cheap goods over long distances was not profitable. Luxury goods are items that are rare and expensive. Because of these traits, the ability to buy luxury goods is often connected with social status.
Which goods are luxury goods is in part determined by the availability of a resource or product in a particular region. For example, resources such as timber, amber, and furs were widely available in the Baltic region—the area around the Baltic Sea, see map below—during the time of the Vikings.. Viking traders obtained these goods from locals, sometimes through trade, sometimes through force, and transported them to markets farther south, such as Bulgur or Kiev—or even all the way to Constantinople or Baghdad—where these goods were not available locally. In return, Viking traders would obtain silver coins, silk, glass, and other manufactured items that they could not produce themselves.
How does the environment affect what goods might be luxury goods in a given region?

Technology and trade

The Vikings were skilled shipbuilders and used these vehicles for military and economic purposes. The typical Viking longship had both a sail and oars for propulsion. It was also very light and had a shallow draft—meaning the bottom of the ship didn’t go very deep below the surface of the water. This made Viking ships ideally suited for river transport, where they had to navigate shallow water and portages, short stretches where ships had to be hauled overland to reach the next waterway.
A recreation of a Viking ship. Note that is can use either sail or oars and how high it sits in the water. Image credit: Wikimedia
The geography between the Baltic Sea and the Black and Caspian Seas was navigable almost entirely by river. This gave the Vikings an advantage since they already possessed the technology to exploit the geography of the most direct trade routes to two of the largest, wealthiest cities in the ninth-century world.
What was the relationship between technology and trade?

Political and economic influences on trade

Empires were good markets for luxury goods because wealth tended to be concentrated in large cities, meaning lots of potential customers were living in one place. Although both the Byzantine and Abbasid empires were easily accessible to Viking traders from a geographic standpoint, during the period from the eighth century to the eleventh century, trade didn’t occur at a high volume and thus traders tended to focus on one place at a time. So, environment was an important trade factor when it came to accessing markets, but it was not the only factor that determined trade routes.
Archaeologists have found large deposits of silver coins throughout the Baltic and Scandinavian regions along the most used trade routes. Many of these coins are from the Abbasid Empire and were made in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. This tells us that the Vikings were trading, either directly or indirectly, with the Abbasids, whose capital city was at Baghdad.
In the middle of the ninth century, evidence of Viking traders in Constantinople appeared, while evidence for trade with the Abbasids declined. Again, both empires were geographically accessible, so this shift in focus was probably due to economic and political factors. In the mid-ninth century, Abbasid power was challenged by internal regions of the Caliphate, disrupting political and economic stability. Between the late ninth and early eleventh centuries, the Byzantine Empire expanded. This expansion combined with the political instability in Abbasid territory made Constantinople a more attractive destination for Scandinavian Viking traders.
Why did political stability matter in determining where Viking traders travelled?

The end of Viking trade

Even though political and economic conditions changed, the resources of the Baltic region remained in demand. The Vikings slowly disappeared, but trade in the goods they had traditionally carried was taken up by new groups. By the early twelfth century, the beginnings of what would become the Hanseatic League—a collection of trading city-states—was taking control of much of the Baltic trade. As long as Baltic goods were in demand, people found ways to trade them profitably.
By the mid-eleventh century, most Viking communities had converted to Christianity and established more settled, permanent states. Further, states such as the Kievan Rus and Volga Bulgaria emerged along the Viking trade routes that followed the Dnieper and Volga Rivers, blocking the path to wealthier markets.

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