Scandinavian life

"Scandinavia" is thought to get its name from Scania (modern Skĺne, now in Sweden but formerly in Denmark), which the Romans tended to think of as the origin point of all the Germanic tribes, and there still exists the theory that all the Scandinavians originated in south Scandinavia. But it seems inescapable that there has been in-migration into the area as well as out-migration from it.

Based on archeological records, the earliest settlement in Scandinavia was on the coasts and up the rivers, and people ate mostly fish, which they supplemented with hunting. Agriculture was introduced by the Funnelbeaker Culture in fertile areas such as Denmark and Uppland, in Sweden, but met with resistance in the latter. The Battle-Axe people who are conventionally thought to be the Ćsir-worshipping Germanic invaders were herders and brought with them a preference for beef and a reliance on and reverence for horses.

As the population expanded, new farms were established moving outwards from the best and most easily reached land. Scholars, in particular Magnus Olsen, developed a methodology for classifying the names of the farms and other placenames by relative age, which enables us to see how each area was settled; in addition it lets us compare the popularity of different god-names and terms for holy places at different times, so we can see, for example, that Ullr was the most popular god to name a place after in the early period, that particular pairs of god and goddess tend to occur in close proximity, and that there are great differences between naming customs in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

In keeping with Germanic custom, people (or at least free men) came together each year for assemblies called "things" where legal disputes were settled and other decisions made. Regions had traditional thing-places and the assemblies were the nucleus of political power. The greater blóts were held at the same time.

On the eve of the Viking Age, the three Scandinavian countries were from some points of view less advanced than England: they still had large numbers of petty chieftains, sub-kings, and co-kings, whereas the English kingdoms had been growing fewer in number and more organized for centuries, partly under the influence of Xian clergy and their desire for peace. The Scandinavian kings' ambition extended to asserting dominance over neighboring lands, and there would be repeated unifications of two or all three of them under one king, the last, the Kalmar Union, lasting until after the Napoleonic Wars. But they were paradoxically more advanced in having achieved a sense of nationhood. Even the Swedes, who had formerly been divided between the Gutar and the Upplanders, were united under the Yngling royal house of the Upplanders, and had a tradition of the new king making a circuit of the country to show himself and to claim it.

The Danes were under constant pressure from the Franks but would still be organized enough for King Gudfred to start constructing the Danevirke, a system of defensive earthworks, in 808. King Gorm the Old is considered to have unified the country; his wife, Thyra, had the Danevirke finished. Perhaps inevitably given the geopolitics of the time, Denmark was the first Scandinavian country to fall wholesale to Xian conversion: Gorm's son King Harald Bluetooth (Haraldr Blátönn, probably because he had a rotten, black, tooth) had converted by about 960, when he disinterred his father from his mound and reburied him in a church nearby, and during the rest of his long reign, until 985 or 986 (during which he in theory became the first to rule all three countries), he pushed Xianity, including forcing other Scandinavian rulers to accept baptism. (Who converted him and how varies depending on the source - it was all about the glory of Franks spreading Xianity and the struggle between the dioceses of Cologne and Hamburg/Bremen.) The Jelling stones, between the church and the mound, are probably the most famous surviving runestones: the older is Gorm's monument to his wife, the younger bears his son's boast: "Harald, king, bade these memorials to be made after Gorm, his father, and Thyra, his mother. The Harald who won the whole of Denmark and Norway and turned the Danes to Christianity."

The least politically organized of the three countries was Norway, divided into small pieces of habitable land by its mountains and fjords. Once the idea of going a-viking occurred to the young men trapped in tiny Norwegian settlements on slivers of land that they had no hope of inheriting, there was no wonder they took ship to seek their fortunes.


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