During the Viking Age from the late eighth to the mid-eleventh centuries, Scandinavians tore across Europe attacking, robbing and terrorizing locals. According to a new study, the young warriors were driven to seek their fortunes to better their chances of finding wives.
The odd twist to the story, said researcher James Barrett, is that it was the selective killing of female newborns that led to a shortage of Scandinavian women in the first place, resulting later in intense competition over eligible women.
"Selective female infanticide was recorded as part of pagan Scandinavian practice in later medieval sources, such as the Icelandic sagas," Barrett, who is deputy director of Cambridge University's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, told Discovery News.
Although it's believed many cultures throughout world history have practiced female infanticide, said Barrett, he admits that "it is difficult to identify in the archaeological record," so the claim "must remain a hypothesis."
To strengthen the argument, however, Barrett has reviewed and dismissed several other proposed causes for the Viking Age.
Improved seafaring technologies are often cited as the trigger, but he points out that an earlier migration from Scandinavia to Britain took place in the fifth and sixth centuries.
"Thus the development of the Viking ship cannot have been a cause of movements of this kind," he said. "Ships capable of carrying warriors over long distances are a necessary pre-requisite for the Viking Age, but clearly they did not cause it."
What's more, he points out, the sailing time from Norway to Ireland is quite short — perhaps a week using vessels of the time — so the Vikings were probably capable of raiding Ireland well before the official start of their reign of terror.
The study is published in the current issue of Antiquity.
Barrett also dismisses other proposed causes of the Viking Age, such as climate change, overpopulation in Scandinavia, economic woes and more.
An intriguing archaeological clue is that much of the bounty plundered from Britain — particularly from monasteries — wound up later in the graves of Viking wives. The items included precious metals, fine cloth, jewelry and other handicrafts.
Barrett's analysis of Nordic historical records found that Scandinavian men often served as warriors, frequently forming "military brotherhoods," until they were able to marry and establish their own households, which were key to prestige and power.
According to Barrett, honor and religious fatalism — the idea that the time and manner of death is predestined — also fueled the Vikings, helping explain why men were willing to risk death in violent battles and risky seafaring. The Viking religion held that "the cosmos began in the frozen emptiness ... and will end in fire with the last battle," said Barrett.
Despite the infanticide, he still believes the Vikings "highly valued" women. Aside from lavishing bridal prospects with plundered goods, they held solemn burials at sea for women. In fact, one of the most important known Viking Age burials, involved numerous goods and two female skseltons encased in a ship called the Oseberg.
Soren Sindbaek, assistant professor of medieval and Renaissance archaeology at Denmark's University of Aarhus, told Discovery News that the new paper "is very right in pointing out the inadequacy" of former explanations for the Viking Age.
"We need indeed to seek for an individual, social motivation behind the fact that a large number of young men chose to set out on extremely risky voyages in hopes of acquiring wealth and esteem in foreign lands," Sindbaek said.
"Barrett points to the wish of disadvantaged young men to acquire resources necessary to set up a family as crucial," he added. "This is the 'marriage imperative,' which I think Barrett succeeds in substantiating within the limitations of the evidence."
Barrett suggested additional studies on the Vikings since would help "to understand how small-scale societies — and issues of a very human scale — can have a large impact on world history, positive and/or negative."