Fearsome warriors and bold explorers, the Norse of Medieval Scandinavia and the North Atlantic, commonly called Vikings, are known today for their influence on history and culture. Missing from the dominant narrative however, is an understanding of the role of the environment in Nordic society. During the period of 800-1200 CE, Norse society was intricately entwined with environmental realities. The Norse were mainly farmers, fishers, traders and political refugees. Nordic peoples often expanded in search of better land as competition over arable land increased. This competition led to political struggles as individuals and families searched for the resources to survive. These same people followed fish migration across the North Atlantic and settled in the harsh climates of Iceland and Greenland. To survive in these climates, the Norse needed to trade with mainland Scandinavia for resources, such as wood, while trading luxury items such as fur and walrus ivory to mainland Europe for necessities.
As time went on, the political structures of Scandinavia and the North Atlantic were shaped by how the Norse interacted with the environment. As the Norse in the North Atlantic needed to live far apart to produce enough food to survive, kings and warlords could not gain sway. This spread-out system led to the establishment of a parliamentary system, the Althing. In mainland Scandinavia, higher crop yields and easier access to resources allowed people to settle into towns. With higher population densities, kings and queens could rise to power and exert influence over large swaths of Nordic territory.
Not only did the environment shape Norse society, but the Norse also shaped the environment around them. The first settlers of Iceland talked about the thick forests which prevented settlement in the interior of the island. Within one hundred years these forests were cut down for heating and building. In Denmark and Sweden, large forests were likewise felled to support increased agriculture, necessary for the growing population; however, the prevalence of oak in Denmark up until the 1200s show that some forest management was practiced. In contrast to the destruction of forests, the Norse in Norway managed natural resources by introducing trout into high lakes to increase the resource abundance that could be harvested for Norse survival.
Although this is just a taste of the environmental history of the Norse, it is important to recognize the voices missing from the dominant historical narrative. The environment is a voice that is often not fully discussed or understood as an active player in shaping history. In my paper The Natural Connection: Norse Society and the Environment in Medieval Scandinavia and the North Atlantic, I have tried to bring the environment to the forefront of the historical narrative and frame the historical discussion within environmental realities.
Research Paper written for the Undergraduate Research Forum at Northeastern University.