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The Forgotten History of Norse Trade (ca. 700-1349)

- a few unstructured notes to be expanded upon....


Why is this interesting?

The effects of the downfall of this trading empire and their collaborators were great indeed, and one may attribute the Black Plague to this. The effect of the latter has never been mended in Norway.

The plot against and fall of the Templars in 1307 coincided with the fall of the Norse trading empire. Then the moneyed class in Venice took over Mediterranean trade and the Black Plague soon followed due partly to the economic instability caused by their practices.

The importance of the Norse trade as a precursor to the Hanseatic League is to some extent recognised by the French historian Ferdinand Braudel.

Some edited definitions originally taken from the Smithsonian website:

The Goths consisted of the tribes in Jutland, the Scandinavian peninsular, and the intermediary islands, therefore comprising today's Denmark, and the south of Sweden and Norway. The Gothic-Roman historian Jordanes gave the standard description of them as late as 551 AD. De origine actibusque Getarum (“On the Origin and Deeds of the Getae”), now commonly referred to as the Getica.

Viking is a term used by modern scholars to refer to the Nordic-speaking peoples from southern Scandinavia who raided, traded and settled in Europe and the British Isles roughly between A.D. 793-1066. They would have identified themselves as Danes, Svear, Goths, Norwegians, etc. There never really was a single "Viking" culture; only a loose assortment of people with shared ideas, economies, religious beliefs, and a common Germanic language known today as Old Norse.

Norse is used in this website to refer to the Western Scandinavian people of the late Viking Age and early Medieval period. Originally, Norse was a linguistic term for the language spoken by Western Scandinavians - from Norway to Greenland, via Iceland and the Atlantic islands: Shetland, Orkneys, Fereys, Hebrides, Man etc.. It is closely related to Old Norse, which was spoken by all Vikings. More generally, Norse connotes Vikings who have converted to Christianity and are no longer engaged in raiding, but who still maintain the same farming and seafaring life style and a clan-based political structure.


Norman is the term used to describe people from the region of Normandy in France, a region that was occupied by Danish and Norwegian Vikings from around 850 AD and who got their rule accepted by the French King in 911.

'Norman' also happens to be the exact term used in Scandinavia used to describe people from Norway, spoken the same way but written as Nordmann meaning 'man from north'.

Nations then and now:
One thousand years ago, the administrative political divisions were different and dynamic.

In particular Sweden was different then:
In the east we find the tribal Swedes (Svear) around Uppsala (by Stockhol
m) and between the Svear and Norway we find the tribal West Goths (Goetar) and the East Goths. In the south-east we find Småland... but I don't know their tribal belonging... .
The south coast was under the rule of Denmark (the regions of Halland, Blekinge, and Skåne).
The west coast of today's Sweden was in habited by the Danes south of today's Gothenburg (Halland), and inhabited by Norwegians north of Stockholm (Bohuslän). Today's inland boarder regions Sweden, Jämtland, Härjedalen and an area south of this, was then a part of the Norwegian Hamar region.
The Swedish (Svear) expansion came much later, in the the 16th -18th Centuries, where they made themselves masters first of the West and East Goths and then the other regions in today's Sweden.

The Danish influence often extended up along the Bohuslän coast into the Oslo bay and for some periods also over considerable part of England, and was tightly connected towards southwest and the closely related Frisians (controlling the coast from today's Belgium to western Jutland, including the coast of North-West Germany and North East Netherlands)
Norway's rule also extended abroad for large periods of time to practically all the islands in the North Sea and the Irish Sea, plus Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, costal Scotland, Lancaster in England

How far did they go?

North: The Norse Vikings went around the North Cape, around the Kola peninsula in today's Russia. 'Murman' as in the town's name of Murmansk(aya) means "Norwegian" and the location first was occupied by Russia in the 18th Century.

West: It has been proved by Stina - and Helge Ingstad, Oslo, that they went to North America, but it is uncertain how far south they went in North America. It is certain that they visited the Canadian mainland but indications from Maya tales are that they went as far sought as the Yucatan peninsula in Mezo-America.

South: In Europe, few would claim that they went further south than the Canary Islands (today's Spain, outside the Moroccan coast of Africa)

East: There were two routes to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, east over the Russian rivers and west by way of the Gibraltar sound. The Svear dominated the eastern route and the Danes and Norwegians normally went west through Gibraltar. However, one indication that the Norwegians also went east (through the rivers) is the fact that King Olav Tryggvasson (from Sotenäs in Bohuslän) married the King of Russia, in Kiev.

How far they went to the east is more uncertain, as far as the Black Sea is accepted, even the Caspian Sea, but the Red Sea etc is mere speculation.

However, a few years back I took my 10 year old niece around to see some historically oriented museums...
I bought a postcard at the Viking ship museum, Oslo, of the tiny item I found most interesting, namely a picture of the enamelled mount of a locally made bucket found on the Oseberg ship from 850 A.D. (Oseberg is near Tønsberg, Norway)

Not only does the pictured figure sit in a Lotus position typical of Indian Yoga, and the head is very similar to Buddha statues, but the (seldom mentioned) 4 swastikas are also typical of Indian religious art but seem to be traditional Norse as well, for good health and protection against harm. See: , or : "the official explanation is that it is a bucket of Irish origin, and that the 'Buddha' is a traditional Irish motif??? " or

Here another image of a "Norse Buddha" from Myklebostad, Norway:

"Already" at this time the Norse Vikings were regular visitors of the court in Constantinople, (and most likely had tight relations to the Black Sea area since 500 B.C. as not only Thor Heyerdahl is trying to prove) but also seem to have had direct or indirect contact with Indian culture. The Oseberg mount seems to be clear evidence of that. This is certainly not a part of official history writing.

E.g. the "text-book" Smithsonian 1000 anniversary book published in 2000 (on the Norse "discovery" of America: "Vikings. The North American Saga") : has no mention whatsoever of India or Indian in its registry. But again, this book neither mentions the Norse as a main ally of Constantinople, The East Roman Empire (against their common enemy in between them: The West Roman Empire, the Franks). When the Smithsonian 1000 anniversary book mentions the connection between the Vikings and Constantinople and then only regarding the Swede Vikings who went over land to Constantinople - and not the sea going Vikings connected to the Normans and the Templars. What an ignorant book.....
(As a matter of fact a considerable number Of Norwegian Vikings also went over Russia to the Black Sea)

There were a few trading hubs also in the early days of the Viking age (700-1000):

Visby, Gotland - ca. 2000 BC - island southeast of Stockholm
Oppegård "Uppigard"  - ca. 800 BC  - 15 km southeast of downtown Oslo
Kaupang - ca. 700 AD - 100 km southwest of Oslo (meaning 'trading bay', also called Skiringssal = 'Sciringes heal')
Farsund - ca. 700 AD - the southern tip of Norway)
Hedeby  - ca. 780 AD (a village on Jutland, Denmark -  also called Haddeby in Norwegian, ancient : Haithabu )
Birka  - ca. 800 AD (inside Stockholm)
Ribe  - 862 AD (a village on Jutland, Denmark)
København - Copenhagen - 900 AD capital 1445 AD - On Shell Island, Denmark (meaning 'trading port')
Trondheim, "Kaupangr"  - 900 capital 997-1100 AD - middle of southern Norway
Konghelle - 900 capital 997-1100 AD - on the eastern side of the Oslofjord - just north of today's Gothenburg
Sarpsborg "Borg i Viken" - founded 1016 by King Olav Trygvason - on eastern side of the Oslofjord some 10 km up in the Glomma river, by the Sarp waterfalls
Bjørgvin"  - founded 1070, capital 1100 -1299 AD - western Norway
Oslo - founded 1000 by King Harald Hardrada, capital 1299 AD - eastern Norway -
Staraia - 1167 AD - Novgorod on the south eastern shore of Lake Ladoga, Russia

The concept of "Sweden"

In the Viking period (750-1050), and what we call 'Swedes' was then only the larger areas around Stockholm (actually until 1650) consisting of the Svea tribe + the Goth tribe. The south of "Sweden" below Gothenburg + all the Baltic islands were then 'Danish' and the west-coast above Gothenburg was 'Norwegian'. In addition, many Norwegians and Danes also went through Russia to the South on the Dnjepr river.

Until 1658 Sweden had no west coast at all and she was heavily taxed by the Norwegians for the traffic on the Gotha (Goeta) river in order to get to the west coast (to the Kattegat branch of the North Sea). Gothenburg was established (or actually moved down the river) on the west coast after the victory in 1658.
The Norwegian border town of
Konghelle then fell into oblivion, but still exists. It dates back to the 10the Century. and was a Norwegian capital whenever the King was residing there, as with a handful of other towns. Its strategic position overlooking the river and its famous castle 'Bohus', the largest in Scandinavia, ensured that Konghelle was a regionally dominating town, burnt at least trice. It was the wealthiest of the Norwegian towns. Therefore it was a big blow to the Norwegians, when Bohuslän and Konghelle was lost in 1658 - and not recaptured in 1678 by Norwegian forces under the Danish General Gyldenløve.

Norse Trade

The Viking Age is normally seen as between 793-1066 A.D. that is between the raid of Lindisfarne and the battle of Stanford Bridge, but Norse trade was longer-lasting than this and is here seen as lasting to the fall of Bergen, Norway as an independent trading centre most pronounced by the change of site for a Norwegian capital to Oslo in 1299. But perhaps even to the creation (1397) and the breakup of the Scandinavian (Calmar) Union in 1530.

The trading system had its centre in Bergen, and  was clearly (!) a mercantilist system, based on trading monopolies established by royal charters from the King in Bergen. It took such proportions that the King had to subdue trading in order to promote activities. This is explicitly stated in laws of the mid-13th Century under King Magnus Lawmaker ("Lagabøter").

The heartland of the Norse was mainly around the North Sea with the major trading town and capital in Bergen, Norway.

The Swedes were really the eastern Swedes, on the Baltic shore. They went eastwards to Russia along with some Danes and Norwegians.
The Goths (=today's coastal West-Sweden) went with the Danes and Norwegians westward, and in fact the coast of Gothland (Gtaland) become and remained parts of these Kingdoms until about 1658 when the area came under Swedish rule. 

The heartland in Denmark I do not know, but it is small and most likely all of Denmark. 

The same actually goes for Norway, although to a smaller extent for the 'deep' inland, but as today most of the population lived along the coast, and Norway was then thinly populated above the Polar Circle even more than today.
One indication is Icelandic, which is most related to the Norwegian dialect in the south west (where my father's family comes from). Other areas may have had other preferences for travel. Gange-Rolf ('Rollon') who took Normandy came from the north-western part of south Norway. 

Some loose dates: 

In 1066 King Harold Hardrada meaning "Hard rule" (actually Harald Hardråde) of Norway was defeated at the battle of Stanford Bridge, and William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeats the Saxon King, Harold, at the battle of Hastings. King Harald, spent several years in Constantinople. Their guard consisted also of a great number of Norwegians

The Normans gave Sicily to the Pope in 1091. The close Norwegian royal affiliation with Constantinople ended around 1150.

So this change in affiliation might fit the larger picture. An interesting point would be the affiliation between (the anti-Papacy) Venice and the Normans. The crusaders established a major international trading corporation
so this is quite likely. 

The misery of Discovery Channel

I watched a program on Discovery Channel the other day on the Battle of Hastings and therefore also on the Battle of Stanford Bridge. The historian who describerd the Norwegian king Harald Hardrule ('Harald Hardrada' as he is called in English) showed his utter ignorance when he in a talk-show like way described Harald as an unstructured maniac. Harald Hardrule happened to have a background as many years as a leading officer in battle for the East Roman Empire at the time when it was at its strongest (see the East Roman work 'Strategikon' on war history and strategy).

A new book on that Battle of Stanford Bridge claims that the reason Harald Hardrule was beaten in 1066 was because of an ambush on him, when he did a personal inspection early in  the morning. But the victorious always write the history so what could we expect.

The moral? Dont' trust the telly  - nor me.

Norse contact with Constantinople - 850 A.D. to ??

Contacts between Scandinavia and Constantinople were close from about 850 onwards. 

The Norse relation to Constantinople seems to be related to the Frankish push northwards in the 8th Century and could be seen as a defence strategy, especially concerning the Danes who built a wall of defence called Danewirk in southern Jutland in the early 9th Century.
The alliance seems to have started around 750 and continues until around 1200 and the Crusades, i.e. after the Norman takeover of England....

In Norway we normally recognise 1030 A.D as the end of the Viking age, although the attack on England's Harold was in 1066. A few weeks later the Normans attack at Hastings. I would be surprised if there was no connection. The church built around 1100 at Rollon's home island (Northwest Norway) is built in Norman style, so there seems to have been plenty of feed-back.....

The Vikings, in particular the Swedes went to the Black Sea via Russia and Ukraine.
The Danish and Norse Vikings (the latter are described in my Norwegian sources as the core of the guard in Constantinople) instead went via the Atlantic and Gibraltar and their established strongholds on most of the islands in the Mediterranean. 

This sea-borne traffic continued into the crusades in the 13th Century, and was connected to the later Norman strongholds on these same islands (as well the whole of Southern Italy).

Viking guards, "Vangarains", played an important role in the Byzantine Empire. King Harald Hardrada, spent several years in Constantinople. Their guard consisted also of several thousand Norwegians and other Vikings.

The close Norwegian royal affiliation with Constantinople ended around 1150..

It would be fairly far-out to assume that the Vikings traveled non-stop from Norway through Gibraltar to Constantinople, so we may assume that they made a number of stops on the way, such as in Normandy, and the western islands of the Mediterranean and Sicily. All these areas were occupied by the Normans by the middle of the 11th Century.

Mediterranean contact between the Norse, Normans and Templars

The Normans dominated most of the islands in the western Mediterranean , and some in the east, starting immediately after the conquest of England. Since the Norse Crusades continued another Century and the Norse trading network continued to 1300 and died at eh time of the dissolution of the Templars, it is likely that there was contact between them also in the Mediterranean trade.

Norse connection with the Normans -  911 AD to ??

Normandy was raided first in 8.. and finally occupied in 911.

The Normans did not only visit Normandy, France, they were all over the coastal areas in all of Europe, just like the Vikings and the
contemporary Norse: Great Britain, Southern Italy and  the Mediterranean Islands, and penetrated far into the mainland up the rivers to Cologne, Paris etc.

Rollo the Viking (855-931) brought his Normans (Northmen, Vikings) from Norway to the northwest of France. This is the Rollo, or Rollon in the French spelling, who in 911 at the church in St. Clair sur Epte signed the treaty with King Charles III the Simple of France that created him hereditary Count of Rouen; his descendants would call themselves Dukes of the new Duchy of Normandy. He was descended from the Jarls of Orkney but grew up on the island of Giske in Moere ("Mre") in western Norway. The church on this island from ca. 1100 is built in Norman style, which indicates feed-back.

In 1066 King Harold Hardrada meaning "Hard rule" (actually Harald Hardrde) of Norway was defeated at the battle of Stanford Bridge, and then the Norman William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeats the Saxon King, Harold, at the battle of Hastings. I would be surprised if there was no connection. 

From then on the official story is that the Vikings are "pacified", or civilised if you please:

The Norse activity then took place as expansion of the Norwegian Commonwealth (with the capital in Bergen) and of their allies the Norman Commonwealth - into the Mediterranean and Great Britain.

In 1091, the Normans gave south Italy to the Pope, but kept Sicily and numerous other islands in the Mediterranean.

In 1108, King Sigurd Jorsalfar ('Jerusalem-traveler') sails to Jerusalem with 10.000 warriors and visits the Normans repeatedly all along the way.

The Crusade of the Norse King Sigurd - a close ally of the Normans

My suspicions about the relation between the 'post-Vikings' -  the Norse and the Normans - seems to have been right although I found no academics here in Norway who knew about this:

The following 'proof' illustrates the illiteracy of those who ought to know::

The most famous writer on the period, Snorre Sturlason (Snorrir Sturluson) writes about the most famous king of the period King Sigurd (whose brother King ystein is buried an hour north of Konghelle in Foss Church).

Sigurd left Bergen with 10.000 men on 60 longships for Jersusalem in 1108. He visited Lindisfarne in England and King Henry I in London (son of William the Bastard -  the Norman Conqueror, nicknamed "Beauclerc" (fine scholar) and e.g. organised The Exchequer, an 'ingenious device for balancing amounts').

Sigurd then visited the Mont Saint-Michel monastery in Normandie (1109) (together with Henry I ?), Santiago de Compostela and Galicia in Spain (1110) sunk 3 Muslim fleets outside Lisabon, defeated the Muslims forces on the Balearic islands (Formentera, Ibiza, Mallorca og Menorca), and then visited their Norman allies on Palermo, who ruled Sicily and southern Italy.  

Sigurd successfully took part in the battle of Saida in Syria in 1110, where he was called Sigurd the Frank, interestingly enough. Most of these Norse warriors ended their journey as the Varinga Guard under the service of Emperor Alexios in the world metropolis of Constantinople, the by far most advanced city in Europe and western Asia.

Sigurd gave all his ships to Alexios and went home on horseback through Bulgaria, Hungary, Schwaben, Regensburg, Hedeby, Schleswik, Jutland and finally over the Skagerak Sea to Konghelle and Oslo in 1011. The piece of the Holy Cross that he brought with him to Oslo was later left in Konghelle and not brought to the the grave of St. Olavs grave (in the national cathedral in Trondheim) as he had promised. Most likely so, because he was disillusioned with the Christian devotion he met in Constantinople. After all it was Emperor Alexios who convinced Pope Uran II to start the Crusade, and most likely not for religious reasons, since all religions practiced freely in Constantinople.

Norse contact with Jerusalem

The Normans gave Southern Italy up to Rome to the Pope in 1091, but kept Sicily with Palermo as capital. 

Crusades lasted from c. 1095 to 1254

As mentioned above, King Sigurd Jorsalfar, or "Sigurd Jerusalem-traveler" in 1108 sent 300 ships with 10.000 warriors to Palestine and beat the Muslims forces at Saifa in Syria in 1110.

Norse connection with the Templars Order

The first 10 grandmaster of the order were Normans.

The order was established 1113 or in 1118, as a result of the crusades, few years after King Sigurd's crusade in 1108-110.
It was torn apart by force in 1314.

The Templars led a vast international empire in production, trade, and war - an international European corporation, although their origin seems to have been in the Frank empire. Their goal was to recapture Palestine for the Christian faith. They participated strongly in in the crusades and kept their great trading house to finance the wars. 

They MAY have continued the trading system of the Norse, expanding it further into the Mediterranean. And perhaps linking up with Venice against the Norse' former ally in Constantinople. 

The Hanseatic League trade takes over the Norse trading network

In the 14th Century, the Hanse took over the Norse sea-trading routes in Northern Europe centred on Bergen, Norway (North Sea and Baltic). (Source: e.g. Ferdinand Braudel)

One cannot understand Norwegian (nor Scandinavian) history after the Black Plague without understanding the role of the the Hanseatic League. It was formed in 1254, some 100 years before the Black Plague (1349 and 1361) and it blossomed after the Plague. It was an outgrowth of the German Order.

The German Order
was a military monk order in the heathen Vedic territories of the south eastern Baltic called Pressia (before that time it was not German). It was a merge of the Templars Order and the Johanittic Order as a result of King Barbarossa's crusade to the holy land in 1190. The merge of the heathen Vendic mentality and that of the German Order later became Preussia. The German Order grew to dominate 300.000 square km of land, 55 cities and 48 castles (like the surface of Norway today but far denser populated) with Marienburg as the capital. The capital was later transferred to Lbeck as the capital of the Hanseatic League, or the German Guild as the called themselves - as merchants' protection against pirates, robbbers and the plunder prone German nobility. 

It seems that the Norwegian-(Scottish) Commonwealth dominated trade in the European Northern Waters (outside the Mediterranean) from around 800 (?) until 1284 when the Norwegian King Erik (son of Magnus Lawmaker) sent 300 ships southwards to punish Danish and German towns for their lack of servility. However, he calculated badly as times had changed, partly because of the new
Union against him (Hanseatic League) and partly because of globalisation (new competitors such as Russian fur on the London market).

The result was a deprivation of the once rich Norwegian areas until quite recent times. At the time the Black Plague set in (ca. 1347), the former grand power was under Hanse domination. The point here is that it seems like the Hanse took over the Norwegian trade routes.

In 1284, still hegemonic, the Norwegian King Erik Magnusson, son of King Magnus Lawmaker ("Lagabter") sent a fleet of 60 ships down to trading towns in  southern Denmark and northern Germany to punish their audacity against Norwegian mercantilist trading rules. However the days of Norwegian hegemony over the North Sea and the Baltic were over. The Hanse started a grain embargo against the Mercantilist trading system of the Norwegian Commonwealth, also in 1284 and it soon became evident how vulnerable Norway was. The Hanse continued to pressure for more concessions from Bergen, and over time gained the upper hand. The Black Plague finished the Norse trading system.

The 9th of April 1368, the Hanseatic League fleet set out and ravaged the coast of Denmark and Norway. With the peace treaty in 1376 , Norway (under King Haakon V) became de facto a colony of the Hanseatic League. This was 6 years after the peace of Stralsund when Denmark had to submit, and the Hanse thereafter had a veto in the election of Danish kings.

The period also created the preconditions for the Scandinavian Calmar Union (ca.1398) that was shot to pieces in 1515 and the "internal" strife has continued until today (The former Norwegian attached areas, Fereys and Greenland, are still attached to Denmark).

As a matter of fact the deprivation of the Norwegian area led to the (2nd wave of) emigration of some 10 % of the Norwegian population to the Netherlands, especially sailors. (The first wave being to the Northern Waters and the 3rd to the US around 1900).

Norse connection with the Baleraric Islands
(The Spanish Islands in the Western Mediterranean: Majorca, Minorca Formentera, Ibiza)

As noted above King Sigurd conquered all the Balaric Islands from the Muslims in 1109.

Norse connection with the Maltesians

Malta was dominated by the Normans for a number of years.

Norse connection with the Sicilians

As noted above King Sigurd visited his alllys in in 1109.

Norse connection with the Cypriots

Norse connection with Rhodes

Norse connection with the Arabs
i.e. "Serkland" meaning the land of people with with skirts
(- similarly the term going "Berserk" means "only skirt", or in other words bare-chested, since the berserkers did not use protective armour)

On the hostile side, as noted above, King Sigurd beat the Muslim forces on the Balearic Islands in 1109 and in Saifa, Syria in 1110.

Norse connection with the Khazar Jews
(i.e. Turks)

The Swedish (and to a lesser extent the Danish and Norwegian Vikings were in close contact withy the Khazars as they passed the Khazar  areas on the way to Constantinople.

Christopher Columbus

Some information in the following book indicates continued Norse relations with the Mediterranean.

The well researched book (in Norwegian) "Christopher Columbus - a European from Norway" argues that Columbus was born in Genoa, as the son of a refugee from an old Norwegian royal family, Bonde (Meaning farmer or 'Colon' in Spanish. The fight was over the succession to the Norwegian throne, with Christian I of Denmark. Columbus later served under a Norwegian officer in the French navy, took part in a Portuguese journey to Norway, Iceland and Greenland and beyond, guided by local navigators. Tor Borch Sannes: Christopher Columbus, en europeer fra Norge? Oslo 1991

Karl Kautsky on the Normans:

The Papacy celebrated a brilliant triumph over the Normans. It transformed them from the most formidable of the Northern enemies of Christianity into the most pugnacious and energetic antagonists of the Southern enemy. The Papacy made an alliance with the Normans similar to that which it once concluded with the Franks. The alliance recognised the fact that the Normans had not been pacified by their incorporation into the feudal mode of production. They remained a restless, predatory people, but the object of their raids was now changed. By being made into feudal lords, the land hunger peculiar to feudalism was aroused in them, and from plunderers they became conquerors.

The Papacy knew how to make excellent use of this appetite for conquest - by turning it against the Saracens {Islamic armies}. The Papacy had as much to gain from the victory of the Normans as the Normans from the victory of the Papacy. The Normans became vassals of the Pope, who invested them with their conquests as fiefs. The Pope blessed their arms, and the Papal blessing was of great effect in the eleventh century, as it placed the powerful organisation of the Church at the service of the recipient. With Papal assistance the Normans were enabled to conquer England and Lower Italy.


Karl Kautsky points to an interesting change in the Norman (Norse?, Western Vikings?) affiliation from being with the east Roman Empire against the West Roman Empire (Franks) to the opposite. As you know, the crusaders, under the leadership of Venice, once looted East Roman Empire (Constantinople etc. in 1204) instead of the Muslims, and thereby weakened competitors of Venice.