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Viking political institutions

Throughout much of the Viking Age, political power in Norse society lay predominantly in the hands of chieftains – warlords who ruled a relatively small group of people. They commanded the bands of raiding warriors whose forays across Europe made the Viking Age the Viking Age. The kings that would turn Denmark, Norway, and Sweden into unified countries hadn’t yet come to power, and Scandinavia was a somewhat haphazard patchwork of the chieftains’ dominions, some large and some small.

As warlords, Norse chieftains were in constant competition with other chieftains for power. To prevail over his rivals, a chieftain needed a loyal band of warriors to fight by his side. The more warriors he commanded, the more powerful he tended to be. To obtain and retain loyal warriors, in the words of historian Anders Winroth,

A chieftain needed to be generous to his men, he needed to be victorious in battles – to “feed carrion to the ravens,” in the poetic vocabulary of the time – and he needed fame and a good reputation. If he was not able to achieve all of this, he could not achieve any of it. It was through winning battles that he gained the riches that allowed him to be generous, and his generosity stimulated poets… to contribute to his fame by composing and reciting poetry. This, in turn, inspired warriors to seek out the famous [chieftain], so that he got more warriors and won battles even more easily, which gave him a good reputation and more booty to hand out to warriors.

Traditional Norse poetry contained a seemingly infinite array of stock phrases and expressions that had to do with wealthy chieftains giving away their wealth to their followers. Such was the ubiquity of the concept in Norse culture – and perhaps especially in the minds of the poets, who composed for particular chieftains and had an economic motive to give their employers a reputation to live up to.

Since there was no true money in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, chieftains dispensed wealth primarily in the form of precisely-weighted arm rings of gold and silver. Sometimes these were very simple, and sometimes they were expertly and ornately fashioned. In either case, however, they were essentially worth their weight in the metals from which they were made. Wealth was also granted in the form of land and the products of the land.

Chieftains were also generous to their followers by throwing lavish feasts for them. These feasts typically had an element of religious ritual to them, which infused the relationship between the chieftain and his followers with the sacred.

Of course, the generosity of chieftains was no mere charity. Their gifts were given to their warriors in exchange for the warriors’ gift of their loyalty, which couldn’t be taken for granted. The bonds of fealty had to be continually renewed if they were to remain intact.

But this wasn’t only a calculated economic transaction. Honor, pride, and belongingness were also at stake. While fighting and economic reward were the concrete means of maintaining the relationship between chieftain and warrior, the relationship was what really mattered. An extreme – but common – example of this is that, in the eyes of Viking society, one of the noblest deeds a warrior could perform was to fall in battle alongside his leader – proving loyal even to the point of death, forsaking not only his wealth, but his very life.