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The rise of kings

Medieval European chroniclers noted, with fear and exasperation, that the Viking fleets who raided their shores grew larger and larger with every passing year. What they were witnessing, whether they realized it or not, was the consolidation of Norse political power into the hands of fewer and fewer chieftains, the most successful of whom ultimately became kings.

This was, after all, the logical endgame of the processes by which chieftains amassed their power. Those chieftains who drew the most and best warriors to them won more battles, and thereby acquired more plunder and prestige, which in turn enabled them to afford to employ yet more warriors who would win more prestige for themselves by fighting for the most successful chieftains. Eventually, the best chieftains grew to be mighty enough to conquer other, lesser chieftains and establish themselves as kings over wide areas. Being Vikings, they didn’t hesitate to do so.

The transition from chieftains to kings was slow and ragged, and different parts of Scandinavia underwent the shift on different timetables. Broadly speaking, Denmark was the first, with kings having already begun to establish themselves there in the eighth century AD. Next came Norway, whose first kings came to power in the tenth century. And, finally, in Sweden, the shift had been more or less completed by the mid-thirteenth century, although Sweden remained quite decentralized all through the Middle Ages.

Compared to chieftains, kings weren’t just more powerful rulers; they were also a different kind of rulers. They had more in common with other European monarchs than they did with the Vikings chieftains who had preceded them.

As the scale of a ruler’s power became larger and larger, it became increasingly impractical to maintain the bonds of direct, warm, friendly loyalty and the gift economy that had been the hallmarks of the chieftains’ mode of rule. These were replaced by more impersonal and bureaucratic administrative and military structures. The king’s followers had much more specialized roles in both war and peace, rather than almost all being first and foremost warriors and some having other, secondary positions, as had been the norm under the chieftains.

Norse chieftains had governed loose and ever-shifting confederations of people, and succession was a free-for-all. Kings, by contrast, established sharply-delineated rules for succession and governed sharply-delineated territories and all who happened to live within their boundaries. Rather than raiding other peoples for the necessary wealth to rule, as the chieftains had done, kings took that wealth from their own people in the form of taxes and fees. These were in theory for the protection of the taxpaying populace against foreign aggressors. In practice, however, when the people were threatened by such foreign aggression, whether and to what degree the king and his men actually responded varied considerably from case to case.

The Vikings’ shift from chieftains to kings occurred at roughly the same time that the Vikings were converting from their native pagan religion to Christianity. Intriguingly, there seems to have been a religious dimension to how the political transformation was interpreted.

As we’ve seen, the relationship between chieftains and their warriors was primarily one of mutual obligation, despite the great difference in power between the chieftain and his warriors. Pagan sacrifice – where the people would offer sacrifices to the gods in exchange for success in battle, bountiful harvests, or any number of other desired outcomes – manifested this same idea of mutual obligation between highly unequal parties, maintained by a gift economy.

There was an element of unconditional fealty present in the chieftain-warrior relationship as well, exemplified most strikingly by the expectation that an honorable warrior would sooner die by his chieftain’s side than flee and live. But this was largely subsumed by the sense of mutual obligation; a warrior could, after all, choose to whom he offered his mortal loyalty, and leave one chieftain for another if he thought that another would treat him with more generosity.

With the rise of kings and the importation of Christianity, the emphasis was reversed. The relationship between the king and his fighters – which had necessarily become much more impersonal with the great increase in the number of fighters each king commanded – was spoken of in terms borrowed from Christian language. In the same way that Christians were supposed to serve God unconditionally as his “slaves and thralls,” so, too, were a king’s men supposed to serve him.

Nevertheless, an element of the older relationship of reciprocal duties survived in the form of the taxes-for-protection model, which became, in an important sense, the updated version of the loyalty-for-generosity model.

So while the rise of kings made the Vikings more formidable raiders and fighters in the short term, in the end it proved to be part of a constellation of deeply intertwined developments that doomed the distinctively Viking way of life by bringing the Scandinavians into the European mainstream. By the thirteenth century, Scandinavia was, in the eyes of Europe, no longer a savage land of barbarians that lay to the north of Europe; it was a part of Europe.