The Viking Island
How Salt May Have Motivated the Vikings’ Westward Raids
Introduction To How Salt May Have Motivated the Vikings’ Westward Raids
From economic causes to social and political ones, historians and archeologists worldwide have put a great deal of energy into exploring the question of what may have caused the so-called Viking Age. One theory centers on the idea that the Vikings had to leave in search of specific resources, such as enslaved people, wine, and salt, to remain competitive in a shifting economic landscape at home. No one argues that acquiring portable wealth–defined as easily transportable goods of value–was the end goal of those who left Scandinavia to rove in the early Viking Age. What is less clear is what kinds of portable wealth they valued the most and how much certain kinds of portable wealth might have motivated them to take the risk of sailing to faraway places to acquire them.
The Salt Hypothesis proposes that the Vikings’ early westward expansion–defined as the first thirty or so years of Viking activity in Western France and the British Isles–was in part driven by one particular form of wealth that motivated them to travel farther and take greater risks than the others. As the title suggests, that form of portable wealth was salt. Unlike silver, enslaved people, and wine, which the Vikings could acquire closer to home, high-quality salt had to be acquired in southwestern France since the inland salt mines at Saltzburg were unattainable due to the Carolingian embargo on trade with Scandinavia.
In the following article, I will lay out the case for salt as a motivating factor for some of the earliest Viking raids. I will start by establishing the Viking Age Scandinavian need for, and lack of access to, salt. I will then explore the not-so-coincidental correlation between the Vikings’ earliest raids and the monastic trade networks present in France and the British Isles. Finally, I will discuss new research on establishing the herring trade in the baltic states that has breathed new life into the Salt Hypothesis and bring all the research into a cohesive narrative of salt’s potential role in the early phases of the so-called Viking Age.
I want to make clear at the outset that in no way am I proposing salt may have served as anything resembling a trigger event for the start of the so-called Viking Age. Attempts to define a single catalyst or trigger event have all proved unfruitful. A 2010 paper by the archeologist James Barrett called such attempts “unrealistic” and proposed the start of the Viking Age could only be defined by combining numerous factors into a broader, more general theory. I completely agree with that viewpoint. The Salt Hypothesis does not claim that the exploitation of salt in France was anything close to a catalyst but rather a phenomenon that emerged within the context of other longue-durée causes. To learn more about these longue-durée causes, check out my article titled What Caused the Viking Age.
Initially, I set out to answer three questions: why did the Vikings attack the monastery of St. Philbert on the island of Noirmoutier, off the coast of France; why so early (they sacked it in 799); and why so frequently (they supposedly returned every year for 30 years)? This article will focus on a localized portion of the Viking Age but also make some broader connections that, ultimately, still need to be fleshed out.
As a former school teacher, I feel compelled to provide the following disclaimer for this article: This is not an academic paper; it’s a blog. While the material will feel academic (because I do publish academic papers) and is inspired by academic research, this article is meant for public consumption and entertainment. If you are a high school or college student looking to cite some of the material in this article, please get in touch with me first so I can help you with the material and citations you are looking to use. Those of you looking to dive deeper into this topic will find the bulk of my citations for my research in my selected bibliography.
History of The Salt Hypothesis
Around 1946, the salt producers of the island of Noirmoutier in France went bankrupt. Soon, the entire industry collapsed. Today, that same salt production has seen a revival of sorts by local artisans looking to make a quick profit off tourists, but the commercial exports of the past have ceased to exist. Why did the salt industry in one of the most lucrative salt-producing parts of the world collapse in the middle of the twentieth century? Because Scandinavia, their primary market, developed refrigeration.
The sudden evaporation of the salt industry in the Southern Brittany region of France ushered in the end to two millennia of violent, bloody history over a resource that, until seventy-five years ago, was considered one of the most precious commodities in the world. Since Roman times, the island of Noirmoutier, though remote and hard to access, interested the various emperors, kings, clerics, and chieftains who controlled the region not for who lived there but for what they could make there. One such party was the Vikings.
The idea that salt may have attracted the Vikings to the region is well known. French historians have searched for decades for evidence to show that salt played a vital role in the Viking invasions of Western France and Brittany. Unfortunately, the dearth of archeological and textual evidence for a direct link between the salt trade and the Vikings has left them wanting. Although plenty of circumstantial evidence does exist, the absence of anything substantive has relegated the entire topic to the reliquary of Viking Age curiosities.
“10th century Vikings may have been attracted to the area [Noirmoutier] by the salt.”
Bergier, Jean-François, Une Histoire du Sel. Fribourg, Switzerland: Office du Livre, 1982. Pg. 116.
The Salt Hypothesis has its roots in a yet unsolved mystery. In 799 A.D., according to the monk Alcuin, the islands of Aquitaine—which includes the island of Noirmoutier—were attacked by pagans. Historians have debated ad infinitum whether these so-called pagans were Vikings or if they might have been Saracens from Spain. The modern consensus is that the pagans were Vikings, further reinforced by testimony from the monk Ermentaire, who chronicled the attacks in a later text. Thus started what the Breton historian Jean-Christophe Cassard called the Century of the Vikings in Brittany. For the next thirty years, the Vikings repeatedly raided the island of Noirmoutier for its monastery, Saint Philibert.
A letter written in 819 by Abbott Arnulf of Saint Philibert complained of “frequent and persistent raids.” They occurred so frequently that the monks who resided there fled to a satellite priory on the continent every spring and summer before returning in winter. Nowhere else in Christendom did the Vikings return at such regular intervals, which has begged the question: Why? What did they find so alluring about the island? Especially after the monks started to abandon it in spring, taking their portable wealth with them?
The most current and accepted theory is that Vikings were interested in the whole region, and the monastery of Saint Philibert was a convenient place to raid. Later, when the Vikings established a foothold on the outskirts of the city of Nantes in 853—a camp on the river island of Betia on the Loire—that may have been true. However, in the first thirty years of raiding, leading up to the definite abandonment of the island by the monks of Saint Philibert in 836, the Vikings had made little effort to raid inland. Hence, I argue, the monastery of Saint Philibert was likely a—if not the—target.
The Salt Hypothesis proposes that the Vikings returned to the island in spring and summer to raid for salt. They timed their raids to arrive in the peak salt-producing months to export it back to Scandinavia. The Salt Hypothesis further proposes that the Vikings’ need for salt significantly contributed to their westward expansion to France. Salt, the theory argues, was one of the significant contributing factors that motivated Vikings to raid the coast of France as early and as frequently as they did.
Trouble Brewing in the East
While Anglo-centric historians have defined the Viking Age as having started roughly in 793 with an event in England, recent scholarship has accepted that the Viking Age started much sooner in the East. A treasure trove of silver coins from the Muslim world found at Lake Ladoga gives us some idea of when contacts may have begun. As a standard practice in the Muslim world, coinmakers imprinted minting dates on their coins, and the coins at Lake Ladoga date to the 780s.
Primary sources for the early societal structure, culture, and activities of the Swedish Vikings, known as the Rus, are practically non-existent. They did not leave us any written sources besides disparate runes carved into wood planks or stones. One mention in the Annals of St. Bertin tells us of a diplomatic delegation from Constantinople that visited Louis I in Aachen in 839 that included Rus. Still, we have no other historical sources predating that mention. Thus, we must turn to archeological evidence.
Combined with further archeological evidence of pre-Viking Age colonies on the eastern shores of the Baltic, such as the Grobin colony in what is now Latvia, trade contacts between Sweden and the Middle East appear to have begun several decades before the Danes and Norwegians launched their first raids against the British Isles and France. Those early contacts appear not to have been violent, either. The earliest graves from the Grobin colony (pre-800s) include women and children, signaling a peaceful colonization effort, whereas later graves (mid-800s and later) contain fighting-aged men and their weapons.
Why the eastward expansion transitioned from trading to raiding remains a complex question with no precise answer. However, they may have been victims of their own success. Of all the longue-durée causes that contributed to the genesis of the eastward expansion and, by extension, the westward expansion, Søren Sindaebek’s synthesis on the role of the silver economy, urbanism, and the movement of durable goods as primary drivers perhaps has the best grasp on solving the mystery. Sindaebek and other historians have stressed at length the importance of the social bonds of the nuclear family, as well as the value of establishing familial ties, leading to a silver economy attached to the cultural practice of the bide-price. As Sindaebek wrote in a 2010 essay:
“My suggestion is, then, that a major motivation or affluent Scandinavian peasants to engage in long-distance exchange – and thus to enter into a silver economy – was that products acquired in this way could ease some of the most controversial issues of their social networks: the negotiations over the longterm status and personal property with which spouses, women in particular, entered into marriage. The incentive for trade and raids alike, I suggest, was ultimately driven by the hubs of family relations: by marriage and the negotiations or the families connected with it.”
Sindbæk, S. M. (2016). Urbanism and exchange in the North Atlantic/Baltic, 600–1000 ce. The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization. T. Hodos, A. Geurds, P. Lane et al. Abingdon, Routledge.
If silver was a fundamental linchpin in the proper functioning of cultural practices that held together nuclear families, silver’s value was paramount to the fabric of society. Value, as economists insist, depends on supply and demand. Therefore, the amount of silver in circulation and its demand had dire consequences for the stability of Viking Age Scandinavian society. Where the supply and demand for silver had remained more or less constant in the two centuries leading up to the Viking Age, an increase in trade in the East threatened to unravel the delicate balance of pre-Viking Age Scandinavia.
Like the economic woes of the 16th century that resulted from the inflationary effect of Spain’s imports of gold from the New World, the influx of Islamic silver may have caused a significant devaluation of silver in Scandinavia. That effect would have had far-reaching consequences even in the most rural settlements. Given the role of silver in early Viking Age Scandinavian society, a sudden shift in the value of silver across Scandinavia may have threatened the most fundamental ties of the nuclear family. In simpler terms, the bride price got too expensive (like housing today).
Of course, there is an assumption here that the silver economy held a kind of primacy in the factors that created the conditions for the Viking Age to begin, which is still widely debated. It is important to understand–and I will continue to stress–that all of the factors discussed herein are part of a much larger tapestry of themes and events, none of which constitute any kind of trigger.