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Viking - 31: Slavs at the Fringes of the Viking World - Partners in Trade, Allies, and Potential Foes

Updated on December 7, 2017

"Truly wise is he who has travelled far and knows the ways of the world. He who has travelled can tell the mettle of the men he meets".

Havamal

Inland seaway to the eastern markets

Topographic map of the Eastern Sea (Baltic) and surrounding territories
Topographic map of the Eastern Sea (Baltic) and surrounding territories | Source
Kingdoms and peoples of Northern Europe and Scandinavia around the Eastern Sea around AD 900
Kingdoms and peoples of Northern Europe and Scandinavia around the Eastern Sea around AD 900 | Source

Finds from Scandinavian merchants' graves such as at Grobin and Elblag reveal pre-Viking colonisation east of the Baltic began as early as around AD650

Mainly fur trading for the Western European market fed this drive eastward; to a lesser extent amber was sought a little further north. Around the end of 8th Century Arab merchants came northward by way of the Volga. Through them high quality silver coinage (Dirhems) spread westward, drawing Scandinavian traders inland along the many navigable waterways to find the source of this new supply of ready silver.

Through their nearness to this new market the Svear (Swedes) led the drive. By around AD830 the Rus - the Slav term for the Scandinavians - traded directly with the Arabs on the Volga, and with the Byzantine Empire not long after. From the number of Scandinavian women's graves it would seem the Vikings moved in with their wives and kin to take advantage of the new opportunities. Large quantities of Arab silver exchanged for furs and slaves filtered back to the homeland, and the trade arteries flourished until the supply of mined Islamic silver was exhausted between AD965-1015. The decline of the Volga route because of the poorer quality of later Arab coinage led to its abandonment.

During the 9th Century the Scandinavians developed Slav settlements such as Holmgard (Novgorod) and Koenungagard (Kiev), fortifying them as bases from which to colonise the land around. By the Russian Primary Chronicle (Povest Vremennykh Let), Novgorod under its fabled ruler Rurik became the centre of a Rus state by around AD860. Rurik's successor Oleg ruled from AD879-913 and took Kiev to make it the capital of a larger Rus state. By Igor's time (AD913-945) the state had grown from the Gulf of Finland to the lower Dnieper near the Krim (Crimea). Although the Scandinavian influence in Russia is plain from archaeological finds - such as the 187 Viking oval brooches found exceeds those located in Western Europe - as far as Viking Age cemeteries is concerned - the Rus were very much in the minority amongst the native Slavs, larger settlements notwithstanding. In the surrounding countryside evidence is sparse. The Rus being a warrior and merchant upper class based in the townships, their presence elsewhere was not widely felt.

Although memorials on rune-stones in Sweden tell of Scandinavian migration well into the 11th Century, they became progressively assimilated (in the same way as in Ireland, Man and Normandy) inter-married and blended with the background voluntarily. One sign of this is the adoption by their rulers of Slavic names, the first being Igor's son Svyatoslav I, who ruled AD945-78, as did his successors. His son Vladimir I, who ruled from AD978-1015 worshipped the Slavic thunder-god Perun before conversion to Christianity in AD988. By the late 10th Century most of the ruling class would have been Slavic speakers because iy was the language of the Eastern Orthodox Church outside Byzantium. When Kiev's power reached its zenith during the reign of Jaroslav 'the Wise' (AD1019-54), the Rus were Slavic in all but blood-ties to Scandinavia.

Prior to the Viking's colonisation of Eastern Europe many of the Slavs' fortified settlements had begun to grow into true towns. However their influence led to the acceleration of this process. Novgorod grew from a small settlement to a powerful city state within a century. Aside from this Viking input into the Slav civilisation was minimal. The Slavonic peoples were at a similar stage of development to their western neighbours and needed to learn little from the Vikings. Only a half-dozen Scandinavian loan-words ever entered the Savonic language of their 'hosts'. The most important outside cultural influence was from Byzantium, as a result of Vadimir's desire to accept Eastern Orthodox Christianity rather than that of Rome. The Kievan alphabet, architecture, law codes, music and political ideology borrow from Byzantium.

Russian Primary Chronicle (Povest Vremennykh Let, literally The Chronicle of Past Years).

The single most important native source for the early history of Russia, compiled at Kiev in the early 12th Century using earlier chronicles that had been considered lost. Khazar sources and oral tradition, some markedly legendary. It covers the coming of the 'Rus' and the setting-up of a Scandinavian kingdom at Kiev and its later history. The Chronicle was laid down for dynastic reasons, such as the establishment of important territorial and kinship links for the Ryurik dynasty and its account of Kiev's establishment is now seen as largely legendary. The linking of the chronicle to the 11th Century Kievan monk Nestor is no longer broadly believed.

Ryurik dynasty

Rulers of Russia from the 10th to the 16th Centuries, they took their name from the founder, Rurik who died around AD879. Before the 12th Century Russian rulers thought Igor, the Prince of Kiev to be their founder.

Ryurikovo Gorodisce

This was a 9th Century settlement on an island in the River Volkhov, two kilometers upstream of Novgorod. Many artefacts found in digs on the site are Viking in character. It is very likely that Ryurikovo Gorodisce is the Novgorod referrede to in the Russian Primary Chronicle as Rurik's early capital. It is also likely the Viking name Holmgard (island fortification) also referred to this site.

Vladimir I (St Vladimir, Vladimir 'the Great', O.N. Valdemar), roughly AD956-1015, Grand Prince of Kiev (ruled AD978/80-1015). He was the first Christian ruler of the Kievan Rus, converting to Christianity in AD988. He was a lasting influence on the development of Russian culture. As the son of Svyatoslav I, Vladimir succeeded as Prince of Novgorod in AD970. On his father's death, Vladimir's brother Jaropolk seized power, and Vadimir went into exile in Sweden. There he raised an army and, aided by an uncle and a Slav chieftain Blud, he returned to Kiev in AD978/80. Jaropolk was assassinated and Vadimir took power. His early years in power were filled with fighting the Volga Bulgars and the overthrow of the Svear ruler of Polotsk. Vadimir wedded his daughter Ragnhild.

Although Christianity was acknowledged in Kiev since the 940's, Vladimir had been raised a follower of the Slavonic god Perun. Later tellings seek to explain how Vladimir had thought of converting and several belief-systems were investigated. He settled on Byzantine Orthodox Christianity for the beauty of its litany. The reality of it is political. The Byzantine emperor Basil II 'the Buigar Slayer' who reigned from AD976-1025 began talks of an alliance with Vladimir, offering his sister Anna in marriage. She was unwilling to marry a Barbarian ruler who was known to keep hundreds of concubines and take part in human sacrifice. A pact was agreed in AD988 when Vladimir agreed to convert. A year latyer Vladimir captured the rebellious city of Cherson in the Crimea, giving it to Basil. Vladimir orderered its subjects to convert, the destruction of idols and the building of many churches. The extent to which the Rus had assimilated by Vladimir's time is that the language of his new Russian Orthodox Church was to be Slavonic. A strong Byzantine culture overtook Russia, and later in his reign Vladimir built close diplomatic and dynastic links with the Holy Roman Empire and Poland. His sons Svyatopolk I (AD1015-19) and Jaroslav 'the Wise' (AD1019-54) succeeded him.

The collective term for the Western Slavonic peoples of the southern Baltic shore in the Viking Age and High Middle Ages, the Wagrians, Polabians, Abodrites, Rugians, Liutzians and Pomeranians was:

The Wends

At the outset of the Viking Age Wendish lands stretched from the mouth of the Vistula west to where Kiel is now. The Wends were also at a similar level of social and technological development to their Scandinavian neighbours. There were many Wendish trading havens along the Baltic shore, and extensive finds of Arabic coins show they were very much part of trade with their eastern neighbours. The Wends were adept at building fortresses and had a strong, warlike aristocracy. Although the Danes and Svear took over a few coastal towns such as Reric in the early 9th Century or Jumne (wolin) in the later 10th, they made no lasting impression inland. In later sagas many Vikings such as Olaf Tryggvason started their 'careers' raiding on the Wendish coast, but there was also a cultural trade-off between the Wends and the Scandinavians, who may have learned bridge-building and adopted Slavonic styles of jewellery and pottery. From the Scandinavians the Wends learned ship-building, getting the better part of the exchange and in the early 11th Century they turned to raiding Denmark and Sweden, even southern Norway. The Danish islands underwent extensive raiding and it was not until the Wends were converted 'by the sword' in the early 13th Century that their raiding stopped.

Interestingly several dynastic marriages between the western Scandinavian kingdoms and the Wendish and Rus dynasty produced heirs for Svein 'Forkbeard' of Denmark and Harald Sigurdsson of Norway (Knut's mother was a Wendish princess and Harald's queen Ellisif - Eiizabeth - who was Jaroslav's daughter, gave him two daughters.

The Jomsvikings took Jumne (Wolin) as their base of operations.

To the south of the burgeoning Rus state, on the Black Sea coast,were the Bulgars who came into conflict with the Byzantine empire and therefore also Kiev. Vikings who joined the emperor's Varangian guard as mercenaries fought both the Bulgars and the southern Slavonic Croats,whose own empire was expanding along the eastern Adriatic coast. Another group of Viking descendants, the Normans, also came into conflict with Byzantium and allied themselves with both Croats and Bulgars.


The Eastern Baltic

Riverways in the Baltic and east - all 'roads' lead to Byzantium. Traders and raiders used the river routes to enrich themselves
Riverways in the Baltic and east - all 'roads' lead to Byzantium. Traders and raiders used the river routes to enrich themselves
The southern Baltic shoreline, largely low-lying, shallow inlets and bays between where Gdansk and Kaliningrad now lie, the sea prone to icing up in the Gulf of Bothnia
The southern Baltic shoreline, largely low-lying, shallow inlets and bays between where Gdansk and Kaliningrad now lie, the sea prone to icing up in the Gulf of Bothnia | Source
Slavs and their eastern Avar neighbours clash. Nomad Asiatic tribes pressed westward onto European territory, creating ructions between ethnic groups
Slavs and their eastern Avar neighbours clash. Nomad Asiatic tribes pressed westward onto European territory, creating ructions between ethnic groups | Source
Not until the 13th Century when the Teutonic Knights pushed to Estonia did many of the tribes accept - or were bullied into accepting - Christianity after a long struggle. The Norsemen never tried to convert - they either  raided or traded
Not until the 13th Century when the Teutonic Knights pushed to Estonia did many of the tribes accept - or were bullied into accepting - Christianity after a long struggle. The Norsemen never tried to convert - they either raided or traded | Source
Jomsborg, now near Wolin on the Baltic coast, was a fortified base for the Jomsvikings led by Palnatoki and Thorkell 'Havi' ('the Tall')
Jomsborg, now near Wolin on the Baltic coast, was a fortified base for the Jomsvikings led by Palnatoki and Thorkell 'Havi' ('the Tall') | Source
Holmgard, (Novgorod), the market, merchants and craftsmen lived and plied their trades on the west bank of the River Neva. On the east bank was the 'gard' (garth), the citadel where the prince and his retainers lived
Holmgard, (Novgorod), the market, merchants and craftsmen lived and plied their trades on the west bank of the River Neva. On the east bank was the 'gard' (garth), the citadel where the prince and his retainers lived | Source

There are more than traces of the East Norsemen, the Rus, and their Viking counterparts in modern-day Russia and its western neighbours.

For a start, take the name 'Russia'. There are several versions of the name to 'play' with, 'Ruotsi' being one (given them by the Finns, that also included the Svear or Swedes who were busy in the east putting down trading posts and hunting for the pelts they would sell at Birka or further west at Hedeby).

Ruotsi may come from 'rodr', a crew of oarsmen. A viable alternative to this hypothesis might be the Greek 'Rosomones' ('rusioi' meaning blondes or reddish, gingery). which was another name for the Heruli, a Scandinavian tribe active in the Eastern Roman Empire as freebooters, or foederati, paid men, between the third and sixth centuries.

In the Soviet era of Russian history the Russians denied their Scandinavian links, maintaining that the Rus were of Slavic origin. This would in part be due to the assimilation by these Scandinavian warriors and traders. Nevertheless Scandinavian archaeological evidence is strong on the ground. There is ample evidence of their settlement and culture alongside their Slav contemporaries.

The Annals of St-Bertin, contemporary to the period, describe a company of men spoken of as 'Rhos' paid their respects to the court of the Frankish emperor Louis 'the Pious'.together with a Byzantine delegation in AD 839. When asked, the emperor was informed they 'were of the people of the Svear'. Louis suspected they might be spies for the Vikings.

Liudprand of Cremona identified another contingent who raided Constantinople in AD 941 as 'nordmanni' or Northmen. The far-travelled Moorish Arab chronicler al-Ya'qubi pointed to the raiders who went to Seville in AD 844 as the pagans called ar-Rus. The Rus also spoke a tongue very different from their Slav neighbours. The Byzantine emperor Constantine VII, Porphyrogenitos (ruled AD 913-59) who wrote of them in his De administrando imperio, named the rapids on the River Dniepr by both their Slavic and Rus names. The Rus names, like *Barufos meaning 'wave-force' are Old Norse. The earliest Rus rulers Rurik (Roric) and Oleg (Helge/Helgi) were patently Norse by origin and 'slavicised'. After the 10th Century the Rus were known variously in the east by Greek, Arab and Slav alike as Varangian and Rhos or Rus.

An A-Z of all things Norse, Viking, call it what you will...

If it isn't in here it's not worth knowing. Bone up on your Viking knowledge... It'll lead to pastures new
If it isn't in here it's not worth knowing. Bone up on your Viking knowledge... It'll lead to pastures new | Source

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Trish, sorry about the delay in answering. Bit busy lately. There's a lot to take in when you consider the region was occupied by many different tribes who were grouped under one 'umbrella' title.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      6 years ago from The English Midlands

      Fascinating!

      But I'll have to read it again, to take it all in! :)

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