The Vikings, notorious for their brutality, had a less aggressive side to their character, or so we are told now. When they landed at Lindisfarne in 793AD it marked the beginning of hundreds of years of terrifying raids. But the reason why they took to the seas in the first place continues to divide historians, with some blaming overpopulation in the Norse lands, while others see it as a pre-emptive strike against the rising wave of Christianity.
Now a new theory suggests it was actually matters of the heart. Dr Mark Collard, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, believes changes in society led to severe shortages of Viking marriage partners. The growth of polygamy and social inequality of the late Iron Age meant that richer men took many wives or concubines, causing an imbalance in the male/female sex ratio.
Suddenly young poor men had little chance of securing a wife, unless they became rich and well known quickly, says Professor Collard. He believes raiding was therefore a short cut to heroism and treasure. ‘What is clear is that the sex ratio would have been substantially biased and increasing through time and even small amounts of bias can have a big effect,’ he said. ‘In a population where just a few powerful older men are able to have multiple concubines you end up with a number of young single men quite rapidly. Some men would have 2 to 3 wives, but the Norse sages say that some princes had limitless numbers. So raiding was a way to build wealth and power. Men could gain a place in society and the chance for wives if they took part in raids and proved their masculinity and came back wealthy.’
Surprisingly, the idea was first put forward by the Norman historian Dudo of St Quentin, who argued in his 10th century work The History of the Normans that the Viking raids were triggered by an excess of unmarried young men. Similarly the English antiquarian, William Camden, in his 1610 work, Britannia suggested the ‘Vikings were selected from areas of overpopulation after they multiplied themselves to a burdensome community.’
In recent years the theory has lost support from historians with many believing the raids were a quest for retaliation against Charlemagne’s bloody campaign to force Northern pagans to convert to Christianity. Yet Professor Collard believes that new research into psychology and ethnographic studies of tribes makes his theory –published in the Journal of Human Behaviour – more plausible.
Recent studies found that aggression rises when there is a shift in the male/female sex ratio and, where the percentage of unmarried men is greater, the rates of rape, murder, assault, theft and fraud also rise. New research has also shown that Yanomamo tribes in South America resort to inter-village raiding for polygamous marriages. It goes to prove that throughout history the compulsion of sex is a great motivating factor which drives humans to commit barbaric acts in order to satisfy their lust.
Nothing changes in human behaviour when put to the test.