History of the Vikings
Thule, Procopius says, did not differ very much from the rest of men. One of the most numerous nations was the Gauti, and it was close to this people that the incoming Heruls settled.
There is little doubt that Thule in this context was Scandinavia and that the Scrithiphinoi (the Screrefennae of Jordanes) were the Lapps. The Gauti must have been either the Gautigoth of Jordanes, who dwelt in Vâstergötland, or a generic term for the inhabitants of Götaland, and the naming of them by Procopius as one of the most numerous peoples of Scandinavia and the fact that it is they alone, apart from the Lapps, who are thought worthy of mention, confirms the impression already given by Jordanes, namely that at this period the centre of power in Sweden lay no longer in Svitjod, but had shifted, or was shifting, to Vâstergötland and the southern and western provinces of Götaland.
This short summary of the evidence of the historians of the outside world represents the whole of the direct information concerning early Scandinavia, and the gist of these fragmentary and incomplete accounts can be stated in a few words. During the first and second Christian centuries it seems that the leading people of the north were the Swedes of the Mâlar lands and that they owed much of their prosperity to a flourishing trans-Baltic trade in skins which were destined for the Roman market. So great was their increase in numbers that eventually a section of them, afterwards called the Danes, (1)
were forced to migrate to south Jutland, a place that from this time onwards became their home, though they subsequently increased their territories by the conquest of all Denmark and also of certain southern territories in the mainland of Scandinavia. On this subject, it may be inferred from the archaeological evidence that the migration of the Danes was no remarkable displacement of peoples, but merely the movement to Jutland of adventurers strong enough to fight their way into the position of the ruling caste and to bestow their own tribal name upon the natives of their adopted country. Not all the power and the wealth, however, lay with Sweden. Southern Scandinavia was
1. The Swedish origin of the Danes depends on the plain statement of Jordanes and I see no good reason to doubt his information on this point. It has, however, been challenged, see Lauritz Weibull, Arkiv f. nordisk Filologi, 41 (1925), p. 244 n., and Axel Olrik, Heroic Legends of Denmark, New York, 1919, p. 34. The reader should be informed that this very great authority, the late Axel Olrik, not only claimed that the Danes were an indigenous folk in Denmark but also denied that the Heruls were its original inhabitants. This is the direct opposite of the views expressed in this book.
rapidly establishing a connexion, independent of Swedish activity, with the mainland of Germany, and early in the second century many other North German peoples dwelling in southern and western Sweden and in southern Norway were known to exist as separate nations, living much like the rest of men. Again, further to the north of these lived the curious and primitive Lapps of whom strange tales were told by travellers returning to the Roman world. Excepting the Lapps, all the Scandinavian peoples are spoken of as nations or states ruled by a king or chieftain (in one instance a queen), and, as to the political relations between them, at least it can be inferred that by the time of the sixth century the kingdoms of Götaland, particularly that of the Vâstergötar, had risen to such strength and power that they seriously challenged, if indeed they had not overthrown, the supremacy of the Swedes.
It is possible to add something to this short and simple story by a study of early Germanic literature and the traditional history of the north such as is embodied in the sagas. In the forefront of the material of this kind stands the English poem Beowulf. The oldest version of it is a manuscript of tenth-century date, but the poem was composed, it is confidently believed, in England, probably by an Anglian poet, in the early eighth century. Its interest here, of course, is that it has a Scandinavian theme, and that it is plainly a version of a Scandinavian epic or of a group of Scandinavian lays. The background of the poem is a series of actual happenings in Scandinavian history, as is shown by the fact that the four-times-mentioned raid of Hygelac, king of the Geats, upon the Frisian Chattuari (about A.D. 520) is an event that is independently chronicled by Gregory of Tours in the History of the Franks. (1) The nations that are concerned with the principal episodes of the story are the Geats (also called the Weders, or Weder-Geats), the Swedes, and the Danes. The question of the identity of the Geats has occasioned a long dispute as to whether they were the Goths (Gautar, Götar) or the Jutes, but the arguments on each side are too elaborate for the case to be tried here. (2) There is little doubt, however, that after a review of the evidence an impartial jury would decide that the Geats of the poem were not the Jutes but the Goths. It may be that the term refers in particular to the Vâstergötar whose territories
1. III, 3 .
2. For a summary, see R. W. Chambers, Beowulf, An Introduction, Cambridge, 1921, pp. 8-10, 333-345; cf. B. Nerman, Det svenska rikets uppkomst, Stockholm, 1925, p. 108 ff.
at this time perhaps extended from the borders of Svitjod in the north to the Bohuslân in the south-west and to the Danish territories in the south. But it is more likely that it is a generic name including all the peoples of Götaland excepting the Danes of Halland and Scania in the extreme south of Sweden.
The poem relates the adventures of its hero Beowulf, who was the nephew of Hygelac, king of the Geats. In the first part of the tale he crosses the sea to the Danish land (Zealand) and there slays the murderous Grendel, a monster that was terrorizing the court of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. Hrothgar was of the Scylding dynasty, being the great-grandson of Scyld, its founder. In his first speech Hrothgar refers to his own people as the West Danes, but one of his honorific titles was Chief of the East Danes, and this means that though his kingdom was in Zealand he was overlord of the Danes who still dwelt in the south of Sweden. (1) In the second part of the poem Hygelac, and also his son, are dead, and Beowulf is king of the Geats. The story now concerns his contest with a dragon that was devastating his own realm, but it contains many allusions to fierce struggles between the Geats and their neighbours the Swedes, who were ruled by a Scylfing (ON. Ynglinga) dynasty of kings. The poem closes with the death of Beowulf and a prophecy of further wars with the Swedes and also with the Franks and Frisians.
The poem provides, therefore, a corroboration of the suspected rivalry between powerful states in Götaland and Svitjod in the early sixth century, and demonstrates the almost equal importance in Scandinavian affairs at this time of a Danish kingdom established in Zealand and Scania. It introduces, however, the names of the kings who ruled these states and gives considerable information concerning the royal dynasties to which they belonged. As a consequence upon this introduction of personalities, the history of the early Scandinavian peoples necessarily assumes an altered aspect. Henceforward the ancestors of the vikings stand ready for individual summoning as actors in the drama, and where there were formerly but the dim and uncertain shadows of the tribes, now at last the stage has brightened and the people move at the spoken direction of their several chiefs.
1. But E. Wessén rightly attaches little significance to the use of such terms as East Danes and West Danes. See his fine essay, De nordiska folkstammarna i Beowulf, K. Vitt. Ant. Akad. Handl., 36 : 2 (Stockholm, 1927), p. 51.