The landscape of Viking Scandinavia is not all mountains and fiords.
I love the look of the Viking homelands in the tv-series Vikings; but if you visit Scandinavia, you will be amazed at how different most of the landscape is to that look. Only the west coast of Norway has those famous fiords of crystal waters held in the deep embrace of mountain slopes.
But even for someone familiar with the other parts of Scandinavia, it takes some imagination to picture what it must have been like in the 9th century.
For my historical fiction, I needed to be able to see and sense the world inhabited by Signy in the 9th century. This note is an attempt at putting some of my findings into words, and hopefully, make it accessible to others interested in the world of the Vikings.
Here, I am going to focus on Denmark where Signy is from, and where I was born and now also live. Signy is the narrative voice and point of view in the story, so even though Denmark is not the main setting of the story, everything she sees and notices will be influenced by what she knows – and that is her home in Denmark, her known world.
Denmark – Landscape and People
A landscape shapes its inhabitants (and vice versa, of course). Denmark is a land of many islands and fairly friendly seas and coasts. The myriad of little and larger islands lie in relatively shallow and sheltered water between Jutland and Sweden, and the shores are not rocky. Much of the east coast of Jutland is likewise onto calm water. No raging waves to contend with.
It is no wonder the people became a seafaring folk. That over water became the way to travel and transport, I mean. So, a tiny hamlet like the place where I envisioned Signy growing up would have been connected to its surrounding area and to other people easily by boat. The five families would not have lived in complete isolation. Hence, the stories about her cousin, uncle, and father having visited their earl and a smith.
The Danes in those times would have been a people living by the water, so either along the miles and miles of coasts or near the shores of rivers and their lakes, and firths. The waterways functioned like roads. This is what we have to picture to see the world they inhabited.
No Wilderness Today
Denmark now is very much a cultural landscape. If true wilderness exists at all in Denmark, it is in small pockets of what is left from the vast forest that once covered the land.
Don’t get me wrong, Denmark is a beautiful, green country. Fields and forests cheer the eye everywhere one goes outside the towns and cities. And on the whole, it is also a very clean and tidy place. But – there is always a but, isn’t there? – every corner of the landscape is managed by us, people, and not by nature alone.
I think it is because the land is so accessible. Denmark is a flat country compared to most. We have no mountains. None. As in zero. We have hills; friendly, rolling hills. The highest point in Denmark is “Yding Skovhøj” at 172,54 meters (about 556 feet) above sea level – and its top is man made: a burial mound from the Bronze Age. The highest natural point at 170,86 m is “Møllehøj”. (Danish Geo Data Agency). Both are located near the town Skanderborg in Jylland (Jutland).
Landscape Features of Viking Denmark
As mentioned earlier, Denmark was originally very much a forested landscape. Knowledge of what the landscape was like historically is based on pollen data and archaeological finds. In 2014, I attended a lecture by Peter Friis Møller, research fellow at the Institute for Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland with a Master of Science (MSc) in Forest and Nature Management.
A quick summary of the landscape types in Viking-Age Denmark:
- Forested areas with beech, birch, alder, hazel and oak; also lime, poplar, elm, hawthorn (pretty much same species as today)
- Wild, mixed forest, but also forested areas influenced by grazing and coppicing. Charcoal-making to smelt iron.
- Meadows, wetlands and bogs
- Settlement areas with grass and grains – and in certain geographical areas of western Denmark (Jutland) also heather due to geology (heath)
By 1800, only 2-3% of Denmark remained forested and conservation laws were put in place. An estimate from 2009 puts the current figure at 13,5%. In 1989, the Danish Parliament decided on a goal of 25% by 2100.
Much of the Danish landscape is naturally wet. The water table is high. Ground water (or the aquifer) is not far away. The map on this link shows heights.
Bogs or boggy ground would have been pervasive in many parts before all the ditches and drainage was established to allow for extended farming.