The Kingdom(s) of Denmark

Reconstructed Viking longhouse at Fyrkat, northern Jutland, Denmark. Photograph by Ben Allport.

We know more about the Viking Age history of the Danes than any other group in Scandinavia. This is hardly surprising, given that Denmark lies closest to the European power centres that were responsible for producing the literary sources that form our primary evidence for the events of this period. In 772, the Frankish ruler Charlemagne (who in 800 would be anointed as Holy Roman Emperor) invaded pagan Saxony, which had previously acted as a buffer between Denmark and the Frankish expansion. Now, for the first time, the Danes and the Franks shared a border. References to the Danes in Frankish literature intensified shortly afterwards. As a result, we have a much clearer picture of the Danish kingdoms in the ninth century than we do for Norway or Sweden.

When historians talk about ‘medieval Denmark’, the territory they envision differs somewhat from the modern country’s political boundaries. Firstly, it extends much further south. The southern border of the Danish lands was marked by an impressive series of fortifications known as the Danevirke, which consisted of ditches, earth banks and palisades. The Danevirke, the earliest form of which dates back to the mid-600s, is located close to the modern city of Schleswig, which is now part of Germany. Secondly, the medieval Danish territory also stretched further north and east than is now the case. In the Viking Age, the Danish territory encompassed Skåne, the southernmost region of what is now Sweden, and stretched north along the Swedish coast to include Viken, the area that surrounds the Oslofjord in modern Norway. However, when we hear Frankish sources describing the lands of the Danes, it is very difficult to know whether they were referring to the entire territory just described, or whether it just applied to individual petty kingdoms within that area—especially those that shared a border with the Franks.

What's in a name: The March of the Danes

The origin of the term ‘Dane’ is unclear. It begins to appear in Latin sources as ‘Dani’ before the Viking Age, but most scholars believe that it was originally a native Scandinavian term. In most of its appearances in Viking Age literature, the term was used generically to refer to all Scandinavians. Only when Old Norse sources begin to appear do we get a clear sense of the distinction between Danes, Swedes and Norwegians. In British discussions of the medieval period, Vikings were referred to as Danes, no matter where in Scandinavia they had come from, up until the Victorian Era.

 

The name ‘Denmark’ means ‘the March of the Danes’. A ‘march’ in this instance refers to a forest or a borderland. In the case of Denmark, it is likely that the sense of ‘borderland’ is intended. Nevertheless, historians have not always agreed what this ‘borderland of the Danes’ refers to. Some suggest that the name originally referred to the Danish lands that lay along the eastern coast of modern Sweden, as this was the edge (or border) of the Danish territory. This theory suggests that there were once several different petty kingdoms within the Danish territory. In the tenth century, these kingdoms were united by the marriage of King Gorm, a petty ruler in Jutland, and Thyrvi, a princess from ‘Denmark’. Their son, Harald Bluetooth, became the king of both territories, and over the next century the name ‘Denmark’ came to apply to the entire kingdom.

 

Alternatively, the name ‘Denmark’ may have originated with the Franks in reference to the border they shared with the Danes. This interpretation has some support as Frankish documents will often refer to their borders by the name of the people that lived along them.

 

If this was the case, then eventually the Danes themselves accepted the Frankish name for their territory as their own. Which do you think is more convincing?