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.