Alternate history: what if the Vikings had never left their homelands?

Viking influence spread from the Byzantine empire in the east to across the Atlantic Ocean, not just as raiders but as traders, explorers and kings. Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Judith Jesch about how the Vikings left their mark on everything from politics and culture to exploration and language

A manuscript illumination dated c1100 depicting Viking warriors sailing towards Brittany

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Judith Jesch about what might have happened had the peoples of Scandinavia never sailed to, and settled in, other lands…

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What if the famed and feared seafaring folk of Scandinavia had simply decided to remain at home, coping with the harsh conditions and content with lives spent fishing? Perhaps the Vikings might have never mastered the art of shipbuilding, which allowed them to take to the open sea and navigate to lands beyond the horizon. Or they found another outlet for their proclivities to raid and pillage. There would have been no Viking Age.

The ramifications on world history are, simply, unknowable. From the raid on Lindisfarne in AD 793 – the event often cited as the start of the Viking Age – the movements of the people of Norway, Denmark and Sweden defined the early medieval world.

They were not only the warriors of their bloodthirsty reputation, but ruled as kings, grew wealthy through trade, and became the greatest explorers of the age. Their influence touched all areas of life, from politics to town planning and culture to language, and can still be felt today.

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Besides, a whole host of circumstances had to be different to prevent the Vikings from venturing overseas in the first place. “They needed not to have had previous contact with cultures around them, which gave them knowledge of opportunities there, and no wealthy and ostentatious upper class keen on gaining more wealth through plunder and trade,” says Judith Jesch, professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham.

“And they needed not to have been human, adventurous and curious, since migration and movement are pretty much constants in human history.”

All of that depended, however, on the Vikings’ skill for shipbuilding. Take that away and they may well have never attempted to sail over the sea to the English coast.

They needed not to have been human, adventurous and curious, since migration and movement are pretty much constants in human history
Professor Judith Jesch

As well as the effects on populations, culture, religion and language, the migration from Scandinavia helped bring the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England together against their common enemy. Alfred the Great’s victory over the Viking Great Army in AD 878 helped lay the foundations of the united England achieved by his grandson Aethelstan in the AD 920s. With no Vikings, would unification have been hindered or come about sooner?

“My hunch is probably neither. Processes of political unification and division on this island seem to be regular occurrences,” explains Jesch. “The Vikings may have given one group an opportunity to influence these processes in a particular way, but without them other factors might have given different groups different opportunities. The long-term developments might not have changed.”

In context: the Viking Age

The name ‘Viking’ refers to the waves of Scandinavians from modern-day Norway, Denmark and Sweden who sailed across the seas from the late-eighth century to 1066, and beyond. They neither called themselves by that name nor were they a distinct ethnic and social group, but the Viking Age changed the known world of the early medieval period.

Their voyages saw Scandinavian influence spread from the Byzantine empire in the east to across the Atlantic Ocean, where they discovered new territory such as Iceland, Greenland and North America.

The impact of the Vikings on the societies they encountered was monumental: they attacked and pillaged; established trading networks; transformed political systems and founded settlements. The English language also owes a significant debt to Old Norse.

Yet a clear change in English history would have been the absence of the Danelaw, the region colonised and controlled by the Danes where their culture took root and a line of Viking kings ruled, including the powerful Cnut of Northumbria. The other unions against Viking invaders that formed in Scotland, between the Picts and Scots, and Ireland, when Brian Boru rose to be High-King in 1002, would have also been lost or at least been much altered.


Listen: Dr Ben Raffield considers what the Danelaw actually was, and how Scandinavian settlers interacted with the early English kingdoms


Across Europe, the Vikings made their presence known, both with attacks on cities like Paris and in trading. “They extended trade routes, notably linking places as diverse as the North Atlantic, the far north of Scandinavia, and the eastern routes through what is now Russia to Constantinople and further, as well as intense activities around the Baltic and North Sea,” says Jesch. Trade would obviously have continued without the Vikings, but at a loss in variety of goods and geographical scope.

Influence of the Viking diaspora

The Duchy of Normandy in northern France may not have come into being, too. The ‘Land of the Northmen’ was established in AD 911 and first ruled by a Viking named Rollo in the aftermath of his attacks on Paris and Chartres. This meant that the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 could be seen as a Viking invasion, so if there had been no Vikings then there may well have been no William the Conqueror and no battle of Hastings.

While that may be a more outlandish speculation, it is certainly true that the histories of Iceland and Greenland would diverge greatly without the Vikings there to discover them. The former was permanently settled around AD 874 by Norwegian voyager Ingólfr Arnarson, and the latter first reached a century later by Erik the Red. The two islands would have gone on waiting for another group of great explorers with sturdy seaworthy ships.

“The Viking diaspora is a major theme in medieval Icelandic literature: old sagas and poetry forming a body of literature that is remarkable for its size and quality for such a small nation. This literary development is unlikely to have happened,” adds Jesch.

In fact, the entire range of Viking art forms that were adopted and adapted would be lost, including the export of runic writing. Although, it must be remembered that without Viking raids on monasteries like Lindisfarne, many precious Anglo-Saxon artefacts and manuscripts would have likely survived.

Perhaps the Vikings’ most enduring impact on the societies they met was language, the effect of which is global, says Jesch. The Scandinavian influence on English alone can still be seen today in many words “as well as many place names in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere, some of which were exported to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand”.

If the Vikings had never sailed overseas, English, and other languages, would not look and sound the same. Thursday – or Thor’s day – would not be Thursday for a start.

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_

Judith Jesch is professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham and a Fellow of the British Academy. Her publications include The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, 2015)

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This content first appeared in the July 2021 edition of BBC History Revealed