This article was first published in the April 2012 edition of BBC History Magazine
Situated at the narrow end of the Jutland peninsula, Hedeby lies within close reach of the Baltic and, by way of Hollingstedt, provides easy access to Frisia, western Europe and the North Sea. Tie up that goat. Leave the harvest to your thralls. Come and experience the busiest, most cosmopolitan town in Scandinavia! Whatever you’re looking for you’ll find it in the Viking world’s marketplace.
When to go
Come in June when it’s pleasantly warm with little rain. August is the wettest month of the year, and forget winter, especially January and February, unless you enjoy being colder than a well-digger’s backside. The summer solstice celebration on 21 June is a must. But do be warned – the folk of Hedeby know how to party like it’s 999!
Most folk don’t live beyond 30 or 40 years. But when you’re having so much fun, who cares, right?
What to take with you
Any self-respecting Viking heeds the Hávamál poem’s wise counsel: “Never walk away from home ahead of your axe and sword. You can’t feel a battle in your bones or foresee a fight.” Hedeby is a tolerant, multicultural town, but some of the Norwegians and Swedes fresh off the (dragon) boat develop a thirst for the strong Frankish wine that flows into the town.
Drunken brawls are not uncommon, so you’ll want the means to defend yourself. Bring plenty of hack-silver, too, as wine isn’t the only Frankish import to excite. Treat yourself to a new sword made of flexible, fine-quality Frankish steel to replace that old one that refuses to bite through your enemies’ mail and which you keep having to straighten under your foot in the middle of battle.
Costs & money
Hedeby’s inhabitants rely on craftwork and trade, rather than on farming. This means that competition is fierce and you can pick up a bargain if you’re prepared to barter like a Berber. It’s not for nothing that Hedeby is known as the most important emporium in Scandinavia!
Sights and activities
Visit the craftsmen’s quarter to watch the potters and weavers, the jewellers and workers in bone and horn ply their skills. A decorated reindeer antler comb would make a perfect gift for a wife or girlfriend, or both! A visit to Hedeby’s mint, the first in all of Scandinavia, is a must. A shiny, newly struck silver penny is bound to impress the folk back home.
If you want a really unique experience, why not get baptised? Submitting to prima signatio (a ceremony of provisional baptism) will help grease the wheels of trade with Hedeby’s many Christians. When you get home, you can always sacrifice a goat to Odin to show you still hold him in high esteem.
Dangers and annoyances
Being a busy, prosperous place has its disadvantages and visitors should be prepared to share what little space there is. Hedeby’s wooden, reed-thatched houses are packed tightly among workshops, warehouses, storage-sheds, stables and barns.
A recent visitor, Al-Tartushi, an Arab merchant from Cordoba, called Hedeby “a very large town at the extreme end of the world ocean” and was not impressed with the place. He said it’s barbaric, filthy and noisy. He was particularly scathing about the inhabitants’ singing, describing it as “like a growl coming out of their throats, like the barking of dogs, only much more beastly”.
While Hedeby may lack the elegance and splendour of Cordoba, you don’t come here for all that. You come for the hustle-bustle. And the slaves.
Founded by royal command of King Godfred of Denmark in 808, Hedeby’s layout was carefully controlled, the streets running at right angles to the Hedeby Stream, and parallel to the shore of the Haddeby Noor (the enclosed spur of the Schlei Fjord on which it sits).
While most of the 60 acres enclosed between rampart and sea are built up, to the west of the settlement you’ll find areas of heath left open for visitors to pitch their tents.
If you do come in winter you’ll want a roof over your head and to share the body heat in one of the crowded, fug-filled mead halls down by the shore. You’ll find floor space, a warm fur and a willing companion (for a price), but be warned – body heat might not be all you’ll be sharing. Disease is rife in Hedeby and most folk don’t live beyond 30 or 40 years. But when you’re having so much fun, who cares, right?
If you enjoy fish (particularly herring and wind-dried cod – ‘stockfish’) you will love Hedeby. Although, with visiting merchants from as far afield as the Mediterranean and the Middle East, you’ll even find exotic fruits such as figs and grapes.
Glassware from the Rhine, soapstone dishes from Norway, hides from the far north of Scandinavia and the eastern verges of the Baltic, jewellery, textiles, beautiful metalwork, luxury domestic wares, and slaves from Russia… whatever you’re looking for you’ll find it here.
A stout pair of shoes is all you’ll need to get around. The semi-circular rampart (30 feet high in some places) that bounds Hedeby is about two-thirds of a mile long, so you could walk the length of it in no time. Not that you’d want to. Better to stick to either of the two main streets which are planked to keep you out of the mud.
Giles Kristian is a historical novelist, author of the Raven series set in the Viking era. His latest book The Bleeding Land is about to be published by Bantam Press
Things are a bit quieter today – Hedeby was lost to the fires of destruction in the 11th century. What remains of the town is a major archaeological museum (www.schloss-gottorf.de/haithabu), situated on the opposite side of the Schlei inlet from the town of Schleswig in Germany. That city’s prominent cathedral shows who won the religious contest for hearts and minds that was going on in the 10th century. Those surprised to find that this Viking settlement is not located in today’s Denmark have the Second Schleswig War (1864) and the area’s subsequent annexation into the Kingdom of Prussia to thank.
British tourists don’t venture here much but Germans certainly do, mainly to spend summers braving the North Sea winds on the superb beaches found along the Schleswig-Holstein coast. A visit here can be combined with trips to other historic German towns and cities in the region, from bustling Hamburg to the Hanseatic port of Lübeck.
Alternatively, you could continue north into Denmark, to Jutland where several more Viking sites await. Among the highlights are the Viking museum in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town, and the reconstructed open-air Viking settlement at Moesgård museum south of the interesting city of Aarhus.
If you like this…
If you’re after a Viking settlement closer to home, try York and in particular the Yorvik Viking Centre. For another undiscovered corner of Europe rich in history from this time, visit Oslo where there is a Viking Ship Museum.
Tom Hall, editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of Tom’s articles at the website.