Viking Expansion Northwards: Mediaeval Sources


  • Tette Hofstra
  • Kees Samplonius



Archaeology, Archives, Exploration, History, Human migration, Hunting, Legends, Norse, Research, Saami, Sailing directions, Trade and barter, Whaling, Beloye More, Jan Mayen, Russian Federation, Svalbard


Evidence for Scandinavian activities in the northwestern part of the Barents Sea is scanty; according to the Annals, Svalbard (i) was discovered in 1194, but the entry refers to Jan Mayen rather than present-day Svalbard/Spitsbergen. By contrast, the southern fringe of the Barents Sea was more than once crossed by Vikings on their way to Bjarmaland (Russia) in the White Sea area. As early as the end of the ninth century, an Old English source tells of a Norse expedition to that area and Old Norse sources indicate the existence of trade links back to the tenth century, possible even earlier. The commodities traded and levied were tusks, precious furs and skins. The trade, also with the nearby Sami, was controlled by Norse chieftains living on the coast south of Tromso, who competed for power with the kings of Norway. Both kings and chieftains were involved in the Bjarmaland expeditions, as can be seen from historical sources and from fiction. A final expedition took place in 1222. The trips to Bjarmaland did not lead to correct ideas about the geography of the Barents Sea area as a whole. Firm knowledge was limited, leaving room for superstition and learned speculations, such as a land-bridge to Greenland and a race of arctic giants, thought to live somewhere north of Bjarmaland. As to the Barents Sea proper, the sources reflect problems with sailing.

Key words: Middle Ages, White Sea, Bjarmaland, Russia, Vikings, Norse, Sami, trade, superstition