The Supply Curve of Viking Raids

The new exhibition on the Vikings at the British Museum illustrates behavior along supply curves.  The local Anglo-Saxons decided that the best way to keep Viking raiders at bay was to buy them off—to pay tribute.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this extra payoff merely induced a movement up the supply curve of Viking raids, as more raiding parties realized that there was money to be made by raiding English villages. Perhaps this is a lesson for modernity: don’t negotiate with terrorists!


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  1. Enter your name... says:

    What? No reference to Kipling’s poem from 1919?

    A.D. 980-1016

    It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
    To call upon a neighbour and to say: —
    “We invaded you last night—we are quite prepared to fight,
    Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

    And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
    And the people who ask it explain
    That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
    And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

    It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
    To puff and look important and to say: —
    “Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
    We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

    And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
    But we’ve proved it again and again,
    That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
    You never get rid of the Dane.

    It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
    For fear they should succumb and go astray;
    So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
    You will find it better policy to say: —

    “We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
    No matter how trifling the cost;
    For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
    And the nation that pays it is lost!”

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  2. Shane L says:

    I wonder if there is a difference, though, between paying off a state and paying off disparate non-state tribes and bands.

    Presumably the English could only pay individual small Viking raider groups not to attack. Once word got back to other Viking groups, not covered by the agreement, they attacked too in order to get in on the action. But if the Norse had been all ruled by a powerful central state then it could have made a single agreement to accept tribute in exchange for peace, and then police its own warriors. Still not necessarily a clever strategy in the long-run, but such a tactic could buy the English time to consolidate and prepare for future war.

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  3. bob says:

    Wow, more Anglo coins were in Scandinavia than England. Those are some raids.

    To tie this into video games, I think this is one part where the Civilization 5 designers got it spot-on: the unique ability of the Danish civilization. In the Medieval Era the Danish play essentially as vikings, letting you do coastal raids of enemy settlements, pillage their land and come away with lots of gold.

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    • edel says:

      Actually it is rather normal finding more of those coins abroad since locally they will convert them whenever they can when the appear of new currency.

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  4. James says:

    For a modern instance, we need look no further than Somali piracy. One successful raid, with the ‘Somali-geld’ paid not by a nation, but by a shipping company’s insurer, inspires hordes of imitators.

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    • edel says:

      And not just imitators, I am very sure negotiators, specially from certain nations, get its own share of the ransom since amounts are never disclosed and come from barely unaccounted budgets.

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    • Oliver H says:

      Those “hordes” make precious little money. The money goes to other people. Those hordes just want to make a living. Problem is that in a failed state, no one is going to enforce fisheries rules and a single factory trawler can ruin an entire coastline of small time fishermen. So what to do? Well, they have boats, and they have a hatred at foreign ships. Want to make some money? Hand them some guns and tell them to take over foreign ships and you’re going to make them “rich”. Which doesn’t mean much, given their standards.

      Besides, this has little in common with the Vikings. Unless you can show that your “hordes” are using the money to stage a hostile takeover bid for those shipping companies to run them themselves – because that’s pretty much what the Danes did.

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  5. Oliver H says:

    Assuming that people in the viking age were abject idiots does not seem to me a particularly credible basis for a hypothesis. In fact, it seems they had more economic sense than the author. They bought the vikings off when that was the cheaper solution and fought them when that was the cheaper solution.

    As a non-English example, when the Carolingians were campaigning in Italy, or fighting each other, diverting troops all the way to the north sea and channel coast would have been a pretty poor idea. The vikings were quick and by the time, the troops were there, they would likely be gone, but the troops would be missing at the gates of Pavia or at Fontenay, risking defeat. So it is more sensible to give the Vikings some cash and send them on their way, thereby preserving defensive infrastructure for another situation where you could afford to fight them.

    The situation in England was even more dire: With various rivalling kingdoms, actually engaging the Vikings would have meant providing an oppportunity for one’s neighbour to attack and be ground to dust between two enemies. As it stands, the eventual conquest of part of England suggests, rather than simply talking about Vikings moving up the supply chain, that a long-term military opposition was doomed. Such would have only been possible with a united England which did not have to fear invasion from all sides. But even so, despite Alfred the Great’s effort, renewed invasion by the Danes was successful.

    This isn’t an issue of anyone moving up the supply chain but of an eventual formation of territorial kingdoms, not just in England but also in Scandinavia, and an eventual conquest of England by Denmark.

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    • James says:

      Why should we not assume that many people in the Viking Age were in fact abject idiots? We certainly find many abject idiots in positions of power today, and human nature hasn’t changed that much in a mere thousand years or so.

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      • Oliver H says:


        Yes, we find many abject idiots. But we don’t find ONLY abject idiots. And believing that leaders in all sorts of nations, even those generally seen to be capable statesmen, are all abject idiots is not a sound premise. The probability that independent entities develop the same idiocy and ONLY that idiocy is, to say the least, slim.

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      • James says:

        Err… Where exactly do we find national leaders “generally seen to be capable statesmen”? Haven’t noticed any myself.

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    • Tarrou says:

      No one assumes that all the anglos were idiots (although some certainly were). They were as rational a people as we are. But paying the danegeld can be rational on a local level, while completely irrational on a national level. This is the same as the situation in Somalia, where it is cost-effective for individual shipping companies to pay ransom, but irrational for them all to do so. The village on the seaside has to balance some large amount of money against the destruction of their whole world. They have no bonds with the village two hundred miles away which may be the site of the next raid. It is rational for them to pay off whoever shows up and hope the odds and the weather blow the next wave of invaders to someone else’s village. It is only from the national level that this becomes irrational. This is known as a tragedy of the commons, where each person’s use of a common resource damages the whole. In this case the resource is political will.

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  6. Voice of Reason says:

    It’s interesting how we can draw modern parallels to these situations. An obvious one is the Samali pirate catastrophes. Basically, where companies have found the loophole that’s it’s cheaper to pay them off than to stage rescues or adequately arm the ships to begin with, while the industry as a whole and their home countries pay the price. It’s also seen with our illegal immigration crisis. For decades we’ve turned a blind eye on it, and now that it’s a problem, no politician wants to dare come out in favor of taking prudent actions to deport them, and making themselves lose out on a valuable voting bloc.

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  7. Jason says:

    Its easy to poo poo the saxons, but aren’t we (the West) paying off Russia with Crimea? But it should all turn out ok now because they their lebensraum right? If not I am sure a few more travel bans will do the trick handsomely.

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  8. Hestia says:

    Terrorists, gangs, and politicians..
    Extortion’s cousins.

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