The Influence of Climate

The greatest, and for general history the most important, memorials of
the Scandinavian people are connected, as is well known, with the
expeditions of the Normans, and with the Thirty Years’ War.

In the Norman expeditions the North, mighty in its heathenism, poured
forth towards the east, the west, and the south, its numerous warriors
and shrewd men, who subverted old kingdoms, and founded new and powerful
ones in their place. It was by Danish and Norwegian fleets that Normandy
and England were then conquered, and kingdoms won in Scotland, Ireland,
and North Holland; whilst Norwegians settled on the Faroe Islands
(_Dan._, Faröerne), and discovered and colonized Iceland. Hence their
descendants, having afterwards passed over to Greenland, discovered
America, and were in the habit of navigating the Atlantic Ocean
centuries before other European nations.

In all these voyages proportionally few Swedes took part. Inscriptions
on runic stones in Sweden sometimes speak, indeed, of men who had
settled or met their death in the west over in England (Anklant or
Inklant). But on the whole the views of the Swedes were at that time, as
well as at a later period, mostly directed towards the east. Swedish
Vikings, or pirates, harried and established themselves upon the coasts
of Finland and of the countries now belonging to Russia; and a tribe of
them, the Varæger, even made themselves there the reigning people.
Partly in consequence of this, Sweden—and particularly the Island of
Gothland, or Gulland—became the centre of the active trade which in
ancient times (that is, from the eighth to the twelfth century,) was
carried on, through Russia, between Scandinavia and the countries around
the Black and Caspian Seas, as well as Arabia.

The Swedes, however, do not appear very prominently either in ancient
times or in the early part of the middle ages. They were prevented from
playing any considerable part in the distant lands towards the West by
the sanguinary intestine disputes which took place between them and the
Goths; and it was not till the fifteenth century, and after these
disputes were adjusted, that they could appear upon the theatre of the
world as a nation. The Swedish Charleses and Gustavuses, by means of the
sword, subsequently caused the Swedish name to be feared and honoured;
not, however, at sea, but on land, on the plains of Russia, Poland, and
Germany. Gustavus Adolphus, in the Thirty Years’ War, after the disaster
of the Danish-Norwegian king Christian IV., powerfully contributed to
uphold Lutheranism, and by that means to establish liberty of conscience
for Germany and the rest of Europe.

_It was, then, principally at sea that the Danes and Norwegians formerly
won a name in the history of the world, whilst the Swedes obtained
theirs on land._ Indeed, the peculiar nature and situation of the
different Scandinavian countries must have necessarily caused the
strength and courage which were the common attributes of the
Scandinavian race, to be exerted from the first in different directions.
Sweden, which towards the west is separated from Denmark only by the
Sound and Cattegat, is in like manner towards the east separated from
the vast plains of northern Europe by a confined and narrow sea. When,
therefore, the thirst of glory and conquest urged the Swedish warriors
from their homes, it was only necessary for them to cross over to the
opposite shores, or at most to sail along the coasts of the Baltic. In
Sweden, forests, valleys, and rivers, are the most prominent natural
features, whilst the sea is but a subordinate one. It is scarcely to be
expected that such a country should produce good seamen. But in Denmark
and Norway the case is altogether different.

Denmark is surrounded on all sides by the sea, which has indented the
land with numberless bays and firths, and cut it up into small portions.
Nor is it washed only by a confined sea like the Baltic, but also by the
more open German Ocean. From the earliest times, therefore, necessity
obliged the Dane to put to sea in order to keep up his connections with
his friends on the surrounding coasts and islands. Subsequently—when
commerce, and more especially when military honour, required it—he was
compelled to learn how to navigate the open sea, to struggle with the
foaming waves and rapid currents, and to defy the surf—which is still
the constant terror of seamen—on the coasts of north and west Jutland.

Thus the Dane early became a bold and daring Viking, and the Norwegian
distinguished himself in the same manner. Norway turns her broad and
rocky bosom towards the ocean. Her wild and broken coasts, split into
deep fiords, or gulfs, bear witness to the never-ceasing and violent
attacks of the Atlantic. Towards the east, Norway is separated from
Sweden by rocks, forests, and large desert plains. The interior of the
country is partly filled with mountains and immense forests, which
anciently were still more extensive. The valleys alone, along the banks
of rivers, are productive, and capable of cultivation. The greater part
of the inhabitants settled therefore originally on the fiords, or in the
neighbourhood of the sea, where the pasture land was neither so over
grown with wood, nor so sequestered as in the interior, and where also
the sea air rendered the climate considerably milder. The weather,
however, was variable enough, and the products of the earth being,
partly on that account, but scanty, fishing and the chase became
important sources of maintenance for the continually-increasing
population. The forests supplied them with abundance of timber, the soil
was rich in iron; nor were the people wanting in a daring and
enterprising spirit. Ships were soon built, capable not only of
navigating the fiords, but of venturing beyond their mouths. The first
voyages were coasting ones, but subsequently they were extended from the
southern part of Norway to the Danish and Swedish shores.

The Norwegian, who had now become skilled in navigating his ship through
the mountain waves of the Atlantic and the far more dangerous surfs on
the rocks of Norway, no longer dreaded the open sea. When the population
had increased to such an extent that the Norwegian rocks could barely
afford it a sufficient maintenance; when the reports concerning the rich
lands beyond the sea, and their defenceless condition, promised at once
renown and booty; and when, lastly, Harald Haarfager’s conquests
threatened the Norwegians with the loss of their freedom—then thousands
of vessels shot out from the fiords of Norway, and steered dauntlessly
for the neighbouring western islands. A northern life, and the severe
winter’s cold, had not only braced the body of the Viking to endure all
kinds of hardships, and given him strength to wield the sword with
effect; it had also steeled his courage, and taught him fearlessly to
face all manner of danger. The clear starry firmament of the North
enabled him to observe the course and relative situation of the stars,
which were then the only compass by which he steered his ship towards
foreign and unknown shores.

Norway must naturally be better calculated to form hardy persevering
sailors than Denmark. With the exception of the west coast of Jutland,
where there is not a good harbour to be found, and where, consequently,
navigation must, in ancient times, have been very limited, Denmark is
washed by an enclosed sea with flat coasts. The ocean, on the contrary,
washes almost the whole of Norway’s rocky shores; where the numerous and
deeply-indented fiords resemble so many harbours. There are sufficient
indications that anciently the Danes were accustomed to visit only the
comparatively neighbouring countries of England, Holland, and France;
whilst the Norwegians sailed also towards the north on the wide
Atlantic, whose storms and dangers did not prevent them from constantly
visiting the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and even America. The
discovery and first colonization of these countries are, with just
reason, the pride of the Norwegians and of their descendants the

A comparison with other European nations will more clearly show how
great an influence the climate of the North, and especially the Northern
Sea, must have had on the development of navigation among the Danes and
Norwegians, and on their whole maritime life. With the exception of
England, which, in a still higher degree than Scandinavia, swims in the
open sea, and of Holland, which lies as it were half under water, no
country in Europe has produced a seafaring people which can be at all
compared to the Northmen; and this notwithstanding that Germany, France,
and the Spanish Peninsula, have all a very considerable extent of coast.
The reason undoubtedly is, that the coasts of those countries are washed
by enclosed seas, which naturally cannot be compared with the ocean;
whilst the countries themselves, especially Germany and France—and the
latter even in spite of its extent of coast towards the Atlantic—have an
unmistakeable continental character. It is clear, moreover, that the
ocean, as well as the smaller and enclosed seas, have, according to the
difference of latitude, an entirely different influence on the people
who inhabit their shores. The Mediterranean, surrounded by rich and
fruitful, but enervating, countries, has not shown itself capable of
producing such seamen as the Baltic, where the climate is more severe,
and the gifts of Nature incomparably more sparing. Spain and Portugal,
it is true, have a great extent of coast towards the Atlantic, which may
almost be compared with the west coast of Norway. But both those
countries possess a fruitful soil and a glorious southern climate. Their
inhabitants were not, like the Northmen of old, forced to visit foreign
shores in order to procure subsistence, and to struggle continually with
a raw and severe climate. They preferred to stay at home and enjoy the
blessings of their own country; and thus the calm energy and the proud
self-reliance which are engendered by a ceaseless struggle with an
ungrateful soil and climate, and which are indispensable to a hardy
seaman, were not developed in them as in the Norwegians and other
inhabitants of the North. This may have been one of the causes why the
Spaniards and Portuguese were unable to retain, in later times, their
mastery over the new world. They were displaced by the English, a
northern seafaring people, who were more at home on the sea.

It was the same quiet energy which, even amid the excitement of passion,
so strongly distinguished the northern from the southern races. The
inhabitant of the South was more governed, as he now is, by his
passions. A torrent of words, an animated play of the features, or even
perhaps a violent assault, betrayed the fire that raged within him. The
northern man, on the contrary, was of few words. His anger was under the
dominion of his cooler reason, and he was capable of concealing the
emotions of his soul. But he had a good memory. Years would pass before
he revenged himself; and he felt a sort of pleasure in making his
preparations, and waiting for the proper opportunity. The revenge of
blood, therefore, took place in the cold North, as well as in the fiery
South: but in the totally different manner in which it manifested itself
we can hardly fail to recognise the influence of Nature.

It must, however, be borne in mind that in every nation, except those
situated at the Poles or under the Line, where Nature exerts an almost
irresistible and overwhelming force, this influence manifests itself
very differently, according to their different degrees of development.
In the infancy of a people, and so long as their immediate wants render
them entirely dependent on Nature, whose unexplained phenomena appear to
them as those of some foreign and unknown power, her influence on their
life is naturally strongest. The effect is the same as that which
education and the companions with whom he associates produce on an
individual. But as nations gradually become more enlightened and
refined, they obtain a mastery over Nature, whose influence thus grows
weaker and weaker, and at last almost vanishes. It is, indeed, one of
the most marked steps in the progress of human development, when man
becomes Nature’s master, and makes her obedient to his power. Thus when
Englishmen, Frenchmen, and others who belong to a people of defined
character and perfectly-developed nationality, settle in foreign parts,
the influence of Nature, even at the Poles, or under the Line, is
scarcely strong enough to produce any great change in their character.
And upon the whole, to whatever degree civilization may be carried, most
nations will never entirely lose that character which Nature has
impressed upon them in the lands which gave them birth.

The influence of Nature upon the Scandinavian people may be traced
throughout their history, even down to the present times. In their
sanguinary internal wars, the Danes and Norwegians generally gained the
victory over the Swedes at sea. Under able leaders they have sometimes
been victorious on land also; but here the Swedes have in general been
superior. Christian IV. made no progress in the Thirty Years’ War. On
that occasion he proved himself inferior to Gustavus Adolphus, who, when
fighting on land, was in his true element. At sea, on the other hand,
Christian IV. signally defeated the Swedish fleet. The chief heroes of
the Swedish nation, and those who live most in the memory of the people,
are, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles X., and particularly Charles XII.;
although that monarch, by his rash wars in Russia, Poland, and Germany,
inflicted deep wounds upon Sweden, which took a long time to heal. But
the favourite heroes of the Danes and Norwegians are seamen; as
Christian IV., Niels Juel, Hvitfeld, and especially Tordenskjold, who,
singularly enough, was contemporary with Charles XII. The difference
between the people is clearly expressed in the opening lines of two of
the most favourite national songs. The Danish—formerly the Norwegian
also—runs thus:

“Kong Christian stod ved höien Mast
I Rög og Damp,”

(“King Christian stood by the high mast, enveloped in mist and smoke”),
where there is an allusion to a fight at sea. But the Swedish lines,

“Kung Karl den unge hjelte
Han stod i rök och dam,”

(“King Charles the young hero, stood in smoke and dust”), allude to
battle and victory on land. Even to the present day it may with good
reason be asserted that the Danes and Norwegians feel more inclination
than the Swedes for a seafaring life. But as the battle in Copenhagen
Roads (April 2, 1801) maintained the ancient reputation of the Danes at
sea, so also recent events have shown, that both the Danes and
Norwegians of the present day can fight on land with distinguished

Russia, Poland, and particularly Germany, were, as we have seen, the
theatre of the greatest victories of Sweden. The glory of Denmark and
Norway, on the contrary, was founded in the West, over the sea, in
America, Iceland, the British Isles, and France. Denmark’s conquests of
the southern and eastern coasts of the Baltic in the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries, under the Waldemars, terminate, however, the times
of the Vikings. The victories of Sweden are of a modern date, and since
the last two centuries; but those of Denmark are of the ninth, tenth,
eleventh, and twelfth centuries. The remembrance of the Swedish
sabre-cut yet remains fresh among the Russians, Poles, and Germans; nay,
in some places, the Swedish name is still a terror to the common people.

It is often made a subject of complaint against the great achievements
of Denmark and Norway that they are of such remote antiquity; and that,
instead of promoting the freedom and spiritual advancement of mankind,
like Sweden’s struggles in the Thirty Years’ War, they rather caused an
immense retrograde step in civilization, since the heathen Vikings acted
with unbridled ferocity, burnt and destroyed churches and convents, and
rudely trampled upon everything that bore the mark of a higher
intellectual development. Thus foreigners, and particularly the German
historians, usually assert, for instance, that the Danish and Norwegian
Vikings brought nothing but misfortune upon the British Isles; whilst,
on the contrary, everything great and good in England is mainly
attributable to the Saxons, or Germans. This, however, is not to be
wondered at, since these critics were obliged to judge of situations for
whose right estimation they were entirely without the necessary
knowledge, namely, that of the more ancient history of the North.

It would certainly not be gratifying to the national feelings of the
Danes and Norwegians if the progress and settlements of the Vikings in
foreign lands were marked only by acts of violence, murder, and
incendiarism. Nor would it be a whit more pleasing or refreshing if it
were necessary to dig up as it were out of the earth the memorials of
those deeds, after they had lain for centuries in oblivion, or if we
were obliged carefully to revive them and procure their acknowledgment
in the countries which were once compelled to bow before the power of
the northern warriors.

But what if the Danish name, and the remembrance of the exploits of the
Danes and Norwegians, in spite of the many centuries that have passed
since they were performed, still live as fresh in the memory of the
people of the western lands as the Swedish name in Germany, nay, perhaps
even fresher? What if we found that, by means of monuments, the popular
character, public institutions, and other traits, a constant powerful
and beneficial influence could be traced from the expeditions of the
Vikings or Northmen, so that the natives of the lands which they subdued
accounted it an honour to descend from the bold natives of the North?
Would not the Northman in that case have a double right to be proud of
his forefathers? Or would he, upon the whole, any longer have reason to

It is the object of the following pages to convey, partly in the form of
travelling impressions, a picture of the memorials of the Danes and
Norwegians, as they exist in the monuments and among the people of those
countries which in former times most frequently witnessed the victories
of the Danes and Normans—namely, the British Islands. It is, however, by
no means the exclusive, or even special, design of them, to present to
scholars and persons of science detailed and critical observations on
every individual ancient monument in those islands, which may be said to
be of Danish or Norwegian origin. Their aim rather is to describe the
more general, and consequently more appreciable, features of actually
existing Scandinavian monuments; in doing which a distinction will, as
far as possible, be drawn between the Danish and the Norwegian
memorials; and in general between the influence of the Danes in England,
and of the Norwegians in Scotland and Ireland.

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