We know from archaeology and other fields of study that the Viking period saw the establishment of towns and cities that survive to this day, or the development and growth of existing urban centres within the Viking world.
While “town planning” would probably not be the first thing to come to mind as an activity associated with Vikings, development sometimes followed highly organised patterns – as at York in England, a city whose Anglo-Scandinavian levels have been extensively studied by archaeologists since the 1970s. Here a picture emerges of identical plots set out at regular intervals along the city’s streets: plots whose dimensions survived into the later medieval period and beyond.
The Vikings captured York from the Northumbrians, but elsewhere they established new settlements: Waterford in Ireland is one such example. Dublin and Cork also became populous trading centres in the Viking period; their one-room, wattle-and-daub housing with thatched roofs, connected via wattle pathways, closely resembled that of York and other Viking settlements.
The environment within these urban locations would have been dirty and unpleasant by modern standards, with rubbish and cess pits attracting flies, and producing a strong odour which mingled with the wood smoke and other fumes produced by homes and workshops.
The establishment of towns within the Vikings’ trade networks overseas went hand in hand with the development of towns in their Scandinavian homelands. There were four urban centres in the early part of the Viking period: Birka (Sweden); Ribe (Denmark); Kaupang (Norway); and Hedeby (Germany).
Like the English and Irish examples mentioned above, these were permanent settlements whose residents engaged full time in craft and trade, as opposed to the farming that had occupied their ancestors (and that continued to occupy the vast majority of their contemporaries in early medieval Europe). These towns have been recognised as being of fundamental importance in the rise of the kingdoms of Scandinavia, as well as in the development of trade, legislation and craft technologies.