An overview on the history of the Vikings and of the Viking Age
Origins: Who actually were the Vikings?
Since Ancient times, Scandinavia was the homeland of the Norsemen. The Norsemen (also referred to in many medieval texts as ‘Northmen’) were a congregation of Germanic tribes that initially lived in Northern Europe, specifically in the areas corresponding to the modern day Kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, who primarily engaged in trade, conquered lands, and subsequently established permanent colonies overseas during the early Middle Ages.
Contrary to a popular belief, the Vikings didn’t represent one unified nation. They were initially organised into small earldoms, each ruled by a local earl (jarl). Moreover, the term ‘Viking’ does not denote a people (and as such it is has been on more than one occasion inaccurately associated with all early medieval Scandinavians), but rather a profession.
‘To go a Viking’ meant that a Norseman could set sail on various bodies of water (from open seas and oceans to rivers and even lakes) in search for new lands to farm and subsequently permanently settle on, as well as to trade with the neighbouring civilisations and cultures, ensuring social, political and economic links.
What is the Viking Age and when did it start?
The Viking Age is the syntagm designated for the period of time in early medieval European history when the Norsemen dominated much of Northern and Western Europe.
It is officially documented to have commenced along with the raid that took place on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in 793, located less than one mile off the north-eastern coast of Britain — although there have most likely been other undocumented raids that unfolded on British soil prior to this episode.
From the late 8th century to the mid-late 11th century, the Norsemen came across many lands by extensively traveling along many maritime routes using their dragon carved longboats which are commonly referred as ‘Drakkars’ (called this way because of the dragon heads carved on the bow and stern of the ships).
While some people think that they started raiding and pillaging just out of a cruel or barbarian instinct, it should be mentioned that they initially traded, then attacked. In other words, between the 8th and 11th centuries they have been searching for new lands where they could potentially settle down, partly because of the lack of farming land in native Scandinavia.
Other causes that could presumably explain the exodus of the Norsemen towards new areas would be the overpopulation within the hospitable areas of Scandinavia proper — where their settlements were mainly centred around the coastlines — or the expansion of the Frankish Empire in the south of modern day Denmark.
Eventually, in the wake of all these threats, they had gradually occupied and settled significant parts of Western Europe, founding colonies in the British Isles, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and even for a brief period of time in North America, specifically in Vinland, modern day Newfoundland, Canada, at the round of the 11th century.
In the early medieval chronicles written by the Catholic monks, the Norsemen were described as heathen barbarians who did not hesitate to kill churchmen and loot church holdings, being thus feared by the Christians for their ruthlessness and ferocity.
Nonetheless, the Viking expeditions were not all meant to raid and loot church holdings or to plunder Catholic abbeys for religious reasons, since the Norsemen were remarkable craftsmen, tenacious sailors, and fair traders who were interested to sail the seas to other lands in order to find fertile farming soils, establish permanent settlements and trade with the kingdoms/polities situated in their vicinity, rather than to impose their religion or to deliberately enslave large groups of the indigenous populations.
While the Norsemen did indeed loot numerous abbeys and enslaved most notably the Celtic populations from the British archipelago, they also had a noteworthy contribution on the cultural heritage of some of the contemporary Western European states, such as the United Kingdom or France.
So it was that the Norsemen, alongside their descendants, managed to control — even for a brief period of time — most of the eastern Baltic coast (corresponding to modern day Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), significant parts of continental Russia, Normandy in France (which was founded by Norwegian Viking Rollo), England (where the Danish Vikings established the Danelaw), Sicily as well as southern Italy.
Iceland was spotted by them as early as 825 — yet according to some Icelandic manuscripts and also to several recent studies, it is known that Irish hermit monks have already been there prior to the Norsemen’s arrival — and permanently settled it in 875. After establishing several settlements in Iceland, they decided to travel further westward, colonising southern Greenland in circa 985.
From there, a group of Norsemen led by the renowned Viking explorer Leif Ericsson went on to set foot on North American soil in Newfoundland, Canada. Once there, they came in contact with a group of Native Americans whom they called ‘Skrælings’. A series of local skirmishes between the Scandinavian settlers and the Native Americans forced the newcomers to pull back from Newfoundland quite soon, with a tremendous disadvantage on behalf of the Norse settlers being the lack of their numeric strength.
While mainland Europe is concerned, they commenced to raid and settle the coastal parts of the Baltic Sea throughout the 6th and 7th centuries. As the 8th century was coming to an end, the Norsemen were already making long organised raids down the course of the river Volga, which flows through modern day Russia and Ukraine, building up defensive forts and trading posts along their routes.
One century later, they started to rule the Kievan Rus’ under the leadership of a great Viking chieftain by the name Rurik. Quite soon afterwards, the Swedish Vikings formed the most powerful military unit of the Byzantine Empire, namely the Varangian Guard. This elite caste of warriors was held responsible for the protection of the Byzantine Emperor, but were equally used as mercenaries.
A significant military achievement of the Norsemen during the early 10th century was that they sieged Constantinople. Thus, in the year 907, an amazing force of 2,000 ships embarking as much as 80,000 Varangians led by Olev of Novgorod (also known in Old Norse as ‘Helgi’) attacked the city of Constantinople. The siege didn’t completely succeed, but it was a massive tactic victory for the Rus’.
Witnessing their bravery in battle and their skills on the battlefield, the Emperor of Byzantium at the time, Leo VI the Wise, bought them with important terms of trade. Then, the Byzantines negotiated a peace treaty with the Varangians from the Kievan Rus’, paying them a tribute worth 12 grivnas for each boat with armed men that sieged the walls of Constantinople.
Their voyages to the British archipelago officially started, according to the early medieval documents of the time, in 793, when a group of Norwegian Vikings plundered the Catholic monastery of Lindisfarne (an Irish abbey located less than one mile off the north-eastern coast of England, pertaining at the time to the Kingdom of Northumbria, an early Anglian medieval kingdom). However, there might have been earlier Norse incursions in the south of Britain prior to the raid at Lindisfarne, as mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
During the next few decades, the rate of raids increased in Britain, Ireland, north-western Francia, as well as contemporary northern Germany, to such point where the once relatively insignificant expeditions actually escalated into proper invasions.
The apparition of Viking longships in north-western Francia in the middle of the 9th century represented a major turning point in the region’s history. Under the leadership of Norwegian Viking earl Rollo (born in Møre og Romsdal, western Norway), numerous Norwegian and Danish Vikings (and to a smaller extent also Swedish) defected from raiding the Seine valley and entered vassalage under Charles III the Simple.
Rollo, their Norwegian Viking leader, gave the name of the region as we all know it today, Normandy (French: Normandie), a denomination clearly stemming from the Nordic origin of the newly arrived Scandinavian settlers (from the Old French word ‘normanz’ meaning ‘northman’).
Rollo and his men were given land by the King of Western Francia, Carolus Simplex (or Charles III the Simple), in the region of modern day Normandy, stretching from the Bresle, to the Avre, and perhaps Dives, which today roughly correspond to Upper Normandy. Consequently, they were later known as the Normans — the ones who will subsequently conquer England in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings — and Rollo became the first Count of Rouen.
The demand on behalf of the Carolingian King to Rollo was to convert to Christianity and cease raiding other parts of his kingdom. It must be mentioned that from the Duchy of Normandy a series of renowned warrior leaders emerged, with such prominent historical figures as William the Conqueror, Robert Guiscard along with his family (who conquered Sicily from the Arabs during the late part of the 11th century), as well as Baldwin I, the crusader King of Jerusalem.
In 865, the Danish Vikings massively launched a large scale invasion of England, establishing the Danelaw in most of the western part of it in the process. The Danelaw represented the geographic area controlled by the Danish Vikings in early medieval Britain, where their laws held sway and dominated both the Mercians and the West Saxons.
The King Canute the Great (or Cnut the Great), who ruled Denmark and Norway simultaneously, had overseas possessions such as England. From England, the Norsemen rampaged modern day France, sieging Paris in 871. They besieged Paris for as much as two years when they were eventually bought off with a large amount of gold, silver and other goods, being given permission to start building their own settlements in the northern part of Western Francia (as previously mentioned).
As the 10th century progressed, the Norsemen ceased raiding overseas. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway had each already turned into stronger unified kingdoms. As a direct consequence, the Norse kings were much more interested in strengthening domestic rulership, as well as to provide support to the colonies established in Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, than to encourage the continuity and frequency of the Viking raids.
The subsequent conversion to Christianity weakened the Old Norse polytheistic values, which resulted in the downfall of the Norse religion. Concerning the fate of the other Norsemen who sparsely inhabited parts of Western, Eastern, and Southern Europe, it is known that they were inevitably assimilated in the cultures with which they came in contact. Thus, the Danish Vikings who invaded England were assimilated in the English culture, those who settled Normandy became Normans (and later on French), while those who ruled Kievan Rus’ went on to be assimilated by the Slavic populations.
Lifestyle, trade, and expansion
The inhabitants of Scandinavia had been making their living by herding, farming, and fishing for centuries long before the start of the Viking Age. It is known that significant areas within modern day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were the home of a thriving civilisation which disposed of a notable culture during the Nordic Bronze Age.
Starting as early as the 6th century, the Norsemen commenced trading along the Baltic Sea, voyaging deeper into contemporary Russia along its great rivers. Given a number reasons much debated to these days — which are to be exposed in the next chapter — they suddenly started to strike the coastal areas of Western Europe in the late 8th century.
One of the probable explanations might consist in the fact that they had been interested in the wealth of the coastal villages with a local abbey, which boasted of riches they firstly encountered while they traded.
Their skills in terms of sailing and ship making gave them the power to travel farther — and to a far larger extent quicker — compared to most of the navigators of their time. It was the fast, low-draft longship which allowed them to set sail on oceans, seas, lakes and rivers alike.
According to the descriptions on the classic Viking Age longships which are to be found in the Icelandic sagas, such a vessel had an average length of 100 feet (or 30.48 metres) and average width of 25 feet (or 7.62 metres), being able to carry a crew of almost 200 armed men with 50 oars, ultimately achieving speeds equal to 11 knots (or 20.372 kilometres per hour).
Nevertheless, it must be mentioned that the during the Viking era, there were several important types of ships used by the Norsemen for trade, exploration, fishing, and battle. These vessels can be identified as follows:
- Karve (passenger ship)
- Snekke (passenger ship)
- Byrding (transport ship)
- Knarr (transport ship)
- Drake (the most used war longship)
- Skeid (war longship)
- Busse (war longship)
- Sud (war longship)
Given the fact that the vast majority of roads in continental Europe were quite poorly conceived at the round of the 9th century — which might be due in part to the decadence of the Roman Empire, but also because of the the rampage of the migratory peoples along the Migration Period — the Norsemen didn’t have any safer means of transportation but the longship. While initially traders, they had subsequently focused on plundering a relatively rich village located in the proximity of a monastery, preferably by the seaside.
Landing early on the coastlines of modern day England, Scotland, and Ireland had proved quite promising, since they could set ashore quickly and drove off any armed resistance with utmost ease, having the element of surprise on their behalf.
After conquering a certain settlement — leaving it empty of its treasures prior to any organised force be mounted up against them — they occasionally kidnapped some of the natives, using them as thralls. The Norsemen became bolder as the last decades of the 8th century passed by, making certain to return in considerably larger numbers from the 9th century to the 11th century.
Continental Western Europe in the Dark Ages was also subject to these quick hit-and-run attacks of the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings. The residents of both rural and urban settlement from modern day Germany, Netherlands or France were trying to prepare themselves as best as they could in the prospect of a Viking raid.
Yet, the central authorities of these lands fell into the disfavour of their subjects in a short amount of time, primarily because of the fact they could do little to nothing at all in order to defend them. Thus, the peasantry became largely used in by the nobility in order to build them fortifications that could defend them against these raids, but ultimately leaving the peasants an ‘easy pray’ in the eventuality of such incursions.
In fact, this can certainly explain the cause behind the shift in the Feudal system of some of these localities by having a strengthening of the power and wealth on behalf of the noblemen, while the monarchs were gradually losing political ground since they could no longer have complete control over their subjects.
In the end, larger combined convoys of Norsemen from all over Scandinavia shortly begun to make the discrepancy between a quick raid and an invasion on a truly large scale commencing from the late part of the 9th century. The sacking of some major cities such as Hamburg (in modern day Germany), Utrecht (in modern day Netherlands) or Rouen (in modern day France) considerably boosted up their reputation as ‘fearsome men of the north’.
Concomitantly, many Norwegian Vikings settled on the islands off the Albion (i.e. the Hebrides, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands) as well as along the eastern coast of Hibernia (founding, among others, modern day Dublin, Cork or Limerick in the process), where they established several kingdoms for a brief period of time (most notably the Kingdom of the Isles or Kingdom of Mann and the Isles). In stark contrast to the north of the British archipelago, the Danish Vikings looked promisingly on the south, seizing and ruling over the eastern half of England for almost a century.
The Viking raids ceased to unfold at the end of the 10th century, in part given the fact that missionaries had successfully spread Christianity in Scandinavia, but also because more and more petty kingdoms from their homelands would start to unity or be unified (willingly or forcibly).
Thus, Scandinavia at the end of the Viking era went on to be divided, but not anymore into the many small polities. The apparition of three powerful Nordic kingdoms — specifically Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — marked at long last the end of the tumultuous Viking Age.
Documentation sources and external links:
- Index of Icelandic Sagas (in Icelandic, Swedish, English and many other languages)
- Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus (in Latin)
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (in English)
- The Heimskringla: Sagas of the Norse Kings by Snorri Sturluson, Samuel Laing and Rasmus Björn Anderson (in English)
- The Norse discoverers of America, the Wineland saga by Gathorne-Hardy and Geoffrey Malcolm (in English)
- Early Kings of Norway by Thomas Carlyle (in English; audiobook)
- The Children of Odin narrated by Padraic Colum (in English; audiobook)
- History of the Norwegian people by Knut Gjerset (in English)
- The Danish History, Books I-IX by Saxo Grammaticus (in English)
- Norse Tales and Sketches (in English)