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Vikings, Norsemen, or Northmen were a successful group of marauders and conquerors who expanded their influence over much of Europe, parts of the Middle East, and as far east as Russia. These groups of Scandinavian clans rose to prominence during the late 8th century and continued to be a part of Western destabilization until the late 11th century.
The common name of these people has its origins in how they were seen, the word vikingr was the name given to a person who would plunder. The word may have a deeper origin in the word vik, in which case Viking would roughly translate to “the men of bays (or coves),” referring to the bays and coves found in abundance on their homeland’s coasts. The people known as the Vikings come from the region that currently includes Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The Norwegians drove west into the Atlantic and the British Isles, while the Danes pushed south into the Mediterranean and Southwestern Europe and the Swedes pushed east into Russia. Seldom during the Viking Age did these Scandinavian men see any kind of national unity that could raise an army large enough to undertake the large tracts of land that they were raiding in one fell swoop. Rather the raids were held on a much more loosely based group of organizations created from fragile regional governments.
Viking incursions into Europe probably began in the late spring of 789, when three longboats landed on the shore of Dorset in the kingdom of Wessex. On June 8, 793, a Norwegian party assaulted a monastery at Lindisfarne off of the east coast of England. The islands of Ireland and the mainland of Scotland came under attack during the late 790s. To increase their range, permanent settlements were established. By 840, settlements had been built on Ireland and in Northern France, from this point until the late 9th century raids reached their peak of activity. By channeling the numerous rivers of Northern France and of Western Germany, the sleek and agile Viking longboats were able to maneuver their way as deep as Paris. By the year 880, the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom that had not fallen to the Vikings was Wessex. For the time the Danish invaders were satisfied enough to keep the eastern third of England, which then became known as the Danelaw. By the year 911, the Swedes (otherwise known as the Rus) had worked their way through the Baltic Sea, down the Dnieper, through the Black Sea and into Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The Viking intrusion into Russia, violent as it may be, seems to have had more of a basis in trade rather than plundering; grave evidence points to contact as far back as 650. As a result of unsuccessful moves on Constantinople a treaty in 911 provided that Rus soldiers were admitted into the city guard. At the same time in France Norwegian leader Rollo (Göngu-Hrolf), after a series of attacks on the French countryside (notably one unsuccessful on Chartres) worked out the Treaty of St. Clair-sur-Epte (911 AD) with King Charles the Simple. The treaty granted the lands that would later be called Normandy (it quite literally means the “land of the Northmen”).
While the Danes and Rus were taking the continent of Europe in the latter half of the 9th century, the Norwegians were focusing on Atlantic islands. Although accounts vary, most place the colonization of Iceland sometime between the years 890 and 910, leading to full occupation by the year 930. Icelanders would like to point the tyrannical rule of Norwegian King Harald Finehair as the reason for emigration to Iceland; however, this is doubtful seeing as he would have been too young to have ruled during colonization. It is more likely that population pressures combined with land shortages made the relatively unpopulated and mostly free Iceland appetizing for colonization. In 982, Erik the Red was banished for 3 years from Breidafjord for a slew of killings. This was the third such banishment he had received, the first two coming from his homeland Norway and the third in Breidafjord, Iceland. Erik decided to go in search of lands that had been sighted some 50 years prior by a Norwegian sailor. What he found he named Greenland. For the next 3 years, he explored the coast, plotting out important stores of natural resources and lands that would be suitable for farming. When his banishment had ended, he returned to Breidafjord to gather those who would be needed to colonize the island. In 986, he returned to Greenland with 450 people and 14 ships (of the original 25 to set sail). Soon the colonies would expand to 3,000 people.
Meanwhile, as the Norwegians were discovering for themselves the Americas, Danish Vikings sought one last major conquest of England. In the year 1066, the death of the English King Edward the Confessor left a power vacuum in England. The sixth-generation descendant of King Rollo, William the Conquer, lead the forces of Normandy to victory in the Battle of Hastings. This established the foundation of the modern English monarchy and also marked the beginning of the end of the Viking’s destabilizing impact on Europe. Not once since has the mainland of England been successfully invaded by a foreign power.
Despite the common perception, Viking society was not entirely composed of marauders and pirates. There existed varying degrees of morality, order, and law depending on exactly where an individual lived and to what distinct social class he or she belonged. There tended to be a diametric opposition between those who lived in the inner rural areas and those on the edge of their controlled territories. The common perception of a violent culture was dictated not by the writings of the Vikings, which were scarce, but rather by those from the cultures that came into contact with them, contact usually being a direct result of Viking exploration and raiding. However it should be noted that those who did the exploring were not indicative of the typical Norseman, in fact they were the exact opposite. The average Viking was more likely to have been a rural farmer who lived with an extended family. Each farmstead was headed by a patriarch who obtained his power and wealth through a complex system of inheritance.
Within Viking society there existed a rigid social structure that vaguely resembled feudalism. The bottom class consisted of slaves (sometimes called Thralls), who were typically debtors, criminals, and prisoners of war. These slaves were typically regarded as being property, not human beings with legal rights. The slaves did not have the right to debate or vote in the local assembly (the Thing). However there were instances in which a slave had a greater degree of legal power than a freeman: For example, a slave would be allowed to kill on behalf of his wife, even though she was a bondmaid, but a free man could not kill on behalf of his bondmaid (the dual meaning of bondmaid allows for an ironic interpretation). There were cases in which a slave was able to work his way out of slavery. This implies that the slave must have had certain rights to his own property and some way to gather sufficient funds. Other ways of escaping the slave class include being granted freedom by one’s master and scoring a kill in combat.
The next class up consisted of the Karls, which could be described as the peasant class. The majority of the population was derived from this class of men, for it was mainly this group that cultivated the food supply. Every sort of diversified laborer whose talents would be applicable to everyday life was found in this class: farmers, traders, soldiers, artisans, and so forth. Lawyers and practitioners of medicine could also be found in this class. These jobs, however, were not as frequently used for gaining the stable income as they are today, thus these jobs were practiced part-time by, most likely, farmers and traders. Most of the law at the time was not written down, but instead it was handed down in an oral tradition. Master lawspeakers would take on apprentices who would spend a couple of years memorizing the law. Some tended to be more apt at reciting the law; these men would be selected to be sent to the Thing. The better one was at reciting the law, the more clout one carried. Those with the highest degrees of respect would be used in settling legal disputes. Upon returning to a village from the Thing, a lawspeaker was expected to recite to the men of the village all of the new laws that had been adopted. However every free man, not just lawspeakers had the right to vote and debate in the Thing. Only the richest of the Karls held fertile land, and even then not every Karl held land. The only real measure of wealth was land, for there did not exist large enough governments to establish any kind of stable currency.
Should a Karl acquire enough land and clout, whether it be through force or by his personality, he could raise himself to the status of Jarl. These men made up the nobility; akin to local warlords, they could exact tribute and organize raiding parties. This is typically the highest level that Vikings could raise themselves to, for the political climate of the region was far too unstable to maintain large monarchies. Two major challenges that faced the would-be kings included a complex and therefore weak system of inheritance in which many challenges to the throne would arise, and the lack of any long-standing dynasties from which a ruler might claim legitimacy. So often the test for leadership came down to feats of strength and personality.
The Viking religion, like other polytheistic religions before it, did not adhere to one particular doctrine or order of gods. Many of the gods that the Vikings worshiped were subject to public opinion, and over time one god might fall out of favor, only to come back again in another form with a different name. The fluidity of their religion has been described as being the byproduct of having an oral tradition, rather than being written down like the major world religions that have survived to this day (the Islamic Koran, the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, and others).What is known of Vikings and their religion is mostly derived from foreign observers and the sagas, which were made some centuries after their fall from prominence in the 12th century.
Some of the more stable and high-ranking gods included Odin, Thor, Loki (who was actually a giant and companion to Thor), and the twin gods Freyja and Frey. These gods and many others were employed through a series of myths to explain many of the phenomena of the natural world. According to Norse myth, the universe does not exist as we comprehend it, but rather the universe is composed of several “worlds,” such as the opposed worlds of fire and ice. Furthermore, the earth itself is said to be the back of a giant coiled serpent. Two major tales included the foretelling of the end time, called the Ragnarok, and Odin’s sacrifice. The latter told of how Odin hung himself from the world tree to gain the knowledge of the mystical runes. He also sacrificed an eye to drink from the fountain of Mirmir such that he would gain complete and total wisdom. These stories were each designed to convey a single message or groups of messages, so they sometimes contradict each other. To strike a deep chord with the audience, these stories were often told as gruesome and violent.
Vikings felt that the gods and spirits ruled over almost every aspect of their life. This animistic belief dominated many aspects of Viking life; for example, small pendants in the shape of Thor’s mighty hammer were worn by many. These pendants were thought to be useful in invoking the help of Thor, who is often seen as a hero to peasants and the unfortunate. Viking belief held that invoking the aid of the gods was necessary for all functions of life to be successful.
Rituals involving the daily life of a farmer were typically held by the women of the household. Animal and human sacrifices were not the least bit unusual: Ragnar, a Danish leader, hung more than 100 French as a sacrifice to Odin during a raid on Paris. Also included in their religious life was the use of small statues that represented a particular god, and chanting, which, like runes, was considered to have inherent magical properties.
Runes and Language
A rune is a special type of writing symbol that can be either a letter or a word, and in many cases can have multiple meanings. Most runes were carved, and as a result they were created from a series of lines (for it would have been too difficult to carve a curve in a piece of wood or stone). The Futhark (the name of the runic alphabet) lacks some of the traditional vowels, and therefore the runes cannot be arranged to make all possible word sounds, making translation very difficult. Furthermore most of what was carved was probably done in wood and has not survived the ages. Only a handful of rune stones still exist. Much of what is said on the rune stones consist mainly of short sayings, and many of them are just dedications to the fame and glory of a loved one, that person’s family, and of course the engraver. Despite the belief in the powers of runes, not many Vikings were literate. This too detracts from the availability of primary accounts of Viking law, culture, and military action.
Much of Viking culture has its roots in Germanic tradition. The god Odin, for example, has a direct corollary whose name is Woden (pronounced Vo-den). In addition to religious contributions to Scandinavian society, the peoples of Germany provided a linguistic touch. An example is the word geld, which means money in modern German, and was found in the word heregeld, which meant army tax. For the aforementioned reasons it is difficult to distinguish between what can be considered to be pure Norse beliefs and what was added on as an embellishment of history or a byproduct of the Christian influence.
Valhalla was a heaven reserved for the bravest of Viking warriors. In their afterlife it was thought that one could feast, drink, and fight all day long without any consequences: If one should die in a drunken frenzy in Valhalla, one would rise again the next day with no wounds or hangover. However it is now believed that Valhalla was a compromise between the Christian notion of heaven and the ideals of the Vikings, ideals that included their perpetuation through their legacy or fame, fame sought usually through battle and kept for the ages on the runestones.
The Vikings were famed for their skill as both sailors and warriors. Their shallow, sleek hulls, combined with the dual power sources of wind and oar, made the Viking longboat one of the most feared sites in any harbor. The small frame of the ship made it more maneuverable than most other ships of the time, and the dual power made it faster. This combination of speed and maneuverability allowed Viking warriors to make raids deep into Europe. The Viking sailors who set sail from Greenland and ended up in America had very few tools in terms of navigation. By modifying fishing boats with sails (thus creating the longboats), they were able to add range to their voyages. Although Vikings most likely used the altitude of the Sun and Polaris (the North Star) to determine their latitude, little could be done to determine longitude. They were not without resources: The path of clouds, birds and other wildlife, and debris in the water all were used to detect the proximity of land. These skills enabled the Vikings to consciously make long sea voyages, like the one that landed Erik the Red in Newfoundland.
The most significant piece of evidence in the Americas for the Viking encounter was found at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada, in 1960.Most of what remains of the Viking settlements are the foundations of their buildings and the trash that they threw away. Small circumstantial pieces of evidence were found such as clothing pins and other such trinkets. The most notable leftover piece would have to be an iron forge, a large piece of equipment that would not have served any purpose for the natives, who had not previously been known to practice iron smelting. Carbon dating confirms that these remnants date from the Viking era, about 1100 AD.
- Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Viking Penguin.
- Haywood, J. (2000). Encyclopedia of the Viking age. Singapore: Thames and Hudson.
- Jones, G. (1991). A history of the Vikings. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sawyer, P. (1997). The Oxford illustrated history of the Vikings. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Streissguth, T. (1999). Life among the Vikings. San Diego: Lucent Books.
- Wilson, D. M. (1970). The Viking achievement. New York: Praeger.
- Wooding, J. (1996). The Vikings. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.
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