The term Viking com-
monly denotes the ship-
born warriors and traders
of Norsemen (literally,
men from the north) who
originated in Scandinavia
and raided the coasts of
Britain, Ireland and main-
land Europe as far east
as the Volga River in
Russia from the late 8th
–11th century. This
period (generally dated
793–1066) is often referred to as the Viking Age. The term Viking has also denoted entire populations of Viking Age Scandinavia and their settlements, as an expanded meaning.
Famed for their longships, Vikings founded settlements for three centuries along the coasts and rivers of mainland Europe, Ireland, Great Britain, Normandy, the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland circa 1000. They reached south to North Africa and east to Russia and Constantinople, as looters, traders, or mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Ericson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America, with putative expeditions to present-day Canada in the 10th century. Viking voyages decreased with the introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia in the late 10th and 11th century.
The word Viking was introduced to the English language with romantic connotations in the 18th century. However, etymologists trace the word to Anglo-Frankish writers, who referred to "víkingr" as one who set about to raid and pillage, as in the saga of Egil Skallagrimsson. In current Scandinavian languages, the term Viking is applied to the people who went away on Viking expeditions, be it for raiding or trading. In English and many other languages, Viking might refer to the Viking Age Scandinavians in general. The pre-Christian Scandinavian population is also referred to as Norse, although that term is properly applied to the whole civilization of Old-Norse speaking people.
The etymology of "Viking" is somewhat vague. One path might be from the Old Norse word, vík, meaning "bay," "creek," or "inlet," and the suffix -ing, meaning "coming from" or "belonging to." Thus, Viking would be a 'person of the bay', or "bayling" for lack of a better word. In Old Norse, this would be spelled víkingr. It may be noted that Viken was the old name of the region bordering on the Skagerrak, from where the first Norse merchant-warriors originated. Later on, the term, Viking, became synonymous with "naval expedition" or "naval raid", and a víkingr was a member of such expeditions. A second etymology suggested that the term is derived from Old English, wíc, ie. "trading city" (cognate to Latin vicus, "village").
The word Viking appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. In the Icelanders' sagas, víking refers to an overseas expedition (Old Norse farar i vikingr "to go on an expedition"), and víkingr, to a sea-man or warrior taking part in such an expedition.
In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the Anglo-Saxon poem, "Widsith", which probably dates from the 9th century. In Old English, and in the writings of Adam von Bremen, the term refers to a pirate, and is not a name for a people or a culture in general. Regardless of its possible origins, the word was used more as a verb than as a noun, and connotated an activity and not a distinct group of individuals. To "go Viking" was distinctly different from Norse seaborne missions of trade and commerce.
The word disappeared in Middle English, and was reintroduced as Viking during 18th century Romanticism (the "Viking revival"), with heroic overtones of "barbarian warrior" or noble savage. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer not only to the raiders, but also to the entire period; it is now, somewhat confusingly, used as a noun both in the original meaning of raiders, warriors or navigators, and to refer to the Scandinavian population in general. As an adjective, the word is used in expressions like "Viking age," "Viking culture," "Viking colony," etc., generally referring to medieval Scandinavia.
The Viking Age
The time period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is commonly called the "Viking Age." The Normans, however, were descended from Danish Vikings that were given feudal overlordship of areas of Northern France in the 8th century. In that respect, the Vikings continued to have an influence in Northern Europe. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson had descended from Danish Vikings. Many of the medieval kings of Norway and Denmark were married to English and Scottish royalty and Viking forces were often a factor in dynastic disputes pre-1066.
Geographically, a "Viking Age" may be assigned not only to the Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), but also to territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, which replaced the powerful English kingdom of Northumbria, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Russia and Ireland. Contemporary with the European Viking Age, the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans and Anatolia, heir to the Eastern Roman Empire, experienced the greatest period of stability (circa 800–1071) it would enjoy after the initial wave of Arab conquerors in the 7th century.
Viking navigators also opened the road to new lands to the north, to the west and to the east resulting in the foundation of independent kingdoms in the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and L'Anse aux Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000 A.D. Many of these lands, specifically Greenland and Iceland, were likely discovered by sailors blown off course. Greenland was later abandoned because its few "green" spots disappeared due to climate change. Vikings also seized and destroyed many villages and territories in Slavic-dominated areas of Eastern Europe.
But their military expansion was stopped by people of Novgorod Republic in the early 800s, forcing them to switch their military intentions westwards, and restricting visits to the east only to trading. However, because of this history, in the Russian language Vikings are called "vorog", or varag, which means "an enemy".
During three centuries, Vikings appeared along the coasts and rivers of Europe, as traders generally, but also as raiders when opportunity allowed, and even like Turgesius, as settlers. From 839, Varangian mercenaries in Byzantine service, notably Harald Hardrada, campaigned in North Africa, Jerusalem, and other places in the Middle East. Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev. Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west to places such as Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland, the Danes to England and France, settling in the Danelaw (NE England) and Normandy, and the Swedes to the east. These nations, although distinct, were similar in culture, especially language. The names of Scandinavian kings are known only for the later part of the Viking Age, and only after the end of the Viking Age did the separate kingdoms acquire a distinct identity as nations, which went hand in hand with their Roman Catholicization. Thus it may be noted that the end of the Viking Age (9th–11th century) for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.
There is archaeological evidence (coins) that the Vikings reached the city of Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic Empire and their considerable intellectual endeavours. In 921, Ibn Fadlan was sent as emissary on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad to the iltäbär (vassal-king under the Khazars) of the Volga Bulgaria, Almış. The Bolgar King had petitioned to the Caliph to establish relations. He had asked to have someone come to teach him Arabic and the Qu'ran and pledge allegiance to Hanafi rite of the Sunni Muslims. The Caliph promised to send money to build a fort on the Volga, but the transaction never occurred. Separately, the Rus' sent a squad of fierce soldiers to Constantinople to protect the Byzantine emperor. The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat to seal boats and slaves (notably female slaves such that this was the one time in the history of the slave-trade when females were priced higher than males). However, they were far less successful in establishing settlements in the Middle East, due to the more centralized Islamic power, namely of the Umayyad and, later, Abbasid empires.
After trade and settlement, cultural impulses flowed from the rest of Europe. Christianity had had an early and growing presence in Scandinavia, and with the rise of centralized authority along with a stiffening of coastal defense in the areas the Vikings preyed upon, the Viking raids became more risky and less profitable. With the rise of kings and great nobles and a quasi-feudal system in Scandinavia, they ceased entirely – in the 11th century the Scandinavians are frequently chronicled as combating "Vikings" from the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, which would eventually lead to Danish and Swedish participation in the Baltic crusades (end of 12th and early 13th century) and contributed to the development of the Hanseatic League.
Traditionally the earliest date given for a Viking raid is 787 when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a group of men from Norway sailed to Portland, in Dorset. There, they were mistaken for merchants by a royal official, and they murdered him when he tried to get them to accompany him to the king's manor to pay a trading tax on their goods. The next recorded attack, dated June 8, 793, was on the monastery at Lindisfarne—the "Holy Island" which was also raided by Norwegian vikings—Lindisfarne is located on the east coast of England. For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering; the majority of chronicles comes from western witnesses or their descendants, a lesser quantity of chronicles comes from eastern mentions from the Nestor chonicles, Novgorod chronicles, Ibn Fadlan chronicles, Ibn Ruslan chronicles, and many brief mentions of the Fosio bishop from the first big attack to the Byzantine empire.
Vikings exerted influence throughout the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, conquered and colonised large parts of England (see Danelaw), later conquered all of England, and conquered large coastal territories in the Baltic Sea and large part of inland Russian territories across the rivers settled in Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and through the rivers route to Byzantine empire. Wales also saw some Viking settlements on its coast; the modern day city of Swansea takes its name from Sweyne Forkbeard who was shipwrecked at modern day Swansea Bay; neighbouring Gower Peninsula has many place names of Norse origin (such as Worms Head; worm is the Norse word for dragon, as the Vikings believed that the serpent-shaped island was a sleeping dragon). Twenty miles west of Cardiff on the Vale of Glamorgan coast is the semi-flooded island of Tusker Rock, which takes its name from Tuska, the Viking whose people semi-colonised the fertile lands of the Vale of Glamorgan.
The Britons of Cornwall allied with Danish Vikings in 722 to defeat the Saxons of Wessex at "Hehil", possibly somewhere near modern day Padstow; this battle is recorded in the Analies Cambria and kept Cornwall free of Anglo-Saxon control for at least 100 years. The Danes tactically helped their Cornish allies by making devasting pillaging raids on Wessex which weakened the authority of the Saxons, and in 1013 Wessex was conquered by the Danes under the leadership of the Viking King of Denmark Sweyn Forkbeard.
Vikings travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast. Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.
In select cases, the Celtic nations of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany in 865 and in 722 Cornwall, during their battles against the Anglo-Saxons, decided to ally with the Vikings against the Saxons.
Adam of Bremen records in his book Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, (volume four):
Aurum ibi plurimum, quod raptu congeritur piratico. Ipsi enim piratae, 'quos illi Wichingos as appellant, nostri Ascomannos regi Danico tributum solvunt.
"There is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king."
Egil Skallagrimsson writes; Björn var farmaður mikill, var stundum í víking, en stundum í kaupferðum, in English: "Björn was a great traveller; sometimes as Viking, sometimes as tradesman".
Norse mythology, Norse sagas and Old Norse literature tell us about their religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. However, the transmission of this information was primarily oral, and we are reliant upon the writings of (later) Christian scholars, such as the Icelanders Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur fróði, for much of this. Many of these sagas were written in Iceland, and most of them, even if they had no Icelandic provenance, were preserved there after the Middle Ages due to the Icelanders' continued interest in Norse literature and law codes.
Vikings in those sagas are described as if they often struck at accessible and poorly defended targets, usually with impunity. The sagas state that the Vikings built settlements and were skilled craftsmen and traders.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, after Lindisfarne was raided in 793, Vikings continued on small-scale raids across England. Viking raiders struck England in 793 and raided a Christian monastery that held Saint Cuthbert’s relics. The raiders killed the monks and captured the valuables. This raid was called the beginning of the “Viking Age of Invasion”, made possible by the Viking longship. There was great violence during the last decade of the 8th century on England’s northern and western shores. While the initial raiding groups were small, it is believed that a great amount of planning was involved.
During the winter between 840 and 841, the Norwegians raided during the winter instead of the usual summer. They waited on an island off Ireland. In 865 a large army of Danish Vikings, supposedly led by Ivar, Halfdan and Guthrum arrived in East Anglia. They proceeded to cross England into Northumbria and captured York (Jorvik), where some settled as farmers. Most of the English kingdoms, being in turmoil, could not stand against the Vikings, but Alfred of Wessex managed to keep the Vikings out of his country. Alfred and his successors continued to drive back the Viking frontier and take York.
A new wave of Vikings appeared in England in 947 when Erik Bloodaxe captured York. The Viking presence continued through the reign of Canute the Great (1016-1035), after which a series of inheritance arguments weakened the family reign. The Viking presence dwindled until 1066, when the Norwegians lost their final battle with the English. See also Danelaw.
The Vikings did not get everything their way. In one instance in England, a small Viking fleet attacked a rich monastery at Jarrow. The Vikings were met with stronger resistance than they expected: their leaders were killed, the raiders escaped, only to have their ships beached at Tynemouth and the crews killed by locals. This was one of the last raids on England for about 40 years. The Vikings instead focused on Ireland and Scotland. There was a good deal of intermarriage between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxon-Latin-Celts.
While there are few records from the earliest period, it is believed to be clear that a Scandinavian presence in Scotland increased in the 830s. In 836, a large Viking force believed to be Norwegian invaded the Earn valley and Tay valley which were central to the Pictish kingdom. They slaughtered Eoganan, king of the Picts, and his brother, the vassal king of the Scots. They also killed many members of the Pictish aristocracy. The sophisticated kingdom that had been built fell apart, as did the Pictish leadership. The foundation of Scotland under Kenneth MacAlpin is traditionally attributed to the aftermath of this event.
The isles to the north and west of Scotland were heavily colonised by Norwegian vikings. Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, Caithness and Sutherland were under Norse control, sometimes as fiefs under the King of Norway and other times as separate enteties. Shetland and Orkney were the last of these to be incorporated into Scotland in as late as 1468. Scotland inter-married with the Vikings more then any other British-Isle country making Scotland almost more Viking then Celtic.
Wales was not colonised by the Vikings as heavily as eastern England and Ireland. The Vikings did, however, settle in the south around St. David's, Haverfordwest, and Gower, among other places. Place names such as Skokholm, Skomer, and Swansea remain as evidence of the Norse settlement. The Vikings, however, were not able to set up a Viking state or control Wales, owing to the powerful forces of Welsh kings, and, unlike in Scotland, the aristocracy was relatively unharmed. There was less intermarriage in Wales than any other British Isle Country.
Netherless, following the successful Viking alliances with Cornwall in 722 and Britanny in 865, the Britons made their peace with the Danes, and a Viking/Welsh alliance in 878 AD defeated an Anglo-Saxon army from Mercia. The Danes made significant settlements on the coastal lowlands of Wales, such as Glamorgan, Gower and South Pembrokeshire, and in total contrast to the Anglo-Saxons of Mercia and Wessex, by the middle-to-end of the Viking Age, the Danes and Britons managed to live peacefully alongside each other, and like the Britons, the Danes were loathe to give up their new terrority in Wales to the Saxons without a fight, and ultimately, the Saxons were unable to conquer Wales, partly as in 1013 the Saxons were themselves conquered by the Vikings and annexed to a Danish empire controlled by King Canute.
In 722AD the Cornish allied with Danish Vikings in order to hold Wessex from expanding into Cornwall. A Wessex Saxon army led by King Ine was comprehensively destroyed by an alliance of Cornish and Vikings near the Camel estuary. This battle, as well as the Vikings continually attacking Wessex, enabled Cornwall to stay autonomous from Wessex, and Wessex itself would eventually be conquered by the Danish Vikings in 1013 by the Viking King of Denmark Sweyn Forkbeard.
The Vikings conducted extensive raids in Ireland and founded many towns, including, Athlone, Dublin, Limerick, Mullingar, Wexford, and Waterford. At some points, they seemingly came close to taking over the whole isle; however, the Scandinavians settled down and intermixed with the Irish. Literature, crafts, and decorative styles in Ireland and the British Isles reflected Scandinavian culture. Vikings traded at Irish markets in Dublin. Excavations found imported fabrics from England, Byzantium, Persia, and central Asia. Dublin became so crowded by the 11th century that houses were constructed outside the town walls.
The Vikings pillaged monasteries on Ireland’s west coast in 795, and then spread out to cover the rest of the coastline. The north and east of the island were most affected. During the first 40 years, the raids were conducted by small, mobile Viking groups. From 830 on, the groups consisted of large fleets of Viking ships. From 840, the Vikings began establishing permanent bases at the coasts. Dublin was the most significant settlement in the long term. The Irish became accustomed to the Viking presence & culture. In some cases they became allies and also intermarried throughout all of Ireland.
In 832, a Viking fleet of about 120 ships under Turgesius invaded kingdoms on Ireland’s northern and eastern coasts. Some believe that the increased number of invaders coincided with Scandinavian leaders’ desires to control the profitable raids on the western shores of Ireland. During the mid-830s, raids began to push deeper into Ireland. Navigable waterways made this deeper penetration possible. After 840, the Vikings had several bases in strategic locations throughout Ireland.
In 838, a small Viking fleet entered the River Liffey in eastern Ireland. The Vikings set up a base, which the Irish called longphorts. This longphort would eventually become Dublin. After this interaction, the Irish experienced Viking forces for about 40 years. The Vikings also established longphorts in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford. The Vikings were driven out of Ireland for a short period around 900, but returned to Waterford in 914 to found what would become Ireland's first city. The other longphorts were soon re-occupied and developed into cities and towns.
The last major battle involving Vikings was the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which a large force from the pan-Viking world, and their Irish allies opposed Brian Boru, then the High King of Ireland and his forces; a small contingent of which were Viking defectors. The battle was fought in what is the now Dublin suburb of Clontarf on Good Friday of that year. Boru, the Irish High King had gracefully allowed the Viking King of Dublin; Sigtrygg Silkbeard, one year to prepare for his coming assault. Silkbeard responded by offering the bed of his mother to several Viking lords from Scandinavia and the British Isles. The savage melee between the heavily mailed Norse and the unarmored, yet undaunted Gaels ended in a rout of the Vikings and their Irish allies. Careful accounts were taken by both sides during the battle, and thus many famous warriors sought each other out for personal combat and glory. High King Brian, who was near verging upon eighty, did not personally engage in the battle but retired to his tent where he spent the day in quiet prayer. History records that the Viking Earl Brodir of Man chanced upon Brian's tent as he fled the field. He and a few followers seized the opportunity, and surprised the High King, killing the aged Brian before being captured. Brian's foster son Wolf the Quarrelsome later tracked down and dispatched Brodir by disembowelment; Wolf watching as Brodir marched and wound his own innards around the trunk of a large tree. The battle was fairly matched for most of the day and each side had great respect for the prowess of the other, however in the end the Irish forced the Norse to return to the sea. Many of the fleeing Vikings were drowned in the surf by their heavy mail coats as they struggled for the safety of their longships; others were pursued and slain further inland. After the battle, Viking power was broken in Ireland forever, though many settled Norse remained in the cities and prospered greatly with the Irish through trade. With Brian dead, Ireland returned to the fractured kingdom it had once been, but was now cleared of further Viking predation.
West Francia suffered more severely than East Francia during the Viking raids of the ninth century, which destroyed the Carolingian Empire, though it suffered less severely than the Low Countries. The reign of Charles the Bald, whose military record was one of consistent failure, coincided with some of the worst of these raids, though he did take action by the Edict of Pistres of 864 to secure a standing army of cavalry under royal control to be called upon at all times when necessary to fend off the invaders. He also ordered the building of fortified bridges to prevent inland raids.
Nonetheless, the Bretons allied with the Vikings and Robert, the margrave of Neustria, (a march created for defence against the Vikings sailing up the Loire), and Ranulf of Aquitaine died in the Battle of Brissarthe in 865. The Vikings also took advantage of the civil wars which ravaged the Duchy of Aquitaine in the early years of Charles' reign. In the 840s, Pepin II called in the Vikings to aid him against Charles and they settled at the mouth of the Garonne. Two dukes of Gascony, Seguin II and William I, died defending Bordeaux from Viking assaults. A later duke, Sancho Mitarra, even settled some at the mouth of the Ardour in an act presaging that of Charles the Simple and the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte by which the Vikings were settled in Rouen, creating Normandy as a bulwark against other Vikings.
By the mid 9th century, though apparently not before (Fletcher 1984, ch. 1, note 51), there were Viking attacks on the coastal Kingdom of Asturias in the far northwest of the peninsula, though historical sources are too meagre to assess how frequent or how early raiding occurred. By the reign of Alfonso III Vikings were stifling the already weak threads of sea communications that tied Galicia (a province of the Kingdom) to the rest of Europe. Richard Fletcher attests raids on the Galician coast in 844 and 858: "Alfonso III was sufficiently worried by the threat of Viking attack to establish fortified strong points near his coastline, as other rulers were doing elsewhere." In 968 Bishop Sisnando of Compostela was killed, the monastery of Curtis was sacked, and measures were ordered for the defence of the inland town of Lugo. After Tui was sacked early in the 11th century, its bishopric remained vacant for the next half-century. Ransom was a motive for abductions: Fletcher instances Amarelo Mestáliz, who was forced to raise money on the security of his land in order to ransom his daughters who had been captured by the Vikings in 1015. Bishop Cresconio of Compostela (ca. 1036–66) repulsed a Viking foray and built the fortress at Torres del Oeste (Council of Catoira) to protect Compostela from the Atlantic approaches. The city of Póvoa de Varzim in Northern Portugal, then a town, was settled by Vikings around the 9th century and its influence kept strong until very recently, mostly due to the practice of endogamy in the community.
In the Islamic south, the first navy of the Emirate was called into being after the humiliating Viking ascent of the Guadalquivir, 844, and was tested in repulsing Vikings in 859. Soon the dockyards at Seville were extended, it was employed to patrol the Iberian coastline under the caliphs Abd al-Rahman III (912–61) and Al-Hakam II (961–76). By the next century piracy from North Africans superseded the Vikings.
Some exploration and expansion occurred still further west, in modern-day Greenland and Newfoundland, with exploration led by Eric the Red and his son, Leif Erikson. Permanent settlements were established, L'anse Aux Meadows being excavated in modern times. The Norse were insufficient in numbers and technological superiority to overwhelm or overawe the local Native Americans (called Skraelings). Colonization efforts were strictly limited to opportunistic families who could not obtain good land elsewhere, the best lands of Iceland having been taken years earlier and Greenland proving a harsh environment.
In 1931 a railroad brakeman named James Edward Dodd found a broken sword and fragments of an ax and shield near Beardmore Ontario east of Lake Nippigon. Upon extensive examination European Norse experts agreed that the relics were authentic norse weapons. Similarly an artifact called the Kensington Runestone was un-earthed in 1998. Now residing in a Minnesota Museum, the stone carries and inscription that depicts an attack on a party of Goths and Norwegians that took place in 1362. The authenticity of this artifact is in dispute.
Two areas along Greenland's southwest coast were colonized by Norse settlers ca. 986 AD. The land was marginal, at best. The settlers arrived during a warm phase, when short-season crops such as rye and barley could be grown. Sheep and hardy cattle were also raised for food, wool, and hides. Their main export was walrus ivory, which was traded for iron and other goods which could not be produced locally. Greenland became a dependency of the king of Norway in 1261. During the 13th century, the population may have reached as high as 5,000, divided between the two main settlements of Austrbygd and Vestrbygd. Greenland had several churches and a cathedral at Gardar. The Catholic diocese of Greenland was subject to the archdiocese of Nidaros. However, many bishops chose to exercise this office from afar. As the years wore on, the climate shifted (qv. little ice age) and elephant ivory from Africa became increasingly available. Crops failed and trade declined. The Greenland colony gradually faded away. By 1450 it had lost contact with Norway and simply disappeared from all but a few Scandanavian legends.
The Vikings prolific expansion is still exhibited in modern genetics. Relatively high frequencies of Haplogroup R1a1 are found in Northern Europe, the largest being 23% in Iceland, and it is believed to have been spread across Europe by the Indo-Europeans and later migrations of Vikings, which accounts for the existence of it in, among other places, the British Isles.
Explanations Of The Expansion
Why the Viking expansion took place is a much debated topic in Nordic history, and there are no clear answers.
One common theory is that the Viking homelands were overpopulated. A growing population or a lack of ability of agriculture to support the existing population could have caused a lack of land. For people living near the coast in possession of good naval technologies, it makes sense to expand overseas in the course of a typical youth bulge effect. One problem with this explanation is that, as a result of the lack of sources, no such rise in population or decline in agricultural production has been proven. This theory is widely accepted as part of the solution, since it is hard to imagine why a people would colonise new territories if there was not a lack of land at home. However, it does little to explain the plundering raids and trading expeditions, or why the expansion went to overseas countries and not into the big, uncultivated forest areas of the Viking homelands on the Scandinavian peninsula.
Another explanation is that the Vikings used temporary weakness in the regions they travelled to. For instance, the Danish Vikings were aware of the internal division of the empire of Charlemagne that begun in the 830s and resulted in the splitting up of the empire. The Danish expeditions in England also profited from the disunity of the different English kingdoms.
The decline of old trade routes could also be a part of the explanation. The trade between western Europe and the rest of the Eurasian continent had suffered from a severe decline as a result of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the expansion of Islam in the 7th century. At the time of the Viking, the trade on the Mediterranean Sea was at its lowest level. By, for instance, trading furs and slaves against silver and spices with the Arabs, and then trading the silver and spices for weapons with the Franks, the Vikings profited from international trade, picking up the role the declining Mediterranean trade had previously filled.
Another important factor when it comes to trade is that the destruction of the Frisian fleet by the Franks. This gave the vikings the opportunity to take over its old markets. However, both the explanation underlining disunity and the one underlining trade explains how the expansion was possible, more than why it occurred. This is why we can consider that in addition to the economic factor, there is also another reason of first Vikings’ raids, they could also originate in resistance to forced Christianisation, in particular Charlemagne’s persecutions against all the Pagan people: who have to accept “conversion or the massacre”.
Snorri Sturluson in the saga of St Olafr chapter 73, describes the brutal process of Christianisation in Norway : “ those who did not give up paganism were banished, with others he (St Olafr) cut off their hands or their feet or extirpated their eyes, others he ordered hanged or decapitated, but did not leave unpunished any of those who did not want to serve God...he afflicted them with great punishments... He gave them clerks and instituted some in the districts”. Clerical pressure by violence since Charlemagne can explain partly the Vikings’ strandhögg targeting of Christian buildings.
The vast majority number of runic inscriptions from the Viking period come from Sweden, especially from the tenth and eleventh century. Many rune stones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions, such as the Kjula Runestone which tells of extensive warfare in Western Europe and the Turinge Runestone which tells of a warband in Eastern Europe. Other rune stones mention men who died on Viking expeditions, among them the around 25 Ingvar stones in the this Mälardalen district of Sweden erected to commemorate members of a disastrous expedition into present-day Russia in the early 11th century. The rune stones are important sources in the study of the entire Norse society and early medieval Scandinavia, not only of the 'Viking' segment of the population (Sawyer, P H: 1997).
Runestones attest to voyages to locations, such as Bath, Greece, Khwaresm, Jerusalem, Italy (as Langobardland), London, Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world), England, and various locations in Eastern Europe.
There are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings. Some examples include:
- Gettlinge gravfält, Öland, Sweden, ship outline
- Jelling, Denmark, a World Heritage Site
- Hulterstad gravfält, near the villages of Alby and Hulterstad, Öland, Sweden, ship outline of standing stones
Viking ship head of dragon, has more a dog's nostrils, canines, and rounded ears.There were two distinct classes of Viking ships: the longship (sometimes erroneously called "drakkar", a corruption of "dragon" in Norse) and the knarr. The longship, intended for warfare and exploration, was designed for speed and agility, and were equipped with oars to complement the sail as well as making it able to navigate independently of the wind. The longship had a long and narrow hull, as well as a shallow draft, in order to facilitate landings and troop deployments in shallow water. The knarr, on the other hand, was a slower merchant vessel with a greater cargo capacity than the longship. It was designed with a short and broad hull, and a deep draft. It also lacked the oars of the longship.
Longships were used extensively by the Leidang, the Scandinavian defense fleets. The term "Viking ships" has entered common usage, however, possibly because of its romantic associations.
In Roskilde are the well-preserved remains of five ships, excavated from nearby Roskilde Fjord in the late 1960s. The ships were scuttled there in the 11th century to block a navigation channel, thus protecting the city, which was then the Danish capital, from seaborne assault. These five ships represent the two distinct classes of the Viking Ships, the longship and the knarr.
Longships are not to be confused with longboats.
Early modern publications, dealing with what we now call Viking culture, appeared in the 16th century, e.g. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Olaus Magnus, 1555), and the first edition of the 13th century Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus in 1514. The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the Edda (notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665).
The word Viking was popularized, with positive connotations, by Erik Gustaf Geijer in the poem, The Viking, written at the beginning of the 19th century. The word was taken to refer to romanticized, idealized naval warriors, who had very little to do with the historical Viking culture. This renewed interest of Romanticism in the Old North had political implications. A myth about a glorious and brave past was needed to give the Swedes the courage to retake Finland, which had been lost in 1809 during the war between Sweden and Russia. The Geatish Society, of which Geijer was a member, popularized this myth to a great extent. Another Swedish author who had great influence on the perception of the Vikings was Esaias Tegnér, member of the Geatish Society, who wrote a modern version of Friðþjófs saga ins frœkna, which became widely popular in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom and Germany.
A focus for early British enthusiasts was George Hicke, who published a Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus in 1703–05. During the 18th century, British interest and enthusiasm for Iceland and Nordic culture grew dramatically, expressed in English translations as well as original poems, extolling Viking virtues and increased interest in anything Runic that could be found in the Danelaw, rising to a peak during Victorian times.
Similar to Wagnerian mythology, the romanticism of the heroic Norse ideal appealed to the German supremacist thinkers of Nazi Germany. Political organizations of the same tradition, such as the Norwegian fascist party, Nasjonal Samling, used an amount of Viking symbolism combined with Roman symbolism and imagery widely in their propaganda and aesthetical approach.
Since the 1960s, there has been rising enthusiasm for historical reenactment. While the earliest groups had little claim for historical accuracy, the seriousness and accuracy of re-enactors has increased.
Germanic neopagan groups place emphasis on reconstructing the culture and pre-Christian beliefs of the Germanic peoples, including the Viking era of Norse culture.
Legend had it that the Vikings were very tall and large men. Ibn Fadlan and various European sources mention that the Vikings were of great stature. A number of modern studies have been conducted which show Vikings to have been on average between 168.4 cm (66.3in) and 176 cm (69.3in) tall. There is variation, and higher ranking Vikings tended to be taller (likely due to better nutrition), but the Vikings were, compared to people of today, not unusually tall. However, when compared to the people that lived during the Viking era, vikings were indeed taller (which is highly attributable to genetic factors).
Apart from two or three representations of (ritual) helmets – with protrusions that may be either stylized ravens, snakes or horns – no depiction of Viking Age warriors' helmets, and no actually preserved helmet, has horns. In fact, the formal close-quarters style of Viking combat (either in shield walls or aboard "ship islands") would have made horned helmets cumbersome and hazardous to the warrior's own side.
Therefore it can be ruled out that Viking warriors had horned helmets, but whether or not they were used in Scandinavian culture for other, ritual purposes remains unproven. The general misconception that Viking warriors wore horned helmets was partly promulgated by the 19th century enthusiasts of Götiska Förbundet, founded in 1811 in Stockholm, with the aim of promoting the suitability of Norse mythology as subjects of high art and other ethnological and moral aims.
The Vikings were also often depicted with winged-helmets and in other clothing taken from Classical antiquity, especially in depictions of Norse gods. This was done in order to legitimize the Vikings and their mythology, by associating it with the Classical world which has always been idealized in European culture.
The latter-day mythos created by national romantic ideas blended the Viking Age with glimpses of the Nordic Bronze Age some 2,000 years earlier, for which actual horned helmets, probably for ceremonial purposes, are attested both in petroglyphs and by actual finds.
The cliché was perpetuated by cartoons like Hägar the Horrible and Vicky the Viking, and the uniforms of the Minnesota Vikings football team. Another way that this was increased was that in the opera, they would wear horned helments, probably for decoration.
The regular Viking helmets were conical, made from hard leather with wood and metallic reinforcement for the regular troops and the iron helmet with mask and chain mail for the chieftains, based on the previous Vendel age helmets from central Sweden. The only true Viking helmet found, is that from Gjermundbu in Norway. This helmet is made of iron and has been dated to the 10th century.
Despite images of Viking marauders who live for plunder, the heart of Viking society was reciprocity, on both a personal, social level and on a broader political level. The Vikings lived in a time when numerous societies were engaged in many violent acts, and the doings of the Vikings put into context are not as savage as they seem. Others of the time period were much more savage than the Vikings, such as the Frankish king, Charlemagne, who cut off the heads of 4,500 Saxons (Bloody Verdict of Verden) in one day, partly because they would not accept the Christian faith. Most Vikings were traders, although some did plunder, often monasteries around Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, as they had a lot of valuables in gold and silver. As monasteries were centers of learning & writing, their experiences were much more likely to enter the historical record. However, considerable literature in the monasteries would have been destroyed during the plunderings.
One of the Viking's largest profit-centers was the slave trade, which is rarely pleasant, especially for the victims. Any group that acts as slave-takers is likely to be viewed with disdain by their victims. During the time period of the Vikings, slavery was common throughout Northern Europe, and the fact that many slaves were captured persons was irrelevant in law. A person from Poland could be captured and later sold in England, for example. Slavery was common amongst the Scandanavians themselves, as well.
In the 300-year period where Vikings were most active, there were only approximately 347 attacks that spread from the British Isles to Morocco, Portugal, and Turkey. In Ireland, where the Vikings are most famous for attacking monasteries, there were only 430 known attacks during this 300-year period.
The use of human skulls as drinking vessels is also ahistorical. The rise of this myth can be traced back to a Ole Worm's Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima of 1636), warriors drinking ór bjúgviðum hausa [from the curved branches of skulls, i.e. from horns] were rendered as drinking ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt [from the skulls of those whom they had slain]. The skull-cup allegation may have some history also in relation with other Germanic tribes and Eurasian nomads, such as the Scythians and Pechenegs.
The image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the Vikings in popular culture is a distorted picture of reality. As non-Scandinavian Christians are responsible for most surviving accounts of the Vikings and consequently, a strong possibility for bias exists. This attitude is likely attributed to Christian misunderstandings regarding paganism. Viking tendencies were often misreported and the work of Adam of Bremen, among others, told largely disputable tales of Viking savagery and uncleanliness.
However, it is now known that the Vikings used a variety of tools for personal grooming such as combs, tweezers, razors or specialized "ear spoons". In particular, combs are among the most frequent artifacts from Viking Age excavations. The Vikings also made soap, which they used to bleach their hair as well as for cleaning, as blonde hair was ideal in the Viking culture.
The Vikings in England even had a particular reputation for excessive cleanliness, due to their custom of bathing once a week, on Saturdays (unlike the local Anglo-Saxons). To this day, Saturday is referred to as laugardagur/laurdag/lørdag/lördag, "washing day" in the Scandinavian languages, though the original meaning is lost in modern speech in most of the Scandinavian languages ("laug" still means "bath" or "pool" in Icelandic).
As for the Rus', who had later acquired a subjected Varangian component, Ibn Rustah explicitly notes their cleanliness, while Ibn Fadlan is disgusted by all of the men sharing the same, used vessel to wash their faces and blow their noses in the morning. Ibn Fadlan's disgust is probably motivated by his ideas of personal hygiene particular to the Muslim world, such as running water and clean vessels. While the example intended to convey his disgust about the customs of the Rus', at the same time it recorded that they did wash every morning.
- Vikings and the Romanticist Viking Revival have inspired many works of fiction, from historical novels directly based on historical events like Frans Gunnar Bengtsson's The Long Ships to loosely historical fantasies like Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead to the outright silly, like Erik the Viking.
- The toy company Playmobil has a Vikings product line. LEGO also released a Vikings theme in 2005.
- The "Veggie Tales" animated series, created by Big Idea, Inc., features the character, "Lyle the Kindly Viking".
- The Viking raiders of Native America are the primary antagonists of the heavily stylised 2007 movie Pathfinder (2007 film).
- Another popular Viking of fiction is the comic strip character Hagar the Horrible.
- Viking metal is also a popular sub-genre of heavy metal music, originating in the early 1990s as an off-shoot of the black metal sub-genre. This style is notable for its lyrical and theatrical emphasis on Norse mythology as well as Viking lifestyles and beliefs. Popular bands that contribute to this genre include Amon Amarth, Valhalla, Týr and Enslaved.
- Vikings have also appeared in various types of anime.
- A Viking named Vlad drives various drag racers in the Carmageddon series.
- Olaf Tryggvason. Forced thousands to convert to Christianity. Once burned London Bridge down out of anger of people disobeying his orders (hence the childrens' rhyme "London Bridge is falling down").
- Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, England, Norway and founder of Swansea ("Sweyn's island")
- Magnus Barelegs, King of Norway
- Askold and Dir, legendary Varangian conquerors of Kiev
- Helgi or Oleg, ruler of Kiev
- Björn Ironside, son of Ragnar Lodbrok, pillaged in Italy
- Brodir, Danish Viking who killed the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru
- Egill Skallagrímsson, Icelandic warrior and skald (see also Egils saga)
- Erik the Red, discoverer of Greenland
- Leif Ericsson, discoverer of Vínland, son of Erik the Red
- Freydís Eiríksdóttir, a Viking woman who sailed to Vínland
- Canute the Great, the most successful Danish Viking King. Son of Sweyn Forkbeard, grandson of Harold Bluetooth and great great uncle to William the Conqueror. This connection was one of the key justifications for Williams claim to the English throne.
- Harald Hardrada, Norwegian king who unsuccessfully tried to conquer England in 1066
- Gardar Svavarsson, discoverer of Iceland. Originally from Sweden.
- Guthrum colonised, England
- Ingvar the Far-Travelled, the leader of the last great Swedish Viking expedition, which pillaged the shores of the Caspian Sea
- Ivar the Boneless, disabled son of Ragnar Lodbrok who, despite having to be carried on a shield, nevertheless conquered York
- Ingólfur Arnarson, colonised Iceland
- Oleg of Kiev, conquered Kiev, founded Kievan Rus' and attacked Constantinople
- Ragnar Lodbrok, captured Paris
- Rollo of Normandy, founder of Normandy
- Rurik, founder of the Rus' rule in Eastern Europe
Obs: Olaf Trygavsson was not the "the holly Olaf or Saint Olaf" as many think. Olaf Trygavsson was the king of the nordmenn from 995 to 1000 and was killed in a naval beatle outside for Trondheim. How could he be the saint Olaf, if this one died at 29 july 1030 in Stiklestad? The real name of this saint is "Olaf Haraldsson, king from 1016 to 1028.(Moseng 2006)