|Illustration from 12th century Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund|
Vikings are something which has enraptured the public's image for centuries. Starting with the Victorians and their contemporaries the world has become fascinated with the people who we now refer to as Vikings. In some areas where the Vikings once raided and ruled the legacies and memories of these raiders has become sources of local pride. I come from Yorkshire in northern England which was centuries ago home to the only truly Viking territory on mainland Britain in the form of the Kingdom of Jorvik. The town which I am specifically from is only a twenty minute train journey from this kingdom's capital, modern day York. York itself has taken much pride that it was once ruled by Vikings. What were the Vikings like in real life? Who were the Vikings? To start off with we have to look at where the people we call Vikings came from and why they started raiding in the first place.
The people who we call Vikings originated in northern Europe in an area called Scandinavia, (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). Peoples across Europe and the Middle East referred to these peoples in various ways. The Franks referred to them as 'Northmen' or 'Danes' while the English referred to them as either 'Danes' or 'heathens'. Irish sources initially referred to them as 'pagans' or 'gentiles' but later called them 'Finngall' (Norwegians) or Dubgall (Danish). Slavic peoples in eastern Europe referred to them as 'the Rus' which later Byzantine and Arab texts referred to them as. The word 'Viking' itself only came into usage during the 'Viking revival' over two hundred years ago when we first began seeing these people in a romanticized view in contrast to the barbarians which they had been portrayed as centuries prior. We are not too sure on the etymological origins on the word 'Viking' with there being several theories about the origin of it, one such with it being an Old Norse word for 'pirate' or 'piracy'.
Historians have often placed the start of the 'Viking Age' as 793 when raiders from Scandinavia sacked the Lindisfarne monastery in what is now Northumbria. Despite what the media normally portrays Viking life to be like most people in Scandinavia for centuries had been either farmers or traders. So why then did they start raiding suddenly? An initial theory was that population pressure meant that there was not enough land to go around for the use of farming. Hence, 'Vikings' started raiding Christian areas, like England and France, to get rich quick or to settle distant lands like Iceland. However, this theory about wanting land has largely been discredited now. A huge Viking farm has been discovered at Borg on the Lofoten Islands off of the northern Norwegian coast (actually inside the Arctic Circle), and a Norwegian merchant called Ottar who visited Alfred the Great of Wessex said that one of the three things which he did to sustain his family was reindeer farming in the 'furthest north of all the Norsemen'. The population density of Scandinavia has been estimated to be one or two people per square mile, the exact opposite of over-population. Other theories have been put forward. Most theories do have some uniting reason to why they started raiding western Europe: economic reasons. For many generations Scandinavians had been exacting tribute from the Sami, Finns, Balts, and Slavs in eastern Europe as it was home to the best fur for trading. The merchant Ottar took tribute from the Sami and said 'That tribute consists of the skins of beasts, the feathers of birds, whale-bone, and ship-ropes made from walrus-hide and sealskin'. These items were very important in both Scandinavia and western Europe, (as well as other materials from Scandinavia), which helped create important and lucrative trade routes between western and northern Europe. From here Scandinavians learnt important facts about the goings on in the west giving them ample information to extract more wealth through raiding.
However, these economic links have been used in accordance with theories about why raiding started. Some, like Peter Sawyer, have argued that raiding showed the power of local rulers. Danish kings controlled the route to the Baltic and used the tributary system to show their power. By sending out raiders and then taking the profit this showed other rulers how powerful they was. This period saw increased urbanization where much wealth was located so naturally it was easier to get rich raiding urban settlements than trading. Another idea argued by historians, like Robert Ferguson, was the raiding was a response to Christian expansion. The start of the 'Viking Age' coincided with Charlemagne's wars against the pagan Saxons (please see here) so raiding of wealthy Christian settlements would help counteract Christianity's spread, and make them wealthier. What the real reason was we may not know.
Religion and Burial Practices
The Vikings were polytheistic and their religion is often referred to as Norse. We know that the gods were often revered as this extract from History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen shows
For all the gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol of Thor; if war, to Wotan; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frikko.
It is unfortunate that most sources on Norse religion were written centuries after the Vikings had converted to Christianity, or are from the Icelandic sagas which are heavily mythologized. However, we can learn much from archaeology, and what sources which we do have. We know that the 'chief' of Norse gods was Odin, and quite like the Greco-Roman gods he was not a perfect being. Thanks to Marvel comics Thor and other appearances in the media, (the god associated with thunder, strength and the protection of humanity) is the most famous Norse god. Often people would honor Thor in times of need as he was seen as the protector of humanity and would grant them strength. Similarly to many other religions there is an apocalypse in Norse religion called Ragnarok. Although a Christian source written years after the 'Viking Age' we get a good idea of Ragnarok from the Poetic Edda. Among the things to happen in Ragnarok is that the son of Loki, the giant wolf Fenrir, would kill Odin, and that the world would be engulfed in water. Eventually the world would resurface fertile once more with the surviving gods returning and with two humans to repopulate the world.
Contrary to popular belief the 'Viking funeral' of being cremated on a ship was very rare. In Denmark it was actually more common to be buried than cremated. Many areas had the dead buried with personal belongings which was believed would help them in the afterlife. Usually this indicated the wealth and power of an individual: burials with many grave goods have been interpreted as being burials of rich and powerful individuals. In Oseberg, Norway a ship was even buried in a burial mound around the year 834 with an older and younger woman in the mound as well. Bone analysis has found out that they ate a diet consisting of meat showing how wealthy they were as fish was the diet of most people at the time. Also, the fact that such an amazing horde was found buried with the women showed that women in this society could be very important. There are instances of the stereotypical ship burning funeral. The best is an Islamic source from Ibn Fadlan written in the first half of the 900s and shows a unique way how they (the Rus) prepared the dead. Among this they 'divide them [his wealth] into three parts. The first of these is for his family; the second is expanded for the garments they make; and with the third they purchase strong drink, against the day when the girl resigns herself to death, and is burned with her master'. After a feast, an orgy, and a ritual where the sacrifice supposedly sees her master 'in Paradise' the sacrifice's throat is cut and the ship is burnt. Of course this ritual is likely only reserved for the elite. Also, contrary to popular opinion if a Viking king died peacefully this was seen as a good sign as it indicated that his rule had been prosperous.
Vikings in the East
|Kievan Rus in Constantinople|
It is erroneous to place the start of the Viking Age with the sack of Lindisfarne. Generations before they started raiding west they had been extracting tribute from the peoples of the east. Principally people from east Sweden went east to the Baltic to do this and they started travelling to Lake Ladoga and down the Volga to trade. By 750 they had established a settlement called Staraja Ladoga to do this. Here they used tribute and trade to get goods including amber and a quarter of a million silver coins from the Islamic caliphate to the south! In return they traded Frankish swords to Arab traders. Using small ships, with around ten crew members, they would travel down the Dnieper and Volga rivers to access the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. There they would have access to the two cities of wonder: Constantinople and Baghdad. This trade was so prosperous that they established settlements across the rivers to secure this trade. In the 8th-Century Kiev was founded and in the 10th-Century Novgorod was founded. The name of the Vikings also changed along here. One theory on their name origin was that it comes from Roslagen, (eastern Sweden), which then got shortened to Rus. They did continue raiding with one in 907 allowing them to trade in Constantinople. Like their cousins in the west the Rus were known as fierce fighters with Arab sources stating that their leaders went into a rage similar to that of the infamous berserkers. Thanks to this the Byzantines even hired them as mercenaries. As shown below one mercenary named Halvdan in the 9th-Century got bored and carved his name into the Hagia Sophia.
|Viking graffiti in the Hagia Sophia|
Eventually there was a shift among the Rus from a Scandinavian identity to a Slavic one as there began assimilation between the Rus and the local Slavic peoples. Elizabeth Rowe has stated this shift in Kiev took three generations to do. However, the states of Novgorod and Kiev would lay the foundations for a new state whose name derives from the Rus: Russia. However, that is a future World History post.
Vikings in the West
In 793 the first major Viking raid on England took place with the monastery of Lindisfarne being sacked and the monks inside being murdered. Alcuin of York wrote
We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly three hundred and fifty years, and never before has such an atrocity been seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of a pagan people. The church of St. Cuthbert is spattered with blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans- a place more sacred than any in Britain.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said:
A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island (Lindisfarne), by rapine and slaughter.
When studying the Vikings in the west the idea of 'only the winners write history' gets shot down as almost all our sources come from those attacked by Vikings, and they are not very flattering of the victors to say the least. In 789 there had been a raid on an island off the coast of Dorset but the Lindisfarne raid is seen as greater as it was a raid on a monastery. Thus started 'the Viking Age' in western Europe. In 794 the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland was sacked and then Vikings started raiding Ireland. Around the same time in the same ships which they had used for trade in the east were being used to take raiders up the Seine. In 845 they even managed to siege Paris and they only left when paid 2600 kilograms of silver by Charles the Bald.
We also see in this period Vikings settling in the west. In some areas they created entirely Viking settlements, mainly the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Orkney, the Shetlands, and Greenland. In fact modern Icelandic is the closest language to Old Norse for this reason! This was achieved as in areas like Iceland and Greenland there was no previous settlement. In other areas of Europe Vikings came and settled. In 840 Vikings started creating settlements on the Irish coast and one would become Dublin. Other trading ports were founded by Norwegians including Cork and Limerick, and afterwards there was much intermingling between the Scandinavians and Vikings. Dublin boomed thanks to becoming a key trading port getting goods from Iberia and Byzantium to be shipped to northern Europe. That is until 1014 with the Battle of Clontarf when Brian Boru managed to oust the Vikings from Ireland. However, it was not Irish vs. Vikings but rather Irish and Vikings vs. Vikings. It was a different story in Normandy (northern France). Charles the Simple was forced to sign a treaty in 912 with Rollo granting him areas of northern France in return for Rollo converting to Christianity and protecting the Seine. This was called the Duchy of Normandy (Normandy coming from 'Normanni' or 'Men of the North'). Under Rollo's protection raids on France started to dwindle. Finally we have England. Fans of the BBC show The Last Kingdom and the books it is based on will recognize the 'Great Heathen Army' (as named by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). In 865 an army led by Ivarr the Boneless, Guthrum, Halfdan, and Ubba invaded East Anglia (southeast England) and proceeded to conquer most of England until 878 when they were halted by Alfred the Great of Wessex. The areas conquered by the Vikings was called the Danelaw and here intermingling of Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon cultures could be seen. Many place names have their origin in Scandinavian words, any place in England in -by, -howe, and -ton just being a few examples. Northern English accents (such as my own) were born through the blending of Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon speech. Any readers from Britain will notice the stark difference between accents from the north and south, this is one of the reasons why. Slowly the remaining English kingdoms started chipping away at the Danelaw until 927 when the Kingdom of England was born. However, the Viking presence did not stop here. Between 1016 and 1035 Cnut the Great ruled England and it was only until 1066 at the Battle of Stamford Bridge did Scandinavian presence in England end with the defeat of Harald Hardrada. Incidentally the same year William of Normandy, the descendant of Rollo, conquered England. In all areas when the Vikings settled they traded once more with the locals with them even funding the rebuilding of settlements which they had attacked using the money earned through trade.
One final point to mention is this: Vikings went to the Americas. Leif Erikson went from Greenland and supposedly founded a new settlement called Vinland. Here they traded and fought with the local people until the settlement was abandoned. We now know that Vikings did settle in the Americas. L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland has been discovered to be a Viking settlement, however it is doubtful if it was Leif Erikson's settlement. Although not there long it shows that Europeans had arrived in the Americas centuries before Columbus and without the horrors that Columbus did in the Americas.
Conversion to Christianity
For centuries Vikings knew about Christianity. They had traded with Christians, took Christian wives, took Christian slaves (called thralls), and had lived with Christians. Hence, conversion to Christianity was not a major issue for many Vikings with some converting but continued to worship Norse gods as well as Jesus. Queen Thyra, married to King Gorm, (Denmark's first king), ensured that Christian's were protected during in Denmark and her son Harald Bluetooth later boasted of 'making the Danes Christian'. Harald (incidentally the runes making his initials put together form the Bluetooth logo) supposedly converted around the 960s when a monk managed to hold something boiling in his hand without being burnt and this aided the conversion of Denmark. It especially was helpful that Thor's hammer Mjolnir which people wore as necklaces resembled the Christian cross. Some historians believe that Harald had Denmark convert through fear that remaining pagan would give Christian kingdoms to the south an excuse to constantly attack Denmark so conversion removed this threat. Slowly the other kingdoms converted to Christianity so that the last Vikings wore the Christian cross instead of Thor's hammer.
It is clear to see why so many people are enraptured with the Vikings. Although the traders and farmers of reality contrast greatly with the entirely seafaring people that the media portrays them as they still remain interesting. What is more their legacy has greatly shaped the world. From the names of our days (Thursday comes from Thor's Day, Wednesday from Wodin's (Odin's) Day etc.), to our place names, to the way we speak, to even graffiti carved into the floor of the Hagia Sophia. They forged Ireland, Russia, Denmark, Ukraine, and the UK. They helped forge the world that we live in today. Thank you for reading and the next World History post will be about the Crusades.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings by Robert Ferguson
-The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings edited by Peter Sawyer
-The Viking Age: A Reader edited by Angus A.Somerville and R.Andrew McDonald
-BBC In Our Time podcast: The Volga Vikings
For the list of other World History posts please see here
For the list of other World History posts please see here