The Vikings and Their Era
“In the popular imagination, the Vikings are shaggy, unkempt, ax-weilding thugs in horned helmets who raped, pillaged, and plundered their way across Europe in the Early Middle Ages, nearly destroying Western civilization in the process. They have been blamed for everything from a decline in learning (thanks to the burning of monasteries, places of learning) to the break-up of the Carolingian empire that dominated Europe in the ninth century. So is the Viking stereotype of the burly, destructive barbarian remotely accurate? As usual, the myth is far removed from reality.”
— Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, The Viking Age: A Reader, xv.
Intertwined with imagination, enthusiasm, and even hostility, the ‘Vikings’ still remain a terribly misunderstood group within history. Their image as unkempt barbarians comes out of popular fiction, while their iconic horned helmet, completely unaccounted for in the Viking Age archaeological record, stems from a romantic invention of the nineteenth century.1 Yet, beyond their misrepresented appearance, their very name contributes to this obscurity of reality. The term Viking, which comes from the Old Norse word víkingr, meaning ‘freebooter, sea-rover, pirate’,2 was not originally used as an ethnic term for medieval Scandinavians, as is popularly done today. Instead, the term only applied to the few Scandinavians who “honorably (in Norse eyes) sailed across the sea to steal and to those who robbed neighbors closer to home.”3 The word is a job-description, which was a part-time occupation “undertaken seasonally by farmers, fishermen, merchants, and the like, as a means of supplementing their income.”4 Thus, the vast majority of medieval Scandinavians would not have considered themselves as ‘Vikings’ at all.
In order to prevent the continuation of this misused terminology, these lessons will employ the term ‘Norse’ in order to describe the people of medieval Scandinavia during the Viking Age. Yet, the term ‘Viking’ will still be used when it is appropriate to do so, i.e. when a Norseman is actually engaging in a víking (or víking-related activity), which is the Old Norse word for a ‘freebooting voyage’.5 Furthermore, since this history series is largely centered around the actions and achievements of those Norseman engaged in Viking activities, the title here shall remain Viking History (instead of Norse History).
THE VIKING AGE
The period that historians call ‘The Viking Age’ traditionally begins in the year 793 AD, with the raid on the Abbey of Lindisfarne, and lasts until Harald Hardradi’s defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 AD. This is not, however, a steadfast window of Viking activity. The earliest recorded raid, at least according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, occurred around the year 789, where three ships from Norway raided Portland:
“This year, King Beorhtric [of Wessex] married Eadburg, Offa’s daughter. And in his days there came for the first time three ships of Northmen, from Hordaland [in Norway]. Then the Reeve rode to meet them; he intended to have them go to the king’s town because he did not know what they were. They killed him. These were the first Danish ships to attack the land of the English people…”6
The raid on Lindisfarne is generally chosen as the ‘true’ beginning of the Viking Age because of the shock it had on the rest of Christendom (Christian Europe). Lindisfarne was considered “one of the most holy places in all of the British Isles,”7 and if somewhere so holy was not safe from the Vikings, nowhere was. As a result, these raids soon began to trouble the minds of contemporary Christians, not so much because of the fact that these ‘pagans’ had come and raided their lands, but rather because God and his saints, for whatever reason, “had not intervened to prevent it happening.”8 Contemporary Christian reaction to the Vikings, especially in regards to Lindisfarne, is perhaps best illustrated by Alcuin, who wrote a letter to King Ethelred after the event had occurred:
“Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of priests of God, despoiled of its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of Saint Paulius from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured? Foxes pillage the chosen vine, the heritage of the Lord has been given to the Gentiles; the holy festivity has been turned to mourning.”9
He continues by appealing to his fellow brethren to be more watchful over their sins, for clearly, as he surmised, this raid must have been a sign of their corruption and departure from the Holy Scriptures. But there is something else worth noting from this passage, and that is how Alcuin mentions that he did not think it was possible for ships to get to Lindisfarne from the sea. This comment attests to the impressive technology of Norse ships, particularly that of the longship, that made the Viking Age possible by allowing Vikings to sail their ships inland up shallow rivers.
With that in mind, the Viking Age was not only a time of occasional violence, but also of innovation and discovery. Vikings travelled vast distances on their raiding expeditions, but other Norsemen (and women) used the same technology (and news from those who returned from their raids) to settle new and old lands alike, engaging in trade and often integrating into other populations. Thanks to their ships, and perhaps their heroic bravery (if one sides with the Icelanders recording sagas about them later on), ‘their’ world was vast. So well-travelled were the Norse, in fact, that they went as far west as North America and as far east as the Abbasid Caliphate, which is demonstrated by this map:
Like the beginning of this era, there still remains the possibility for reevaluating its closure. In some regards, it is best to understand the end of the Viking Age as being specific to particular regions where Vikings were active. For example, Viking activity declines in Ireland after the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In England, it could be said that this decline occurred with Knut’s death in 1035, or even with Harald Hardradi’s disastrous defeat in 1066. Yet, regardless of these events, Viking activity continued in the British Isles at least until the death of Hakon the Old in 1263, whose unsuccessful raid on Scotland was “the last serious intervention in the British Isles” by a Viking Norseman.10
Nonetheless, while the Vikings maintain a brutish reputation even today, there is far more to the Viking Age than rape, pillage, and plunder. The raids done by those who could actually be called ‘Vikings’ accounts for only a small portion of what the Norse actually did and achieved. In this history series, I will explore not only Viking raids, but also the society, culture, and activities of the Norse during this broad era, from before 789 until 1263. I will examine their pagan ways, their legends and sagas, their laws and social structures, their technological achievements, their artistic tastes, their raids, their interactions with foreign lands, their settlement of new lands, their discoveries, and their gradual transition into medieval Christendom. This series, being hereby rewritten and revised, has much to offer the casual and avid learner alike.
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In the next lesson, we will begin with the Scandinavian homeland, its geography and people, before expanding out into the rest of the ‘Viking world’. In doing so, I will explain the geographical conditions that affected the development of Norse culture and society, as well as their technologies that helped them overcome their environment and limitations. Furthermore, I will illustrate just how divided the Norse truly were at the onset of the Viking Age, where the familiar Scandinavian nations of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden had not yet been established.
1. Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald ed., The Viking Age: A Reader, Second Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), xv.
2. Geir T. Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 499.
3. Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 12.
4. Somerville and McDonald, xvi.
5. Zoëga, 499. Not to be confused with víkingr, which refers to the person raiding, not the raid itself.
6. Somerville and McDonald, 184.
7. John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 50.
8. Ibid., 51.
9. Somerville and McDonald, 186.
10. Ibid., xvii.