The Vikings and Their Era

Velkomnir, gestirnir mínir!
(Welcome, my guests!) 🍃

Gather ’round the hearth, my good friends, for today we shall set off on a History Raid, where we will share stories about the Vikings. But for now, we will restrain ourselves by first preparing for the journey that lies ahead of us, for there is much to cover and we must be ready of mind before we set out too far. Who were the Vikings? What were they really like? And what was their world? Grab a horn of ale or mead and take your place near the warmth of the fire, for the night is young and stories have yet to be sung!

I can see that you are all very eager, and who could blame you? Anyone who has heard of the riches and glory found in the distant kingdoms of Frankland and England is restless until they too have had their chance to feed the raven and share in the fjord-flame! To fell foes and glean gold! Alas, how great a pleasure it would be to set off on our fjord-serpents without a moment’s more delay! Worry not, my friends, for our time will surely come. But how could we depart on our ships if we do not even know what a ‘Viking’ really was?


The Vikings

It all began with a hersir and his hall, not on ships nor in faraway lands. As Anders Winroth relates, the raids of the Vikings had their roots in the great feasts of Norse chieftains, springing up from the loyalties and friendships that bloomed from drinking, feasting, and lavish gifts. These halls were at the heart of a chieftain’s world, and he used this space to attract warriors from all across the land. And so they came, looking for honor, hospitality, and (of course) plenty of mead to drink. And while they were there, these warriors enjoyed plenty of food, festivities, and good times, all while forging bonds of loyalty, friendship, and blood-brotherhood with each other.[1] Thus these men, under the roof of their influential chieftain’s hall, would become the first Vikings of Scandinavia.

But how did these men go from warriors to Vikings? And what did it really mean to be a ‘Viking’? One thing is certain: ‘Viking’ did not mean ‘Scandinavian’. The word ‘Viking’ came to us from the Old Norse noun víkingr (pl. víkingar), meaning “freebooter, sea-rover,” or “pirate.” Similarly, their expeditions were called víking, meaning “freebooting voyage” or “piracy.” While scholars aren’t exactly sure where these terms came from, most agree that it may have its origins in the Old Norse word vík, meaning “bay.”[2] After all, that was the best place for freebooters to gather and prey upon unsuspecting merchants.

But to them, being a Viking generally meant working a dangerous part-time job over the summer, where your boss was probably also your chieftain (unless you were an Icelander, then you sailed to Norway and went raiding under their chieftains instead). The eager warriors who flocked to their halls would have been among the first to send in their résumés, but so too did farmers, fisherman, and merchants who all wanted an opportunity to supplement their income or start their own farmsteads.[3] Indeed, you need not have been a full-time warrior to be a Viking! Nor did you need to be a Scandinavian, for the term was also used to refer to non-Norse raiders, such as the Slavic Wends of the Baltic Sea.[4]

Viking Helmet MemeNow, there is another thing about Vikings we must settle before moving on. What image comes to your mind when you read the word ‘Viking’? Does it have a horned helmet? If so, toss it from your mind as if flinging your axe at a charging enemy! Despite popular media, the only place Vikings kept horns on them was at their belt or in their hand; it was used for more important things, such as drinking mead. The horns ‘appeared’ on their helms after the 1876 premiere of Wagner’s opera Ring of the Nibelung.[5] And before anyone gets too excited, the same goes for winged helmets as well.


…Their Reputation

If you were to ask a medieval monk what the Vikings were like, you’d most definitely hear the stereotypical description of a Viking. They would quickly proclaim: “They are bloodthirsty, savage heathens sent by God to punish us all for living impiously!” And then they might go off on a tirade about all of their treacheries: “They are ferocious barbarians who have slaughtered, raped, wrought destruction, toppled kingdoms, and laid waste to all of Christendom! They have killed and maimed us without discriminating against age, gender, or status, slaughtering us all mindlessly as though we were merely livestock!”

But let’s not just take my word for this. Just look at what the churchman Alcuin wrote in a letter to King Athelred in 793 AD, after the Vikings raided Lindisfarne in England:

Alcuin
[6]
Alcuin, like many of the other clergymen who saw their monasteries and churches raided by the Vikings, saw them as a punishment sent by God for their immoral living. He urged everyone to “defend your country by assiduous prayers to God, by acts of justice and mercy to men.”[7] His reaction (and solution) may seem ridiculous to those who are not faithful to Christ, or those who are not medieval clergymen (which I suspect most of us aren’t); but his words do have merit. Lindisfarne was considered to be one of the most holy places in the British Isles, and if somewhere so holy was not safe from the Vikings, where on Earth was? Thus these raids troubled the minds of contemporary Christians on a deeply spiritual level, 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] It’s really no wonder that they have nothing good to say about the Vikings.

But like everything in history, the picture is far more complicated than that. My good friends, the reputation of the Vikings far exceeds their violent acts alone. While they certainly were ferociously violent and committed terrible deeds to innocent folk, they were not mindless killing-machines. They were a violent people during a violent time. Their goals and methods were not all that more brutal than other medieval kingdoms.

Charlemagne the Viking
Charlemagne as a Viking

Throughout the Middle Ages, violence was a ‘tool’ that even purportedly civilized Christian rulers made ample use of. Charlemagne, who is celebrated today by the European Union as the unifier of Europe and even as a one of its founding fathers, was seldom at peace with his neighbors during his reign (768-814). In a single day during the year of 782, he order the decapitation of at least 4,500 Saxons, which was only one act amid a bloody campaign against the people of Saxony. Charlemagne, like the Vikings, raided, killed, and extracted tribute from frightened folk. He even shared his booty with his followers to inspire them and solidify friendships, just like the chieftains in northern halls did with their own followers.[9]

Once we look beyond all of this violence, there is a whole world of achievements to discover. The Vikings, or rather the Norse people, boldly sailed from their homeland to discover new lands, settling Iceland and Greenland, as well as reaching as far as North America 500 years before Columbus. As merchants, they navigated the rivers of Eastern Europe, establishing land trade routes that stretched all the way into central Asia and even the Arab Caliphate, which connected them with the Silk Road and China. Their homeland flourished with the wealth that these Vikings brought home, both through their impressive trade and violent plunder. As their culture intermingled with that of the rest of Europe, they wrote down impressive works of literature and poetry that rivaled works produced elsewhere in the medieval world. And it was during their era, the Viking Age, that Scandinavia saw the rise of towns and began to crystallize into the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that we know today.[10]

While we cannot completely excuse their violent acts, their reputation is more complex than being simple-minded barbarians that plundered and pillaged without reason nor hesitation. While the Vikings committed terrible acts of violence upon the innocent (and not-so-innocent), the Norse as a people accomplished so much more than that alone. Not everyone living in the North during the Viking Age was a Viking. Some were merchants, some were settlers, and others were explorers. But more often than not, the people of the North were all of these things simultaneously.


…and Their Era (c. 793-1066)

While the Norse would have likely understood the concept of a ‘Viking Age’,[11] it still remains subject to modern interpretation. As with all historical time periods, setting specific dates for a ‘new era’ can be tricky business. The Viking Age certainly began in the late eight century, but it is traditionally given the date 793 AD, when the Vikings are said to have raided Lindisfarne (due to its impact on the people, such as Alcuin). However, the first recorded Viking raid on England actually took place in 789, at least according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

ASChr 789
[12]
Yet, it is worth mentioning that Scandinavians had been raiding long before then. In 528 AD, Hygelac, who was either a king of the Danes or the Geats (yes, those Geats), raided the Franks near the lower Rhine. This event is not recorded in one, but four different sources, including Gregory of Tour’s sixth-century history of the Franks and even the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.[13]

So when did their raids stop? That, my friends, is a more difficult question to answer. In Ireland, they ended with the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, which signaled the final decline of Norse political power over the island. There is also the fall of the ‘Viking’ empire of Knut the Great, known as the North Sea Empire, which crumbled apart after his death in 1035, thus marking the end of serious ‘Viking’ conquest abroad. Perhaps the most popular, and the date that I have chosen to go with, comes from King Harald Hardradi’s defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, after which Viking raids on England were half-hearted at best. Still, some push the boundaries further by closing the Viking Age with the death of King Hákon IV the Old in 1263, since he attempted at least one raid on Scotland during his reign.[14]

Nevertheless, the Vikings certainly made their presence known to the medieval world between the years 793 and 1066. The Viking Age was their era on the world stage (although their limelight was not always positive). During this time, the Vikings raided, traded, and faded into the populations they settled amongst. Yet, they also settled brand new lands and even reached as far as North America on their impressive ships. But don’t just take my word for it. Take a look for yourself just how widespread the Vikings were between the seventh and tenth centuries:

Viking Age Map
Map Provided by Harvard’s Digital Atlas of the Roman and Medieval Civilizations

And that, my good friends, concludes today’s festivities. In this course, we shall follow their raids and plunder the history of the Vikings. Today we have made great progress towards that endeavor, for we have laid the foundations for the journey that lies before us. We know that a Viking was not just a mindless killing-machine with demonic horns upon their head. Rather, they were warriors and farmers who were looking for something to do over the summer. Not everyone in Scandinavia was a Viking, nor were they all as violent as their reputation lets on. While many Vikings committed terrible atrocities, many also accomplished admirable feats, such as the discovery of the New World and the creation of beautiful sagas for us to enjoy even to this day.

I hope you all will join me during our next history raid; but until then, enjoy horns full of mead, tables covered in food, and the fellowship of good, smiling friends!

Skál! 🍻
— Fjörn


Endnotes

[1] Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 6-7. [return]

[2] Geir T. Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 499. [return]

[3] Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald ed., The Viking Age: A Reader, Second Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), xvi. [return]

[4] Jesse L. Byock, Viking Language 1: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas (Pacific Palisades: Jules William Press, 2014), 28. [return]

[5] Winroth, The Age of the Vikings, 9. [return]

[6] Somerville and McDonald ed., The Viking Age: A Reader, 186. [return]

[7] Ibid., 187. [return]

[8] John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 51. [return]

[9] Winroth, The Age of the Vikings, 41-44. [return]

[10] Ibid., 8-10. [return]

[11] Byock, Viking Language 1, 28. “Almost surely [early Scandinavians] would have understood the concept of a Viking Age…” [return]

[12] Somerville and McDonald ed., The Viking Age: A Reader, 184. [return]

[13] Haywood, Atlas of the Vikings, 24. [return]

[14] Somerville and McDonald ed., The Viking Age: A Reader, xvii. [return]


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