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Viking - 32: Who Were the Vikings. What Catapulted Them to the Forefront of History?

"The wary guest who comes to the feast speaks sparingly. He listens and learns, hears and sees. Such is the seeker of knowledge".

Havamal

Leaders, explorers, adventurers, settlers, warriors, craftsmen... Berserkers and wolfs-heads

Scandinavian seaborne expansion became possible when ship technology came of age with the addition of masts and sails through the strengthening of construction

Scandinavian seaborne expansion became possible when ship technology came of age with the addition of masts and sails through the strengthening of construction

Leif Eiriksson, 'the Lucky', nears the mouth of the Saint Lawrence where a landing is made on 'Vinland', land of wild vines and wheat

Leif Eiriksson, 'the Lucky', nears the mouth of the Saint Lawrence where a landing is made on 'Vinland', land of wild vines and wheat

Within months of landing and building homes the 'skraelings' attacked due to a misunderstanding. See 'VIKING - 18 -' Go West Young Man!'

Within months of landing and building homes the 'skraelings' attacked due to a misunderstanding. See 'VIKING - 18 -' Go West Young Man!'

'Chronicles of the Vikings'

... The Romantic image - or preferred view from the perspective of those who'd escaped the terrors

... The Romantic image - or preferred view from the perspective of those who'd escaped the terrors

My copy's got a different cover - bought at the Viking Exhibition at the British Museum last April (2014) when I was treated by my elder daughter. R I Page's book contains some information on the Vikings not covered elsewhere. It's a compendium of chronicles, tellings and excerpts from sagas including those of Snorri Sturlusson's. If this is the only book on the Vikings that you ever buy, it's a good introduction. It tells you about the Norse world from their point of view, gives you their values:

'Cattle die, kin die,

The man dies too.

But good fame never dies

For the man who earns it...'

It goes on for another few lines, but you get the gist of the message. Die a hero and you will never be overlooked. .

Gamesmanship - a must for any self-respecting Norseman

The Lewis chess set - one of the pawns is portrayed as a 'berserker', chewing the top of his shield in a frenzy. The Norsemen would have learned about chess from their travels to the near east.

The Lewis chess set - one of the pawns is portrayed as a 'berserker', chewing the top of his shield in a frenzy. The Norsemen would have learned about chess from their travels to the near east.

'Nine Men's Morris', a game similar to Hnefatafl below, and to the much later solitaire

'Nine Men's Morris', a game similar to Hnefatafl below, and to the much later solitaire

Hnefatafl board - I bought mine many years ago from the York Archaeological Trust shop by post before online shopping made things easier, and before the Jorvik Viking Centre was established on Coppergate.

Hnefatafl board - I bought mine many years ago from the York Archaeological Trust shop by post before online shopping made things easier, and before the Jorvik Viking Centre was established on Coppergate.

Before Norse merchants, Danish invaders and Viking freebooters* set out across the seas around north-western Europe...

... The Franks, Gaels, Angles, Saxons, Frisians, the Romans and even the Phoenicians had already been there, done that, got the mail-shirts. The Norsemen were not the greatest innovators, being the amongst the last seafarers to put sails on their ships. Where you cannot fault them is in the scope of their adventuring. To the east they ventured from the Eastern Sea (the Baltic) along the riverways, the Vistula, the Volkhov, the Volga... They crossed the Black Sea from the mouth of the Dnieper westward to Miklagard (Constantinople); they crossed eastward as far as the Caspian Sea and Baghdad.

Southward, they coursed the North Sea, entered the Middle Sea (Mediterranean) and raided on the Italian mainland near Rome - thinking they had raided Rome. The Balearic islands were colonised and mainland Iberia raided from there, as well as the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Westward crossings from Norway took them to the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and North America, into the great unknown - sometimes with kith and kin, uprooting in the wake of stark new taxes imposed by greedy kings, notably Harald 'Fairhair', Olaf Haraldsson and Harald 'Hardradi'.

These forays into the wild blue yonder loaned the Vikings their fascination down through the pages of history. From their exploits, raiding, explorations and trading the West Norse and Danes penetrated the British Isles and Normandy, sometimes raiding, often colonising. Many times - under pressure from their disgruntled neighbours - they buried their loot with the intention of going back... Thus, hoards have been unearthed such as those found at Cuerdale, Silverdale and Harrogate in England and at numerous locations around the British Isles. Silver, jewellery, gold and ornament prised from monastic books that originated everywhere the Vikings went raiding or trading. At Cuerdale artefacts were found from Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia, Ireland, Italy, Provence, Iberia, Mesopotamia and even from the Hindu Kush. How the hoard came to be left by a riverbank in north-western Northumbria (as it was then), what kept the men away who had left it and why it had never been found earlier are questions left unanswered. What we do know from the find is that their world knew no bounds, it exceeded the 'known world' of Alexander 'the Great' and his Macedonian followers.

After WWII - by association with the Nazis who 'purloined' the Viking heritage with their ideology - anything associated with the Vikings was 'glossed over' in history lessons. I do not remember being told much about them either at junior or secondary school level. In recent years - especially since the documentary series promoted by Magnus Magnusson on TV - our understanding of Norse or Viking matters has taken huge strides. Of course they had been given a 'bad press' by early mediaeval writers, unsurprisingly as the writers of 'history' were from the monastic houses of Britain and Europe. Their surroundings had been looted and burned, their neighbours killed or enslaved. The West Norse (Norwegians) who settled on the British coastal regions and the Danes who colonised huge tracts of land in eastern and north-eastern England could hardly expect the welcome mat to be rolled out for them.

Nineteenth century romantics furnished them with horned or winged helmets like gods and dreamily idealised their sea-roving ways. When Norway was ruled by the Swedes in the nineteenth century they began to hark back to a time when they could go anywhere, take anything and demand what they wished. In the Germany of Nietzsche - where the origins of Nazi ideology took root - Wagner composed his operas about a forgotten world of Norse gods in the Ring der Nibelungen', short-circuiting the Germanic heritage. Darwin's theories about the strong winning through were misused and 'anchored' on the flawed theories of Arian supermen. This in turn urged anti-Semitism amongst the greater unwashed, and misreadings of popularist theories brought studies of the Vikings and their belief system.

Contrary to Thirties thinking, the Vikings and their descendants - English, Norman, Irish, Scandinavians - were tolerant of other races, as witnessed by their trading links. Only with the onrush of Christianity in northern Europe and Britain did any form of anti-Semitism take root, although that was mainly in Central Europe, in the Holy Roman (Christian) Empire.

A more balanced view of the Vikings has developed since the later 20th Century, as archaeologists have uncovered crafts, trade, exploration and evidence of beliefs held by the Norsemen. The York Archaeological Trust has gone to great lengths to promote understanding in matters relating to the Danish and West Norse Vikings who settled York from the 9th/10th Century. Their masterpiece is the creation at Coppergate of the 'Jorvik Centre', which has proved so popular you need to get there early in the day to get in and around the exhibition before it closes in the early evening.

Of course, many of the seafaring Norsemen - Vikings - who came here were violent. Anyone who amounted to anything was violent in trying to hold onto what they saw as 'theirs'. Duke William was one of the most violent heirs of his Viking lineage, and remained so almost to the end of his life when he suddenly felt the urge to unburden his sins to his priest. England was littered with corpses after his 'progress' between 1066-1071, and his sons were no less violent.

The Viking Age opened with hit-and-run raids at the end of the 8th Century on the coastal religious houses of Lindisfarne and Iona. They were soft targets, their inhabitants reluctant or unable to stop the raiders. Western Europe enjoyed the highest level of culture and political stability since the 5th Century demise of the Roman Empire. Arab incursions had been nipped in the bud in the Iberian Peninsula, threatening to overwhelm the Christian culture of the region. The Frankish emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles 'the Great' (Charlemagne), campaigned in northern Europe against the pagan Saxons, Wends, Avars and Frisians. He may have had it in mind to take on the Danes, and he might well have over-run Godred's kingdom. But it did not happen. Generally Scandinavia was of little interest to the Franks, even though in their heathen beliefs they posed a threat to the Christian European 'bloc'. In their imagination they had not foreseen the likelihood of lightning strikes against outlying monasteries.

When the Vikings did strike, not only was it unforeseen but it shocked deeply. Christian society and the rules by which the inhabitants lived were not shared by the Vikings. They did not see any reason to be bound by Christian 'niceties'. The 'main' Viking Age was ushered in in AD793 and stayed with us until well into the 13th Century when King Alexander III of Scotland 'rented' the Isle of Man from the kings of Norway. Strictly speaking that signalled the cessation of serious Viking activity in Britain. The Age saw Scandinavian involvement in each of the kingdoms, large and small, within the British Isles and Normandy. Their presence saw the unification of kingdoms - England and Scotland - and the establishment of trading city-havens in Ireland, such as Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford.

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In Frankia the Vikings ushered in the break-up of the Carolingian Empire, foisted themselves on the Frankish king Charles 'the Simple' and founded the duchy of Normandy - Charles was not so simple, leading to his subjects enjoying for the first time in centuries a freedom from raiding that had begun after the death of Charles 'the Great'.

In the east the Rus, Swedish mercenaries, established the states of Holmgard (Novgorod) and Koenungagard (Kiev/Kyiv) and went on to serve the Byzantine emperors from the time of Basil II 'the Bulgar-slayer' to when the Turks took over in the mid-15th Century.

In the west Vikings from Norway and Iceland struck out to and settled further west on Greenland's southern and south-western coastal plains, and explored around Labrador and Baffin Island before establishing a 'colony' on the mainland of America. The Vrinland Sagas attest to the achievements in the New World, of Leif Eiriksson and his father Eirik 'the Red' amongst others.

The influence of Christian north-western Europe on the Vikings has been underestimated and under-played. As Scandinavian settlers put down roots around Britain and Normandy they were assimilated within generations, thinking of themselves as English, Irish, Norman, Scots (and to a lesser degree Welsh) and worshipping in churches alongside their neighbours. When the Normans went into Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the 12th/13th Centuries they 'disappeared' into the background, becoming more Scottish than the Scots themselves. Robert 'the Bruce' was actually Robert de Brus, descended from a family who followed William I and were given land around Guisborough, East Cleveland. In defeating Edward II at Bannockburn, therefore, a Viking descendant had become king of Scotland!

What began the Viking Age has been explained by some as intervention on behalf of the Danes by the Norwegians to take the Franks' eyes off Godred's kingdom. The attacks on the western Christian allies of Charles 'the Great' may or may not have averted his northward ambitions . However the outcome is interpreted, the result was a spread of Scandinavian influence in the west that had implications on Europe's future well beyond the Viking Age. Its implications for England were linguistic as well as cultural. Beyond that, the Normans' sights had been raised - to include the other major island communities in their 'empire'. This was probably the embryonic British Empire.

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*The term 'pirate' was a later invention. initially they were 'freebooters' or 'self-employed raiders' with their ships' crews drawn from all walks of life (farmers, craftsmen, labourers, professional warriors, chieftains, jarls or earls and even kings.

Danish expansion and fortification began a new era in the 10th and 11th Centuries

Discovered recently through new techniques was the Borgring (ring fortificaton) south of Copenagen on Sjaelland