Some of this post is from the National Geographic magazine
Today we’ll travel ten centuries back, at a time when we were anguished to see an oversees ship approaching our coastlines. It was so long ago, but their traces remained to show us what a powerful and ordinary people they were. They are called the Vikings.
The Vikings were a seafaring people from the late eighth to early 11th century who established a name for themselves as traders, explorers and warriors. From the shores of their Scandinavian homeland, between the Baltic and North Seas, these fortune seekers took to the world stage in the mid-eighth century, exploring much of Europe over the next 300 years and traveling farther than earlier researchers ever suspected. With well built sailing ships and expert knowledge of rivers and seas, they journeyed to what are now 37 or more countries, from Afghanistan to Canada, according to archaeologist Neil Price of Uppsala University in Sweden. En route they discovered more than 50 cultures and traded avidly for luxuries. They donned Eurasian caftans, dressed in silk from China, and pocketed heaps of Islamic silver coins. They built thriving cities at York and Kiev, colonized large swaths of Great Britain, Iceland, and France, and established outposts in Greenland and North America. No other European seafarers of the day ventured so fearlessly and so far from their homeland. They were the only ones able to do what they have done. They discovered the Americas long before Columbus and could be found as far east as the distant reaches of Russia. While these people are often attributed as savages raiding the more civilized nations for treasure and women, the motives and culture of the Viking people are much more diverse.
Many historians associate the term “Viking” to the Scandinavian term vikingr, which means “pirate.” However, the term is meant to reference oversea expeditions, and was used as a verb by the Scandinavian people for when the men traditionally took time out of their summers to go “a Viking.” While many would believe these expeditions entailed the raiding of monasteries and cities along the coast, many expeditions were actually with the goal of trade and enlisting as foreign mercenaries.
The earliest recorded raid were in the 790s until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. During this time, the reach of the Scandinavian people extended to all corners of northern Europe, and many other nations found Vikings raiding their coasts. The farthest reported records of Vikings were in Baghdad for the trading of goods like fur, tusks and seal fat.
The start of the Viking migration from Scandinavia in 793 was in small island located off the northeast coast of England, in this location was a well-known abbey of learning, famous throughout the continent for the knowledgeable monks and its extensive library. During this raid, monks were killed, thrown into the sea or taken as slaves along with many treasures of the church, and the library itself razed. This single event set the stage for how Vikings would be perceived throughout the Viking Age: savage warriors with no respect for religion or appreciation for learning.
In the years that followed the initial raid, coastal villages, monasteries and even cities found themselves besieged by these sea-based foreign intruders. Due to the frequency of sea attacks, many developments were made in developing fortifications in the forms of walled-in harbors and sea-facing stone walls, defenses that proved to be quite effective at deterring raids. Early raiding parties planned their attacks for the summer months, and they often set out with just a few ships and perhaps a hundred fighters. Bristling with iron weaponry, the raiders struck rapidly and went about the carnage swiftly, setting sail before locals could mount a defense. In France, in the ninth century alone, Viking raiders stormed more than 120 settlements, massacring monks and local inhabitants, stripping churches of their treasures, and enslaving the survivors.
As precious metals flowed back to Scandinavia, young men flocked to the great halls of Viking leaders, eager to swear their loyalty. What began as small raiding forays of two or three ships gradually evolved into fleets of 30 vessels, then many more. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary annal, hundreds of Viking ships arrived along the east coast of England in 865, carrying a ravenous host that the Chronicle writers called micel here, the great army. Pushing inland along England’s rivers and roads, these invaders began smashing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and seizing large swaths of land to colonize.
One famous early Irish text records how a woman known as Inghen Ruaidh—or Red Girl, after the color of her hair—led a fleet of Viking ships to Ireland in the 10th century. Bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström of Stockholm University recently reanalyzed the skeletal remains of a Viking fighter found in the old trading center of Birka, in Sweden. Mourners had furnished the grave with an arsenal of deadly weapons, and for decades archaeologists assumed that the elite fighter was male. But while studying the warrior’s pelvic bones and mandible, Kjellström discovered that the man was in fact a woman. This nameless Viking woman seems to have commanded the respect of many Viking warriors. “On her lap she had gaming pieces,” says archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University. “This suggests that she was the one planning the tactics and that she was a leader.”
It’s not really known the reason behind these attacks, perhaps the Christian persecution and forced baptism of pagans to reduced agricultural outputs in the Scandinavian region. Many more documented reasons might have prompted these people to leave their cold and harsh homes to seek out the means to survive elsewhere. Yet, despite how unforgiving their homeland may have been, most Vikings still returned to their homeland at the end of each season with treasure, slaves and goods to survive yet another winter.
The modern perceptions of Vikings found their origins through Catholic propaganda. Upon the sacking of multiple Christian facilities and the loss of countless relics and treasures, the Catholic ministry sought to dehumanize them. Until Queen Victoria’s rule of Britain, the Vikings were still portrayed as a violent and barbaric people. During the 19th and 20th centuries, perceptions changed to the point where Vikings were glamorized as noble savages with horned helmets, a proud culture and a feared prowess in battle.
How and why did medieval farmers in Scandinavia become the scourge of the European continent?
Around A.D. 750, Scandinavia was wracked by turmoil. More than three dozen petty kingdoms arose during this period, throwing up chains of hill forts and vying for power and territory. In the midst of these troubled times, catastrophe struck. A vast cloud of dust, likely blasted into the atmosphere by a combination of cataclysms, comets or meteorites smashing into Earth, as well as the eruption of at least one large volcano darkened the sun, lowering summer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere for the next 14 years. The extended cold and darkness brought death and ruin to Scandinavia, lying as it did along the northern edge of medieval agriculture. In Sweden’s Uppland region, for example, nearly 75 percent of villages were abandoned, as residents succumbed to starvation and fighting.
When summer at last returned to the north and populations rebounded, Scandinavian society assumed a new, more truculent form. Leaders surrounded themselves with heavily armed war bands and began seizing and defending abandoned territory. A militarized society arose in which men and women alike celebrated the virtues of warfare—fearlessness, aggression, cunning, strength under fire. On the Swedish island of Gotland, where archaeologists have found many intact graves from this period, “almost every second man seems to be buried with weapons,” notes John Ljungkvist, an archaeologist at Uppsala University. As this weaponized society was gradually taking shape, a new technology began revolutionizing Scandinavian seafaring in the seventh century—the sail. Skilled carpenters began constructing sleek, wind-powered vessels capable of carrying bands of armed fighters farther and faster than ever before. Aboard these ships, northern lords and their restless followers could voyage across the Baltic and North Seas, exploring new lands, sacking towns and villages, and enslaving inhabitants. And men with few marriage prospects at home could take female captives as wives by persuasion or force.
All of this centuries of kingly ambition, a seeming abundance of wifeless young warriors, and a new type of ship created a perfect storm. The stage was set for the Vikings to pour out of the north, setting much of Europe on fire with their brand of violence. The fleets that carried death and destruction to western Europe also transported slaves and commodities to markets scattered from Turkey to western Russia, and possibly Iran. Medieval Arab and Byzantine officials described convoys of armed Viking slavers and merchants known as the Rus who regularly voyaged along river routes to the Black and Caspian Seas. “I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs,” observed Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab soldier and diplomat from Baghdad. “Every one of them carries an ax, a sword, and a dagger.”
Many popular myths created through misperceptions, have been shown to be wrong such as the fact that Vikings wore horned helmetst; they traditionally went bareheaded or wore simple leather and metal-frame helmets with the occasional face guard. Or they were filthy and unkempt; archaeologists find evidence on a regular basis of combs, spoons and other grooming utensils that indicate the Viking people were very keen on maintaining personal hygiene. Or that they spent all their time raiding and warring; while raiding proved an excellent source of income, many of the Vikings held farms back in their homeland that their wives maintained during Viking season. When the men returned home from a raid, they resumed their normal routine of farming. Or maybe that they were a unified army; due to the difficult geographic location, the Scandinavian people were very spread out to conserve limited farmland. In addition, the penetration of Christianity caused many great divisions among the people still worshipping the traditional Nordic pantheon, further emphasizing the divided nature of the people. Or most of all that they were large and heavily muscled;
due to the short summer seasons, growing crops was difficult and resources were always scarce. As a result, many of the Scandinavian people were much smaller than commonly depicted due to limited food sources. While the living conditions in Scandinavian regions were certainly harsh and made a hard people, many Vikings suffered from the scarcity of resources and the people set up their homes over great distances with no real unified leadership. During the Viking Age, the Scandinavian people were able to make a stronger push to the outside worlds and create a reputation for themselves beyond simple barbarism. While some Vikings were driven with the lust for riches, many sought more peaceful economic relationships with the surrounding nations.
But the legend of the Vikings, the romance of these intrepid northerners who built great ships and sailed ice-choked seas to a new world and winding rivers to the bazaars of the East, never grows old, never grows tired. It lives on here and across their northern realm, a message from a long-dead world, an enduring spirit of an age.