( "Free us from the fury of the Northmen, Lord.")
The Viking Age stretches from the 8th Century to the mid-11th Century. It's an era of history that belongs to the so-called Dark Ages and The Low Middle Ages, taking place after the fall of The Roman Empire and the formation of Moorish Spain, and ending just before The Crusades properly began.
The era made a sizable impact in song, memory, language, and culture, but is notorious among historians, both academic and popular, for leaving precious little information in hard historical facts. The warriors came from Scandinavia — mostly from modern day Denmark and Norway, but also from Sweden — and charted a course that took them to areas further and beyond their land or origin. They were raiders, explorers, and traders whose famous iconic longships allowed them to serve simultaneously as a merchant, marine and riverrine power, navigating both deep and shallow waters. They made inroads into Britain, France, Spain, Sicily, the Byzantine Empire and the area of land known as Kievan Rus'. They settled in Greenland and also sent an expedition into North America that failed to become a permanent settlement, known today as "L'Anse aux Meadows" in Newfoundland in Canada. Their many names illustrates how wide they spread their net. Initially they were simply called Danes or heathens; the Irish distinguished between 'white' and 'black' foreigners (Finngall and Dubgall respectively). In Eastern Europe, the Slavs called the Scandinavian invaders Rus, a Finnish word for the Svear Swedish settlers, which means "rowers" or "oarsmen", and which was perhaps a source for the name of Russia. The Eastern Romans called them Varangians and the Frankish called them Normanni (Northmen), and the region of France where one of the Vikings settled and gained a Dukedom is known as Normandy. The English were the first to call them Vikings, which was a Scandinavian word for raider, which referred to only one aspect of their society but in Pop Culture Osmosis, is the name for an entire people, civilization and an era.
The Viking Age begins with the 793 CE raid on the Lindisfarne Monastery. This attack captured in much Purple Prose in the medieval chronicles cemented the legend of the Northmen, as pagans and heathens whose lust for riches and plunder did not waver before any act of blasphemy and impiety. A major frustration for historians until very recently, is the fact the primary sources of the Viking Era come from the perspective of their enemies. The earliest known written materials from the views of the Northern peoples is from the medieval era after they had assimilated and converted to Christianity and become part of their native and/or settler kingdoms. Modern historians use numismatic studies of coins, relics (such as the Runestones across Sweden and England, graves and other markers across Russia and Ukraine), and other materials (such as the few surviving longships and the famous helmet) to reconstruct aspects of their culture.
The period is commonly seen as coming to its end in 1066, with the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which took the life of the ambitious Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and thereby ended his attempt to claim the English throne. Although further major Scandinavian campaigns in Britain and Ireland took place in the following decades, such as those of King Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark in 1069-1070 and King Magnus Barefoot of Norway in 1098 and 1102-1103, it is generally understood that Hardrada's death was the endpoint for any serious attempt from the Scandinavians to regain their old foothold on the British Isles. With William the Conqueror gaining the English throne in 1066 (by a twist of historical irony, Hardrada's invasion attempt had inadvertently helped his victory along), the following century of the Isles would instead be defined by The House of Normandy, themselves descendants of the vikings. Meanwhile, in the East, the Scandinavian colonisers had by this time long since settled down and more or less blended into the local populations, having adopted Slavic languages, customs, and names.
Their travels and territorial reach spread far and wide, becoming the first civilization to explore four continents (North America, Europe, Northwest Asia, North Africa). They also revived and built trade routes between Western and Eastern Europe; playing a key role in the Christianization of the Slavic Tribes and the founding of Russia. For a long time, historians and chronicles, basing themselves on their medieval reputation and inspired by nationalist accounts of defending the homeland against invaders have deprecated the Vikings and their culture. This changed in the age of The Enlightenment and Romanticism, first in the Scandinavian nations and then in Victorian England. Modern views tend to be more balanced about the role played by the Vikings. The historian Fernand Braudel noted in his A History of Civilizations that "Economic historians" are "indulgent towards the Vikings" because "by putting back into circulation the treasures that they pillaged, especially from the Church, they reactivated capital" and trade which had been dormant since the end of the The Roman Empire.
Expansion and Settlements
- Eastern Expansion
- The Svear peoples of Sweden in the same time as the Danes and Northmen had expanded West, moved East across the Baltic Sea, moving inland through the river Volkhov. Settlers in this area were peaceful and largely driven by trade, serving as mercenaries or bodyguards to the local Slavic tribes who traded with Arabic merchants through markets on the Don and Volga rivers. They eventually established contact with the Byzantine Empire who called them the Rus peoples. Derived either from the word for rowing or a shortening of Norse. A permanent settlement known as Gorodische (Old Town) populated by Slavs and Scandinavians became an important trading center in this era.
- The settlers traded heavily in silver with Arab Kingdoms which led to further development of towns and villages in the Volga, Oka and Dniepr rivers. The biggest settlement became Kievan Rus', and much like their Western counterparts, the Vikings assimilated into Slavic customs, for instance Scandinavian names such as Ingvar, Helge, and Helga becoming Igor, Oleg, and Olga. Prince Vladimir of Kiev began the tradition of sending a retinue of Scandinavian warriors known as Varjagi to serve the Eastern Roman Emperor. Eventually, they became the famous Varangian Guard. One of the famous members of this guard was Harald Hadrada who became King of Norway in 1046.
- Western Expansion
- The Vikings had probably traded with the British Kingdoms and Francia before their famous attack on Lindisfarne. The motivations for their expansionism is a subject to debate. The economic and social ones are overpopulation and lack of opportunity in the Scandinavian isles and ambition for the second sons who could not inherit the titles of their elders. The political and religious reasons cited is the inroads of Christianity into Norway in the eighth century, and the campaign of Charlemagne against the Saxon pagans and other Germanic Norsemen. This motivation is accepted by some scholars but not seen as sufficient by others since it didn't explain the campaigns against British monasteries who had done nothing to the Northmen.
- After the raids in the North-Eastern coasts on England, Vikings navigated, raided, and in some cases traded in Orkney, Channel islands, Hebrides and especially Ireland until the 830s. Their longships worked for hit-and-run raids and they mostly attacked the costs of Britain and Francia. Later on they would ally with local rulers during The Heptarchy, as well as with various other Irish rulers. Unlike in Britain, however, the Vikings were unable to make any permanent headway into the Irish heartlands, so instead they built permanent settlements in along the Irish eastcoast, which subsequently became Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork, and Limerick. The plunder from their raids, included coins, artifacts, and people who were often traded into the Mediterranean and North African slave trade. The Viking settlements in Ireland often clashed with each other as much as it did with rival kings. Eventually though, the Vikings' power in Ireland started gradually, but surely waning after 1014, especially spurred on by the Battle of Clontarf, which resulted in a decisive victory for the Irish. The process was not just a result of warfare, but also the Scandinavians settlers living in Ireland losing their interest in fighting and raiding and instead becoming increasingly cosmopolitan (for lack of a better term) in their outlook. Slowly but surely, they started rehabilitating themselves by converting to Christianity and mingling with the local population, now taking to calling themselves "Ostmen" (Men of the East), and a fusion of Norse and Gaelic culture started flourishing in the old Viking settlements, especially amongst Dublin's elite. Trade with Scandinavia, especially Norway, also flourished, contributing to the towns steadily growing in influence and prestige, which allowed them to remain somewhat independent of other Irish rulers. This would be the case until the English invasion of Ireland in 1172, which decisively removed the Norse-Irish elite in the cities from power, and for the next many centuries, Ireland, and especially Dublin, would instead be pulled in a more Anglo-Irish direction culturally.
- A Succession Crisis in Francia in 841, provided enough regional instability for the Vikings to pilfer happily from underdefended monasteries and towns located in the Seine, Rhone and the Loire valleys. Of course, the raiders were not a unified group, and some of them became mercenaries hired by local lords and bishops to protect their land from others. This situation changed when Charles, King of West Francia, asserted himself to better defend his Kingdom. He built bridges in the Seine and the Loire and fortified towns and abbeys. In response to this, the Vikings turned their attention back to England.
- In 865, they landed in East Anglia forming "the Great Heathen Army" which conquered the Kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and partitioned Mercia, controlling the stretch between York and London, with only Alfred the Great's Wessex resisting. This is the era of Northmen colonization and settlement, where as a result of conquest, intermarriage and assimilation, a good number of new words entered the Saxon language. Meanwhile, other Scandinavians in the region, began colonizing Iceland while their settlements in Ireland fell into factionalism and self-destruction, ending permanently by 902, after which most of them were expelled, going either to England, Iceland or to the Channel Islands.
- At the end of the ninth century and the start of the tenth, the Vikings kept shuffling between England and France, raiding and pillaging as per the stability and instability of either Kingdom. Their raidings in France stopped after one Viking chieftain Rollo was given land, territory and titles in Rouen, eventually forming the Duchy of Normandy. Linguistic studies show that Rollo and his fellow settlers were raiders who came from Ireland and had much contact with England. Rollo's famous descendant William the Conqueror in 1066 would subsequently become the last and most successful invader of the British Isles. Other Vikings and their descendants in turn became fully assimilated into England, Ireland, France and Flanders.
- Famous raiders in this era include the legendary figure Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons, of whom Ivar the Boneless has strong historical basis. Other raiders include Rollo, Erik the Red, Erik Bloodaxe and Leif Erickson. The latter is celebrated in Icelandic sagas for sailing to Vinland (now part of Canada), an achievement confirmed in 1960 by the discovery of a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
- On account of the Viking Invasions and assimilation, the English Days of the Week are based on Norse Mythology rather than the Roman and Greek mythology in the Continent: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday are named after Moni, Tyr, Woden/Odin, Thor and Freya respectively.
List of works depicting the Viking Age
- American Gods (2017) which adapts Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name, begins with the prologue showing the Viking landing at Newfoundland. The rest of the show is unconnected to it, but the prologue is necessary because the Viking arrival at the New World is still not as widely known as say, later arrivals to the Americas.
- Extra History
- "Lindisfarne" deals with the attack on the Monastery and the start of the age of the Vikings.
- "Viking Expansion" deals with the entire era, and covers in detail the different Viking expeditions to France, Russia, Byzantine Empire, Ireland, America.
- Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson, written several centuries later is one of the sources for this era.
- The Swedish novel The Long Ships.
- The Long Ships, a loose adaptation of the above.
- Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons, one of the Icelandic Sagas used as a source for this age.
- The Saxon Stories
- The Last Kingdom, based on the above
- Norsemen is a parody, imagining historical Vikings with the outlook and disposition of modern Scandinavians.
- The Viking
- The Vikings, based on the above
- Vinland Saga
- The Saga of Biorn