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Vikings (from Old Norse víkingr) were Norse seafarers, speaking the Old Norse language, who from their homelands in Scandinavia raided, traded, explored, and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic islands, from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries. The Vikings employed wooden longships with wide, shallow-draft hulls, allowing navigation in rough seas or in shallow river waters. The ships could be landed on beaches, and their light weight enabled them to be hauled over portages. These versatile ships allowed the Vikings to settle and travel as far east as Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia, as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, and as far south as Nekor. This period of Viking expansion, known as the Viking Age, constitutes an important element of the medieval history of Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Sicily, Russia, and the rest of Europe.
Popular conceptions of the Vikings often differ from the complex picture that emerges from archaeology and written sources. A romanticised picture of Vikings as noble savages began to take root in the 18th century, and this developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival. The received views of the Vikings as violent brutes or intrepid adventurers owe much to the modern Viking myth that had taken shape by the early 20th century. Current popular representations are typically highly clichéd, presenting the Vikings as familiar caricatures.
The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition overseas. It occurs in Viking Age runic inscriptions and in later medieval writings in set expressions such as the phrasal verb fara í víking, "to go on an expedition". The derived Old Norse masculine noun víkingr appears in Viking Age skaldic poetry and on several rune stones found in Scandinavia, where it refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an expedition overseas. In later texts, such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase "to go on a viking" implies participation in raiding activity or piracy and not simply seaborne missions of trade and commerce.
The word víking derives from the feminine vík, meaning "creek, inlet, small bay". The form also occurs as a personal name on some Swedish rune stones. There is little indication of any negative connotation in the term before the end of the Viking Age. Regardless of its possible origins, at the time the word was used to indicate an activity and those who participated in it, and it did not belong to any ethnic or cultural group. In the modern Scandinavian languages, the word Viking usually refers specifically to those people who went on Viking expeditions.
In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the Anglo-Saxon poem, Widsith, which probably dates from the 9th century. In Old English, and in the history of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen written by Adam of Bremen in about 1070, the term generally referred to Scandinavian pirates or raiders. As in the Old Norse usages, the term is not employed as a name for any people or culture in general. The word does not occur in any preserved Middle English texts. The word Viking was introduced into Modern English during the 18th-century Viking revival, at which point it acquired romanticised heroic overtones of "barbarian warrior" or noble savage. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer not only to seaborne raiders from Scandinavia and other places settled by them (like Iceland and the Faroe Islands), but secondarily to any member of the culture that produced said raiders during the period from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries, or more loosely from about 700 to as late as about 1100. As an adjective, the word is used to refer to ideas, phenomena, or artefacts connected with those people and their cultural life, producing expressions like Viking age, Viking culture, Viking art, Viking religion, Viking ship, and so on.
The Vikings were known as Ascomanni, ashmen, by the Germans, Lochlanach (Norse) by the Gaels and Dene (Danes) by the Anglo-Saxons.
The Slavs, the Arabs and the Byzantines knew them as the Rus' or Rhōs, probably derived from various uses of rōþs-, i.e., "related to rowing" or derived from the area of Roslagen in east-central Sweden, where most of the Vikings who visited the Slavic lands came from. Some archaeologists and historians of today, believe that these Scandinavian settlements in the Slavic lands played a significant role in the formation of the Kievan Rus' federation, and hence the names and early states of Russia and Belarus. The modern day name for Sweden in several neighboring countries is possibly derived from rōþs-, Ruotsi in Finnish and Rootsi in Estonian.
The Slavs and the Byzantines also called them Varangians (ON: Væringjar, meaning sworn men from var- "pledge, faith," related to Old English wær "agreement, treaty, promise," Old High German wara "faithfulness"). Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors were known as the Varangian Guard.
We have many sources on the Vikings, their activities, beliefs and culture. They were generally a non-literate society and culture, in the sense that they have not produced any literary legacy as such. The Vikings have described themselves and their world on runestones however, so we know they had an alphabet and were not completely estranged to reading and writing. Most of the contemporary literary and written sources on the Vikings, come from other cultures that were in contact with them. When interpreting these old texts, it is therefore important to have in mind, that the authors were sometimes enemies or victims of the Vikings, having experienced their more aggressive side. This may have surely given many of these texts a certain bias. When brought together and complemented by the vast amount of archaeological finds of the Vikings craftsmanship, art, engineering and evidence of their daily lives in general, a much more balanced picture of the Vikings emerges.
The most important primary sources on the Vikings are various sorts of contemporary texts from Scandinavia and regions where the Vikings were active. Writing in Latin letters was introduced to Scandinavia with Christianity, so there are few native documentary sources from Scandinavia before the late 11th and early 12th centuries. The Scandinavians did write inscriptions in runes, but these are usually very short and formulaic. Most contemporary documentary sources consist of texts written in Christian and Islamic communities outside of Scandinavia, often by authors who had been negatively affected by Viking activity. These texts reflect varying degrees of bias and reliability, but not more so than is usually the case in early medieval writings, and they remain very important.
Later writings on the Vikings and the Viking Age can also be important for understanding them and their culture, although they need to be treated very cautiously. After the consolidation of the church and the assimilation of Scandinavia and its colonies into the mainstream of medieval Christian culture in the 11th and 12th centuries, native written sources begin to appear, in Latin and Old Norse. In the Viking colony of Iceland, an extraordinary vernacular literature blossomed in the 12th through 14th centuries, and many traditions connected with the Viking Age were written down for the first time in the Icelandic sagas. A literal interpretation of these medieval prose narratives about the Vikings and the Scandinavian past is of course doubtful to some extent, but many specific elements remain worthy of consideration, such as the great quantity of skaldic poetry attributed to court poets of the 10th and 11th centuries, the exposed family trees, the self images, the ethical values, etc. all included in these literary writings.
Indirectly the Vikings have also left a window open to their language, culture and activities, through many Old Norse place names and words, found in their former sphere of influence. Some of these place names and words are still in direct use today, almost unchanged, and sheds light on where they settled and what specific places meant to them, as seen in place names like Egilsay meaning 'Eigils Ø' (Eigil's Island), Ormskirk meaning 'Ormr kirkja' (Orms Church or Church of the worm), Ravenscar (Ravens Rock), Snaefell (Snow Fell), Vinland (Land of Wine or Land of Winberry), Kaupanger (Market Harbour) and Tórshavn (Thor's Harbour) for example or the religious center of Odense, meaning a place where Odin was worshipped. It is also evident in concepts like the present day Tynwald on the Isle of Man. Common words in everyday English language, like some of the weekdays (Thursday means Thors day fx.), axle, crook, raft, knife, plough, leather, bylaw, thorp, skerry, ombudsman, husband, heathen, Hell, Norman and ransack stem from the Old Norse of the Vikings, and give us an opportunity to understand their interactions with the people and cultures on the British Isles. In the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney, Old Norse completely replaced the local languages and over time evolved into the now extinct Norn language. Some modern words and names only emerge and contribute to our understanding after a more intense research of linguistic sources from medieval or later records, such as York (Horse Bay), Swansea (Sveinn's Isle) or some of the place names in Northern France like Tocqueville (Toki's farm). Linguistic and etymological studies continue to provide a vital source of information on the Viking culture, their social structure and history and how they interacted with the people and cultures they met, traded, attacked or lived with in overseas settlements. It has been speculated that several place names on the west coast of southern France might also stem from Viking activities. Place names like Taillebourg (Trelleborg, meaning city of thralls or castle of thralls) as far south as the Charente River for example. Gascony and vicinity is an active area of Viking archaeology at present. A lot of Old Norse connections are evident in the modern-day languages of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese and Icelandic of course. Old Norse did not seem to exert any greater influence on the Slavic languages in the Viking settlements of Eastern Europe. It has been speculated that the reason was the great differences between the two languages, combined with the Rus' Vikings more peaceful businesses in these areas and the fact that they were excessively outnumbered. The Norse did name a few of the rapids on the great Dnieper River, but this can hardly be seen from the modern names.
A consequence of the available written sources, which may have coloured how we perceive the Viking Age as a historical period, is that we know a lot more on the Vikings' activities in western Europe than in the East. One reason for this is that the peoples living in northeastern Europe at the time were non-literate, i.e. they did not produce a legacy of literature. Another reason is that the vast majority of Scandinavian written sources come from Iceland, a nation originally settled by Norwegian colonists. As a result there is much more material from the Viking Age concerning Norway than for instance Sweden, which apart from many Runic inscriptions, has almost no written sources from the early Middle Ages.
The Viking peoples could read and write and used a non-standardized alphabet, called runor, built upon sound values. While there are few remains of runic writing on paper from the Viking era, thousands of stones with runic inscriptions have been found where Vikings lived. They are usually in memory of the dead, though not necessarily placed at graves. The use of runor survived into the 15th century, used in parallel with the Latin alphabet.
The majority of runic inscriptions from the Viking period are found in Sweden and date from the 11th century. The oldest Stone with runic inscriptions was found in Norway and dates to the 4th century, suggesting that runic inscriptions predate the Viking period. Many runestones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions—such as the Kjula runestone, which tells of extensive warfare in Western Europe, and the Turinge Runestone, which tells of a warband in Eastern Europe. Other runestones mention men who died on Viking expeditions. Among them are around 25 Ingvar runestones in the Mälardalen district of Sweden, erected to commemorate members of a disastrous expedition into present-day Russia in the early 11th century. Runestones are important sources in the study of Norse society and early medieval Scandinavia, not only of the 'Viking' segment of the population.
The Jelling stones, found in the Danish town of Jelling, date from between 960 and 985. The older, smaller stone was raised by King Gorm the Old, the last pagan king of Denmark, as a memorial honouring Queen Thyre. The larger stone was raised by his son, Harald Bluetooth, to celebrate the conquest of Denmark and Norway and the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. It has three sides: One with an animal image, one with an image of the crucified Jesus Christ, and a third bearing the following inscription:
King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian..
Runestones attest to voyages to locations such as Bath, Greece, Khwaresm, Jerusalem, Italy (as Langobardland), London, Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world), England, and various locations in Eastern Europe. Viking Age inscriptions have also been discovered on the Manx runestones on the Isle of Man.
Since the mid-20th century, archaeological sources have helped build a more complete and balanced picture of the lives of the Vikings. The archaeological record is particularly rich and varied, providing knowledge of their rural and urban settlement, crafts and production, ships and military equipment, trading networks, as well as their pagan and Christian religious artefacts and practices.
There are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings throughout Europe and their sphere of influence — in Scandinavia, The British Isles, Greenland, Iceland, Faeroe Islands, Germany, The Baltic, Russia, etc.. The burial practises of the Vikings were quite varied, from dug graves in the ground, over more or less impressive tumuli, sometimes including small or huge so called ship burials.
According to written sources, a larger part of the funerals took place at sea. The funerals involved either inhumation or cremation, depending on the local customs. In Sweden cremations were predominant, in Denmark inhumations and in Norway both cremation and inhumation were common. Viking barrows are one of the primary source of evidence for circumstances in the Viking Age. The items buried with the deceased, give some indication as to what was considered important to possess in the afterlife. Unfortunately and surprisingly, we don't have any clues to what mortuary services were given to deceased children by the Vikings. Some of the burial sites that are most important to our understanding of the Vikings, include:
There have been several archaeological finds of Viking ships of all sizes, providing knowledge of the craftsmanship that went into building them. There were many types of Viking ships, built according to their intended uses, though the most iconic type is probably the 'longship'. Longships were intended for warfare and exploration, designed for speed and agility, and they were equipped with oars to complement the sail, making navigation possible independently of the wind. The longship had a long, narrow hull and shallow draft to facilitate landings and troop deployments in shallow water. Longships were used extensively by the Leidang, the Scandinavian defence fleets. It was the longship, that allowed the Norse to go Viking, which might explain why this type of ship have become almost synonymous with the concept of Vikings.
The Vikings built many other types of watercraft as well, used for more peaceful tasks. The 'knarr' was a dedicated merchant vessel designed to carry cargo in bulk. It was designed with a broader hull, deeper draft, and a limited number of oars (used primarily to maneuver in harbors and similar situations). One Viking innovation was the 'beitass', a spar mounted to the sail that allowed their ships to sail effectively against the wind. It was common for seafaring Viking ships to tow or carry a smaller boat to transfer crews and cargo from the ship to shore.
Ships were an integral part of the Viking culture. They facilitated everyday transportation across seas and waterways, exploration of new lands, raids, conquests, and trade with neighbouring cultures. They also held a major religious importance. Magnates and people with a high status were sometimes buried in a ship along with animal sacrifices, weapons, provisions and other items, as evidenced by the buried vessels at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway and the excavated ship burial at Ladby in Denmark for example. Ship burials were also practised by Vikings abroad, as evidenced by the recent excavations of the Salme ships on the Estonian island of Saaremaa.
Well-preserved remains of five Viking ships were excavated from Roskilde Fjord in the late 1960s, representing both the longship and the knarr. The ships were scuttled there in the 11th century, to block a navigation channel and thus protect Roskilde, then the Danish capital, from seaborne assault. The remains of these ships are on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
Daily life of the Vikings in York, England, has been examined through archaeology. "We know from looking at undigested remains of plants from cesspits (latrine pits) at Coppergate that they certainly made bread from whole meal flour—probably both wheat and rye—but often it had seeds of cornfield weeds ground up in it. One of these, corncockle (Agrostemma), would have made the bread dark in colour, and as its seeds are poisonous, people who ate the bread contaminated with it might have become quite ill!" Other items that have been discovered in the Viking diet included the seeds of carrots, parsnip, and brassicas. These were poor specimens and tend to show they came from white carrots and bitter tasting cabbages. Herbal seasonings were also found when the Coopergate cesspits were examined, and they included seeds of dill, coriander, and wild celery. Apple pits were a common find, from wild crab apples. Stones of small plums and cherries were also encountered.
We also know from archeological remains that the Vikings in York ate mostly beef, mutton, and pork. Small amounts of horsemeat were eaten as well. Most of the beef and horse leg bones were found split lengthways, to get out the marrow. The mutton and swine were cut into leg and shoulder joints and chops. The frequent remains of pig skull and foot bones found on house floors indicate that brawn and trotters were also popular. Hens were kept for both their meat and eggs, and the bones of game birds such as the black grouse, golden plover, wild ducks, and geese have also been found.
On 1 July 2007, the reconstructed Viking ship Skuldelev 2, renamed Sea Stallion, began a journey from Roskilde, Denmark to Dublin, Ireland. The remains of that ship and four others were discovered during a 1962 excavation in the Roskilde Fjord. Tree-ring analysis has shown the ship was built of oak in the vicinity of Dublin about 1042. Seventy multi-national crew members sailed the ship back to its home, and The Sea Stallion arrived outside Dublin's Custom House on 14 August 2007. The purpose of the voyage was to test and document the seaworthiness, speed, and maneuverability of the ship on the rough open sea and in coastal waters with treacherous currents. The crew tested how the long, narrow, flexible hull withstood the tough ocean waves. The expedition also provided valuable new information on Viking longships and society. The ship was built using Viking tools, materials, and much the same methods as the original ship.
Other vessels, often replicas of the Gokstad ship (full- or half-scale) or Skuldelev I have been built and tested as well. The Snorri (a Skuldelev I Knarr), for example, was sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland in 1998. Viking-age reenactors have also undertaken experimental activities such as iron smelting and forging using Norse techniques.
There is numerous evidence that sports were widely practised and encouraged by the Vikings. Sports that involved weapons training and developing combat skills were popular. This included spear and stone throwing, building and testing physical strength through wrestling, fist fighting, and stone lifting. In areas with mountains, mountain climbing was practised as a sport. Agility and balance were built and tested by running and jumping for sport, and there is mention of a peculiar sport that involved jumping from oar to oar on the outside of a ship's railing as it was being rowed. Swimming was a popular sport and Snorri Sturluson describes three types of the sport: diving, long distance swimming and a contest in which two swimmers try to duck one another. Children often participated in some of the sport disciplines and women have also been mentioned as swimmers, although it is unclear if they practised for competition. King Olaf Tryggvason was hailed as a master of both mountain climbing and oar-jumping and was said to have excelled in the art of knife juggling as well.
Horse fighting was practised for sport, although the rules are unclear. It appears to have involved two stallions pitted against each other, within smell and sight of fenced-off mares. Whatever the rules were, the fights often resulted in the death of one of the stallions.
Icelandic sources refer to the sport of knattleik. A ball game akin to hockey, knattleik involved a bat and a small hard ball and was usually played on a smooth field of ice. The rules are unclear, but it was popular with both adults and children, even though it often led to injuries. Knattleik appears to have been practised only in Iceland, where it attracted many spectators, as did horse fighting.
Hunting, as a sport, was limited to the region of Denmark, where it was not regarded as an important occupation. Birds, deer, hares and foxes were hunted with bow and spear, and later with crossbows. The techniques were stalking, snare and traps and par force hunting with dog packs.
Board games and dice games were played as a popular pastime, at all levels of society. Preserved gaming pieces and boards show game boards made of easily available materials like wood, with game pieces manufactured from stone, wood or bone, while other finds include elaborately carved boards and game pieces of glass, amber, antler or walrus tusk, together with materials of foreign origin, such as ivory. The Vikings played several types of tafl games; hnefatafl, nitavl (Nine Men's Morris) and the less common kvatrutafl. Chess also appeared at the end of the Viking Age. Hnefatafl is a war game, in which the object is to capture the king piece – a large hostile army threatens and the king's men have to protect the king. It was played on a board with squares using black and white pieces, with moves made according to dice rolls. The Ockelbo Runestone shows two men engaged in Hnefatafl, and the sagas suggest that money or valuables could have been involved in some dice games.
On festive occasions storytelling, skaldic poetry, music and alcoholic drinks, like beer and mead, contributed to the atmosphere. Music was considered an artform and music proficiency as fitting for a cultivated man. The Vikings are known to have played instruments like harps, fiddles, lyres and lutes.
Our knowledge about the arms and armour of the Viking age is based on relatively sparse archaeological finds, pictorial representation, and to some extent on the accounts in the Norse sagas and Norse laws recorded in the 13th century. According to custom, all free Norse men were required to own weapons and were permitted to carry them all the time. These arms were indicative of a Viking's social status: a wealthy Viking would have a complete ensemble of a helmet, shield, mail shirt, and sword. A typical bóndi (freeman) was more likely to fight with a spear and shield, and most also carried a seax as a utility knife and side-arm. Bows were used in the opening stages of land battles and at sea, but they tended to be considered less "honourable" than a melee weapon. Vikings were relatively unusual for the time in their use of axes as a main battle weapon. The Húscarls, the elite guard of King Cnut (and later of King Harold II) were armed with two-handed axes that could split shields or metal helmets with ease.
The warfare and violence of the Vikings were often motivated and fuelled by their beliefs in Norse religion, focusing on Thor and Odin, the gods of war and death. In combat the Vikings are believed to have engaged in a disordered style of frenetic, furious fighting, leading them to be termed berserkers. Such tactics may have been deployed intentionally by shock troops, who may have induced this mental state through ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties, such as the hallucinogenic mushrooms, Amanita muscaria, or massive amounts of alcohol.
Except for the major trading centres of Ribe, Hedeby and the like, the Viking world was unfamiliar with the use of coinage and was based on so called bullion economy. Silver was the most common metal in the economy by large, although gold was also used to some extent. Silver circulated in the form of bars, or ingots, as well as in the form of jewellery and ornaments. Traders carried small scales, enabling them to measure weight very accurately, so it was possible to have a very precise system of trade and exchange, even without a regular coinage.
The organized trade covered everything from ordinary items in bulk to exotic luxury products. The Viking ship designs, like that of the knarr, were an important factor in their success as merchants. Imported goods from other cultures, included:
To counter these valuable imports, the Vikings exported a large variety of goods. These goods included:
Other exports included weapons, walrus ivory, wax, salt and cod. As one of the more exotic exports, hunting birds were sometimes provided from Norway to the European aristocracy, from the 10th century.
Many of these goods were also traded within the Viking world itself, in addition to goods like soapstone and whetstone for example. Soapstone was traded with the Norse on Iceland and in Jutland, who used it for pottery. Whetstones were traded and used for sharpening weapons, tools and knives. There are indications from Ribe and surrounding areas, that the extensive medieval trade with oxen and cattle from Jutland (see Ox Road), reach as far back as c. 720 AD. This trade would have satisfied the Vikings need for leather and meat to some extent, and perhaps hides for parchment production in the European mainland. Wool was also very important as a domestic product for the Vikings. Not just to produce warm clothing for the cold Scandinavian and Nordic climate, but also for sails. Sails for the Viking ships required large amounts of wool, evidenced by experimental archaeology for example. There are archaeological signs of organized textile productions in Scandinavia, reaching as far back as the early Iron Ages. Artisans and craftsmen in the larger towns were supplied with antlers from organized hunting with large-scale reindeer traps in the far North. They were used as raw material for making combs for example.
The period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age of Scandinavian history. Vikings used the Norwegian Sea and Baltic Sea for sea routes to the south. The Normans were descended from Danish and Norwegian Vikings who were given feudal overlordship of areas in northern France—the Duchy of Normandy—in the 10th century. In that respect, descendants of the Vikings continued to have an influence in northern Europe. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, had Danish ancestors.
Geographically, a Viking Age may be assigned not only to Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), but also to territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, including Scandinavian York, the administrative centre of the remains of the Kingdom of Northumbria, parts of Mercia, and East Anglia. Viking navigators opened the road to new lands to the north, west and east, resulting in the foundation of independent settlements in the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands; Iceland; Greenland; and L'Anse aux Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000. They may have been deliberately sought out, perhaps on the basis of the accounts of sailors who had seen land in the distance. The Greenland settlement eventually died out, possibly due to climate change. Vikings also explored and settled in territories in Slavic-dominated areas of Eastern Europe, particularly the Kievan Rus. By 950 these settlements were largely Slavicised.
As early as 839, when Swedish emissaries are first known to have visited Byzantium, Scandinavians served as mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine Empire. In the late 10th century, a new unit of the imperial bodyguard formed. Traditionally containing large numbers of Scandinavians, it was known as the Varangian Guard. The word Varangian may have originated in Old Norse, but in Slavic and Greek it could refer either to Scandinavians or Franks. The most eminent Scandinavian to serve in the Varangian Guard was Harald Hardrada, who subsequently established himself as king of Norway (1047–66).
There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached the city of Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic Empire. The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant, and slaves.
Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west to places such as Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland; the Danes to England and France, settling in the Danelaw (northern/eastern England) and Normandy; and the Swedes to the east, founding the Kievan Rus, the original Russia. Among the Swedish runestones mentioning expeditions overseas, however, almost half tell of raids and travels to western Europe. Also, according to the Icelandic sagas, many Norwegian Vikings went to eastern Europe. In the Viking Age, the present day nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark did not exist, but were largely homogeneous and similar in culture and language, although somewhat distinct geographically. The names of Scandinavian kings are known only for the later part of the Viking Age. Only after the end of the Viking Age, did the separate kingdoms acquire distinct identities as nations, which went hand-in-hand with their Christianization. Thus the end of the Viking Age for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.
The Vikings explored the northern islands and coasts of the North Atlantic, ventured south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople, and the Middle East. They raided and pillaged, but also engaged in trade, settled wide-ranging colonies, and acted as mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Ericson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America and set up short-lived settlements in present-day L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, and Labrador, Canada.
The Vikings did not expand or conquer much into mainland Europe. Their realm was bordered by powerful cultures to the south. Early on it was the Saxons, who occupied Old Saxony, located in what is now Northern Germany. The Saxons were a fierce and powerful people and were often in conflict with the Vikings. To counter the Saxon aggression and solidify their own presence, the Danes constructed the huge defence fortification of Danevirke in and around Hedeby. The Vikings soon witnessed the violent subduing of the Saxons by Charlemagne, in the thirty year campaigns of the Saxon Wars in 772-804. The Saxon defeat resulted in their forced christening and absorption of Old Saxony in the Carolingian Empire. Fearing the Franks, this led the Vikings to further expand Danevirke and the defence constructions were in use throughout the Viking Age and up until 1864 even. The south coast of the Baltic Sea was ruled by the Obotrites, a federation of Slavic tribes loyal to the Carolingians and later the Frankish empire. The Vikings - led by King Gudfred - destroyed the Obotrite city of Reric on the southern Baltic coast in 808 AD and transferred the merchants and traders to Hedeby. This secured their supremacy in the Baltic Sea, which would remain throughout the Viking Age.
The motives driving the Viking expansion are a topic of much debate in Nordic history. One common theory posits that Charlemagne "used force and terror to Christianise all pagans", leading to baptism, conversion or death, and as a result Vikings and other pagans wanted revenge. Professor Rudolf Simek states that "it is not a coincidence if the early Viking activity occurred during the reign of Charlemagne". The penetration of Christianity into Scandinavia led to serious conflict dividing Norway for almost a century.
Another explanation is that the Vikings exploited a moment of weakness in the surrounding regions. England suffered from internal divisions and was relatively easy prey given the proximity of many towns to the sea or to navigable rivers. Lack of organised naval opposition throughout Western Europe allowed Viking ships to travel freely, raiding or trading as opportunity permitted. The decline in the profitability of old trade routes could also have played a role. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia suffered a severe blow when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. The expansion of Islam in the 7th century had also affected trade with western Europe.
Raids in Europe including raids and settlements from Scandinavia, were not something new and also seen long before the Vikings came. The Jutes invaded The British Isles three centuries earlier for example, pouring out from Jutland, before the Danes settled there. The Saxons and the Angles did the same, embarking from mainland Europe. The Viking raids though, were the first raids to be documented in text by eyewitnesses and their raids were much larger in scale and frequency, than in previous times.
During the Viking Age, Scandinavian men and women travelled to many parts of Europe and beyond, in a cultural diaspora that left its traces from Newfoundland to Byzantium. But this period of energetic activity also had a pronounced effect in the Scandinavian homelands, which were subject to a variety of new influences. In the 300 years from the late 8th century, when contemporary chroniclers first commented on the appearance of Viking raiders, to the end of the 11th century, Scandinavia underwent profound cultural changes.
In the late 11th century, royal dynasties legitimised by the Catholic Church (which had had little influence in Scandinavia 300 years earlier) were asserting their power with increasing authority and ambition, and the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden had taken shape. Towns appeared that functioned as secular and ecclesiastical administrative centres and market sites, and monetary economies began to emerge based on English and German models. By this time the influx of Islamic silver from the East had been absent for more than a century, and the flow of English silver had come to an end in the mid-11th century. Christianity had taken root in Denmark and Norway with the establishment of dioceses during the 11th century, and the new religion was beginning to organise and assert itself more effectively in Sweden. Foreign churchmen and native elites were energetic in furthering the interests of Christianity, which was now no longer operating simply on a missionary footing, and old ideologies and lifestyles were transforming. It was not until 1103, however, that the first archbishopric was founded in Scandinavia, at Lund, Scania, Denmark (as of then).
The assimilation of the nascent Scandinavian kingdoms into the cultural mainstream of European Christendom altered the aspirations of Scandinavian rulers and of those Scandinavians able to travel overseas and changed their relations with their neighbours. One of the primary sources of profit for the Vikings had been slave-taking. The medieval Church took the position that Christians should not own fellow Christians as slaves, so chattel slavery diminished as a practice throughout northern Europe. This took much of the economic incentive out of raiding, though sporadic slaving activity continued into the 11th century. Eventually, outright slavery was outlawed and replaced with serfdom at the bottom rung of medieval society.[dubious ] Scandinavian predation in Christian lands around the North and Irish Seas diminished markedly.
The kings of Norway continued to assert power in parts of northern Britain and Ireland, and raids continued into the 12th century, but the military ambitions of Scandinavian rulers were now directed toward new paths. In 1107, Sigurd I of Norway sailed for the eastern Mediterranean with a host of Norwegian crusaders to fight for the newly established Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Danes and Swedes participated energetically in the Baltic Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries.
In England the Viking Age began dramatically on 8 June 793 when Norsemen destroyed the abbey on the island of Lindisfarne. The devastation of Northumbria's Holy Island shocked and alerted the royal Courts of Europe to the Viking presence. "Never before has such an atrocity been seen," declared the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin of York. More than any other single event, the attack on Lindisfarne demonised perception of the Vikings for the next twelve centuries. Not until the 1890s did scholars outside Scandinavia begin to seriously reassess the achievements of the Vikings, recognizing their artistry, technological skills, and seamanship.
Norse Mythology, sagas, and literature tell of Scandinavian culture and religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. However, early transmission of this information was primarily oral, and later texts were reliant upon the writings and transcriptions of Christian scholars, including the Icelanders Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur fróði. Many of these sagas were written in Iceland, and most of them, even if they had no Icelandic provenance, were preserved there after the Middle Ages due to the continued interest of Icelanders in Norse literature and law codes.
The 200-year Viking influence on European history is filled with tales of plunder and colonization, and the majority of these chronicles came from western witnesses and their descendants. Less common, though equally relevant, are the Viking chronicles that originated in the east, including the Nestor chronicles, Novgorod chronicles, Ibn Fadlan chronicles, Ibn Rusta chronicles, and many brief mentions by the Fosio bishop from the first big attack on the Byzantine Empire. Other chroniclers of Viking history include Adam of Bremen, who wrote, in the fourth volume of his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, "[t]here is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king." In 991, the Battle of Maldon between Viking raiders and the inhabitants of the town of Maldon in Essex, England was commemorated with a poem of the same name.
Early modern publications, dealing with what we now call Viking culture, appeared in the 16th century, e.g., Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Olaus Magnus, 1555), and the first edition of the 13th-century Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus in 1514. The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the Edda (notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665).
In Scandinavia, the 17th-century Danish scholars Thomas Bartholin and Ole Worm and the Swede Olof Rudbeck used runic inscriptions and Icelandic sagas as historical sources. An important early British contributor to the study of the Vikings was George Hicke, who published his Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus in 1703–05. During the 18th century, British interest and enthusiasm for Iceland and early Scandinavian culture grew dramatically, expressed in English translations of Old Norse texts and in original poems that extolled the supposed Viking virtues.
The word "viking" was first popularised at the beginning of the 19th century by Erik Gustaf Geijer in his poem, The Viking. Geijer's poem did much to propagate the new romanticised ideal of the Viking, which had little basis in historical fact. The renewed interest of Romanticism in the Old North had contemporary political implications. The Geatish Society, of which Geijer was a member, popularised this myth to a great extent. Another Swedish author who had great influence on the perception of the Vikings was Esaias Tegnér, member of the Geatish Society, who wrote a modern version of Friðþjófs saga ins frœkna, which became widely popular in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Fascination with the Vikings reached a peak during the so-called Viking Revival in the late 18th and 19th centuries. In Britain this took the form of Septentrionalism, in Germany that of "Wagnerian" pathos or even Germanic mysticism, and in the Scandinavian countries that of Romantic nationalism or Scandinavism. Pioneering 19th-century scholarly editions of the Viking Age began to reach a small readership in Britain, archaeologists began to dig up Britain's Viking past, and linguistic enthusiasts started to identify the Viking-Age origins of rural idioms and proverbs. The new dictionaries of the Old Norse language enabled the Victorians to grapple with the primary Icelandic sagas.
Until recently, the history of the Viking Age was largely based on Icelandic sagas, the history of the Danes written by Saxo Grammaticus, the Russian Primary Chronicle, and The War of the Irish with the Foreigners. Few scholars still accept these texts as reliable sources, as historians now rely more on archeology and numismatics, disciplines that have made valuable contributions toward understanding the period.
The romanticised idea of the Vikings constructed in scholarly and popular circles in northwestern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a potent one, and the figure of the Viking became a familiar and malleable symbol in different contexts in the politics and political ideologies of 20th-century Europe. In Normandy, which had been settled by Vikings, the Viking ship became an uncontroversial regional symbol. In Germany, awareness of Viking history in the 19th century had been stimulated by the border dispute with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein and the use of Scandinavian mythology by Richard Wagner. The idealised view of the Vikings appealed to Germanic supremacists who transformed the figure of the Viking in accordance with the racialist ideology of the Germanic master race. Building on the linguistic and cultural connections between Norse-speaking Scandinavians and other Germanic groups in the distant past, Scandinavian Vikings were portrayed in Nazi Germany as a pure Germanic type. The cultural phenomenon of Viking expansion was re-interpreted for use as propaganda to support the extreme militant nationalism of the Third Reich, and ideologically informed interpretations of Viking paganism and the Scandinavian use of runes were employed in the construction of Nazi mysticism. Other political organizations of the same ilk, such as the former Norwegian fascist party Nasjonal Samling, similarly appropriated elements of the modern Viking cultural myth in their symbolism and propaganda. In communist Russia, the ideology of Slavic racial purity led to the complete denial that Scandinavians had played a part in the emergence of the principalities of the Rus', which were supposed to have been founded by Slavs. Evidence to the contrary was suppressed until the 1990s. The city of Novgorod now enthusiastically acknowledges its Viking history and has included a Viking ship in its logo.
Led by the operas of German composer Richard Wagner, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, Vikings and the Romanticist Viking Revival have inspired many creative works. These have included novels directly based on historical events, such as Frans Gunnar Bengtsson's The Long Ships (which was also released as a 1963 film), and historical fantasies such as the film The Vikings, Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (movie version called The 13th Warrior), and the comedy film Erik the Viking. The vampire Eric Northman, in the HBO TV series True Blood, was a Viking prince before being turned into a vampire. Vikings appear in several books by the Danish American writer Poul Anderson, while British explorer, historian, and writer Tim Severin authored a trilogy of novels in 2005 about a young Viking adventurer Thorgils Leifsson, who travels around the world.
In 1962, American comic book writer Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber, together with Jack Kirby, created the Marvel Comics superhero Thor, which they based on the Norse god of the same name. The character is featured in the 2011 Marvel Studios film Thor and its sequel Thor: The Dark World and also appears in the 2012 film The Avengers and its associated animated series.
Since the 1960s, there has been rising enthusiasm for historical reenactment. While the earliest groups had little claim for historical accuracy, the seriousness and accuracy of reenactors has increased. The largest such groups include The Vikings and Regia Anglorum, though many smaller groups exist in Europe, the UK, North America, New Zealand, and Australia. Many reenactor groups participate in live-steel combat, and a few have Viking-style ships or boats.
Modern reconstructions of Viking mythology have shown a persistent influence in late 20th- and early 21st-century popular culture in some countries, inspiring comics, role-playing games, computer games, and music, including Viking metal, a sub-genre of heavy metal music.
Apart from two or three representations of (ritual) helmets—with protrusions that may be either stylised ravens, snakes, or horns—no depiction of the helmets of Viking warriors, and no preserved helmet, has horns. In fact, the formal, close-quarters style of Viking combat (either in shield walls or aboard "ship islands") would have made horned helmets cumbersome and hazardous to the warrior's own side.
Historians therefore believe that Viking warriors did not wear horned helmets; whether such helmets were used in Scandinavian culture for other, ritual purposes, however, remains unproven. The general misconception that Viking warriors wore horned helmets was partly promulgated by the 19th-century enthusiasts of Götiska Förbundet, founded in 1811 in Stockholm, Sweden. They promoted the use of Norse mythology as the subject of high art and other ethnological and moral aims.
The Vikings were often depicted with winged helmets and in other clothing taken from Classical antiquity, especially in depictions of Norse gods. This was done to legitimize the Vikings and their mythology by associating it with the Classical world, which had long been idealized in European culture.
The latter-day mythos created by national romantic ideas blended the Viking Age with aspects of the Nordic Bronze Age some 2,000 years earlier. Horned helmets from the Bronze Age were shown in petroglyphs and appeared in archaeological finds (see Bohuslän and Vikso helmets). They were probably used for ceremonial purposes.
Cartoons like Hägar the Horrible and Vicky the Viking, and sports uniforms such as those of the Minnesota Vikings and Canberra Raiders football teams have perpetuated the mythic cliché of the horned helmet.
Viking helmets were conical, made from hard leather with wood and metallic reinforcement for regular troops. The iron helmet with mask and mail was for the chieftains, based on the previous Vendel-age helmets from central Sweden. The only true Viking helmet found is that from Gjermundbu in Norway. This helmet is made of iron and has been dated to the 10th century.
The image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the Vikings in popular culture is a distorted picture of reality. Non-Scandinavian Christians are responsible for most surviving accounts of the Vikings, and consequently, a strong possibility for bias exists. This attitude is likely attributed to Christian misunderstandings regarding paganism. Viking tendencies were often misreported, and the work of Adam of Bremen, among others, told largely disputable tales of Viking savagery and uncleanliness.
Studies of genetic diversity provide some indication of the origin and expansion of the Viking population. The Haplogroup I1 (defined by specific genetic markers on the Y-chromosome) mutation occurs with the greatest frequency among Scandinavian males: 35 percent in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, and peaking at 40 percent within western Finland. It is also common near the southern Baltic and North Sea coasts, and then successively decreasing further to the south geographically.
Genetic studies in the British Isles of the Y-DNA Haplogroup R1a1, seen also across Scandinavia, have demonstrated that the Vikings settled in Britain and Ireland as well as raiding there. Both male and female descent studies show evidence of Norse descent in areas closest to Scandinavia, such as the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Inhabitants of lands farther away show most Norse descent in the male Y-chromosome lines.
A specialised genetic and surname study in Liverpool demonstrated marked Norse heritage: up to 50 percent of males who belonged to original families, those who lived there before the years of industrialization and population expansion. High percentages of Norse inheritance—tracked through R1a1 haplotype signatures—were also found among males in the Wirral and West Lancashire. This was similar to the percentage of Norse inheritance found among males in the Orkney Islands.
Recent research suggests that the Scottish warrior Somerled, who drove the Vikings out of Scotland and was the progenitor of Clan Donald, may himself have been of Viking descent—a member of Haplogroup R1a1.
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