The Vikings were one of the most successful groups of people, that we know of and enough about, ever to have existed on this planet. The Vikings were very unique and their accomplishments as a collective are astounding. The Viking expansion that began at the end of the 8th Century, gained primarily through their advanced naval technology combined with brute force, was so great that it rivals the accomplishments of the Roman Empire and in some instances the accomplishments of the Vikings belittle those of the Romans. This essay will explore, in depth, the Vikings' expansionist conquests, their exploratory journeys and the ships that made their accomplishments possible. The essay will also touch upon the topics of Viking culture and their way of life, their origins and homelands, their weapons, their religion and their legacy. "They were the Vikings, the Norsemen, the men who poured out of the north lands, and so formidable was their impact that they gave their name to an era.
To this day, the period from the Eighth midway through the 11th Century is referred to by historians as 'the Viking Age'". The Vikings came from Scandinavia to wreak havoc on, virtually, the entire continent of Europe. Scandinavia is a term used to describe a geographical area in northern Europe which includes the countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and, in some broader interpretations, it is said to include Finland and Iceland also. All of these countries are known for their harsh climates and landscapes.
The Vikings, characteristically, reflected their homeland environment: they were "a tough, virile and very lusty people". Most Vikings came from either Norway (the Norwegians), Sweden (the Swedes) or Denmark (the Danes). Initially, however, it is believed that the Norsemen migrated north from the shores of the Black Sea. Written evidence exists, within the Sagas and the Edd as (Viking literature), that confirms this migratory path. There i also archaeological evidence that has been uncovered, from the Black Sea area, that collaborates these claims and further suggests that this is where the Viking people originated from. However, it was from the countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark that the Vikings began their piratical raids on the rest of Europe.
The way of life exhibited within these countries was one that had a self-sustaining theme that included agricultural activities such as farming and cattle breeding. These people were also hunters and fishermen who had the knowledge and ability to extract iron and quarry certain forms of rock in order to fashion whetstones, cooking utensils, armour, weapons, tools, etc. The Viking people were dependant on the trading of and for certain goods. Their chief export products were iron, whetstones and soapstone cooking pots.
Salt was their major import. Archaeological excavations have shown evidence of homesteads, farms and marketplaces; the archaeological evidence found there suggests a common everyday life. As the Viking period progressed, society changed; leading Chieftain families accumulated sufficient land and power to form the basis for kingdoms, and the first towns were founded. These market places and towns were based on craftsmanship and trade. The Viking people demonstrated great craftsmanship and had wonderful artistic mentalities. This is evident when examining their weapons, ships, clothing and other art forms.
Regarding their clothing, they had great skill in weaving and without getting in depth; their attire did not include menacing helmets with horns protruding from them. The great artistic abilities of the Vikings is showcased in "a most wonderful collection of antiquities which stand unrivalled in Central and Northern Europe for their wealth of weapons and costly objects of gold and silver. "We find among their remains. repousse work of gold or silver, bronze, silver and wood work covered with the thinnest sheets of gold; the filigree work displays great skill, and some of it could not be surpassed now"! Their wood carvings and stone engravings were amazing; this is b latently visible when you examine photographs of these objects.
"In some cases, nearly twenty centuries have not been able to tarnish or obliterate the splendor of the gilt jewels of the Northmen". The weapons, as well as other articles, demonstrate the Viking peoples' excellent abilities in the area of working and forming iron. Also, "Many of the tools of the Vikings were peculiarly similar to those of our own day. This is especially true of blacksmiths' tools and certain others". The Vikings were dominant in battles and part of the reason for this was their ability to manufacture many different weapons. "We know that the arms of the warriors consisted of sword, spear, axe, shield and a bunch of arrows (the latter presupposing the use of a bow also).
Other kinds of arms, such as helmet and mail coat, are practically never found". The axe was the most important of all of these weapons, for the Viking, because it was both a devastating weapon and an extremely useful tool. The use of the axe as a weapon must have been gruesomely effective, but its primary purpose was as a tool. The axe was used by the Vikings to chop down and form the timber that was used to construct their illustrious ships as well as their homes and forts (both temporary and longterm dwellings). Some of the reasons or causes that are attributed to the Viking movement are: 1.
Population pressure- especially in Norway because of its landscape. Archaeological evidence shows that new farms were cleared in sparsely populated areas at the time of the Viking expansion. This indicates, and further proves the point, that the expansion of the Vikings was probably triggered by a population growth that out stepped the capacities of their domestic resources., 2. Economic motives- the Vikings were the earliest and best "big sea traders", 3.
Political reasons- especially in the case of the Danes as they were making an attempt at political consolidation from the years 800-830's, and 4. Technology- the Vikings had, virtually, perfected the art of boatbuilding as a result of almost 3000 years of progress in that area; their navigational instruments and knowledge of nautical affairs were far superior than anyone else's at that time; and their invasion tactics and techniques were, virtually, unstoppable as they used the elements of stealth and blitz (surprise) to perfection- the Vikings would appear suddenly and penetrate deep into a country by using its rivers etc. as their ships only required 3 to 3 + feet of water to sail. Once on land, they quickly became a small mounted army. Also, the timing of their raids was important as they tended to attack countries, who had absolutely no naval defenses and limited military options, in late summer / early fall when people were harvesting their crops. This enabled the Vikings to live off of other peoples food and it also assisted in their take-overs as the inhabitants of the countries that they invaded would suffer from hunger and in some instances they would become stricken with the plague. As early as the year 516, the Vikings have been implicated as the orchestrators of an attack on Friesland in which "The Goatish king Hygelac was slain."In the same region a Danish attack was beaten off c.
565, according to Venantius Fortunatas. Here too we should observe a notice in an Irish chronicle, stating that the monastery on the island of Egg was burned by heathen sea-rovers in 617, and in the same year Donegal was completely devastated by a fleet from overseas; some scholars believe that this must have been an early raid from Norway."At the end of the Eighth Century A.D. the Vikings fell upon the neighboring lowlands, and in the course of the next 200 years and more the dreaded long ships plowed the waterways of the world until the Norsemen had fought their way into territories almost as large and diverse as those that had constituted the Roman Empire". The "First raid on the British Isles recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle come in 787 from western Norway". The first attack fully attributed to the Vikings, within the contents of all my sources, occurred on June 8,793 at the Island of Lindisfarne, "where they spread destruction by robbery and murder". A year later, the well known "scholar Bede's old monastery at Jarrow in the northeast of England was attacked" and plundered by the Vikings.
In the year 795, they raided Lam bay which is in close proximity to Dublin in Ireland. The Vikings also preyed on the coasts of Wales during the same expedition. In 798, they sacked Saint Patrick's Isle and in 799 "there was a similarly sudden descent on Aquitaine". In the years 802 and 806, the Norsemen raided the beautiful island monastery of Iona located in the He bride islands. Then, they revisited Ireland and raided a place called Inis murray.
All of these missions consisted of relatively small numbers of ships and men, but now the Vikings were beginning "to join together in larger fleets and organize themselves, so that they were able to extend their operations inland. This stage was introduced by the Danish king Godfred's expedition to Friesland with two hundred ships in 810. In the decade 820-30 Ireland was plundered by large fleets, in the 830-840 decade it was Friesland which became the main scene of action, in 840-850 it was France and in part Germany, and 850-60 the serious attacks on England began."But the fascinating story of Viking expansion had another side to it, one that was to have an extraordinary impact on the historical and racial background of the English-speaking peoples". When the Frankish empire was weakened, by Charlemanges death, the Vikings seized the opportunities presented to them and attacked the most important port of the Frisians and the Franks. That port was the rich trading city of Dore stad and the Vikings, coming from Denmark, plundered it for five years in succession. They also attacked Rouen and Quentovic, the two other major trading cities in that area, and then they struck Nantes in 843.
The Vikings stayed the winter in Nantes and this signaled "the beginning of the wintering hosts that came to plunder and remained to cultivate". Now, the Vikings began to earn money in a different fashion. They were being paid, with the promise not to attack, by the disorganized Danes and in the period from 845-926, the Vikings were allotted 13 Danegeld's (the name given for these pay offs). "During this period a new type of Dane had begun to arrive, men seeking land rather than cash. Their leader's name was Rollo, and within two decades this land-hungry Norseman held all northern France under the name of Normandy. Here, on these north-facing Channel shores, was born the power that was to conquer England for the last time in its history".
The Swedish dominion of the Vikings had also achieved some amazing feats during this time. They sailed across the Baltic Sea and into the old Soviet Union, unleashing Viking dominance to the southeast and east regions of Europe. They sailed their vessels up the Dvina River and down the Dnieper into the Black Sea where they were "knocking at the back door of the failing Eastern Roman Empire and threatening Byzantium. They established great settlements at Star aya, Ladoga and Novgorod in Russia". The most incredible aspect of this venture was the fact that there are no connecting water ways in these areas. This meant that the Vikings had to cross large land masses between rivers.
They did this by rolling their longboats on logs which they had chopped down! "These merchant adventurers in fact penetrated as far into the continents of Europe and Asia as their western Viking brethren traveled across the Atlantic. The very name Russia is derived from them, for they were known as the Rhos or Rus". In the year 941 the Rus Vikings, who were based in Kiev, had built up their forces to a point where they were prepared to venture down the Dnieper River and "attack Constantinople with (according to one account) 10,000 ships. Their leader was Igor, descendant of Rurik, traditional for nder of the dynasty which ruled Russia until 1598. The attack was unsuccessful, but Igor returned three years later to levy taxes."By the middle of the 10th Century, the names of the Vikings leaders had already taken on a recognizably Russian flavor, and the Vikings were being influenced by the culture of Christian Constantinople".
The Vikings religion originally had Pagani stic qualities, but during their expansion they had been exposed to Christianity in several different areas. As a result, at the end of the Viking age, Christianity was widely accepted by the Nordic people. It replaced a heathen religion, in which gods and goddess e each had power over certain domains. Odin was the main god and he had jurisdiction over the rest of the gods and goddesses. Thor was the god of the warriors. The Vikings loved combat and it was assured that the Viking who died in battle would gain entry into Valhalla, the Norse equivalent to heaven.
The goddess Freyr was responsible for the fertility of the soil and livestock; Loki was a trickster and a sorcerer and was always distrusted by the other gods. The gods had dangerous adversaries, the Jotuns, who represented the darker side of life. The burial techniques of the Vikings indicates a strong belief in the afterlife, even though the dead could be buried or cremated. The articles buried with these people prove this point as they, as well as several other civilizations including the ancient Egyptians, wanted to be prepared for this afterlife. For example, a Viking warrior was burried with his weapons; a Viking blacksmith was burried with his tools; the Viking fisherman was buried with his fishing equipment and, often times, he was buried within his boat; and Viking women were buried with things like jewlery, kitchen articles, and they were also usually buried in boats. The daring exploratory journeys of the Vikings were extremely impressive.
The Vikings are responsible for founding, and in most cases the colonization of, Iceland, Greenland and North America. Iceland was discovered, by Vikings, in the year 850 and settlements were established as early as the 870's. "By the end of the Ninth Century, there were 25,000 people permantly settled in Iceland, and large numbers of ships were trading back and forth between the island and Scandinavia. These voyages and colonies were probably an important factor in the development of the Norsemen's mercantile and colonizing instincts, which were to have a very marked effect on the history of Europe". The Sagas state that Greenland may have been sighted as early as the year 900, but Erik the Red is credited with the discovery of Greenland some 80 years later when he and a crew of 30 others explored its coasts. "In 986 he sailed from Iceland again, this time at the head of 25 vessels laden with emigrants and cattle.
Fourteen ships reached the promised land, and the 300 people they contained founded the first Greenland colony. Fifteen years later the Greenland settlement was a thousand strong, spread over 300 miles of coast, established within 500 miles of the American shore". No records exist from this settlement, but archaeological evidence is the validator here. Eventually, over the course of four centuries, the settlers were isolated completely from there Scandinavian homeland and were probably forced to merge with the native Eskimos as a method of survival in the colder, harsher Greenland climate. The discovery of America, which is normally accredited to Christopher Columbus, was in actuality a feat accomplished by the Vikings. Erik the Red's son, Leif Eriksson, discovered North America by mistake as the boat he was sailing in was blown off course during a voyage from Iceland to Greenland.
He returned home and then made a second trip with the intention of finding this new land which they had mistakenly reached on the first journey. "Leif and a crew of 35 retraced Bjarni's course and reached land, probably Baffin Island, which he called Helluland (Stone Land). Steering southward in search of ice-free inlets, he reached what was probably Labrador. He called it Maryland (Forest Land) ". As they continued their journey, they eventually reached "Vinland"- a place that reportedly had salmon that were larger than those of Greenland, grass all winter long and grapes that grew wild. Experts believe that "Vinland" is an area located in the, modern day, New England coastal regions.
Leif Eriksson's brother, Thorvald, sailed directly to "Vinland" and was killed there by Indians after a brief stay of one year. At approximately the same time a man named Thor finn Karlsefni, an Icelandic trader, set sail from Greenland with three ships and 160 soon to become colonists to establish a settlement on the American coast. They took the route that passed through Baffin Island and Newfoundland to the New England area, where they stayed for three years trading goods with Indians until their resources were depleted; after which they were forced to retreat. The Viking ships that enabled them to accomplish so much are in need of examination.
The Vikings were a seafaring culture who were "undisputed masters of the sea for more than twelve centuries " and the vessels they created during those times were magnificently beautiful, luxurious and awesome. In a Roman account of the Vikings and their ships, by Tacitus, he describes the ships as. ".. having a prow at each end, they are always ready for running on to the beach " and he continues on to explain how the oars were left loose, "so that they can be shifted here or there as circumstances may require". The prows were, also, very elevated as were the sterns in order to protect against high waves and storms out at sea. These ships were built entirely of oak and were very durable. The hull design made the ships very fast, either under sail or when oars were used; they would travel at about 12-13 miles per hour. The Viking ships were more flat bottomed than the other ships of that era; in order to protect against shallow waters.
Even with a full load, the Gokstad ship drew no more than one meter (3.3 feet) of water, which meant it could easily have been used for shore assaults. The ships were made to be light-weight and flexible, to work with the elements instead of against them. An average size viking longship was 60 feet long, but the Drei / dragon /war ships average size was 100 feet long and contained 20 rooms (the space between deck beams where the rower sat). "The old Viking sagas report that Canute, the Dane who became king of England in the 11th Century, had a 60-room dragon ship, a monstrous vessel with space for 120 oars and a total length of 260 feet"! There are three very famous ship graves that are worth mentioning at this time: The Oseberg, Tune and Gokstad burials. The Oseberg ship was built around 815-820 AD; it measured in at 72 feet long and its burial was dated to 834 AD.
The Gokstad and Tune ships were constructed in the 890's; they were 79 feet and 65 feet, respectively, and were buried right after 900 AD. These ship burials were just that, burials of important Viking figures within ships. Inside these buried ships, the deceased was placed in a bed, dressed in fine clothing, and provided with virtually anything that he / she may need in the afterlife; including sacrificed animals, servants (in some cases), jewels, tapestries, food and drink, kitchen equipment, several beds, tents, weapons, tools, trunks and even wine. These ships were very large and they usually held approximately 70 fully equipped men; each of whom had a horse! One thing is certain, without their ship building expertise, abilities in the open sea and navigational knowledge; the Vikings would not have accomplished nearly as much as they did. Much of the literature written about the Vikings, especially the Frankish and English chronicles, are extremely biased with respect to their views on the Vikings.
"They could see nothing good in a man who had not a religion i denticle with their own". The reputation of the Vikings as being "fiends", "devils", and "sons of Pluto" etc. was common and it was not enhanced any during their hostile take-overs, during which they sometimes burned down churches (or used them as stables for their horses). The Vikings are often described and thought of as barbarians who did nothing but kill, maim, destroy and pillage their way to success. While much of this is true, the Vikings were responsible for much more than this; if you take a historical perspective on the matter. The Viking age saw considerable progress in areas such as: Art, craftsmanship, naval technology, war strategies, exploration and the development of trade and commerce.
"They were traders, not marauders, and the settlements they built up were trading posts established for the sale and shipment of a myriad of goods- among them slaves, silks, spices, brocades, jewelry and furs". The intelligence of the Vikings is, sometimes, greatly underestimated. They developped their own language and writing system, had unbelievable organizational skills, and had knowledge of surveying techniques as well as some geometry (demonstrated by the remains of fortresses, dated back to the Viking age, found in Denmark). These new facts combined with the other information I have already provided, allow me to make the statement that the Vikings were an advanced civilization. Another fact that further supports that argument is that they conquered so many different nations so easily; this alone suggests superior intelligence as history often reveals. Also, the fact that the Vikings shared their knowledge with others (especially regarding their knowledge of navigational and nautical affairs) and contributed to the advancement of most, if not all, of the places that they conquered.
The legacy of the Vikings is left scattered all over the world! The Vikings' presence was felt and helped influence the history of Russia, Germany, France, Great Britain, and, of course, the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland as well as most of the rest of Europe; across the Atlantic to Greenland, Canada and the United States! You would be very hard-pressed to find another civilization, culture or group of people that had so many accomplishments, impacts and influences on such a diversity of peoples and geographical areas. The Vikings were one of the greatest groups of people in history!
1. Innes, Hammond and the Editors of Life, Life World Library: Scandinavia (New York, 1963), pg.
28-36.2. Du Chai llu, Paul B., The Viking Age: The Early History, Manners, and Customs of The English-Speaking Nations: Vol. 1 (New York, 1889), pg.
1-52.3. Sjovold, Thor leif, Introduction from The Vikings Exhibition presented by The National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa, 1971) 4.
Shetelig, Ha akon; Falk, Hjalmar; Gordon, E.V. ; Scandinavian Archaeology (Oxford, 1937) pg.
267-289.5. Henriksen, Edvard, Scandinavia Past and Present: From the Viking Age to Absolute Monarchy (Denmark, 1959), pg.
98-153.6. Tone, S.M., The Scandinavians In History, (London, 1948), pg.