A Short History of The Vikings

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

The phrase The Viking Age is an infrequently used term to describe the period from about the mid 700s AD to the mid 1100s, a time in which European countries were subject to repeated raids by pirates from Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) who traveled by sea in what looked like giant canoes. Their wooden warships are well known from constructed re-creations and Hollywood films, and consisted of a large open double-ended boat with seats for many rowers and a single square-rigged sail (wool), the boat typically being 80 feet long and 17 feet wide. A heavy full-length keel gave it great stability, but was low enough to allow entering shallow rivers. This was a swifter boat then anything owned by any European.

The name appears to derive from a pirate camp in Southern Norway called "Vik" and the Scandinavian expression "to go a-viking", meaning to engage as warriors in raids for loot along the coasts of England, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, and even Italy and Spain.

But the more common name was North-men (from the direction they came) or "norsemen". Other Europeans lumped all of them into the common name "Danes".

Why did they raid their neighbors? The age old answer: to get things they wanted (jewels, weapons, gold, slaves, females, etc) while acting as warriors, and because they could get away with it. And they were pretty brutal, killing everyone they could not make use of, and burning everything they could not carry off.

Something else influenced the propensity to raid. There was a rapidly expanding population (the culture permitted a man to have multiple wives) but a limited amount of land to farm, which was the major occupation of most Scandinavians. Pirating was a good way to shuffle off some of the more agitating and otherwise unemployed males. Which explains that soon after they began raiding exploits they also started to colonize the countries they raided.

Before they were raiders and settlers, however, they were commercial, running a lucrative trade route ("the Northern Arc") between European countries on the West - and Eastern countries such as Russia, the Orient, Byzantium, and the Islamic countries - via the Scandanavian countries and the Northern oceans (the North Sea) which connected them. One explanation (among others) for the switch to raiding and settling is that this commercial network became disrupted somehow.

During The Viking Age the Norsemen contributed by sea to the on-going Germanic invasions by land which troubled Europeans for centuries. Indeed, the Norsemen were themselves derived from Germanic people who migrated North. Consider that in 1066 William of Orange led his army from Normandy, France - once a Viking colony ("Norman" = "Norseman"), and thus a Germanic people - across the Channel to defeat the Britains, Angles and Saxons, which were all Germanic as well. All of Northern Europe consisted of re-arrranged Germans!

The Vikings were so successful because they slipped up on you without warning, arriving silently from the sea and proceeding to overwhelm small towns with large numbers of warriors who shouted loudly while hacking to death any living thing in their way. Any survivor who managed to convey the terror of such a raid to a nearby village would only encourage such people to flee rather than fight.

A Viking warrior was determined to die with sword in hand, which insured his entry into Valhalla . He carried an iron sword or an ax, and for protection, a wooden shield with a metal boss at its center and on the rim. Many wore helmets of hide or metal. His clothing was a pair of trousers which reached below the knee, and a pull-over long-sleeved shirt which ended above the knee.

The Vikings were fond of ceremonial funerals. Like Egyptians, wealthy ones were buried in a (Viking) ship with their treasure, slaves, pets, and weapons. (Some of these ships have been unearthed in pretty good condition.) Less frequently, a Viking could be buried at sea in a ship set afire.

Clever navigators, they found their way to Iceland, Greenland, and America long before Columbus, naming America "Vinland" because of the abundance of grapes. Some reached Istanbul and others entered the Caspian Sea. One of their tricks when lost at sea was to release a raven (a bird noted for its ability to find land) and then follow it. The raven is honored in Viking flags and other ornamentation.

The Norseman had a primitive alphabet consisting of runes. Their religion and a pantheon of Norse gods have left a legacy in our culture: four of the days of our week are named after them. See: Essay 24.   Beyond that, and the ability to build a pretty versatile warship, their contribution to history is mainly the terror they provoked before they even arrived. On that score, the Mongols would See, and Raise.

You may have seen pictures of Vikings on a raid wearing conical helmets with cattle horns on the sides, a form of armor which survives on the head of a rotund female opera singer. But no Viking warrior ever had such a helmet.

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