word Viking is a collective designation of Nordic peoples, Danes, Swedes,
Norwegians and Icelanders, who ranged abroad during a period of dynamic
Scandinavian expansion in the Middle Ages, from about AD 800 to 1100. Called the Viking Age, the period has long
been popularly associated with unbridled piracy, when freebooters came
swarming out of the northlands in their predatory long ships to burn and
pillage their way across civilized Europe. This, however, is now
recognized as a gross simplification. Modern scholarship emphasizes the
achievements of the Viking Age in terms of Scandinavian art and
craftsmanship, marine technology, exploration, and the development of
commerce, the Vikings as traders, not raiders.
of Viking Activities. The
derivation of the word “Viking” is disputed.
It may be from Old Norse
vik (a bay or creek) or Old English wic
(a fortified trade settlement). Not every Scandinavian, however, was a
professional warrior or a Viking, and not every Viking was a pirate. The
motive causes of Viking Age expansion are complex. Land shortage in
Scandinavia, improved iron production, and the need for new markets
probably all played a part.
first recorded Viking raid was a sea borne assault (793) by Norwegian
marauders on the holy island of Lindisfarne, just off the northeastern
coast of England. Growing evidence indicates, however, that considerable
overseas Viking migration, west across the North Sea and east across the
Baltic, occurred long before that. Swedish entrepreneurs penetrated the
hinterland of Russia, pioneering new trade routes down the Volga and the
Dnepr, founding city-states such as Kiev and Novgorod, and opening the
way to Constantinople and the exotic markets of Arabia and the Far East.
In Constantinople, Vikings formed the elite bodyguard of the Byzantine
emperors, the feared and famous Varangian Guard. Danish warriors
hammered at the cities of the crumbling Carolingian Empire, Hamburg,
Dorestad, Rouen, Paris, Nantes, Bordeaux, until one of the armies in 911
accepted by treaty huge tracts of land in northern France (now known as
Normandy, “Land of the Northmen”) and settled there.
under King Canute (Knut) II in the 11th century, a Scandinavian empire
of the North Sea was established, comprising England, Denmark, and
Norway. Norwegian adventurers joined Danish Vikings in subjugating much
of northern England (the Danelaw) before settling there as farmers and
traders and developing great mercantile cities such as York, while
gradually extending their settlement into unconquered northern areas
such as Cumbria. They also took over the Northern Isles of Scotland
(Shetland and the Orkneys), the Hebrides, and much of mainland Scotland
as well. In Ireland they played a lusty part in the internecine
squabbles of rival Irish clans, and they founded Ireland’s first
trading towns: Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow, and Limerick. Viking
exploration brought the discovery and settlement of uninhabited lands in
the Atlantic—first the Faroes, then Iceland, then Greenland. From
Greenland the Vikings launched ambitious expeditions to settle on the
eastern seaboard of North America (Vinland), but these attempts to
colonize the New World 500 years before Columbus were soon abandoned in
the face of hostility from the indigenous peoples. Stories of the
abortive American venture are recorded in the medieval Icelandic sagas;
but little authentic evidence of the Viking presence has been found,
apart from substantial traces of a Viking Age settlement at
L’Anse-aux-Meadows, in northern Newfoundland. All other Viking
“finds”, such as the Kensington Stone, have been exposed as
forgeries or hoaxes, or merely wishful thinking.
impact of the Vikings was less enduring than might have been expected.
In general, they had a great capacity for being assimilated into local
populations. In some areas of Britain, especially in Cumbria and other
locations where settlements were established in previously unpopulated
land, concentrations of Norse and Danish place names are the most
notable residue of their presence. A century and a half after settling
in Normandy, however, their Franco-Viking descendants were strong enough
to conquer England (1066) and Sicily (1060-1090). The settlers brought
to the British Isles energetic Viking art forms, new farming techniques,
mercantile acumen, and a vigorous language; Scandinavian traces are
still apparent in the dialects of Scotland and northern England. They
introduced new forms of administration and justice, such as the jury
system; even the word “law” is from an Old Norse word. Perhaps the
most enduring legacy of the Viking Age is to be found in Iceland, which
produced the great medieval literature of the sagas.
their time, the Vikings had criss-crossed half the world in their open
boats and vastly extended its horizons. Having achieved that, however,
they had neither the manpower nor the staying power, neither the
reserves of wealth nor the political experience, neither the cohesion at
home nor the confidence abroad to master effectively the older, richer,
more stable states they tried to overrun. Their dynamism was gradually
exhausted, and even their swift, magnificent ships were
superseded—replaced by much larger, more prosaic vessels better suited
to bulk cargo carrying.
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