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Viking History

Updated on September 13, 2015

History of the Vikings

The Vikings were the last of the Germanic barbarians who had been ravaging Europe since Roman times and the first of the European explorers by sea. They ruthlessly attacked many rich civilized centers of Europe. The term "Viking" derives from the old Norse word for the bays or inlets from which they launched their raids. Vikings from western Scandinavia, which later became Norway, generally went southwest to the British Isles and France or west to the islands of the North Atlantic and North America. Those from the Jutland peninsula, later Denmark, sailed southwest to England, France, and the Mediterranean. The Norwegian and Danish Vikings were called Danes by the English and Normans by the French. Vikings in eastern Scandinavia, later Sweden, moved southeast through Russia, where they were known as Varangians. Eventually the Vikings settled down to form organized states in Scandinavia and the regions they had conquered.

Early Scandinavia

Scandinavia was inhabited by Stone Age hunters in 12,000 B.C. By Roman times the Vikings were settled farmers. Jutland, as the most level and fertile region, was more heavily populated than the forested mountains of what later became Norway and Sweden. In the 5th century A.D., Danish Vikings invaded Britain. In the 6th century A.D., Swedish Vikings conquered the Gotars, another Viking group in southern Sweden. For the next 200 years the Viking clans fought among themselves for dominance.

Viking Expansion

In the 8th century A.D. the population of Scandinavia was outgrowing its resources. Farmers turned more and more to summer raids, and those who lost out in the clan struggles often took up raiding as a way of life. The Vikings were lured abroad by the promise of plunder in the rich towns and monasteries of Europe and Britain.

Norwegian Viking Drive to the West

The first major recorded Viking raid was that of the Norwegian Vikings on the island monastery of Lindisfarne off eastern Scotland in 793 A.D. From then on they raided England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Shetland, Orkney, and Hebrides islands. Their destruction of such famous monasteries as lona ended the great development of Celtic monasticism in the British Isles. At the same time, other Norwegian Vikings raided France.

Especially venturesome Norwegians sailed across the North Atlantic to establish themselves in Iceland. There, Viking chieftains met every summer in the
Althing, a gathering that has been called the first European parliament. The modern Icelandic legislative body is still called the Althing. Iceland remained an independent Viking area until it came under the control of Norway in the 13th century. Sailing west from Iceland in the late 10th century, the Viking Eric the Red founded on the coast of Greenland a colony that lasted for more than 400 years. According to two Icelandic sagas, Leif Ericsson, son of Eric the Red, reached continental North America in about 1000 A.D. and called it Vinland. Greenlanders established a short-lived settlement in the New World and over a long period made voyages there for timber. Foundations of nine Viking structures discovered in 1963 in Newfoundland gave the first conclusive proof of Viking settlement in North America.

Danish Viking Drive to the Southwest

During the 9th century A.D., Danish Vikings based at the mouth of the River Thames continually ravaged the Anglo-Saxon villages of England. Although King Alfred the Great of Wessex stopped their advance in 879 A.D. he was forced to cede them northeastern England, called the Danelaw. As Viking raids increased in the late 10th century A.D., English kings paid the Vikings Danegeld, which was a bribe to keep the peace. In the early 11th century all England was united with Denmark and Norway under the Danish Viking king Canute. With the death of Canute's heirs in 1042 the crown returned to the Anglo-Saxons.

In the 9th century A.D. other Danish Vikings sailed around western Europe and up the Guadalquivir River into Moslem Spain. Entering the Mediterranean, they attacked the Moslems in northern Africa and also raided western Italy, but were soon repelled.

At the same time, Danish Vikings were making large-scale raids on northern Germany, the Low Countries, and France, regions where the crumbling Carolingian Empire could no longer defend itself. Hardy German and Frisian warriors eventually drove off the raiders in the northern regions, but the Danish and Norwegian Vikings pushed up the Seine River in northern France and the Loire and Garonne rivers in western France. Vikings, probably led by Ragnar Lothbrok, burned Paris in 845 A.D. The weak French kings paid bribes for peace. In 911 A.D., Charles III, called Charles the Simple, ceded to the Viking chief Rollo the area around Rouen in northern France. The area became known as Normandy from "Norman," the French name for the Vikings. Rollo was baptized and became Duke Robert, vassal of the French king. The Normans, adopting the French language and ways, organized a strong state in Normandy. In the llth century, Duke William of Normandy, or William the Conqueror, led the Norman conquest of England. In the same century the exploits of such Norman adventurers as Robert Guiscard resulted in the Norman kingdom of Sicily, at the expense of the Moslems in Sicily and the Byzantine emperor in southern Italy. Normans from Sicily took part in the Crusades against the Moslems in the Holy Land.

Swedish Viking Expansion to the East

Swedish Vikings, or Varangians, had colonized the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea before the start of the Viking Age. In the 9th century A.D., raiding and trading expeditions pushed into the rivers of the Slavic lands to the east. Varangian leaders seized Slavic towns, such as Kiev, and gained control of the surrounding land and trade routes. According to tradition, the Varangian chieftain Rurik, on invitation from the Slavs, settled in Novgorod in 862 A.D. He is considered to be the founder of the Russian state, which took its name from "Russ," a term for Rurik's followers. Rurik's successor, Oleg, united Varangian territory and made his capital at Kiev. During the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. the Varangians alternately raided or traded with the Byzantines in Constantinople, near the Black Sea. Varangian warriers hired themselves out as guards for the Byzantine emperor. Gradually the Varangians intermarried with the Slavs and Byzantines and absorbed their culture, creating a distinct Russian culture and state.

Later Scandinavian Developments

As the Viking conquerors settled down overseas, similar developments occurred in Scandinavia. Peoples were united and feudal nobility was organized under such national kings as Harold I (Harold Fairhair) in 9th-century Norway, Harold II (Harold Fairhair) in 10th-century Denmark, and Olaf Shotkonung in 11th-century Sweden. Some of these early kings were Christians, notably Olaf II (St. Olaf) of Norway, Canute of Denmark, and Eric IX (Eric the Saint) of Sweden. With the spread of Christianity and royal power, Viking religion and raids declined and the Scandinavian Vikings joined the stream of European civilization.


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