The word “Viking” derived from “vick” in Old Norse, which meant “small bay”. In the 9th century, Scandinavians used this word to refer to their maritime expeditions. Accordingly people in later times called this nation which brought infinite panic to Europe in the early Middle Age as “Viking”.
The Scandinavian Peninsula is located at the northern part of European continent. It is separated from the European continent by the Barents Sea, Norwegian Sea, North Sea and Baltic Sea, with only its northeast part connecting to the continent. As it is located at high latitude, the climate there is very cold and the night is long in winter. And because of the complex terrain, the land traffic on the peninsula is discommodious. However, as the long and narrow peninsula has a twisting coastline, countless fjords and unnumbered islands, the marine traffic there is convenient.
As early as the 6000 BC, the northern tribes shuttled between islands near the coast and fed on marine animals such as fish. Over two thousand years later, people who were engaged in agricultural cultivation appeared on the peninsula. Even so, as there were so many fjords and islands, ship was the main means of transportation for Vikings. And the dense forests on the peninsula and nearby islands provided them with the best materials for housebuilding and shipbuilding. Besides, as the land yielded not so well, fish and shellfish were their primary food sources.
As time passed, three independent countries emerged on the Scandinavian Peninsula: Norway, Sweden and Denmark. But the borders between the three countries was obscure till the 8th century. Therefore, Vikings in the Middle Age could be divided by nationality into three branches: Norwegian Vikings, Danish Viking and Swedish Vikings.
Custom and habits
Every nation had their legends. There were also many myths and legends widely spread in Scandinavia. Apart from Norse mythology, which was as well-known as Greek mythology and Roman mythology, the most known legend-related works were the “Saga” and “Edda”. The earliest Norse mythology appeared in the form of songs, and was widely circulated in Scandinavia. Norse mythology reflected the polytheistic belief of primitive Scandinavian tribes and the magnificent imagination of their struggle with snow and ice. “Saga” was the oral creation of ancient Scandinavian inhabitants recorded by Icelanders and Norwegians around the 13th century. Apart from myths, there were more battle stories of Scandinavian heroes, and most involved historical events took place between the mid-9th century and mid-11th century where Vikings swept the Europe. “Edda” was the Norse mythology recorded by medieval Icelandic scholars, and there were only two Edda survive to this days.
There were three stratums in Viking society: slaves, freemen and headmen. With time passing, a new stratum of professional craftsmen (such as blacksmiths) emerged. In Norse mythology, dwarves were good at making weapons and artware, and therefore were much respected by both deities and human. In the Viking world, blacksmith was also a respectable profession. Blacksmith processed iron, turned it into weapons and other necessities of life. And Vikings had the best ironwork technology at that time.
“Thing” was the Viking parliament where all the decisions regarding the life of Vikings were made. Before the introduction of Christianity, the kings and headmen were elected in the “Thing”. Sometimes, “Thing” also acted as the court. “Thing” held one or two outdoor meetings every month.
Vikings had a strong sense of family and paid much attention to their families. Therefore, they usually lived in a big family in a farm or communal courtyard. Polygamy was implemented in Viking society. A man could marry more than one wives: a lawful wife who was in charge of family properties and household duties; the others were slaves.
In the computer game Age of Empires II: The Conquerors, the characteristic units of Vikings were the Berserkers and dragonboats. In games and literary works, Viking warriors wore ox-horn helmets or comb helmets. Ox-horn helmet was one of Viking warriors’ symbols. Viking warriors’ weapons were axes or swords. They usually used the single-blade axe with a thorn at the top end. In the battle, when using this axe to rip into enemy’s bully, it made great harm. Viking warriors generally carries shield. In early time, these shields were made of hard wood, but later they were made of iron. In the battle, some Viking warriors took certain kind of stimulant and could not feel pain even when they got wounded, so as to enhance the morale. That was also why they were called the Berserkers.
Vikings heavily relied on boats in the battle and life. Vikings had advanced shipbuilding technology. The boat they built had two upwarped pointed ends and a dragon-head shaped bow, and thus was called the “dragon boat”. It had a long and narrow hull, which enabled fast movement, and reverse movement without turning the boat around.
The Viking Conquest
Before the 8th century AD, there were only two million inhabitants on the Scandinavia peninsula. As the climate became warmer, the crop yield increased, people became stronger, the death rate of the old and the newborn dropped. Besides, the Viking population grew rapidly due to the polygamy. With the growth of population, there was not enough land in Scandinavia. Many young people were jobless and had to go out to make a living. Vikings also had a legal tradition, exiling criminals. In addition to the social factors above, the Viking characteristics was also an important reason why they became sea raiders later. Owing to the harsh living environment, Vikings were tough and courageous. They respected heroes, loved adventure and tour.
Therefore, in the following centuries, a large number of Vikings left Scandinavia for elsewhere in Europe by sea. But they were not migrating there, but plundering and conquering there. The dark age for Europe came again.
On the European continent in the 5th century, alien races began to migrate from northern and eastern Europe to the territory of former Roman Empire after its collapse. As early as that time, some Scandinavian inhabitants followed the crowd and swamped in western Europe. In the 8th century AD, the famous Charlemagne founded the strong Carolingian Empire. He swept the continent in the attempt of restoring the order in Europe and reproducing the glory of Roman Empire. But no matter the territory or strength, his empire was no match for the Roman Empire. From then on, Vikings began their three century long exploration. After the death of Charlemagne and his successor Louis I (Louis the Pious), the Carolingian Empire began to decline, and the Viking invasion also reached the peak.
During the conquest, three Viking countries had their respective paths: Norwegian Vikings invaded and plundered the British Isles and the Mediterranean; Danish Vikings attacked the western Europe and looted along the major rivers; and Swedish Vikings went eastwards to the land of Rus tribes, founded the Russian Empire and became a new nation.
The Norwegian Vikings
In the June of 793, several drakkars appeared near the English coast. The Vikings onboard quickly got ashore and plundered the nearby Lindisfarne Priory. This plunder marked the opening of Viking Age. Within a few years, Norwegian Vikings raided the Patrick Monastery, St Columb Priory and St Paul’s Monastery along English coast, as well as some British coast areas such as the Island of Iona (Scotland) and the Isle of Man. In the Middle Age, the Christian Church had amazing power and wealth. Therefore, Vikings often raided churches near the coast and plundered a large amount of wealth. Usually, Vikings took drakkars to quickly get ashore, plundered wealth and livestock, then quickly went back aboard. Sometimes they captured adult men and women for slavery trade.
In 837, Danish Vikings landed in northern part of Ireland, established the city of Dyflinn and began to rule Ireland in 851. In order to retake the dominion of Ireland, Norwegian Vikings had a long-lasting struggle with Danish Vikings, and at last successfully founded an Irish Viking state, which included Ireland, Island of Man and the western England. In 1000 AD, Irish people drove Vikings out of their land under the lead of Brian Bórú. At that time, the Viking Scandinavian civilization and the Irish Celtic civilization had been fused. Many Vikings in Ireland converted to Christianity; and back in Norway, there were also many people, including the monarchs, became Christians.
Conquest would never end. The conquest of Norwegian Vikings was not limited in Britain and Ireland. Their scope of plunder gradually expanded all the way to the Mediterranean waters near Portugal. In 843, in France, Norwegian Vikings plundered Nantes and went upstream the Loire to Tours. In 844, they invaded Spain, plundered Cadiz and Seville. In the 10th century, another Norwegian Viking fleet plundered Lisbon, Portugal.
Norwegian Vikings’ last hero was King Harald III. In 1066, to get the throne of England, Harald III allied with the Earl of Northumbria Tostig Godwinson to fight against the new King of England Harold II. After landing, Viking army quickly marched on York, and defeated English army in Fulford on September 20th. This battle exhausted the English army, and had a profound effect on the outcome of the Battle of Hastings. But Harald III did not see the final victory. He was defeated and killed by Harold II’s army in the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25th. William the Conqueror seized this opportunity to land in England a few days later, defeated Harold II and became the ruler of England. The death of Harald III ended the centuries-long Viking Age.
The Danish Vikings
In 797, Danish Vikings invaded the Carolingian Empire ruled by Charlemagne for the first time, and frequently invaded this empire in the following decades. But at that time, the Carolingian Empire was in its prime time, and the most invasions of Danish Vikings were repelled by Charlemagne and his son Louis I. In 834, Danish Vikings made another massive invasion, plundered Frisian financial and business center Dorestad, looted Rouen and Tours.
In 840, the successor of Charlemagne Louis I passed away, and the Carolingian Empire began to decline and split, providing Danish Vikings a great opportunity.
On the Easter of 885, 30,000 Danish Vikings took 700 warships to sail up the Seine and arrived in Paris (the Old Town of Paris, located on Ile de la Cite). After landing, Vikings launched heavy attacks on Paris. At that time, the King of France Charles the Fat was away in expedition and there were only Duke Odo of Francia (the Count of Neustria and the King of West Franks later) and 200 cavalries in the city. The Parisians repelled Viking attacks. Vikings had to surround the city and make a long siege. The siege of Paris was not raised until Charles the Fat and his army returned in the next year. But Charles the Fat did not completely defeat Vikings, instead, he signed a trade agreement with Vikings. Later, Vikings repeatedly went up the Seine and plundered the riverside areas. In 911, King of France Charles the Simple signed the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte with the leader of Danish Vikings Rollo, and put the estuary of Seine River in northern France under Viking rule. Rollo became the Duke of Normandy while his Viking warriors became the Normans.
Apart from France, the British Isles were also the victims of Danish Vikings. Since the year of 835, Danish Vikings had launched multiple attacks on England. They went up the Thames River, occupied islands in the river, used them as strongholds to expand inland and seized almost half of England. In 878, Alfred the Great defeated Danes in the Battle of Edington (Ethandun) and made the Treaty of Wedmore in the next year. According to the treaty, Danes ruled northeastern England (historically known as the “Daneslaw”) including York, Nottingham, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire. Old Norse became the official language of this region. In the early 10th century, Danish power decayed and gradually withdrew from England.
In 1002, King Aethelred II of England ordered to execute all the Danes on English territory, resulting in the revenge of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. Sweyn’s successor Cnut the Great conquered the whole England and took over the throne. After becoming the King of Denmark in 1019, he defeated Norway and Sweden in 1028, seized the throne of Norway, occupied southern Sweden, and founded the “North Sea Empire” whose territory included England, Denmark, Norway, the bulk of Scotland and southern Sweden.
Cnut the Great passed away in 1035, but his descendents failed to maintain the great empire. The death of Harthacnut (Knud III Hardeknu) in 1042 marked the dissolution of North Sea Empire and the end of the age of Danish Vikings.
The Swedish Vikings
When Norwegian and Danish Vikings were plundering western Europe, Swedish Vikings focused their attention on the east.
In the 9th century, Swedish Vikings set off from Swedish coast and arrived in the Slavic region in eastern Europe. Vikings were referred to as Varangians or the Rus by local people. According to the The Russian Primary Chronicle written by Orthodox priests in the 12th century, in 862, Slavs suggested to the Rus: “We have a country of vast territory and abundant resources but in chaos, please come and rule us.” While in some other records, Swedish Vikings were not the ruler, but mercenaries.
In the 9th century, the leader of Swedish Vikings Rurik founded the famous Rurik Dynasty in the history of Russia. As the remoteness of Novgorod led to many negative factors for development, Oleg, the successor of Rurik, invaded the Dnieper region, captured Kiev in 882 and designated it as the capital. Oleg made great effort to expand his territory, and conquered many surrounding Slavic tribes. In 907, Oleg led 7000 warships and over 80,000 soldiers to attack the capital of Byzantine Empire Constantinople, forced the Byzantines to signed a peace treaty and pay tribute to Vikings.
Oleg’s grandson Sviatoslav continued to march on the Volga and the Danube, where he defeated the Bulgarian tribes. Later, Sviatoslav was killed in an ambush. His son Vladimir repelled the enemy and consolidated the growing Russian Empire. In 988, the King of Byzantine Empire visited Russia, made a proposal of marriage between his sister and Vladimir, with the condition that Vladimir became a Christian. Vladimir accepted the proposal, received baptism and forced his people to convert to Christianity. And so, this eastern European Viking regime quickly fused with the Christian culture and became a new nation, the Russian nation.
Back in Sweden, the Viking conquest never ended. Swedish Vikings also organized several expeditions in a few centuries. In 1040, Ingvar the Far-Traveled, the leader of Swedish Vikings, led 30 ships to leave Swedish coast for the Central Asia. In the next year, Ingvar died in Syria. His death ended the conquest of Swedish Vikings.
During the centuries-long conquest, Vikings went across the Europe. Meanwhile, this period became the last chapter of the epic of Viking civilization. During the conquest, the Viking civilization fused with local civilizations and formed many new nations, such as Normans, Russians. Vikings also lost their civilization and belief in this process. The force of Christianity infiltrated into the thought of these “barbarians” and then expanded to everywhere in Europe.
Navigation and discoveries
Apart from pirates and conquerors, Vikings were also great navigators.
In 815, Vikings discovered Iceland. Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean and far away from European continent. Despite being in the high latitude region, the climate there is warmer than Scandinavia due to the influence of the North Atlantic Current. Volcanoes spread all over the island, but the soils of valleys and plains is very fertile for planting. This is a habitable place with dense forests, rich iron ores and abundant fish. Therefore, in over a century after it was discovered, a large number of Vikings settled down here.
But Iceland was a small place without much land for habitation and farming. As the Vikings flocked in, the resources on the island became poorer. This situation urged Vikings to go farther and conquer new lands.
In 982, Viking leader Erik the Red was sentenced to three year exile for murder. He sailed westwards and discovered a new land. He named this land as “Groenland”, which meant “green land”. Erik highly eulogized that magic land after returning to Iceland. Therefore, many Vikings decided to migrate to the “green land”. The first group of 500 men left for Greenland in 25 ships loaded with livestock and necessities of life. In the end, 15 ships arrived in their destination while 10 were swallowed by storm.
As the latitude of Greenland is too high, there was only 90,000 square kilometers of total 218,000 square kilometers land was not covered by ice, and there was neither much iron ores nor enough timber resources, Vikings on the island soon got into difficulties. By the 11th century, there were only 3000 men living on the island in over 300 farms.
In 992, the son of Erik the Red Leif Erikson led 35 men to leave Greenland. He sailed westwards to look for new lands. He discovered the North America, and arrived in the coast of Labrador in eastern Canada, and then kept going south to the Newfoundland. In the next year, Erikson returned to Greenland and announced his discovery. After that, some other Viking fleets arrived in the New World, but they had to leave due to the conflicts with local Indians. The New World remained a secret until Columbus “discovered” it again in the Age of Discovery.
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