Who Were The Vikings?
The vikings give their name to the so-called Viking Age, the period of time in which generations of these particular seafaring warriors, merchants, and kingdom-builders were most active. The usual range given for this age is the late eighth century CE to the eleventh century.
More traditional and specific start and end dates are 789 or perhaps 793, with the first viking raids on England, and 1066 CE with the death of King Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. These dates are useful points on a timeline, but they do not constitute true beginning and end points for the viking phenomenon. They did not appear on the world stage all of a sudden at its beginning, nor did they vanish without a trace at its end—history is rarely so simple.
Rather, the Viking Age was a consequence of countless gradual changes and transformations in Eurasian technology, politics, culture, demographics, and even climate. The events of the Viking Age influenced the world in turn until the world no longer met the conditions which had sustained its existence, to begin with. The vast, interconnected scale of the Viking Age is vital to keep in mind in order to make sense of it, lest one get lost in the weeds. One such patch of weeds is defining what exactly a viking is.
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What Did Viking Mean?
The word “viking” conjures to mind many vivid images, but its actual, literal meaning and origin are subject to some debate. Modern English usage of the word is generally fast and loose outside of academic circles. It can be a technical term meaning something as narrow and specific as a medieval Scandinavian individual who goes on a seaborne raid, or it can be a colloquial gloss referring to a group as broad and general as the entirety of the population of Germanic-speaking medieval Scandinavia. The latter use has, in turn, led to ahistorical terms like “viking culture” or “viking religion” being quite common in public parlance.
The etymology of the word viking—that is, the origin of the word and its development throughout history—is still being questioned. One theory is that it is a mutation of a proper place–name. The area of Víkin (modern Viken) in southeast Norway was a major center of culture and commerce for Viking Age Scandinavia, as well as a popular starting point for raids. Many of these raids targeted the coast of England at first, and the monks who kept records of those attacks noted this.
Over time, as the theory goes, Víkin transformed into víking, and the term came to be applied to any Scandinavian pirates and invaders regardless of whether they came from the Viken area or not. It also explains why very few people other than Anglo-Saxons called them by the word viking. There are issues with this theory that leave it somewhat discredited today, including the fact that people from the Viken area were already referred to by another word, víkverir. Another Old English origin for the word viking may have been wīc, referring to the mobile camps that the pirates erected while staying in the lands they raided.
Another theory posits that viking derives from the Old Norse word vík, which means an inlet, cove, or fjord. Coincidentally, this is likely what Viken was named after. Vík was combined with the ending -ingr, which means “one who belongs to or frequents.” Therefore, a víkingr (plural víkingar) was a mariner who frequented the fjords of Scandinavia, which were natural harbors for ships going out to or returning from raids.
When the word re-entered modern English during the eighteenth-century viking revival, the acute accent í and the nominative r were dropped to create viking. A similar theory suggests much the same, except that instead of coming from vík, the first part of the word came from vika, or a sea-mile used to judge how often a longship’s rowers changed work shifts. Using these etymologies literally, vikings did not strictly have to be Scandinavians—they simply had to be pirates operating in and around the Scandinavian sphere of influence.
This book will not treat one origin of the word as absolute truth. Instead, it will focus on giving the word viking a working definition. Vikings, for all intents and purposes here, were individuals who frequently or professionally embarked on sea voyages that often—though not exclusively—involved raiding and violence.
The people who engaged in piracy were oftentimes pragmatic and opportunistic, so a viking expedition could also include mercenary work, trade, or simple exploration of lands that were new to medieval Scandinavians.
“Viking” will not be used as synonymous with “medieval Scandinavians,” AKA Norsemen or Norse people. The overwhelming majority of vikings were Norse, but the Norse were not all vikings. As the Old Norse phrase fara í víking (“to go on a viking/ to go a-viking”) suggests, viking was a temporary and fluid state of being characterized by participation and specific actions, rather than a strict, constant identity.
Fairly few of the people referred to as “vikings” herein would have actually identified themselves as being viking.
Eighth Century Scandinavia & The World
The second half of the eighth century was a time of great political drama and change in Afro-Eurasia. The first Muslims had emerged from the Arabian Peninsula a century prior and after a process of cultural, political, economic, and military expansion that often reached breakneck speeds, a succession of transcontinental caliphates formed, which absorbed Sasanid Iran and large North African sections of the Byzantine Empire, and remained a force to be reckoned with in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions.
In western Europe, the patchwork of post-Roman rump states and Germanic kingdoms left by the fall of the Western Roman Empire was giving way to a single unified Frankish Kingdom led by the likes of Charles Martel and Charlemagne.
Across the English Channel, the idea of “England” was still in its infancy, with a heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fighting for dominance, all while guarding their borders against Celts of all sorts, who were also embroiled in their own tribal or monarchical conflicts.
On the crossroads between Europe and Asia far to the east, the Khazar Khaganate and many smaller, fluid Turkic states dominated the steppe and served as dynamic movers and shakers in both the east and west. Farther east, giants like the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Tibetan Empire shared borders with energetic upstarts like the Pala Empire and the Uyghur Khaganate.
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In northern and eastern Europe, the political landscape was very different. The Migration Period begun by the invasions of the Huns and the formation of the Hunnic Empire had only just slowed down earlier that century. The dense forests and extensive river systems of the Baltic Sea coast were dominated by a diverse assortment of Slavic, Baltic, and Uralic tribes who farmed, fished, and occasionally fought with one another.
Finnic peoples and Saami inhabited the taiga and tundra of northernmost Europe, herding reindeer and hunting. They shared the Scandinavian Peninsula with the North Germanic peoples, who spoke several dialects of the Old Norse language.
The Norse-speaking peoples were primarily coastal. They tended to live within a few miles of the sea, especially in fjords that were ideal for maritime endeavors. Most people lived in small farming communities, and most farmers raised more animals than they did crops. Few farmers had metal tools, planting labor was hard, and crops often failed in the climate.
The soil in Scandinavia was generally poorer for farming than farther south in Europe, and the cool climate shortened growing seasons with the exception of the land in modern-day Denmark.
Denmark is not geographically attached to the Scandinavian peninsula, but it is included in the larger scope of cultural Scandinavia by the presence of the Norse people who would become modern Danes.
The Norse were relatively patriarchal and had clearly defined gender roles in society. Women controlled the domestic sphere and were in charge of childbearing, child-rearing, and many home industries that the economy could not function without. Weaving was considered a woman’s art, as many cultures of the ancient world did.
Small numbers of women also played a role in the Scandinavian religion. An unwed woman could act as a völva, or seeress, who practiced divination and other forms of Norse magic called seiðr. As a result, magic was also considered a woman’s art, to the point that men could be ostracized and even killed for practicing such an argr or “unmanly” thing.
A tiny minority of unmarried young women engaged in warfare alongside men. These “shieldmaidens” were few and far between but occasionally appeared in chronicles of viking activities and sagas of Scandinavian history. The small amount of modern archaeological evidence supporting Norse warrior women brings the historicity of a wider shieldmaiden phenomenon into question, but the existence of those individuals like the tenth-century Birka female viking is unquestionable. At the very least, the idea of shieldmaidens suggests that medieval Norse people did not find the thought of women bearing arms unthinkable.
By contrast to the rules and exceptions, Norse men ran most things outside of the home. They farmed, plied a wide variety of crafts and trades, and were responsible for warfare. They were generally considered the legal heads of families and also led communities in most cases. A male political leader also doubled as a spiritual leader for the community by acting as its goði or gothi, an officiator of festivals and sacrifices who shared some responsibilities with a traditional “priest” but was not quite the same.
Despite the gender divide, wives and female relatives could and often did exercise informal political power by advising, persuading, or outright pressuring and shaming their menfolk in a sort of “neck that turns the head” scenario. Occasionally a family or community had a prominent matriarch who was consulted with on important issues.
Despite the sharp divides in what was expected of each gender, men and women were sometimes regarded as equals, or close to equal. Either partner in a marriage could demand divorce with no great stigma attached to it, and there were laws allowing both sexes to own and inherit property. Legal precedent does not equal daily reality, of course, so the lives of Norse women and how they related to their society at large is still somewhat uncertain. One sobering fact is that during lean times, cases of female infanticide outweighed males significantly.
Praise & Poetry
Information was rarely written down before the gradual Christianization of Scandinavia brought greater literacy to the peninsula toward the end of the Viking Age. The Norse did still have and use their own runic alphabet, called fuþark or futhark, after the sounds of its first six letters. Futhark was used to write Old Norse for certain important occasions, such as in dedicating monumental runestones to the dead or commemorating important events. The runes were sharp and angular, well suited to carving into rock or wood, but it would take a period of reform before they were used in book language.
In the meantime, the Norse relied upon having a good memory. They had a rich oral tradition that permeated every aspect of private and public life. Laws were memorized by dedicated law-speakers and recited at every community assembly known as a þing or thing, where common folk could settle legal cases and air grievances with their leaders directly.
Poetry was a beloved art, as well as a useful tool for creating memory aids. A type of poet called a skald was similar to an English bard in that they were patronized by a local lord. The skald would immortalize the deeds of his patron through oration and poetry in order to boost his renown across the land.
Fame wasn’t just a vain pursuit in Norse society. Respect, leadership, and opportunities were earned by merit, and having one’s story precede them wherever they went was as good a resume as one could get in medieval Scandinavia. By that same token, shameful acts and failures would follow people around like a permanent stain on their records.
Challenges to a man’s reputation, particularly accusations that he was unmanly, required swift and decisive responses in this social framework. A common method of settling disputes was a type of duel called hólmganga, or holmgang. This literally means “island-going” and referred to the small, round arena two combatants fought in.
It was common for duelists to fight to first blood, but duels to the death also occurred. Supporters and impartial judges watched each holmgang, and the loser faced sharp social stigma. Because most Norse peoples were simple farmers or artisans with little combat experience, people in dispute had the right to elect champions to fight in their stead. This had the unintended side-effect of supporting an entire class of professional duelists, who sometimes provoked holmgang over minor issues to create job opportunities for themselves.
A Widening World
There were larger towns in Scandinavia as well as farms and fishing villages. These towns were often the sites for extensive trade. Scandinavians were far from isolated from the rest of the world prior to the eighth century. They engaged in trade with their neighbors, and that put them in touch with the global networks of commerce and diffusion of knowledge that had been developing since the Neolithic. Scandinavians traded with their neighbors in the Baltic, with the Anglo-Saxons in England, and with the Merovingians of the Frankish Kingdom.
Precious metals, pottery, bronze, glassware, and exotic “prestige” goods like wine or walnuts came to Scandinavia from the south, and in exchange, it exported furs, amber, iron, walrus tusks, and people captured in conflict who were sold as slaves. As these trade routes flourished in the south, they stretched the web of interconnectedness farther and farther north until all of Scandinavia was part of a sophisticated network of diplomacy, politicking, and warfare between major communities.
This is because these trade towns were often the seats of Norse political leaders. Like other Germanic peoples, they had a traditional hierarchy going back hundreds of years before the Common Era. There were three major social classes in Scandinavian society: military aristocracy, freeman or peasant class, and slave or bond-servant class. Chieftains, jarls, or petty-kings ruled and protected these trade hubs and some of the lands around them while dealing with competitors and neighbors farther away, making political power in Scandinavia very decentralized and loose.
In theory, property and positions of power were inherited from men by the eldest sons. In practice, power struggles were common both within and outside noble families. Occasionally a ruler managed to carve out a larger territory and successfully transfer it to an heir, creating the first minor dynasties in Scandinavia. A Scandinavian chieftain was expected to share his wealth.
Not only did he have to constantly demonstrate that he was a charismatic leader, a wise administrator, and an effective fighter, but he had to secure the personal loyalty of his warriors, agents, and comrades through the awarding of gifts and prestige. A Scandinavian ruler who found himself with few or none of these resources quickly found his people favoring a different political figure.
This model of leadership was fluid, dynamic, and sometimes chaotic, focused upon the day-to-day needs and wants of communities where protection for the common farmer was a luxury, and surviving the next winter was rarely guaranteed. The rivals and unlucky brothers who lost these power struggles were often pushed out of their homes, assuming they survived. This point, in particular, had serious repercussions in the coming Viking Age.
Over time, especially after they had been exposed to enough instances of political leaders establishing successful and long-lasting dynasties in England and continental Europe, Scandinavian strongmen tried to emulate the powers on their periphery by establishing proper kingdoms of their own. These proto-states took their first tentative steps toward creating new, consolidated identities, but that process would take centuries more to bear fruit.
Early Norse Kingdoms
The first signs of consolidation of power and territory into proper kingdoms occurred in the south, among the Danish islands and the Jutland peninsula. Its unique position at the meeting point of the North Sea, Baltic Sea, and Atlantic Ocean trade routes made anyone who controlled the area wealthy and powerful.
By the second half of the eighth century, southern Scandinavian kingdoms were rising from semi-mythical origins with legendary founders to become proper regional powers. They grew large enough that they started to chafe against the expanding borders of the Frankish Kingdom. The Franks, for their part, had been consolidating and Christianizing the fringes of their burgeoning empire. This put them into conflict with the polytheist Saxons, who never left northern Germany to migrate to England alongside other tribes like the Angles.
A forced mass conversion of the Saxon people followed, as well as a slaughter of any who resisted. Their holy sites, enormous pillars known as Irminsuls, were cut down and desecrated as well. The Saxon Wars culminated in the Massacre of Verden in 782, in which four thousand, five hundred recalcitrant Saxons were summarily executed by Frankish forces under Charlemagne.
The Saxons were a people distantly related to the Danes and other southern Scandinavian groups. As the Franks secured their new northern border, there was a concern that they would treat the Norse people the same way they had their cousins and coreligionists, the Saxons. The situation became a powder keg.
Surprisingly, the first violence attributable to the Viking Age did not occur in this sociopolitical hot-spot.