The Vikings in Medieval History
The Vikings have long conjured up images either of ruthless pirates ravaging the coasts of Europe or of heroic pagan warriors dedicated to Odin, god of ecstasy, poetry, and battle. These images, well attested in the medieval sources, are only part of the story of the impact of the Scandinavians on early medieval civilization.
The first 12 lectures of this course deal with the evolution of a distinct civilization in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) on the eve of the Viking Age (790–1100). In 790, Scandinavians still worshiped the ancient Germanic gods and, thus, were divided from their kin in Germany or the former Roman provinces of Gaul and Britain who had adopted Christianity and Roman institutions. Breakthroughs in shipbuilding and the emergence of a warrior ethos celebrated in Eddaic and later skaldic verse turned Scandinavians from merchants into Vikings at the end of the 8 th century. The second set of 12 lectures deals with the course and impact of the Viking raids between the late 8 th through the early 11 th centuries. Danish and Norwegian raiders profoundly altered the political balance of Western Europe. Danes conquered and settled eastern and northern England, a region known as the Danelaw. They compelled King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 870–899) and his successors to forge an effective monarchy. In France, Vikings under Rollo embraced Christianity and settled the fief of Normandy in 911, thereby founding one of the most formidable feudal states of Europe. Norwegian Vikings settled in the main towns of Ireland and braved the North Atlantic, settling the Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland, as well as an ephemeral colony at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. In Eastern Europe, Swedes developed a major trade route from the Baltic to the Caspian, laying the foundations for the Russian principalities.
The last 12 lectures explain the passing of the Viking Age. Over two centuries of overseas raids, trade, and settlement altered Scandinavian civilization. Scandinavians accepted Christianity and gained the high culture of Latin Christendom. Christian Danish and Norwegian kings in the 10 th century first harnessed the Viking spirit to establish monarchies. Cnut the Great (r. 1014–1035), king of Denmark, England, and Norway, briefly turned the North Sea into a Scandinavian lake. His institutions and example inspired the formation of Christian kingdoms in Scandinavia and turned Vikings into Crusaders. Yet perhaps the most enduring of achievements of the Viking Age were the sagas and verse of Iceland that immortalized pagan heroes and Christian kings, Norse gods and indomitable settlers of the remote island.
The term Viking, originally used for a pirate who lurked in a cove (vik), came to designate the Scandinavians overseas engaged in war, commerce, and settlement in 790–1100. In popular imagination, the Vikings are cast as tall Nordic warriors, sporting horned helmets and wielding axes, who descended in longships to wreck havoc upon the civilized peoples of Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic world. Such perceptions are based on the hostile reports of monks, so often the victims of Viking raids, who penned the medieval chronicles. Since the Reformation, Vikings have been idealized as noble Germanic savages untouched by corrupt civilization—an image based on stereotypes created by Roman authors. In recent decades, revisionist scholars have minimized the destructiveness and, thus, the importance of the Vikings.
Yet for more than 300 years, Scandinavians excelled in shipbuilding and dominated the sea and river lanes of Europe with their longships and commercial vessels (knarr). Their attacks on Western Europe dictated the future of feudal Europe. They braved the Atlantic Ocean to plant settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. In Eastern Europe, Scandinavians, known as Rus, extended the range of their commerce and created Orthodox Russia in the 11 th century. Without the Vikings, the course of medieval European civilization would have been far different.