The war of Vikings
Vikings were seafaring warriors who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, burning, plundering, and killing as they went. These marauders came from Scandinavia-what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The Vikings were made up of landowning chieftains and clan heads, their followers, freemen, and any energetic young clan members who sought adventure and booty overseas. Some were part-time raiders and pillager, spending part of the year farming or fishing at home.
Vikings were never a unified group. Rather, the Viking trait of seeking riches outside their homeland was one shared by many peoples who dwelt in Scandinavia. The exact ethnic composition of the Viking armies is unknown in particular cases, but the Vikings’ expansion in the Baltic lands and in Russia can probably be attributed to the Swedes. However, the nonmilitary colonization of the Orkney Islands, Faroe Islands, and Iceland was clearly accomplished by the Norwegians.
The Vikings’ disruptive influence profoundly affected European history. Their name was given to the era that dated from about 740 CE to about 1050-the Viking Age. During that time, the Scandinavian countries seem to have possessed a practically inexhaustible surplus of manpower. Leaders of ability, who could organize groups of warriors into conquering bands and armies, were seldom lacking. These bands would negotiate the seas in their longship and mount hit-and-run raids on cities and towns along the coasts of Europe. Their burning, plundering, and killing earned them the name vikingr, meaning “pirate” in the early Scandinavian languages. Their expression for these campaigns of swift, cruel attacks was to “go a-viking”.
The fierce reputation of the Viking warrior has survived the centuries. Some attributes are myths, such as their nonexistent horned helmets. However, some truths are more bizarre than anything that could be fabricated, such as the berserkers, the Viking warriors who put themselves in a trance of rage before battle, biting their shields and howling like animals.
Besides warriors, Vikings were artisans, craftsmen, and traders. Vikings were some of the earliest pioneers, trekking across the Atlantic Ocean to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. They traveled throughout Europe and as far east as Central Asia. They exchanged their goods-such as honey, tin, wheat, wool, wood, iron, fur, walrus ivory, and fish-for silver, silk, spices, glass, jewelry, and more. Slaves were also a part of the Viking trade.
Much of our understanding of the Viking comes from accounts from cultures other than the Scandinavians-often cultures that have been raided or conquered. Some of these biased reports understandably paint Viking warriors as violent, brutal aggressors. The English cleric and scholar Alcuin the Elder wrote of the Vikings in the late 700s: “ Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race.” while formidable, the people known as Vikings were a complex civilization who contributed much to European society, even while spreading terror and chaos. Through travels and trade, they helped connect distant cultures, spreading goods as well as ideas.
The word “Viking” has come to be the label applied to the people and culture of Scandinavia during the Viking Age, even those who were not marauders. Vikings more or less looked much like people of today, though perhaps a bit shorter because of poorer nutrition.