Invaders, predators, and barbarians — the Vikings are sometimes depicted as one-dimensional warriors whose accomplishments are limited to plundering and raiding. But where did the Vikings come from, and were they truly godless, murderous pagans? Historian Philip Parker discusses the true history of the Viking world in this video…
A quick overview of the Vikings’ history
Armed attackers assaulted the defenseless monastery of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne in 793, bringing panic to the Northumbrian coast. The scared monks stood powerless and helpless as the invaders made off with a haul of gold and a slew of hostages. It was the first known raid by the Vikings, seaborne pirates from Scandinavia who preyed on coastal settlements in north-western Europe for more than two centuries, earning a reputation as ruthless and merciless warriors. Those who wrote about the Viking invasions – in other words, their victims – emphasized this image. The “church was spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments… given as a prey to pagan peoples,” wrote the Anglo-Saxon cleric Alcuin of York of the Lindisfarne raid, and subsequent (mainly Christian) writers and chroniclers wasted few opportunities to demonize the (mainly pagan) Vikings. Despite the fact that the Vikings were known for their destructive and violent attacks, which ranged from small-scale raids on churches to large-scale battles involving thousands of troops, they were part of a rich and often sophisticated Scandinavian society. They were raiders, but they were also traders, reaching as far east as Russia’s rivers and the Caspian Sea; explorers, sending ships far across the Atlantic to land on the North American coast five centuries before Columbus; poets, writing powerful verse and prose sagas, and artists, creating works of breathtaking beauty. The Vikings’ reputation as raiders and plunderers has long been established. It’s long past time to restore their reputation as traders, storytellers, explorers, missionaries, artists, and kings…
When did the Vikings arrive, and where did they come from?
The Vikings came from the areas that are today Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (although centuries before they became unified countries). Their homeland was predominantly rural, with few settlements. The vast majority made a meager life from agriculture or fishing along the coast. In the 7th and 8th centuries, advances in maritime technology allowed vessels to be driven by sails rather than oars alone. Longships, rapid shallow-drafted boats that could travel coastal and interior waters and land on beaches, were created by adding these to vessels composed of overlapping planks (‘clinker-built’). It’s unclear what prompted bands of men to sail across the North Sea in longships to follow their local chieftain. It could have been localised overpopulation, as plots were subdivided to the point where households could barely make ends meet; political instability, as chieftains struggled for power; or tales brought home by merchants of the riches to be found in trading communities further west. It was most likely a combination of all three. However, the first raiding group struck Lindisfarne in 793, and within a few years, further Viking bands struck Scotland (794), Ireland (795) and France (796) as well (799). They were not referred to as Vikings by their victims. That name emerged later, becoming popular in the 11th century and likely stemming from the term vik, which means “bay” or “inlet” in the Old Norse language spoken by the Vikings. Instead, they were termed Dani (‘Danes’) pagani (‘pagans’) or simply Normanni (‘Northmen’) – there was no feeling at the time that this should refer specifically to the residents of what is now known as Denmark.
When did the Vikings start raiding and where did they raid?
At initially, the raids were small-scale occurrences, involving only a few boatloads of men who would return home once they had amassed enough loot or if they encountered too much resistance. They began to overwinter in southern England, Ireland, and along the Seine River in France in the 850s, building bases from which they began to dominate inland areas. In the second half of the ninth century, the raids reached a peak. Longphorts – fortified ports – were erected by the Vikings in Ireland, particularly at Dublin, from which they ruled much of the eastern section of the island. As a split Frankish kingdom fractured politically, they increased in strength in France, and in 885, a Viking army besieged and nearly conquered Paris. They conquered the Shetlands and the Hebrides and created an earldom in the Orkneys. In 865, a massive Viking force known as the micel here (‘great army’) came in England. Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, two warrior brothers, led them as they annihilated the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England one by one. They conquered Northumbria, with its headquarters at York, in 866, then East Anglia, and finally Mercia, the heartland English kingdom.
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