The World of the Vikings


The Viking age has long been associated with unbridled piracy, 
when freebooters swarmed out of the northlands in their longships to 
burn and pillage their way across civilized Europe. Modern scholarship 
provides evidence this is a gross simplification, and that during this 
period much progress was achieved in terms of Scandinavian art and 
craftsmanship, marine technology, exploration, and the development of 
commerce. It seems the Vikings did as much trading as they did 

 The title "Viking" encompasses a wide designation of Nordic 
people; Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians, who lived during a period of 
brisk Scandinavian expansion in the middle ages, from approximately 
800 to 1100 AD. This name may be derived from the old Norse vik(bay or 
creek). These people came from what is now Denmark, Sweden, and 
Norway, and had a self-sustaining, agricultural society, where farming 
and cattle breeding were supplemented by hunting, fishing, the 
extraction of iron and the quarrying of rock to make whetstones and 
cooking utensils; some goods, however, had to be traded; salt, for
instance, which is a necessity for man and cattle alike, is an 
everyday item and thus would not have been imported from a greater 
distance than necessary, while luxury items could be brought in from 
farther south in Europe. Their chief export products were, iron, 
whetstones, and soapstone cooking pots, these were an essential 
contribution to a trade growth in the Viking age.

 The contemporary references we have about the Vikings stem 
mainly from sources in western Europe who had bitter experiences with 
the invaders, so we're most likely presented with the worst side of 
the Vikings. Archaeological excavations have shown evidence of 
homesteads, farms, and marketplaces, where discarded or lost articles 
tell of a common everyday life. As the Viking period progressed, 
society changed; leading Chieftain families accumulated sufficient 
land and power to form the basis for kingdoms, and the first towns 
were founded.

 These market places and towns were based on craftsmanship and 
trade. Even though the town dwelling Vikings kept cattle, farmed, and 
fished to meet their household needs, the towns probably depended on 
agricultural supplies from outlying areas. They also unfortunately did 
not pay as much attention to renovation and waste disposal as they did 
to town planning, as evidenced by the thick layers of waste around 
settlements. In contemporary times the stench must have been 

 Trade, however, was still plentiful, even in periods when 
Viking raids abounded, trade was conducted between Western Europe and 
the Viking homeland; an example of this being the North Norwegian 
chieftain, Ottar, and King Alfred of Wessex. Ottar visited King Alfred 
as a peaceful trader at the same time as Alfred was waging war with 
other Viking chieftains. The expansion of the Vikings was probably 
triggered by a population growth out stepping the capacities of 
domestic resources. Archaeological evidence shows that new farms were 
cleared in sparsely populated forests at the time of their expansion. 
The abundance of iron in their region and their ability to forge it 
into weapons and arm everyone setting off on raids helped give the
Vikings the upper hand in most battles.

 The first recorded Viking raid occurred in 793 AD, the holy 
island of the Lindisfarne monastery just off the Northeast shoulder
of England was pillaged, around the same time, there are recorded 
reports of raids elsewhere in Europe. There are narratives of raids in 
the Mediterranean, and as far as the Caspian Sea. Norsemen from Kiev 
even attempted an attack on Constantinople, the capital of the 
Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately, in the picture handed down to us in 
written accounts, the Vikings are portrayed as terrible robbers and 
bandits, this is strictly a single sided view; and, while the above 
statement is probably true, they had other traits as well. Some of 
their leaders were very skillful organizers, as evidenced by the fact 
that they were able to establish kingdoms in already-conquered 
territories. Some of these, such as the ones established in Dublin
and York did not survive the Viking period; Iceland, however, is still 
a thriving nation. The Viking Kingdom in Kiev formed the basis of the 
Russian Empire.

 The remains of fortresses dated to the end of the Viking 
period, have been found in Denmark; the fortresses are circular and
are divided into quadrants, with square buildings in each of the four 
sections. The precision with which these castles were placed indicates 
an advanced sense of order, and a knowledge of surveying techniques 
and geometry in the Danish Kingdom. The farthest westward drive 
occurred around 1000 AD, when people from Iceland or Greenland 
attempted to plant roots in the North coast of Newfoundland in North 
America, however, conflicts arose between these colonists and the 
indigenous Indians or the Eskimos, and the colonists gave up.

 Eventually, the Vikings plundering raids were replaced by 
colonization; in the north of England, place names reveal a large
Viking population, farther south in Britain, an area was called The 
Danelaw. The French king gave Normandy as payment to a Viking 
chieftain so that he would keep other Vikings away. At the end of the 
Viking age, Christianity was widely accepted in the Nordic countries. 
It replaced a heathen religion, in which gods and goddesses each had 
power over their domain; Odin was their chieftain, Thor was the god of 
the warriors, the goddess Froy was responsible for the fertility of 
the soil and livestock; Loki was a trickster and a sorcerer and was 
always distrusted by the other gods. The gods had dangerous 
adversaries, the Jotuns, who represented the darker side of life.

 Burial techniques indicate a strong belief in the afterlife; 
even though the dead could be buried or cremated, burial gifts were
always necessary. The amount of equipment the dead took with them 
reflected their status in life as well as different burial traditions. 
A clue to the violent nature of Viking society, is the fact that 
nearly all the graves of males included weapons. A warrior had to have 
a sword, a wooden shield with an iron boss at its center to protect 
the hand, a spear, an ax, and a bow with 24 arrows. Helmets with 
horns, which are omnipresent in present day depiction's of Vikings 
have never been found amongst relics from the Viking period. Even in 
the graves with the most impressive array of weapons, there are signs 
of more peaceful activities; sickles, scythes, and hoes lie alongside 
of weapons; the blacksmith was buried with his hammer, anvil, tongs,
and file. The coastal farmer has kept his fishing equipment and is 
often buried in a boat. In women's graves we often find jewelry 
kitchen articles, and artifacts used in textile production, they were 
also usually buried in boats. There are also instances of burials 
being conducted in enormous ships, three examples of this are: ship 
graves from Oseberg, Tune, and Gokstad, which can be seen at the 
Viking ship museum at Bygdoy in Oslo. The Oseberg ship was built 
around 815-820 AD, was 22 meters (72 ft.) long and its burial was 
dated to 834 AD.

 The Gokstad and Tune ships were constructed in the 890's, were 
24 meters (79 ft.) and 20 meters (65 ft.) in length, respectively, and 
were buried right after 900 AD. In all 3 a burial chamber was 
constructed behind the mast, where the deceased was placed to rest in 
a bed, dressed in fine clothing, ample provisions were placed in the 
ship, dogs and horses were sacrificed, and a large burial mound was 
piled on top of the vessel; there are even instances in which 
servants, who may or may not have chosen to follow their masters in 
death, were sacrificed also. Some ship-graves in the Nordic countries 
and in Western European Viking sites were cremated, while the large 
graves along the Oslofjord were not. There are remnants of similar 
graves in other locations and it seems to have been standard practice 
to include sacrificed dogs and horses, fine weapons, some nautical 
equipment such as oars and a gangplank, balers, cooking pots for 
crewmembers, a tent and often fine imported bronze vessels which 
probably held food and drink for the dead.

 Their sea-going vessels were very seaworthy, as has been 
demonstrated by replicas which have crossed the Atlantic in modern
times. The hull design made the ships very fast, either under sail or 
when oars were used. Even with a full load, the Gokstad ship drew no 
more than 1 meter (3.3 ft) of water, which means it could have been 
easily used for shore assaults. The ships were made to be light-weight 
and flexible, to work with the elements instead of against them; they 
were built on a solid keel, which together with a finely curved bow, 
forms the backbone of the vessel. Strafe after strafe was fitted to 
keel and stem and these were bolted to each other with iron rivets. 
This shell provided strength and flexibility, then, ribs were made 
from naturally curved trees were fitted and these provided additional 
strength. To increase flexibility, strafes and ribs were bound
together. Lateral support came from cross supports at the waterline, 
and solid logs braced the mast.

 Our main knowledge of Viking art comes from metal jewelry, the 
format of which is modest. The choice of motif is the same as with 
woodcarving. The artists were preoccupied with imaginary animals which 
were ornamentally carved, twisted and braided together in a tight 
asymmetric arabesque, their quality of work was superb. The Viking 
raids tapered off around the year 1000. By this time the Vikings had 
become Christian, which had a restrictive effect on their urge to 
plunder. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway had become separate kingdoms 
generally united under single monarchs. Wars wer now steered by the 
shifting alliances of the kings. The age of private battles was gone. 
Trade relations that were established in the Viking period continued, 
and the Nordic countries emerged as part of a Christian Europe.


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