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 raiding.
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
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 nauseating.
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

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
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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