The Vikings were
members of Scandinavian bands of sea rovers who launched a series of devastating
and successful raids on England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Spain
between the 700's and the 1100's. The Vikings also explored and settled
Greenland and Iceland. They tried to establish settlements in America, but
did not succeed.
Vikings were also called Northmen, Norsemen, or Danes. They were a Nordic people, and were the ancestors of the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes of today. They spoke a German dialect that resembled the language spoken in England at the time. The Vikings used the Runic alphabet.
The Vikings were an adventurous people who loved war and fighting. They were skillful and daring seamen. They were also the most efficient ship-builders in Europe. Their swift, high-powered ships carried raiding parties to most of the known world at that time and across the Atlantic to the unknown. The Vikings killed, stole and burned wherever they landed. The churches of Europe offered a special prayer for the help against the Vikings. It was "God, deliver us from the fury of the Northmen."
One of the major causes for the Viking invasions was the growth of population in their own countries, which increased the need for land and for other sources of income. Political conditions at home may have added to this restlessness. In addition, the Vikings were always a seafaring people, who lived near or on the shores of the sea. The term "Viking" may have come from the old Norse word "vik", meaning bay or inlet. It was easy for these people to take to their ships and seek fortunes elsewhere when the situation became serious at home.
Viking invasions were at first simply acts of piracy and plunder. But in many cases, they led to important settlements. The Vikings strongly influenced the development of Europe for many years. The daring and imagination with which they roamed the seas gave rise to many colorful stories and poems called sagas, about their deeds. but fiction can hardly surpass the amazing reality of their adventurous and sea-faring deeds.
The Vikings did not spend all their time at sea or in raiding. They planted crops in the spring before they set out on raids, and returned in the middle of summer to harvest them. After the harvest, the raiders left home again, and did not return until winter.
During the winter, the Vikings spent their time at home preparing for next ;year's raids. They also enjoyed playing various games during the long, cold evenings. They played a game similar to chess, and various dice games. the king and the nobles often had special entertainment such as horse fights, performing dogs, music or jugglers, for their guests.
Some of the Vikings worked in the cod, herring, and seal fisheries. Others made salt or tar. Two important occupations were the making of metal tools and weapons, and shipbuilding. The Vikings were amazingly skillful shipbuilders and navigators. they usually built small, shallow ships, about 70 feet long and 16 feet wide. But they did construct some ships that measured as long as 300 feet. The ships were propelled by oars, with sometimes a single sail to help in maneuvering. The ships usually carried small crews of about 30 or 40 men. But they were so skillfully made and so daringly handled that the Vikings could go anywhere in them.
The ferocity of the Viking raiders terrified the people of Europe. Not only were they cruel, but also they carried on their raids with zest and efficiency. The Viking raiders struck swiftly and secretly. After hiding their boats, they pounced on their unsuspecting victims. The raider shad the upper hand before the invaded people knew what had happened. They killed, robbed, burned, and then escaped with such thorough preparation and with such speed that their victims had no opportunity even to try to punish them.
The Vikings seemed to go mad during the heat of battle. Berserker, their name for a warrior, has come to be associated with insanity. These warriors seemed to enjoy destroying their victim's property and went about it with horrible thoroughness. Fire was one of their favorite weapons. The Vikings were equally merciless in killing the defeated, slaying not only men but also women and children. They often raided religious center, because these were good sources of bounty, and were poorly defended.
Although the Vikings fought with savage cruelty, they had great courage. They enjoyed fighting, but they also loved adventure, as their amazing voyages show.
The qualities of intelligence and imagination that made the Vikings such good navigators helped them in other ways. They soon learned to find and steal the horses when they invaded a village or town. As they began to settle in the invaded areas, they became skillful horsemen. some of the invaded people learned to protect themselves against the swift raids of the Vikings by surrounding their cities and towns with stout walls. but the Vikings quickly learned how to besiege and subdue walled towns. They also became masters in fortifying the places they captured.
The Vikings learned rapidly from the more civilized people they attacked. For example, they quickly adop0ted the Christian religion. The Vikings originally worshiped the Norse gods, such as Odin and Thor. In the 800's Christian missionaries began to travel among them to preach their religion. Before long, many Vikings in Ireland, England, Normandy, and the Scandinavian countries became devout Christians.
As the Vikings became more civilized, they gave up their cruelty and their savage love of destruction. Another impressive sign of the Vikings intelligence was their ability to shift from piracy to peaceful and productive commerce. It is true that the Viking pirates destroyed much. They disturbed the old way of life in medieval Europe. But this often permitted experimentation and the growth of new ideas. by quickly changing from pirates to traders, the Vikings helped develop commerce. The Viking invasions helped create a new Europe.
The Viking voyages and conquests include the sea-roving activities of the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians. Medieval writers did not always distinguish carefully from what country their attackers came. They often used such terms as Viking, Northman, or Dane in a general way. but it is possible to discover what areas each of the different Scandinavian people invaded.
Courtesy of: Ken Corbin