Who were the Vikings?

Vikings sailed over one-third the globe and were the first northern Europeans to harness the technology of long-distance seafaring. Wherever they went, Vikings brought their myths, legends, and sagas.

The term ‘Viking’ is not a modern invention. Early Scandinavians employed the word víkingr, although they did not, as is done today, use it in an ethnic sense. Almost surely they would have understood the concept of a Viking Age, but calling Scandinavian society a ‘Viking society’ would have been a misnomer to them. Throughout medieval Scandinavia, víkingr (singular) meant ‘pirate’ or ‘freebooter,’ and víkingar (plural) were bands who raided from ships. The term applied to those who sailed the seas to steal and conquer as well as to mariners who robbed neighbors at home in Scandinavia.

Víkingar also referred to non‐Norse pirates, such as the Slavic Wends and tribal groups who from the southern shores of the Baltic Sea harassed shipping and raided throughout the region. Although the meaning of the term víkingr is clear, its origin is not. Probably it relates to the word vík, meaning ‘inlet’ or ‘bay’ — places where víkingar lived and lay in wait. A raid was called víking, and men were said to ‘go raiding’ (fara í víking).

Viking plundering, extortion, and slave‐ taking differed little from the war practices of petty chieftains throughout Western Europe in the Early Middle Ages. Northern Europeans, mostly Christian by that time, made much of the fact that the Scandinavian raiders were pagan outsiders who did not respect holy sanctuaries. They called these raiders Northmen, Danes, and Vikings. In the East, as noted in the discussion of Ibn Fadlan, Scandinavian warriors and traders were called Rus and Varangians.

A factor underlying the seaborne expansion of the Viking Age was that Scandinavian shipwrights had advantages over most of their contemporaries. They could draw on native resources of high-quality woods, tar, iron, and salt‐water‐resistant sea mammal hide for ships’ ropes. The navigational skills of the Northmen were prodigious, and they kept learning more throughout the age.

Norse sailors reached several continents, making their presence felt in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North America, and Africa. Their voyages generated wealth for the expanding Viking world derived from places as distant from Scandinavia as Ireland, the Byzantine Empire, the silk‐road lands of central Asia and the Caliphate of Baghdad.

Norse ships reached Gaelic‐speaking Ireland in the far west early in the Viking Age. The first recorded Viking raid there took place ca. 795, when Vikings, probably Norwegians, looted the island of Lambay. To reach Ireland, they had sailed past Shetland, Orkney, Scotland, and the Hebrides. The route was not a secret, as the northern and western reaches of the British Isles were already known to Scandinavian raiders who plundered, traded, and settled in Gaelic and Pictish lands.

These seaborne intruders established jarldoms (earldoms) and kingdoms in Orkney, Shetland, and Scotland. The Isle of Man in the Irish Sea soon fell under their control. The raids on Ireland grew in intensity. At first, they were quick and small‐scale. Soon they were followed by greater numbers of invaders, who set up fortified trading towns and ports along the coast, founding Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick. These early urban centers became the first large towns in Ireland. Vikings, often with Irish allies, soon moved inland. The coastal raids were followed by inland warfare and had a profound effect. They disturbed, and in some ways ended, a period of Christian Irish culture that had been in place for centuries.

As the 9th century advanced, waves of Viking raiders plundered Ireland’s rich monasteries, destroying religious and secular communities throughout the country. The Irish sources, principally annals and chronicles, distinguish two basic groups of Vikings, the Dub Gaill or ‘Black Foreigners’ (mostly Norwegians already established in Scotland and the Western Isles) and the Finn Gaill (mostly Danes, sometimes connected with the Danish‐Norse Kingdom of York). The two groups of competing Vikings were frequently antagonistic to each other. The result was several hundred years of intermittent warfare, along with considerable trade and new connections to the more distant Viking and European worlds.

Despite the frequent voyages and raiding, only a small proportion of the Scandinavians sailed on Viking journeys. Most people stayed home to farm. The climate in northern Europe and North Atlantic during the Viking centuries was a few degrees warmer than the average over the past thousand years, and in Scandinavia, the Viking Age was a time of population growth. Archaeology and land‐ scape studies tell us that the amount of agricultural land increased. To bring more land into production, woodlands were cleared, wetlands drained, and the use of highland pastures expanded. At the end of the Viking Age, there were more farms, settlements, and cemeteries than at the start.

It is hard to calculate the exact end of the Viking Age, but around the year 1100 the raids on Europe mostly came to an end. At home in Scandinavia, the more than three centuries of the Age saw extensive social and economic changes. Socially and economically the societies became more complex. As signs of change, warfare by the eleventh century had in many ways moved from the local to the state level, and the older regional chieftaincies evolved into national kingdoms.

By the 12th century, Scandinavia was firmly divided into the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Sweden in the Baltic Sea region, more distant from Western Europe than either Norway or Denmark, was the last of the Scandinavian kingdoms to abandon the worship of the Norse gods and become Christian. The passing of the Viking Age saw little change in the lives of most of the Scandinavian population. People continued living their traditional farm life and went on speaking variants of their Old Norse language. Historically, from the modern point of view, an age of sea‐borne expansion ended.

–from Viking Language 1 (2nd Edition) by Jesse L. Byock

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