The Vikings were Scandinavian seafaring warriors and explorers that left their homelands to trade, raid, conquer and settle in parts of Europe. They were most powerful from about 800-1050 AD which is known as the Viking Age.
Why were they called Vikings?
The name ‘Viking’ comes from the Old Norse word vīk (meaning inlet or bay) and came to mean ‘a pirate raid’. People who went off raiding in ships were said to be ‘going Viking’. Because their ships could sail in shallow water, they could travel up rivers and land on shore making it possible to jump out, fight and make a quick getaway if they were chased. Most Scandinavians were not Vikings and those they traded with called them North Men or Norsemen.
The Vikings were chieftain-led clans who believed the world was filled with powerful mythological gods and spirits. Thor and Odin, the gods of war and death, influenced their raids, warfare and violence. Viking chieftains led warriors to do battle abroad in order to prove their bravery and please their war-gods. Poets composed sagas about the exploits of these chieftains, keeping their memories alive. The Norse people loved to tell stories of magic and monsters around the fire.
Vikings didn’t record history on paper but instead carved historic events on rocks using rocks known as rune stones using an alphabet based on Germanic runic script. Much of what is known about the Vikings is found on these inscriptions on stones across Scandinavia.
Shipbuilders & Explorers
Vikings were excellent shipbuilders and sailors. The high tech design of Viking long ships and trading vessels made them suitable as large ocean-going warships as well as capable of sailing up rivers, fjords and onto beaches.
They traveled trade routes throughout Europe, Russia and Turkey, as well as sailed across the Atlantic to explore and actually discovered Greenland and North America. During their explorations, Vikings raided and pillaged, but also engaged in trade, settled wide-ranging colonies, and acted as mercenaries.
Farmers & Traders
When they weren’t “going Viking”, they worked as farmers, fishermen, skilled craftsmen and traders. They lived in small villages made up of 5-6 farms. It was customary for multiple generations of a Viking family to live together in one dwelling. There were two types of homes, longhouses, which resembled an upside down ship, and pit houses, (grubehus in Danish) a simple small house partially dug into the ground. Roofs made of turf (earth with grass) helped keep in the heat. Pit houses also served as workshops for trade (weaving and textile making, smithing) and storing food.
The farmers kept animals and grew crops. Skilled craft workers included blacksmiths, armorers, brewers, merchants, weavers, musicians, carpenters, jewelers and more. They made beautiful metalwork, wooden carvings, jewelry and woven textiles to trade. They bought goods and materials such as silver, silk, spices, wine, jewelry, glass and pottery to bring home.
Warriors & Raiders
Nothing in their Norse beliefs related to Christian beliefs. So once the Scandinavians had mastered shipbuilding and began to “go Viking,” they did not think twice about raiding a Christian monastery.
An attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne in Britain in 793CD marked the beginning of fierce conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. During the raid, they murdered every monk they found and carried off everything of value including treasures like gold, jewels and books as well as food, drink, cattle, clothes and tools.
With no navy guarding the coast and finding the monasteries unarmed, it was easy for small groups of Vikings to land on a beach or sail up a river. But it was not long before larger Viking armies attacked Britain.
Christians in Europe were totally unprepared for the Viking invasions. With no understanding of the Norse beliefs, the Christians couldn’t understand why the Vikings arrived and forced them to endure such suffering except for the “Wrath of God.”
The demonized perception of the Vikings that persisted for the next twelve centuries was based on the writings of the monks and others who were victimized by their attacks.
It wasn’t until the 1890s that scholars outside Scandinavia begin to seriously reassess the achievements of the Vikings, recognizing their artistry, technological skills, and seamanship. The settlement of wide-ranging colonies and conversion to Christianity allowed the Norse culture to expand its influence throughout Europe and North America.