Today, we will be shedding light on the infamous Vikings and their influence on history during the peak of the Viking age (roughly between 790 CE - 1100 CE). The acclaimed "Northmen" were unquestionably one of the most iconic warrior cultures of ancient Scandinavia, and receives recognition even up till today. However, it is a culture that is often misrepresented by the masses. Many of us today still conceive them to be the bloodthirsty barbarians or, just generally, the "bad guys" of the ancient world whose sole goal in existing was to kill, pillage and rape, when in actuality it is a rather exaggerated caricature of who they really were as a culture.
ORIGINS OF THE “NORTHMEN”
Without further ado, let us now delve even deeper into the world of the vikings. The Vikings originated from Norway, Sweden and Denmark (as indicated by the red patch in fig 1.1 above). On an interesting note, it is a common misconception that vikings come from a single nation and were an organised united force or singular cohesive entity. In fact, they were rather segregated into varying aggregations with different agendas in accordance with their individual homelands. For example, Danish vikings tended to raid and settle in England and her islands while the Norwegian vikings targeted Ireland and the Swedish vikings made inroads into Russia.
We will now further explore the notion of where, how and why the Vikings made their first impressionable marks upon the ancient world. Essentially, the vikings were a Pagan (followers of religions stemming from ancient roots, especially polytheistic ones, that were not aligned with the mainstream religions such as Christianity) warrior culture that was at its peak approximately between 790 CE - 1100 CE that consisted of Scandinavian seafarers wishing to seek their fortunes in foreign lands. One rather intriguing point to note is that the word “viking” derived from its origins in ancient times from the word "vikingr". It was initially a description used by Scandinavians (from whom the Viking culture originated from) of an individual whom was a “person travelling for adventure”. It was also used as a verb by the Scandinavian people for when the men traditionally took time out of their summers to go “a viking.” As time went by, the term became synonymous with terms depicting raiders or pirates because they did in fact initially amass wealth and resources for their benefit by means of raiding.
However, more recent archaeological discoveries have suggested that raiding was just a small facet of their identity, the focal points of achievement in viking culture having been found to be major trading and settlement efforts. Unfortunately, the image of primordial savagery and bloodlust stuck with them because uncovered narratives concerning vikings and their culture discovered by historians were mostly accounts by victims of said raids, which leads us to the crucial question that must be asked: are these sources truly as unbiased and true to the viking culture as we would picture them to be?
VIKINGS: BLOODTHIRSTY SAVAGES?
As mentioned earlier, the Vikings’ original purpose for sailing out from their homelands was for seeking their fortunes through raiding and later for trading, settlement and spreading their influence. The earliest recorded viking targets were often monasteries. However, their attacks on religious settlements were not motivated by their conflicting paganistic nature or thirst for blood, but it was simply because monasteries made easy targets for the vikings. In all practicality, the monks had little to no protection against these armed invaders, and thus, the Vikings faced minimal resistance when raiding these establishments. Additionally, the monasteries were also often isolated and full of treasures, like silver and gold. Essentially, viking incursions were motivated by loot and resources, and these raids were not intended to kill people or destroy their homes.
The aftermath of their raids caused much of the Western world to be in a state of shock, awe, and terror in the wake of their attacks, having witnessed the exploits of these foreign raiders from strange lands for the first time whom did not seem to care to respect the mainstream western religions, and even seemed to be a main resistive force against them during the era of the renowned Crusades. Hence, this enforced the image of vikings being savages or bloodthirsty plunderers, and also instilled a sense of terror and fear associated with them in much of the early western world. Incidentally, this was to the extent that many churches in Northern Europe would eventually include the phrase "Deliver us O Lord from the wrath of the Northmen" in their prayers desperately during the peak of the viking age. Eventually, after this initial phase of redoubtable raiding and terrorizing, the Northmen realized that they could capitalise on their feared reputation, and did so by sometimes avoiding conflict altogether and obtaining their resources through extortion. Essentially, at times, settlements feared the vikings to such an extent that they would willingly give up their belongings when the vikings arrived.
As time went by, the vikings ultimately focused their efforts more towards trade and settlement with foreign lands as less and less conflict was needed to fulfill their needs. Also, some of them were known to branch off into agriculture and would settle in places like Iceland and Greenland to grow crops and raise farm animals, building up large settlements and encouraging booming economies for the natives of these established settlements. For example, the vikings have remoulded the whole European economy which adapted from the trading of prestige goods to a more mercantile economy. They were also able to help revive the European economy by opening up trade routes (refer to fig 1.1 above to see the trade and raid routes of vikings).
Through these voyages, vikings founded several city-states in Russia like Kiev and Novgorod, and a large tract of territory known as the Danelaw in England. Norse colonists of Anglia (a region of East England) had a significant impact on language such as dialects, placenames, and farming vocabulary. By 870 AD, vikings had controlled much of eastern England and tried to conquer the last remaining independent kingdom of Wessex, but failed as they were met with resistance from the English.
LEIF ERIKSSON - FIRST TO DISCOVER NORTH AMERICA?
Through the trade-centered voyages we talked about in the previous section, the Vikings founded several city-states in Russia like Kiev and Novgorod, and a large tract of territory known as the Danelaw in England. Norse colonists of Anglia (a region of East England) had a significant impact on language such as dialects, placenames, and farming vocabulary. By 870 AD, vikings had controlled much of eastern England and tried to conquer the last remaining independent kingdom of Wessex, but failed as they were met with resistance from the English.
Amongst the seafaring exploits of the Vikings, and their voyages towards the western hemisphere, they have also been accredited with being the first non-natives to discover and step foot on North America. Most historians agree that the vikings first discovered North America 400 years before the famous European explorer Columbus. Historians are quite sure that Leif Eriksson, also known as “Leif the Lucky” led a voyage to the Northeastern coast of North America, and subsequently traded and founded settlements there. Leif Eriksson’s Father was also written in the Icelandic sagas, and was known as “Erik the Red”, who founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Icelandic sagas claim that the area where Leif made landfall became known as Vinland, named as such due to the abundance of grapes found there. Vinland is now known as Newfoundland in modern day Canada, which is highlighted in red within Fig 1.2 below.
In summary, the vikings were a rather misrepresented culture and were viewed mainly by the ancient western world to be a single, unified coalition of bloodthirsty, atavistic savages bent on terrorising and pillaging other nations. However, it is undeniable that they were not as ruthless and heinous as they were portrayed to be, and did play a very important role in the period that they existed in, founding settlements, encouraging trade. Additionally, they also managed to influence much of the western world with their differing cultures and values, bringing diversity to the ancient world during the Crusades. Even if they were, undoubtedly, a force that should have been feared for their aggressive tenacity and somewhat invasive agendas, they should also be respected as a culture that substantially changed and influenced the course of the ancient world through their mercantile contributions to trade economies, successful efforts at establishing settlements, as well as birthing an identity to the world which challenged the conventional norms and beliefs of ancient civilisation, setting the stage for many more unique cultures originating from their viking forefathers.