Medieval Europe: The Vikings


Figure 1.--Here Danish Boy Scouts help to recreate a Viking village escavated at New Hedebyby archaeologists in the 1970s. The boy here is working on straw for thatching. Other reproductions had turf roofs which you can see at the right.

The Vikings were feared and even envied by some throughout the Medieval Europe. They mastered the seas and were able to strike without warning. They were the northern Germanic peoples found in the southern area of modern Scandinavia. They became the modern Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Icelandians. The North Germanic tribes were unknown to the Romans, but burst out upon Medieval Europeans in the 9th century as the Vikings and played a major role in the history of Western Europe, especially the British and French. A Scandinavia people known as the Rus also moved east at this time and helped found modern Russia. The northern Germanic an un-Chritianized Germamic people began raiding Christian Europe in the 8th century, first striking the rich monastery at Lindesfarne, an island off northern England. Voyages further into the Atlantic followed, to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. A permanent settlement was established in Iceland. The most important Viking explorers were Erick the Red and his son Leiv Eriksson. Norwegian-born Eirik Thorvaldsson, known as Eirik the Red, sailing from Iceland, explored and colonized southwestern Greenland (986). He named this largely ice-covered island Greenland to attract settlers, His son, Leiv Eiriksson, became probably the first European to reach North America. Little accurate data from the extensive Viking voyages, however, ever appeared on European maps. The Norsemen or Vikings became a major threat to Christian Europe after the death of Charlermagne and the splintering of his domain. The Vikings established Normandy, a dukedom that rivaled the power of the French monarchy and Duke William of Normandy would conquer England (1066). While Danish and Norwegian Vikings struck west and south, Swedish Vikings moved east and played a major role in the development of Russia. The Vikings while devestating large areas also played a role in the spread of commerce and the evolution of democracy in England.

Chronology

The Pagan Vikings seemingly appear out of nowhere at the end of the 9th century. They were feared and even envied by some throughout the Medieval Europe. They mastered the seas and were able to strike without warning. [Haywood] They terrorized Christian Europe and eventually soiught to settle down. They played played a major role in developing both the English kindom and English democracy.

793: Vikings plunder England's famed Lindisfarne Abbey off the coast of Engklan, one of the richest in Europe. A reoort announcedc toChristian Europe, "the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter'. After Lindisfarne the prayers offered in European monastaries went, "From the fury of the Northmen, Lord deliver us ..." The monastaries were prime targets for the Vikings becausee they were great stores of wealth and the monks were not trained in combat. Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not have stranding armies that could rapidly be mobilized to oppose seaborn landing forces.

794: The Scottish Isles because f their vuklnerabiklity and smallm populations were early conquests. The monastery at Lindisfarne was off thee coast of southrrn Scotkand.northern Engkand. The Vikings attacked Iona and the Isle of Skye being attacked the following year. XSome historians note a Celtic impulse to hermitage and monasticism whuich combined left a string of unprotecfted churches and monastic communities with rich artifacts was like a magnet to the Vijkings. Locations along the coast allowed access to Viking raiders. Settlements were soon established on Orkney and Shetland.

800: Swedish Vikings move east into Russia, using the river system.

825: Vikings reach the Faroes.

840-60: Vikings raid southern Eurooe and Morocco,

860: Vikings attack Constaninople.

860: Norwegian Vikings established a colony on the uninhabited island of Iceland. Ingolf Arnarson is often cited as the first settler. It is thought that Vikings may have heard of Iceland from Irish monks during raids along the Irish coast. Some 20,000 Vikings, mostly NorwegiansO) appear to have colonized Iceland over a 60-year period (9th century). As the island was uninhabited, land was free for the taking. Thus Vikings who at home had only a small plot or no land at all could be substantial land owners. The early settlers this set themselves up as chieftans, becoming the new aristocract. This was the power structure that new arrivals had to deal with. Many Viking settlers brought slaves taken in European raids with them, so the population of Iceland is not purely Scandinavian. The populatiion grew to 60,000 (10th century).

865-71: King Æthelred I was King of Wessex, some times called Æthelred the Unready. He paid Danegild, a silver tribute to prevent further Viking attacks.

878: Alfred famously emerged from the marshes and won a decisive victory at Battle of Edington which may have been fought near Westbury, Wiltshire (878). He then pursued the defeated Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission. This is often seen as defeating the Viking attempt to overwealm the Anglo Saxons and the birth of England.

983: Erik the Red found sanctuary from Icelandic justice on Greenland.

1000: Leif Errikson landed on Vinland (Newfoundland).

1066: The English Saxons under Harold defeat a Norewgian Viking invasion, but are defeated in the south by Duke wiilliam's Normans, a French Viking army. The Normans spoke French and had been strongly influenced by French culture, but they had descened from Vikings who setlled aling the coast, hence the name Norman or Norsemen.

1350: Greenland's western settlement was abandoned.

1450: Greenland was completely abandoned.

Northern Germanic Tribes

The northern Germanic peoples were found in the southern area of modern Scandinavia. They became the modern Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Icelandians. The North Germanic tribes were unknown to the Romans. Subsequent Europeans would become very familiar with them. They came to be called the Norsemen and Vikings. Norsemen meant northern men meaning men froim northern Europe. Vikings was an Old Norse word meaning pirate or raider. The estern and western tribes that invaded the Roman Empire gradually became Christianized even though they were the conquerers. This probably relates to both the weight of numbers and the more advanced civilization of the Roman Empire and the populations in the former Roman provinces. The northern tribes more removed fom Roman influences and remaimed pagan throughout the Dark Afes and into the mid-medieval era long after the other German tribes were Chritianized.

Historical Records

The Vikings when they appeared on the European scene were a pre-literate people (8th century). Thus all surviving written records are left to us by the literate Christian kingdoms they raided and pllaged.. From an historian's point of view this is not an ideal circumstance because it means that all contremprary accounts are biased against the Vikings. This not mean that all the contemprary accounts are inaccurate. We suspect that many accounts of Viking attacks are reasonably accurate. Left unsaid, however, is that the Vikings were not the only ruthless, armed men at the time. ccounts. Also the cobtemporary accounts give us very little information about the ordinary lives of most Viking people which consisted of both agricultural and fisheries. Nor do they tell us much about their social organization which was more democratic and eqalitarian than the developing Feudal system in Euurope. Modern archaeological work is beginning to provide a great deal of basic information about Viking life.

Viking Life Style

Archaeological work has unearthed a great deal of information about Viking life styles. Archeologists have found sickles, picks, hoes and ploughshares, They have also found evidence of the crops they tilled and he livestock they raised. In addition to farming, the Vikings also took advantage of bountiful fishery resources in the northern waters. Scandinavian's forests also provided the raw material for the famed Viking longboats which skilled Viking craftsmen fashioned. The Vikings were very competent metal workers, using the iron they found in bogs. Iron had a multutude of uses for both tools and weapons. They built homes of wood, stone and sod, depnding on the raw materils availsable to them.

Agriculture

Economies throughout Europe, including Scandinavia were based on agriculture. Most Vikings as in the rest of Europe lived on farms which and agriculture was the orimary source of wealth even after the raiding began. The Vikings were an iron-age people and had iron toold, including sickles and hoes. Crops werer primarily grains, uncluding oats, barley and wheat. They ground the grain to make flour, porridge and ale. They also grew vegetables such as onions, beans and cabbages. Farm animals included pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, geese and chickens. Their farming techniques included the use of darm animal manure to keep fertilize the soil. The often had to kill animals in the fall as they did not have enough fodder sand feed to sustain them during the long winter. Modern readers will at once realize that Scandinavia is not the breadbasket of Europe. The land is not as productve as other less rocky regions, more fertile to the south and east. And as populations increased, the land simply could not support the population. This is a major factor excplaining the Viking migrations and raids beginning in the 9th century,

Viking Long Boats

The Vikings were ferrocious warriors, but what made them difficult for medevil Europe to resist them was the long boat. The longboat gave the Vikings that othr Europeans did not possess. The Vikings became the best sailors and navigators in Europe. Thus they could strike a will aling coasts and even up rivers. The Viking longboat was the most technologically advanced ship in Europe until the sailing vessels like caravells of the 15th century. The longboat could be propelled by both square sail and oars. It would be manned by a war party of Norsemen who would array their sides along te side for protection. Contemprary accounts spoke of "Draggon boats". For some time these accounts were dismissed a hyperbole. Archeologists in modern times have unearthered well-preserved longboats and other Viking ships. Thus we now know a great deal about these vessels. At indeed they did have carved draggons at the bow. The vessels had a shallow draft giving them the ability to negotialte coastal waters and even go up rivers.

Religion

The Vikings were Germanic pagans. Viking religiious beliefs seem similar in many ways to the classical Gods. They celebrated the Old Norse legends. The fact tht the Vikings were not Christians and did not respect priests and churches was one of the characteristics that made them especially feared by Christian Europeans.Odin like Zeus was the greatest of the gids. He was said to have created the earth from the body of a frost giant. It sounds similar to the cosmology of Welteislehre (World Ice Theory) or Glazial-Kosmogonie (Glacial Cosmogony) proposed by Hans Hörbiger, an Austrian engineer and inventor. According to his theory, ice was the basic substance of all cosmic processes, and ice moons, ice planets, and the "global ether" (also made of ice) had determined the entire , development of the universe. The NAZis liked it because is disavowed Einstonian physics, or Jewish physics with the comcept of an icy origin to the universe which sounded decidely Nordic. Odin it was said killed the frost giant after a titanic struggle. One-eyed Odin was the god of wisdom and war. He was married to Frigg, a mother godnesses. Thor perhaps the best known of the Vikung gods was Odin's son and god of thunder. His duty was to defend his father's creations and realm from the frost giants who constantly threatened. The Viking religion gave rise to a waring world view. Ordinary folk ddecscened to an underworld when they died. Warriors had Vahhalla set aside for them, a men whio died in battle ascended to Valhalla. Norse gods and heroes were all warriors. Warrirs in the legends protected their villages from giants and monsters who constantly threatened. These concepts were also held by the more southerly German tribes, imoprtalized by the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowolf, centuries before the Norsemen and their gods were known to Europeans. This only becanme known when the Vikings began raiding their richer neibors to the west and south. There is no written evidence of early Viking mythogy in runic (written) form, but there are stone and wood carving depicting slain warriiors ascending to Valahalla to join their predecors, the Viking elite. The Germanic tribes including the Vikings developed a basic written language, althiough it was used in only a limited way. The basic runic aphhabet had 16 characters known as 'runes'. Over time adduitiional runes were added. They consisted of straight lines, largely because there was no prininting or writing on paper. They were carved into stone, bone, and wood and it is easier to carve straight lines than curved lines. Our modern European alphabets developed from Mesoptamia which used clay tablets and here curved lines could be created. The Vikings used their runes to mark important objects and buildings. They were also used to commenorate the dead. The southern German ic tribes largely abandoned the runes after cintact with Rome, especially the invasuin of the Roman Empire. They continued to be used by the northern tribes for some time. Tghe runes were kargely lost to history until revived by the NAZIs, most notably SS Reuichführer Hiimmler who sent his Ablonho?? to document every last rune they could find in the Reich.

Language

Old Norse was a Germanic language spoken by the northern Germanuc inhabitants in Scandinavia and beginning in the 8th century in the settlements founded during the Viking Age. The Vikings at the beginning of their expansion were a pre-literate people. As a result there are few surviving texts in Old Norse and most of them come from Medieval Iceland (Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian). This would be Old West Norse. Old Eastv Norse (Denmark and Sweden) is less well understood. It is important because it was Danish settlement that played an important role in England and influenced the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons. Scholars believe that the two dialects were very similsar. Scholars also believe that there were similarities with Anglo-Saxon Old English and a degree of mutual intelligibility. Old Norse langguage survive until about the 13th century when more modern forems began to appear.

Written Languages: The Runes

The Germanic tribes including the Vikings developed a basic written language, althiough it was used in only a limited way. The basic runic aphhabet had 16 characters known as 'runes'. Over time adduitiional runes were added. They consisted of straight lines, largely because there was no prininting or writing on paper. They were carved into stone, bone, and wood and it is easier to carve straight lines than curved lines. Our modern European alphabets developed from Mesoptamia which used clay tablets and here curved lines could be created. The Vikings used their runes to mark important objects and buildings. They were also used to commenorate the dead. The southern German ic tribes largely abandoned the runes after cintact with Rome, especially the invasuin of the Roman Empire. They continued to be used by the northern tribes for some time. Tghe runes were kargely lost to history until revived by the NAZIs, most notably SS Reuichführer Hiimmler who sent his Ablonho?? to document every last rune they could find in the Reich.

Artistry

The Vikings were skilled crftsmen. They worked with iron to make both tools and weapons. They also woked with copper, silver, and gold to make beautiful, striking jewelry. The metal work was often very intricate. They used niello (a sulopher compound) to highlight the intricate work on silver by creating a black effect, a technique first used by the ancient Egyptians. Other materials included antler, bone, and wood. Some iof the most notable wood carving was was the figures olaced on the bows of their long boats. They were made into fearsome figures such as dragon heads. Their carvers demonstrated great skill and immagintion, but were terrifying to medival peoples.

Raiding

It is the seaborn raiding for which the Vikings are best known. With arable land in short supply, the Vikings were a relatively poor people. Agriculture was the main producer of wealth during the medieval era. Thus men of nobel birth as well as poor men chose families did not own land were notivated to attack the richer lands to the west and south where riches were to be had for the taking. They scorned the rich Chritian peopls they encontered, who despite their riches were unable to repell the raiders. With their mindset, Christianity had made them weak. Viking raiders with their swift longboats struck their targets without any warning, suddenly appearing from the sea, sometimes out of mists. Even a raid by one or twl long boats could be successful. The raiders had the advantage od surpriose aferocity and chose poorly defended or even undefended targets. They not only stole valuable items, but destroyed houses and buikldings after ramsacking them for loot. People were seized for sale as slaves. Livestiock were slaughtered for food. Their targets at the time, even established monarchies, did not have navies and even if they had some vessels, could not potrol incessently. At the time roads were riudimentary or non existent. Armies by the time they were fornmed only arrived to find utter desolatin and the raiders long gone. Terror was mot mindless. It was a tactic to discourage resistance. And the Vikings did not always kill. Captives might be taken for sales aslaves or for ransome. Viking armament varied. The favored weapon was the heavy battke ax to smash skulls. They also had swords and spears. The commonly carried circular shields. Some had 'sarks' or tunics orotected with chainmail. This became more common as more Viking raiders met with success. There were also sarks fashioned from bear skins. Sometimes before an attack they woukld work thenseelves into a frenzy--which was the origin of the term 'berserk'.

Trading

The Vikings became adept traiders. Raiding by itseld did not produce a regular income. Raiding and trading were, however, never strictly separate. Slaves they captured on raids became a valuable commodity that could be traded forte silver they craved. Siver at tghe time was the main metal for commerce as it was avilable in far greater quantuty than gold. The Vikings also traded for amber.

Migrations

It is not well established why the Vikings burst out on Christian Europe in the late-8th century. Some historians suggest it was over population in Sandanavia that prompted the Viking incursions. Other factors such as political centralization, climasrte change, and technological advances (especially the development of the long boat) all seem to have been important factors. Certaily learning of places in Western Europe where gold and silver tresures could be found and were largely unguarded were powerful enducements. The Vikings went out from Scandinavia as raiders, explorers, and traders. They left an endelible imprint on Christian Europe. The Vikings sailed in all directions. The Noregians went nort into the Baents Sea, but pickings there were meager. More productive were settlent voyages west to Icealnd and evnbntually North America. Rich booty was found in attacks on Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in what is now England as well as attacks on Scotland and Ireland. The Danes sailed down the Frisan coast and also attacked England. Thet eventually raided the Christian French and Christian and Moorish Spanish. Raiders eventually settled down, especially in the Scottish isles. eastern England (what became known as the Dane Law). and Normandy. The Sweedish Vikings went east entered the Russian river system. This took them into the the vast northern forests and the rivers of the great Steppe, eventually reaching the Black Sea and Byzantuium and the Caspoan Sea and beyond. Bagdad coins have been found in Viking graves. It is believed that these people who became known as the Rus founded the first Russian state.

Movement West

The Northern Germanic tribes or Norsemen were unknown to the Romans, but burst out upon Medieval Europeans in the 9th century as the Vikings. They played a major role in the history of Western Europe, especially in British and French history. The Norsemen were an un-Chritianized Germamic people that began raiding Christian Europe in the 8th century, first striking Lindesfarne (793). This was a revered monastary on an island off northern England. The plunder found there brought further attacks on England, Scotland, and Ireland. Voyages further into the Atlantic followed, to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. A permanent settlement was established in Iceland. The most important Viking explorers were Erick the Red and his son Leiv Eriksson. Norwegian-born Eirik Thorvaldsson, known as Eirik the Red, sailing from Iceland explored and colonized southwestern Greenland (986). He named this largely ice-covered island Greenland to attract settlers, His son, Leiv Eiriksson, became probably the first European to reach North America. Little accurate data from the extensive Viking voyages, however, ever appeared on European maps. The Norsemen or Vikings became a major threat to Christian Europe after the death of Charlrmagne and the splintering of his domain. The Vikings established Normandy, a dukedom that rivaled the power of the French monarchy and Duke William of Normandy would conquer England (1066). The Vikings while devestating large areas also played a role in the spread of commerce and the evolution of democracy in England.

Movement East

While Danish and Norwegian Vikings struck west and south, Swedish Vikings moved east and played a major role in the development of Russia. These Vikings are know as the Rus and it is from this name that the name of Russia has been derived. Actually the Rus were Swedish Vikings meaning the northern Germanic tribes which setteled in Sweden. The Term Rus was not what they called themselves, but the mamne given them by the Finns. Both the Vijkings and Slavs at the time were pre-literate people. Thus the accounts of the coming of the Rus was written by Rusian Orthodox monks over a century later. Various Slavic tribes inhabited what is now northeastern Russia, the area along the Neva and the Volkhov rivers and around lakes Ladoga and Ilmen. The great Russian plain included both forest and grassland, offering rich agricultural land as well huntung and fishing in the rivers. In addition to the boutiful land and rivers, the area also was a connecgting point between European traders in the Baltic Basin and the southern flowing rivers leading to the Black Sea and Byzantium. For this reason, Novgorod grew as an important trading town and capital of the first state in northern Russia. The Slavic tribes in norther Russia engaged in unrelenting inter-tribal wars. No tribe would accept rule from a leader of another tribe. The SlAVS Made an offer to the Rus, "Our country is rich and immense, but it is rent by disorder. Come and govern us and reign over us." (862) This occurred at almost the same time that the western Vikings began to raid the British isles. Three Swedish Vikings accepted the offer and moved east. Rurik became ruler of Novgorod, Sineus settled down in Beloozerg and Truvor in Izborsk. Rurik from his base in Novgorad in only a short period extended his rule over the Slavic tribes in northern Russia. He dispatched a group south commanded by two of his men. They conquered Kiev, giving Rurik in the space of only a few years, command of a huge expanse if Eastern Europe. Oleg succeeded Rurik and shifted his capital to Kiev (882). Oleg grearly strengthened control over the tribes and nacent towns in his domain, the new Russian state. Kiev developed as one of the richest in Europe at the time. From Kiev they both fought and traded with Byzantium. Rurik's successors became a dynasty tht would rule Russia for more than 700 years.

Housing

Viking built their homes out of wood, stone or turf. Scandanavia was heavily forested and thus wood was commonly used. Where wood was not available, slabs of turf on a stone base were common. The specific choices depended on what was available locally. The houses were built in the shape of long boxes and the saffluent night add on to the original small house. This was the origin of the term long houses. The houses had with sloping thatched or turf roofs. The thath was made from straw or reeds. The Vikings might allow the keep to leep on growing on the roof which helped to keep the house warm in wibnter and cool in the summer. The walls were commonly made of made of wattle. This involved driving upright poles into the ground and connecting them with woven sticks whicvh were then packed with mud. This was an easy and effective way common people could create a structure to keep out wind and rain. The Vikings commonly dug out their floors below ground-level. Archaeologisdts are not sure just why this was done. Flooding was not a problem. Some speculate it helped keep out drafts. Commoners built with only one room for the entire family. The better off might have somewhat larger homes with a small entrance hall, a large main room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and a store room depending on their affluence. Houses in a tyoical Vikig cillage were crowded together along narrow lanes. The women would tend vegetable gardens around the house where the farm animals were alsdo tended. Trees were cut doen for firewood and stacked near the house for cooking fires and to keep the home warm in winter.

Slavery

Vikings had slaves before the raiding began (9th century). Slavery was a very common institution in the ancient world. Where it did not exist was usually because the peasantry was in a condition similar to slavery. The success of the raid brought many more slaves to the Vikings. And at the time the institution was becoming less common in increasingly Christianized Europe Europe. The Viking term for slave was thrall. As was always the case, kt was the bottom of the Viking social order. Thralls had to labor for his or her owner. There was no protection of law. The Viking master had the power of life or death over his thralls. Thralls might bbe used for sacrifice at the funeral of important Viking leaders. A thrall might be freed by his master for both hard work and loyalty. Thralls were permitted to form families. And their children inherited their thrall status. The children would begin working for their master from an early age.

Clothing

Viking men wore tunics and trousers. Women wore long dresses, with a kind of extended apron to protect the dress. The Vikings relied upon wool for their clothing. Most families kept sheep and the women and girls spun wool thread and wove it in the home. Cotton was not yet available in Europe. Most people given the climate dressed to keep warm. The clothing was similar to that worn England, Scotland and Wales at this time as well as the Germans and Celts earlier. Remember that the Vikings were the northern Germanic tribes. Their clothing seems similar to thst wirn by ancient Germans. And they were ethnically and culturally linked to Anglo-Saxon peoples who conquered most of Britain (5th-6th centuries). There were variations regionally as well as by social class. Viking clothing was very utilitarian. And as they lived in northerly lattitudes, warmth was very important. This meant not only heavy clothes, but also snug fitting clothing. Vikings wore both linnen and wool garments, but wool was the principal material used. Animal skins and furs were also available. One source suggests, "Many textiles in the Viking Age were made of worsted wool in twill patterns. These wools were carefully woven, supple, attractively textured, and often dyed in bright colors." [Priest-Dorman] Brightly colored clothes were popular and the Vikings cultivated a number of vegrtable dyes. Most Viking clothes were made by the women of the household. And households had their own weaving looms. Viking clothes because they were made in the home, tended to be very simple. The simplest fabric to produce were squares. Thus shirt-like garments might be two squares sewn together abnd worn as pullovers. Necklines and armholes were made by not completing the seams. Viking men and boys wore throusers. There is evidence of both knee-length, baggy trousers as well as narrow, full-length more sungly fitted trousers. [Priest-Dorman] There is evidence that trousers were worn by Vikings for centuries befpre they burst on the European scene in the 9th century. Winter clothing was wool garments supllements with animal hides and fur. The booty from wealthier parts of Europe might include fine gaments, even expensive fabrics like silks and brocades. These were be worn by Viking aristocrats and wealthy merchants. There are several problems with obtaining information on Viking clothing. Textiles deteriorate and thus unlike pottery and tools, little clothing has survived. This is a special problem with men's clothing as Viking warriors with their clothing were cremated. We know of no specific clothing for Viking children. The boys were dressed like adult men and the girls like women.

Sources

Haywood, John. Viking: The Norse Warrior's Unofficial Nanual (2014), 208p.

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn. "An archaeological guide to Viking men's clothing, (1993). The author has include an especially useful list of sources.







CIH






Navigate the Children in History nWebsite:
[Return to the Main Germanic tribe page]
[Return to the Main Medevial military threat page]
[Return to the Main Medieval page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Art chronologies] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Countries] [Economics] [Material] [Style Index]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]




Created: 12:13 AM 6/15/2007
Spell checked: 12:13 AM 6/15/2007
Last updated: 8:47 PM 3/12/2014