"From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord." Such was the oft-repeated prayer of the inhabitants of those regions of the medieval world that were visited by the Scandinavian raiders. These fierce warriors held Europe under their spell for almost 300 years starting with the infamous raid in 793 on the English monastery of Lindisfarne and ending roughly with the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Who Were the Vikings?
Reading some of the hair-raising accounts of contemporary chroniclers, one can easily get the impression that the Vikings were nothing but marauders who looted and plundered wherever they went. However, looking at the Viking age from the distance of centuries, one can see that they were not solely raiders. They were also traders and explorers and settlers; sometimes one man was all of these--a different Viking for different seasons.
Why the Vikings emerged from their northern homelands and swarmed over much of the civilized world is not clear--and many reasons have been advanced, from climatic changes to overpopulation and internal power struggles. But there is general agreement that, whatever the reason, their endeavors could not have been so successful and their impact so strong if they had not achieved extraordinary advances in boatbuilding (as well as in navigational skills). Their famous "long ships" were of unparalleled beauty and incredibly light and flexible. Even the flat-bottomed cargo ships were marvels of technology.
The Vikings' raiding/trading and settlement routes stretched from the British Isles, Iceland, and Greenland to America in the west and to the Caspian Sea, the land of Khazars, and the city of Baghdad in the east. They settled in Italy, Spain, Morocco, Egypt, and Jerusalem and served in the emperor's bodyguard in Byzantium--the legendary Varangian Guards. When the famous Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, toward the end of the Viking era, it was a clash between two military leaders with varying degrees of Viking ancestry: Duke William of Norman's ancestor was the great Viking Rolf, or Rollo, of Normandy; Harold, earl of Wessex, was a descendant of Danes.
The location of a particular country largely determined the direction of expansion during the Viking age (a distinction not made by the victims of the Viking raids, who simply referred to their tormentors as Northmen and their language as the Danish tongue).
The Swedes are associated with the movement East. The Rus (as in Russia), as the Swedes were often called, traveled regularly along the eastern part of the Baltic, where the island of Gotland was an important center (and a rich source of archaeological finds in later times), and also along the Dnieper and Volga rivers, from which they entered the Arab markets and the Byzantine Empire. These rivers were extremely hazardous routes of cataracts and rapids, and no doubt many a Viking never carried home the luscious silks and beautiful objects he had coveted in the East. But many who made it to Miklagard (the great city in Norse), Constantinople, gained fame and money as merchants or soldiers and lived to tell those who had stayed at home faithfully tilling the soil.
Westward Viking is an appropriate term for the Norwegians and the Danes. The Norwegians settled Iceland in 870. In 930, they established an independent republic that flourished until 1262, when it was forced to submit to the Norwegian king. From there, Norsemen moved to Greenland. Although their lives were full of toil and trouble, they succeeded in triumphing over their inhospitable surroundings. The colony, however, disappeared in the early 1300s--although several theories offer an explanation, to this day no one knows why.
The lure of the west did not stop with Greenland. The first sighting of America was recorded in 985, and the first Norseman to step onto the shores of the New World bore the fitting nickname of "Leif the Lucky"--Leif Eriksson. It is still not known exactly where the Vikings settled in North America, but the settlement on Newfoundland at L'Anse aux Meadows is no doubt associated with Norse expeditions.
The history of the British Isles is intimately connected with the Vikings. After the famous first raid of Lindisfarne in 793, Danish and Norwegian men and women put down roots and gave names in their native tongue to settlements, from Jarlshof in the Shetland Islands to Wexford in Ireland; and at the end of the ninth century, the Danelaw, which included the kingdoms of York and East Anglia, was established, with Danish rule and Danish laws. In Ireland, the Vikings developed a Norse kingdom with Dublin as its capital, and many important archaeological finds from the Viking age come from the Islandbridge cemetery outside Dublin. The Irish still commemorate the famous Battle of Clontarf (23 April 1014), in which the legendary Irish king Brian Boru died a heroic death in victory over the Nordic troops. In the waning years of the tenth century up to roughly A.D. 1050, Vikings looted England under the rule of different Norse kings, who, in many cases, established themselves as rulers not only over the Danelaw but at times over almost all of England. Those threats forced the inhabitants of those areas to pay Danegeld (protection money) to be left in peace (in some years amounting to almost US$100,000).
The Viking warriors who approached the coasts of England in the eleventh century, or those who invaded the Frankish Empire, where they plundered Paris in 845 and the Moorish kingdom in Spain at about the same time, must have been fearsome indeed. Not only were they fearsome in battle, where they sometimes slipped into the famous berserk fury, the rage of the bear skins or the bare skins, but the Vikings had also streamlined the use of their weaponry and equipment in ways that were unique in the Middle Ages. Drawing on their own native traditions, ruthlessly discarding what seemed outmoded and/or inefficient, and, drawing on ideas and techniques picked up from their southern neighbors, the Vikings were able to develop military equipment best suited to their needs and time.
A Viking's weapons were more than utilitarian tools. From ancient times in Scandinavia, a man's weapons were looked upon as an extension of himself. These weapons were often imbued with magical powers. Icelandic sagas abound with stories of cursed swords, halberds that bled in anticipation of battle, and other supernatural events involving weapons. Viking warriors also gave their weapons names--for example, the sword of the mythical hero Sigurd (Wagner's Siegfried) was named Gram and it imbued its owner with unusual prowess. And the powers continued after the owner's death. Viking warriors were often buried with their weapons and one sometimes hears of graves in foreign lands being denuded of their weapons in an effort to transfer "Viking power" to a new owner.
A Viking warrior's equipment consisted of sword, axe, club, spear, and bow and arrows. Although the protective gear varied, it normally included a shield, helmet, and, for those who could afford it, a coat of mail.
In literature and lore, the most cherished of weapons, the royal weapon, was the sword. The Viking sword was often of Frankish origin, or at least the blade was. The area around contemporary Cologne was famous for its swordsmiths, and many archaeological finds and contemporary witnesses attest to the quality of the damascened sword (i.e., the wire was inlaid into the blade in wavy patterns) of the Franks. The typical sword war double-edged, made of iron with elaborately gilded hilts (in the case of a wealthier owner), and a triangular or semicircular pommel, most often of Scandinavian origin in typical Scandinavian "beast" ornamentation or in contrasting material (some were made of elk antlers).
The most common weapon after the sword was the spear. The thinner, lighter ones were the javelins, the heavier of the lance type. Like swords, they varied in appearance depending on the owner's wealth. The conical socket, which fits into the shaft, is often decorated in silver and other metals. On the Bayeux tapestry, embroidered in memory of the battle of Hastings and a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about Viking weapons, charging cavalry is shown thrusting lances and throwing javelins at their enemy.
The most dreaded weapon of the Vikings, and the one that is most often mentioned by the terrified chroniclers of their times, is the battle axe. While it was characteristic of the Vikings at that time, it was largely out of use in the rest of Europe. The axe has a long tradition in Scandinavia connected with rites and rituals; axe-carrying celebrants are found in Bronze Age rock carvings. Stone slabs from that time depict curved axes, and there is little doubt that the axe is associated with the worship of the sun god.
Although the axe of the Viking age could be the most utilitarian of tools or the most deadly of weapons, some highly decorated axes which were clearly of neither type, have been found in graves. They could have been ritual weapons associated with Thor, the god of thunder and lightning and the guarantor of stability and order. The proverbial Viking warrior is often depicted brandishing a sword and/or an axe. Normally, this axe had to be carried by two hands, but there are accounts of smaller and lighter ones being used in battle. Two principle types existed: the beard axe, where the blade is extended at the bottom like a beard; the other is the so-called broad axe, which came into use around A.D. 1000, where the blade is often decorated with animal motifs or inlays of precious stones.
The bow and arrow played a role in references to the Vikings; unfortunately only the points of the arrows have survived to our times.
As mentioned, the protective gear was a shield, which was most often a round wooden board with a central boss, a helmet, and a mail coat. Few helmets have survived to modern times, but it can never be stressed often enough, in light of Hollywood's depictions of the Vikings, that the Vikings did not wear horned helmets. Such helmets went out of style after the Bronze Age (1500-500 B.C.). The Viking's headgear was a conical leather cap with a noseguard of a type shown on the Bayeux tapestry. All in all, an unglamorous appearance to the inhabitants of the threatened lands, but nevertheless one to strike terror in their hearts.
Remnants of the Past
How are we able to conjure up the image of the Vikings and their daily life so well after so many centuries? Our sources are many and varied; among them Icelandic prose and poetry from the Middle Ages, memorial stones raised by the survivors of the raiders and traders of these unruly times, pictorial stones on which warriors and heathen gods and their rites and rituals are depicted; Arab merchants describing their encounters with the Vikings in the East, and the names on the map of England where "Denby" is a modern version of"Dana by"--the Danish village/town. But the earth itself is the most generous provider of knowledge, always yielding new finds to archaeologists. Thousands of household tools and weapons have come to light from all over the Viking territory. The aforementioned cemetery of Islandbridge alone supplied 40 swords, 35 spearheads, 26 shield bosses, and two axe heads.
New excavations furnish new clues and new knowledge. The Viking age may have ended by A.D. 1100, but modern archaeology continues to stimulate our interest in one of the most intriguing and dramatic periods in world history.