When you think of a Viking you probably imagine a wild warrior sailing across the sea in a graceful wooden longship. But historians now know that the Vikings were expert traders and skilled craftspeople as well as violent raiders who made their enemies shake with fear.
THE VIKING HOMELANDS
The Vikings came from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, countries in a part of northern Europe known as Scandinavia, and were active from the late 8th century to the 12th century ad. In their homelands, most Vikings worked as farmers, growing crops such as barley and raising animals such as cows, goats and chickens. Groups of farming families lived together in small waterside villages. A typical family house was made of wood with a thatched roof. Inside, there was usually just one room with benches around the walls where people sat and slept. There was also a hearth in the centre of each room, where a fire burned to keep people warm, and to cook food such as porridge, bread or hunks of meat and fish.
People in these villages had many gods, who were believed to live in a place called Asgard. The most important was Odin, god of war. He had a palace in Asgard called Valhalla that was the final resting place of Viking warriors killed in battle. Other major gods were Thor, god of thunder, who protected farmers and sailors, and Frey and Freya, a brother and sister who helped people have children and the land to produce crops.
Experts do not know very much about how the Vikings worshipped their gods, but animal sacrifice certainly formed part of their rituals. In Viking villages it was common to see dead cows and other animals placed on high wooden platforms outside houses as offerings to the gods.
WHY DID VIKINGS TRAVEL SO MUCH?
The Viking Age began when people from Scandinavian villages started to make sea journeys to other parts of Europe and beyond. No one is sure why these voyages began, but there were probably several reasons. First, there was a shortage of good farmland in Scandinavia, so people may have decided to seek it abroad. Secondly, Scandinavians may have been looking for new markets where they could sell trade goods. Some Viking men may also have been driven out by their enemies, as this was a time of great rivalry between leaders. Finally, many people were attracted by tales of the gold and other treasures to be found across the seas.
Historians are not sure either why the Scandinavians of this period came to be known as Vikings. Some experts think that the term comes from the old Scandinavian word vik, meaning a bay, so that a Viking was a person who kept his ship in such a place. Others think “Viking” comes from the Old English word wic, which meant a trading camp. Experts do know, though, that when Scandinavians sailed away from their homelands, people said that they had gone “a-viking”.
The earliest recorded Viking raid took place in ad 793 on the north-east coast of England. The target was the great monastery of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, and its monks were quickly killed and its priceless treasures stolen. This was the first of many merciless attacks by Danish and Norwegian Vikings along the coasts and rivers of England, France, Ireland and other countries, and they soon earned themselves the nickname “wolves from the seas”.
The Vikings were able to travel so far and raid so effectively only because of their shipbuilding skills. The vessels used by Viking warriors were known as longships because of their long, narrow shape. They were made of oak or other wood, and had high, curled prows and sterns decorated with carving. Sometimes, a wooden dragon’s head was also fitted to the prow to frighten the Vikings’ enemies. All longships had a large central sail, but could also be rowed if there was not enough wind.
Archaeologists have discovered many fine examples of Viking ships. They include the 23-metre long Gokstad ship, which was found in Norway in 1880. It had once sailed the seas, but like many Viking ships was later used as a burial place for a king.
In time, some Vikings made lasting settlements overseas. During the 800s, for example, they took over a large area of land in the north and east of England, and would have seized more if King Alfred the Great had not driven them back. In the 10th century, English rulers reconquered the Viking region, known as the Danelaw, but in the 11th century, Danish kings took over once more, this time seizing the whole country.
The Vikings did not have to use force to establish a settlement in France. By the early 10th century, the French king, Charles the Simple, had grown tired of their raids, so in 911 gave them a large area in the north of his country. Slowly, the Vikings who settled in this region, which became known as Normandy, adopted the French way of life and the French language. Then, in 1066, when England was again ruled by an English king, they seized power there during the Norman Conquest.
The Vikings also settled in Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland and many islands such as the Hebrides. There is good evidence that they founded a short-lived colony in North America—during the 1960s archaeologists discovered and excavated the remains of a Viking village in L’Anse-aux-Meadows, on the Canadian island of Newfoundland.
Most Vikings from Sweden made their way not to England and France, but much further east, to Russia.
The Swedes were the great traders of the Viking world. They carried goods such as amber, swords, cattle, furs and slaves across the sea in cargo ships called knorrs. Then they built smaller canoes to travel down Russian rivers such as the Volga. They also made their way further south to the great city of Constantinople (now İstanbul in Turkey). In all these exotic places, Swedish Vikings exchanged their Scandinavian products for goods such as spices, fabrics and jewellery. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of some of these items, as well as coins from many parts of the world, in Swedish Viking sites.
THE END OF THE VIKINGS
The Viking Age came to an end during the 11th and 12th centuries. By this time, Denmark, Norway and Sweden were more stable, with strong kings in control and Christianity had replaced the old Viking religion, so most people no longer felt the need for a new life overseas. But many experts also think that the raiding, trading ways of the Vikings had simply worn them out, and that the future belonged to richer, more politically powerful countries. These countries included England, where the Normans, descendants of Scandinavian Vikings, were now in control.