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790-1066 - Viking / Norman

The term 'Viking' is derived from the Old Norse vik, a bay, and means ' one who haunts a bay, creek or fjord1'. In the 9th and 10th centuries it came to be used more especially of those warriors who left their homes in Scandinavia and made raids on the chief European countries. This is the narrow, and technically the only correct use of the term ' Viking,' but in such expressions as 'Viking civilisation,' 'the Viking age,' ' the Viking movement,' ' Viking influence,' the word has come to have a wider significance and is used as a concise and convenient term for describing the whole of the civilisation, activity and influence of the Scandinavian peoples, at a particular period in their history.

The period of Scandinavian history to which the term Viking is applied extends roughly from the middle of the 8th to the end of the 10th or the first half of the 11th century. Its commencement was marked by the raids of Scandinavian freebooters upon the coasts of England, Western Scotland and Ireland and upon Frankish territory. The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" mentions the Vikings even earlier. For the year 787 it records the following: "In this year King Breohtric married King Offa's daughter Eadburge. And in his days came the first three ships of the Northmen from 'HereSalande.' . . . These were the first Danish ships which visited the land of the Anglian people." King Breohtric ruled from 787 till 800. The chronicle does not say that the ships came in 787, but in his day. In 793 the Vikings plundered the monastery of Lindisfarne. They came from the North, that is, from Norway, or the islands north of Scotland.

The climax of the Viking age was reached when in the course of the 9th and 10th centuries Scandinavian rule was established in Ireland, Man and the Western Islands, the northern and midland districts of England, Normandy, and a great part of Russia. Its close was marked by the consolidation of the Scandinavian kingdoms in the late 10th and early llth centuries under such mighty sovereigns as Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf the Holy in Norway, Olaf Skotkonung in Sweden, and greatest of all, king Knut in Denmark, who for a brief time united the whole of Scandinavia and a great part of the British Isles in one vast confederacy.

The warlike mind, so strongly and clearly expressed in the Northern mythology, appears in all parts of the popular life. Tranquil occupations did not enjoy any reputation among the ancient Norsemen, while war and fighting were a sure way of acquiring an eminent name with contemporaries, glorious fame with succeeding generations, and means and riches in abundance. To eat bread in the sweat of the brow was considered inglorious. Life was of little value, and had to be risked at any cost for honor; and an old warrior, when unable to wield his sword, often caused one of his friends to kill him, to avoid a natural death, which was an exclusion from the privileges of Valhalla. But, although frequent wars and mutual challenges were carried on in Scandinavia, the Norsemen often sailed to far-off regions to win honor and renown.

Yet, however, not only desire for warfare allured the Norsemen from home, but much more, the necessity of procuring such necessaries of life and such enjoyments as they could not have in their own countries. In the spring, great crowds of new-raised men, fit to bear arms, usually went away from home, mercilessly plundering coasts and lands, wherever they made then: appearance, and in the fall returning with rich spoil and prisoners of war, who thereupon became slaves. Such expeditions were called Vikingefarter, and the partakers Vikings. Some made even such a life a business, and spent nearly all their time on the ocean as pirates, despising the easier country life, and speaking disdainfully of sleeping under a sooty ceiling, or sitting round a warm stove with old women.

According to the character of the Norsemen, their disputes were nearly always settled by arms. "It was more honorable for men," say the old Sagas, " to fight by sword than to quarrel by tongue;" and when, therefore, a quarrel arose, either on account of personal offences, or concerning inheritance and borders, then the sword was usually the judge. One murder became generally the cause of another; for, although fines could be paid as atonement for a murder committed in an open and honest duel, the near relatives often required blood for blood; a manner of thinking which a father, being offered money for a murder committed on his only son, properly expressed in answering: "I will not carry the corpse of my dearly beloved son in my pocket-book." And if a murder was committed cunningly and treacherously, then vengeance of blood was an unavoidable obligation, from which the surviving relatives could not withdraw without total loss of then: reputation. Revengeful and inexorable as the Norsemen were in their enmity, so faithful and self-denying they proved themselves in their friendship.

The Danes occupied East Anglia and part of Northumbria, crushed Mercia, and threatened Wessex. The Angles and Saxons were doubtless more numerous, yet they cowered before the Danes, and called out to Heaven against the wicked invaders. The reason seems to be that in the course of four centuries, 450-850, the older race of pirates and spoilers had settled down on the land, preferred peaceful farming to fighting, and were converted to civilisation and Christianity. Thus they were no match for the newer race who were still in the stage of fierceness and heathendom. Yet south of the Thames the West Saxons could fight fiercely, when they were well led and were in defence of hearth and home. There is no need to accuse the West Saxons of slackness in allowing the Danes to conquer up to the Thames; Ethelred I crossed the river to help the Mercians but without success. Thus it was in their own country that they had to fight out the struggle.

An emigration from Scandinavia commenced in the seventh and eighth centuries, breaking out violently in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Normans (the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, commonly styled so in southern Europe) had undoubtedly formerly made frequent expeditions (Vikingefarter) to near and far-off regions; but now their expeditions began to be made in greater numbers, intending not only to obtain booty, but even possessions and dwellings abroad. The union of the provincial territories under one king, both in Denmark and Norway, and the introduction of Christianity, and the change of manners and customs connected therewith, had made many dissatisfied with their native country. This, together with a strong desire for a warfaring life, induced numerous crowds from all regions of the North to go away to seek a new home; and the southern lands, which by the dissolution of Charlemagne's empire, were enervated and entirely defenceless, were a tempting bait for the Normans.

In the late 8th century, the stage for Viking expansion was set by commercial expansion in northwest Europe, the pressure of an increasing population in limited territorial reserves, and the development of the Viking ships. The Norsemen traveled extensively over the oceans, south to the Holy Land, and north to the White Sea and settled over a wide area from Sicily to Greenland. Historical sources, including the reports by Adam of Bremen and the Icelandic Sagas, describe several expeditions from Greenland to Vinland (somewhere along the east coast of North America) in approximately AD 1000 and later. Historians have arrived at highly different conclusions with respect to the location of Vinland (from Labrador to Georgia), but, in 1960, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad localized ancient house sites on L'Ans aux Meadows, a small fishing village on the Northern beaches of Newfoundland. From 1961 to 1969, Ingstad and his wife, Anne Stine (an archaeologist), led several archaeological expeditions that revealed Viking turf houses with room for approximately 100 people. They also excavated a smithy, outdoor cooking pits, boathouses, a bathhouse, and enclosures for cattle, in addition to several Viking artifacts. The finds were Carbon dated to AD 990 +/- 30.

Their expeditions extended from the Baltic straight down to the coasts of Africa, and to the innermost parts of the Mediterranean sea, which had so often formerly resounded with the strife of Latin arms. Nor were their enterprises confined to these coasts. They descended all along the shores of Portugal and Western France, and thereafter along the largest rivers of Europe-Elbe, Rhine, Scheldt, Seine, Loire, Garonne, and Rhone. They dared, on their small flat-bottomed vessels, to make Irruption into the inland parts of the countries, spreading terror and causing the most terrible havoc wheresoever they went. The flourishing cities of Holland and Germany, Nimvegen, Liege, Bonn, Cologne, and Aachen, were consumed by their fire, and they went over the entire dreadful drama of warlike glory.

With the mention of a Viking one immediately associates his ship. In a funeral cairn in Denmark at a place called Gokstad was discovered a ship that had been buried with some dead chieftain. She was 67 feet long in the keel and nearly 80 feet from stem to stern, of 17 feet beam, and about 4 feet depth amidships; she was clinker built in eight strakes, that is to say, eight planks overlapping each other, and fastened with nails and bolts and then made watertight; she had a mast stepped in a huge solid block, and sixteen oars to each side which passed out through rowlocks cut in the third strake; her oars were twenty feet long, and she was steered by a sort of big paddle or steering-board, which has given its name to our "starboard." It is calculated that she carried a crew of forty. Doubtless she was a typical ship. Other specimens have been found of similar dimensions, and the largest of these galleys, the Long Serpent, was 148 feet in keel and probably represents the pitch of perfection in Danish shipbuilding.

The Danish wars cut right across Anglo-Saxon history. The heathen brutality, first of those who simply came to raid, then of those who stayed and conquered, left an enduring memory of the Red Terror. But one doubts very much if the Danes were more cruel than the earliest Saxon invaders. "If we admire the heroic defence of the Saxon king, we cannot forget that most of us who form the English nation have in our veins more than a little of the Viking blood. We owe our existence as much to one side as to the other, and it is a false patriotism and a mistaken view of history which asks us to give our sympathies exclusively to either party in this struggle of a thousand years ago." [Collingwood, Scandinavian Britain, p. 83.] The word " Northmen" has been given to all invaders from Scandinavia, but we ought to make a distinction. The true Norwegians settled chiefly in the Orkneys and Shetlands, along the west coast of Scotland, on both sides of the Solway Firth, in Lancashire and in South Wales. The true Danes settled in our country between the Tyne and the Thames. The meaning of the word "Viking" is worth examining. The old derivation from vik, i.e. wick, a creek, seems to be now given up; it is thought that the verb wigan or wigian, which means "to fight;" is the true derivation. A Viking, at any rate in the Scandinavian sagas, means any fighter or pirate of any nationality.

Place-names naturally show where the Danes settled. The most common ending is by. There is a large group of by's around Yarmouth for instance; in Leicestershire there are thirty-eight by's out of 174 villages; the furthest inland are Naseby, Holmby, and Rugby. But there is a regular swarm of them in Lincolnshire, especially in the country behind Great Grimsby; on the other hand, in the neighbourhood of Boston there seem to have been hardly any Danish settlements. A by was an isolated farmstead, whereas thorp indicates a village; but then thorp may be either Danish or Anglo-Saxon. Another well-known place-name is wich, which is a creek. The Danes used to meet at an assembly which was called a Thing, from which come several names, as Thingow. Here the free warriors used to touch or clash together their weapons; hence the district where such meetings took place was called a wapentake.

They apportioned out their lands, not by fives and tens of hides like the Anglo-Saxons, but by half-dozens and dozens of carucates. They seem to have had an inrooted dislike to the Saxon system of farming by common fields. To every man his own little farm was their ideal. It has been denied by several authorities that the sokemen were characteristically Danish, or that the soke was of Danish origin; but there is the undoubted fact that in 1086 the sokemen were most thickly settled in Danish districts, particularly Lincolnshire, where in William I's reign there still remained 11,500 of them. This fact, together with the inference that we have from the name by, seems to tell of a time of small freehold farms.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:11:48 ZULU