A generic term used to designate the migrant people who spread by sea from the sixth to the eleventh century from Scandinavia over the whole western section of the northern hemisphere. Little is known of the Scandinavian population in the prehistoric age. There are vestiges of the Ertebølle civilization in Denmark called Kokkenmodings (kitchen middens or refuse heaps); the Nøstvet civilization left a few remains in Norway and Skåne. Jutland's cultivated fields are similar to those of southern England. Trade with the Roman Empire was established through Pannonia and Poland, native amber being exchanged for bronze and metals. Burial under a mound or tumulus (gravhoje ), figurative inscriptions on rocks, and the first runic alphabet characterized this Nordic civilization. In spite of the semantic kinship between Got (goths) and Götaland, one must not take literally the adage of Jordanis, "Scandinavia, the mother of all Germanic peoples," except in the case of the Cimbri, vandals, Angles and Burgundians, who actually were from Jutland.
The Scandinavian people undertook great migratory movements during their development: after the migration of the Heruli (third to fifth centuries), the first authentically Scandinavian raid was that made on the Frisian coast by Hygelac, Beowulf's uncle, mentioned by gregory of tours in 520. From this time on the Vikings became, without interruption, a part of Western History, even though into the seventh century their activity was confined to waters adjoining their homeland. The unification of Sweden (sixth to ninth centuries) and the migration of the Danes after the exodus of the Angles and the Jutes to Britain gave birth to new raids.
Of the many peoples who comprised the contemporary Scandinavian population it was the Suiones or Svear who gave their name to Sweden, and the Dani or Dene to Denmark. But before the tenth century, all these groups shared a common culture, religion, and language (Old Norse), and while groups of Vikings tended to go in the direction in which their originating coastal area faced (i.e., from modern Norway across the Atlantic, from modern Sweden to modern Russia, from Denmark to the islands and coasts of Europe), any distinction between these three modern groups in the Viking age is arbitrary; for Europeans used terms such as Dani (sometimes transposed into Daci ), Northmanni, Normanni, to include both those from (modern) Denmark and those from (modern) Norway together; Dacigeni for natives of (modern) Denmark, Northguigigeni for those from (modern) Norway, and Rus or Varangians for those from (modern) Sweden.
Vikings and Varangians. The term "Vikings," now used to designate all those sea raiders who sailed the Western waters in their snekkjur, originally applied to the function of raiding and trading, not to the people. (The etymology of the term is still uncertain: vîkingr, pirate; vîk, bay; vising, mariner.) Viking exploits constituted an honorable sport in Scandinavian society: on long winter evenings the skalds would transpose a Viking's narrative into poetic language. Usually it was the young men who undertook the adventurous summer voyages for raiding and trading across Europe, hoping to make their fortune. Often outlaws in exile discovered the outlying lands across the Atlantic—the Orkneys, Hebrides, Faroes and Shetlands, stepping stones to Iceland; and Greenland and Vinland, modern America. These were in turn settled by colonists, often Norwegian in origin, who brought with them their wives, children and livestock. Indeed, women could and did lead these voyages of settlement. Both Danes and Norwegians colonized Ireland, founding the first cities and kingdoms on that island. The Danes welded together the islands of the Sound, Jutland, and Skåne; the expansion of this state would propel the Danes in the ninth century to move into East Anglia and Northumbria in Britain, and into Frisia, Brittany and the river basins of the Frankish coastline.
To the east—on the Baltic and on the Volga and Dnieper Rivers—the Scandinavian invaders were known under the name of Varangians or Rus (probably from the Russian warjag, tradesman; war, merchandise; vârar, pledge, oath; ruotsi, a Finnish word for men from the north; rousios, a Greek word for ruddy-complected, similar to the Latin word rufus, and to that same word in English meaning ruddy). There, organized in merchant companies, they set up trading posts on the Baltic coastline and colonized the area around Lake Ladoga. From there they moved down the rivers, heading for the great city of Constantinople. Although the Vikings raided the relatively richer West, they used the undeveloped Slavic lands as a stepping stone to the richer Byzantine and Islamic markets in the East, which were too strong to be raided and thus subjects of trade.
At the beginning of the ninth century, Göttrick, king of Denmark, compelled the local merchants to relinquish the market of Reric on the Baltic to the town of Hedeby (Schleswig) in Jutland, thus establishing the Viking Age. Around the same time, the Varangians reestablished a junction between the Baltic and the Caspian Seas, a step toward their goal of a direct route to Baghdad. The first Varangian route, that of the Volga, united the Baltic seacoast, which was occupied by the Finnish tribe of the Kurs, with the shores of the Caspian Sea, then peopled by hostile tribes. But the Danes and the Swedes continued to search for a shorter route back to the West, success crowning the undertaking of Swedish King Olaf between 854 and 860, when the "great route of the Varangians to the Greeks' was opened, first by way of the Neman and the Dnieper rivers, and then by way of the Dvina and the Dnieper rivers. The Varangian chief Askold attacked the Khazars, seized Sembat, established the state of Kiev, and launched an assault on Constantinople (860). This Varangian advance into the Ukraine sometime between the departure of the avars and the invasion of the Patzinaks resulted in the treaty of 874, which authorized the new commercial route opening on the Black Sea. Thus the route served as a hinge in a vast trading network joining the West, by way of the Rhine and the middle Danube, to Samarkand and the Middle East. In spite of the agreements of Emperor louis the german with the Danish princes and with Byzantine Emperor Basil I, however, any benefit Western Europe derived from this route was ephemeral.
Friction between the Vikings and Western Europe began with the Frankish penetration into Frisia, Saxony, and Nordalbinga (Ditmarsh). Yet it was only c. 840—the end of the Carolingian ascendancy and contemporary to the reigns of Kings Offa of Mercia (d. 896) and Egbert of Wessex (d. 839)—that the massive Viking raids of England and the Continent began. Satisfied at first with booty and tribute, the Vikings aspired to conquer and settle after 875. The "grand army" successively attacked Britain's East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, laying the foundations of the Danelaw; the resistance of the kings of Wessex, Ethelred I and alfred the great, and the victory at Edington over Guthrum near the Danish camp at Chippenham set the southern boundary of Danish settlement along Watling Street. Repeatedly reinforced with fresh troops from Scandinavia, the remainder of the "grand army" moved on to attack western France between the Seine and Meuse rivers; the Viking capture of prosperous Rouen (885), on the Seine, opened the route to Paris. This key city was defended by Bishop Gozelin and Odo, count of Paris, and in 886 the Frankish King Charles the Fat bribed the Vikings to retreat. But at the dawn of the tenth century, a strong detachment of Northmanni settled on the lower Seine and threatened the Frankish kingdom more than ever, since efforts to Christianize the Scandinavians in the West had so far ended in failure. The mission of ansgar in Denmark, inaugurated in 823, retreated to Frisia; the missionary archbishop of Hamburg was sacked (845); the baptism of Guthrum in England brought no subsequent Christian baptisms. Only the state of Kiev was receptive to Christianity.
Northman States. The extraordinary dynamism of the Northmen generated new political states, some unstable, but others destined to play a major role in the medieval world. As for Kiev, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian historians are retreating from Soviet insistence on theories of a Slavic origin and tending to acknowledge a Nordic origin to that city-state, which incorporated Slavic societies. Other Varangian states were founded on the banks of the Sea of Azov as tributaries of the Khazars, and on the shores of Lake Ladoga (Aldjborg), which were eventually subjugated by Kiev. Under Varangian influence, the word "Russian" soon came to mean a people, a state, a Christian rite, and a civilization essentially Slavic. A second Nordic state, Novgorod, developed into a Russian kingdom as well.
Norwegian expansion westward, undertaken as it was by small groups of explorers followed by warriors, remained somewhat anarchical, with the exception of a few settlements in bay areas. A viable and functioning comital government was set up in the Orkney Islands, at the northern tip of Scotland, whose independence was at times compromised by alliances with the petty Scots kings to the South and by submission to the newly forming Christian monarchy of Norway. To this day, the Orkney Islanders remain fiercely independent and firmly Scandinavian. Numerous small petty comital governments grew up on the Western Isles along the west coast of Scotland, including the Isle of Man, and these two alternated alliances with Norway, petty Scots chieftains, and kings of Norway. In Ireland, the invading Danes formed trading posts first, then petty kingdoms, which were then rivaled by petty Norse-Irish kingdoms. These foundations grew into the first cities of Ireland—Dublin, Cork, Waterford, and Limerick. They served as catalysts to the Irish kinglets to unify and drive out the Vikings— but not until many had mingled their genes with the natives. After the Battle of Clontaf (1014), Ireland remained largely Celtic. The English conquered it in 1171.
The Northwestern searoute led some audacious navigators first toward Iceland (c. 870), which became the refuge for outlaws, whose clans and genealogy were recorded in the Landnâmabôk (late twelfth century), and then toward Greenland (settled 985), not yet occupied by the Inuit. The settlement of Iceland was completed by c. 930, when all the arable land was taken. The settlers imported the Gulathing Law from Norway, revised it, and set up the first democracy in Europe, presided over by an elected Lawspeaker, who served for three years and recited one third of the law each year. The Legislature, Allthing or Lögrétta, composed of Godar (chieftain-priests), made the laws, while each of the four Quarter Courts performed the judicial functions with juries of 12 men. The Fifth Court acted as a court of appeal. This government functions to this day. In 1000, the Allthing voted to make Christianity the official religion of Iceland, with the proviso that Icelanders could practice paganism in private. Iceland thereby acquired the technology of writing, which inspired the great Icelandic saga literature of the thirteenth century. From Iceland, Eirik the Red discovered and settled Greenland, from which his son Leif Eirikson launched his settlement of Vinland in 1000—the first European settlement in America, discovered in 1965 and excavated by Helge Ingstad at L'Ans-aux-Meadows, Labrador. Leif's sister Freydis Eiriksdottir also led an expedition intended to settle the new land of Vinland, and she located and stayed in the houses her brother had built, but like her brother she was driven off by Skraelings— screamers, or Native Americans. But Greenlanders, Icelanders, and Norwegians returned to Vinland to fish the rich cod banks until about 1350, when the settlement in Greenland disappeared. But mentions of Iceland and Vinland appear as late as 1200 in the German and papal records.
Meanwhile, King Harald II Bluetooth unified Skåne, the straits, Jutland, and a part of Norway to form the kingdom Denmark, and he attempted to force Christianity on his subjects. Likewise, King Harald Fairhair unified Norway and converted his subjects, while King Olaf the Fat (later known as St. Olaf) converted and unified Sweden. Olaf became the first Norse saint upon his death at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. The Danelaw—a name covering the Nordic settlement in England—reflects Danish sovereignty in its organization, both military and political, but at the same time it incorporates a sui generis society, on whose original features scholars do not agree. It stretched from Northumbria southward almost to the Thames, and its heart was the Kingdom of York in the north, briefly unified with the Kingdom of Dublin during the height of Viking hegemony in England. This intermixing of Vikings was typical; from Dublin to York to Rouen and Novgorod, there was a never-ceasing inter-change of warriors and merchants. In a world ready for expansion, Denmark and later Normandy were the catalysts. Thus it was Hrolf the Ganger (Rollo), son of Ragnald jarl of Möre, a Danish subject of Norwegian blood, who settled at the mouth of the Seine c. 906. The treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte (911), between Frankish King Charles the Simple and Rollo, made the lower Seine a region of Nordic colonization by its surrender to the Viking band. Neustria eventually became Normandy, but only after a century of growth spreading outward from the original grant of the city of Rouen to Hrolf-Rollo and his men. The agreement required Rollo's conversion to Christianity, and gave him King Charles' daughter in marriage. By the eleventh century Normandy comprised the seven cities of Rouen, Bayeux, Evreux, Lisieux, Sées, Coutances, and Avranches—several of which were Norman foundations.
The unity of the anglo-saxons, reestablished under the royal line of Wessex, was endangered in the period beginning in 990 by the raids of Olaf I Tryggvessǿn and Sweyn I Forkbeard of Denmark. In 1016 all of England fell to Sweyn's son, King Canut of England and Denmark. Until his death in 1035, this Viking thus became the head of a land, of which England was the political, economic, cultural, and religious center. Canut converted to Christianity and became a king in the English tradition. He sent his wife Alfgifu to Norway with their son, Harald Harefoot, and married Emma of Normandy, wife of Aethelred Unraed, England's previous king, with an agreement that their sons would inherit England. To show his piety, Canut made a pilgrimage to Rome, c. 1025, and he made every effort to support the Church in England. His son Harold Harefoot succeeded him, only to die shortly after ascending the throne. His son by Emma, Hardacanute, then became king, but he also soon died. The Danish Earl Godwin supported Queen Emma in bringing her son by Aethelred, Edward the Confessor, to the throne. Edward married Godwin's daughter Edith, but they were childless, and his cousin William of Normandy, descendent of Rollo, eventually won England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Christianization of Scandinavia. The conversion of Scandinavia was launched from several directions. The bishopric of Hamburg-Bremen sent numerous missionaries to Sweden and Norway, many of which were strenuously resisted. But Adam of Bremen gives persuasive accounts of these efforts and descriptions of the pagan religion. Viking settlement of England led many missionaries from England to travel to Norway and Denmark, especially in Canut's reign. But the conversion of all three countries was firmly linked to royal ambitions and kingdom-building by King Harald II Bluetooth of Denmark, Harold Fairhair of Norway, and St. Olaf of Sweden. Each of these kings saw the advantages of theories of Christian kingship, and they sought to construct kingdoms on the European model, as opposed to the Viking custom of small, territorial kinglets ruling limited areas. Conversion of Iceland was a practical matter: the Allthing voted to convert, probably to obtain the benefits of literacy and a European connection to offset the ambitions of King Harald Fairhair's successors to sweep Iceland into their own subjection (which one eventually did). In Normandy, the only Continental colony the Vikings successfully established, conversion took at least a century and was aided by immigrant churchmen from Italy. lanfranc and anselm, in connection with the reform papacy, reconstructed the Norman church. In Kiev and Novgorod, the Rus allied themselves with the Byzantines and converted to Orthodox Christianity. The prime decision was made by Prince Vladimir in 988, but his mother Olga, a Christian, may well have been instrumental in persuading him. Moreover, his conversion won him an imperial bride and significant trading privileges with Constantinople. But he insisted on adopting the Slavic language, not Greek, for the Russian church. And the Russian Primary Chronicle reports that he took away the children of the nobility and placed them in the schools he set up, so that literacy may also have been one of his motives for conversion. Even in their religion, the Vikings were a practical people.
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[p. d. watkins]