The Viking Raids, A.D. 800-1150

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The Viking Raids, a.d. 800-1150


The Vikings, or Norsemen, of Scandinavia, were the dominant sea power in Europe from about a.d. 800 to 1150, exploring the coastlines of Europe, the British Isles, and North Africa. Their technologically advanced longships, skilled seamanship, and military-like raiding parties exerted Viking influence from Russia to Greenland, and established peripheral contact with the Byzantine Empire and the shores of North America. The presence of Norse raiders had a profound impact on medieval Europe. Trade routes established by the Vikings promoted the flow of coins, sliver, and limited goods from the Middle East to Northern Europe. Norse settlements changed the political map of the Middle Ages, not only by expanding its physical bounds, but by encouraging the rise of strong local leaders and armies to defend populations from Viking marauders. The Norse established direct rule in some places, and simply plundered other locations. Regardless of the permanence of Viking rule, many historians of the period credit the Viking raids as the impetus for nation building in Europe, and note the proliferation of Norse law in the earliest codes of some modern European nations.


No one reason can be identified as the primary catalyst for the beginning of the Viking raids. Historians have proposed numerous hypotheses—from domestic unrest in Scandinavia to overpopulation. Though the events of Scandinavian exploration, trade, and military expansion are collectively referred to as the Viking Invasion, or raids, the various Nordic groups actually developed different regions of interest. The Danes concentrated their efforts southward in England, France, and Frisia (present-day Netherlands). The Swedes were primarily interested in the eastern Baltic region, Russia, and trade relations with the Near East. The other major group, the Norwegians, sailed in the North Atlantic to the northern British Isles.

Western Europe certainly bore the brunt of the Viking Invasion, perhaps no peoples more than those of the British Isles. The first Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that Norseman had made small raids in northern England beginning in 750. By 793, the raids had escalated and the Vikings attacked and burned the great Irish monastery at Lindisfarne, perhaps the first great ecclesiastical center of the British Isles. The Vikings cemented their presence in the region when they founded the city of Dublin and fanned out in smaller settlements throughout Ireland and Wales. These early raids were followed in the ninth century by a more forceful Danish invasion. The persistent threats by Viking rulers over the course of the next century facilitated the unification of the various kingdoms in England into one nation. However, the Norse continued to have influence in England, occasionally through direct control of the Anglo-Saxon throne. Canute the Great, a Dane, ruled England in the eleventh century, and had a profound effect upon government and legal institutions.

The Norsemen, however, did not begin their famous raids in the west. Rather, the Viking search for trade goods and precious metals began with a series of raids in the region surrounding the Baltic Sea and on the various Slavic peoples in present-day Russia and Ukraine. During the eighth century, the Norsemen, predominantly Swedes and Danes, pushed east and south along major rivers toward the Black Sea. Along these routes, they established trade networks with the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire. This eastern trade route was one of the major sources of silver for the Vikings. In the ninth century, Turkish peoples (most likely Petchnegs and Bulgars) began migrating into the region, perhaps disrupting the stability of the Norse trade routes. Other histories claim that the invading Vikings demanded tribute from the Slavs who later drove the Norsemen out of the region. The diminishing success of these late-tenth century trade routes through Russia created the impetus for the Vikings to concentrate on other sources of wealth.

The end of Viking raids was the result of several factors. The domestic politics of the Scandinavian countries had stabilized to the point that the constant raids waged by various leaders to gain wealth, tribute, and men-at-arms were no longer as necessary. As in other areas of Europe, the outlines of modern nations emerged in Scandinavia during this era. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway were all united under separate monarchies. Viking colonization of islands in the North Sea and North Atlantic also declined as the colonies themselves either became more self-sufficient or were assumed into other nations. Lastly, by a.d. 1000, the Vikings had converted to Christianity, and began to normalize their relations with the other Christian nations of western Europe. The trade systems that were established during even the earliest decades of the Viking raids remained in use—disrupted only by the Crusades.


At the forefront of Viking technological innovation was the longship. The curved and highly decorated prow designs, and long, slender bodies of the boats became the aesthetic signature of Viking warships. However, the combination and modification of several marine technologies in the engineering of the Norse warship is what facilitated the Viking dominance of the sea and Northern Europe for nearly three centuries. The Viking shipbuilders expanded upon classic designs of rowboats by elongating the body, adding more rowers, and narrowing the girth of the ship. Historians believe that the Vikings added sail power to the craft by the late eighth century, however the earliest archaeological evidence of a mast on a Viking longship dates to around 810. The use of combination sail and row-powered small craft allowed for versatile navigation along coastlines, and shallow draft permitted easy landing. Military craft usually were longer, with more room for oarsmen, while commercial craft were smaller and had fewer oarsmen and a square-rigged sail. Though the Norsemen made substantial innovations to maritime craft in northern Europe, their feats of navigation and exploration are nonetheless amazing. The longships were largely open boats—only scant evidence suggests some sort of material cover—and the mariners and raiding parties traversed great distances with no navigational aid other than the various coastlines.

Longshipmen were also equipped for the more military aspects of the Viking raiding party, and were efficient warriors. The Vikings made use of weaponry that was largely similar to that of the rest of Western Europe. They were renowned for being ferocious and skilled warriors, but the greatest tactical advantage of the Vikings was the element of surprise that their fleets were able to employ in their raids. Some communities endured not one but tens of different raids during the 300 years of Viking dominance.

The notion that the Vikings were solely battle-hungry, ruthless, plunderers is mistaken. The introduction of Viking wealth, namely coin hordes, into western Europe redefined currency and political power. The Vikings were also a great source of cultural diffusion in the early medieval period. The Norsemen had very evolved myths and cosmologies, many of which were later chronicled in the twelfth century. Viking, mostly Danish, ideas of property ownership and legal structures were introduced into other societies, especially Anglo-Saxon England. Linguistic traces of old Norse dialects are found from Greenland to Wales.

There are few historical records of the Vikings and their accomplishments. Most of the narrative works and rune stones (carved stones with ancient Norse writing) that tell of the Viking raids date to several generations after the events took place. The most direct evidence scholars have of the extent of Norse influence in Europe and the technological advancements of their society comes from archaeological research that has been conducted over the past century. The most famous Viking sites are ship burials (the interment of important persons and their possessions in longships) and coin hordes (large deposits of silver coinage buried for safe keeping). Ship burials provide insight into the daily material culture of the upper echelon of Norse society and their burial ritual. Coin hordes, some containing silver currency from Byzantium and Arabia (the easternmost ends of the Viking trade routes), make it possible to evaluate the extent and vigor of the Viking trade routes and raids of conquest. These sites, as well as a newer interest in the excavation of Viking settlements and colonial outposts, have yielded the majority of our current accepted knowledge of the Norsemen in the early Middle Ages.

Not all historical and archaeological knowledge of the Viking raids, and the role of the Vikings in the shaping of Europe, is without a history of dispute. Viking antiquities and remains were some of the earliest sites to be explored in northern Europe using modern archaeological techniques in the nineteenth century. As the number of discovered Viking sites grew across Europe, the then-prominent theories of the evolution of the modern European states were challenged. Scholars in some countries were reluctant to accept the notion of a former Viking presence. These debates were short-lived for the most part. However, in Russia, for a variety of ideological reasons, the archaeological evidence and historical theories of Viking dominance of trade routes through Russia challenged the notion of Russian Slavic nationalism (the idea that Russia was created by the grouping together of various Slavic peoples, without coercion or help from others) and were hotly disputed. Only in the past 25 years has the role of Viking raids in Russian and Ukrainian history been more closely examined. The legacy of the Vikings even provides challenges for North American (pre-) history. Archaeological discoveries of temporary Norse settlements in Newfoundland in the 1970s called into question the widely accepted theory that Europeans did not have contact with North America until the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus.


Further Reading

Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984

Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.