A Few of Our Biographies:
This article is dedicated to the memory of H.M.I. Larsen
The ships hit the beach. The men began roaring like bears. Brandishing swords and axes, they leaped onto the sand, ran toward the stone walls, clambered over, and entered the annals of history.
The date was June 8, 793 CE. The Viking Age had begun.
The attack occurred at a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne on England's east coast. Some of the monks fell to their knees to plead for mercy; others hid. The raiders herded prisoners together as a first step toward enslavement, and, notes a chronicler, "slew folk."
The holy brothers never imagined that God would judge them in this manner, nor that men would be tempted to thievery by gold and silver crucifixes, statues, vessels, and coins. Robbery? From the meek and devout local residents? Impossible.
The invaders grabbed what they wanted and departed. The survivors prayed for deliverance from further assaults.
The monks were not going to get help from the government. Very little government existed. Several centuries earlier, the Roman Empire collapsed in the west, and since then, England and Western Europe had sputtered along feebly. And now, Scandinavian warriors were on the loose.
Starting in the late 700s and continuing for more than 250 years, the Vikings carved a presence that stretched from the market towns of the Ukraine to the pastures of Greenland, briefly visiting North America. (The attack at Lindisfarne was not their first foray outside their homelands, but it was the most significant assault in the early years of their era.)
On this map of the North Atlantic (above), the routes of Norwegian Vikings are shown in white, Danes in yellow, Swedes in red. Below, yellow boxes show dates of initial Viking arrivals.
The capacity of the Vikings for inflicting pain must be borne in mind at every turn. In a cruel age they were masters of the art. They killed many a soul unfortunate enough to cross into their purview, they raped, and they enslaved - historian Nell Irvin Painter calls them "preeminent slavers." (That said, their nastiness has been exaggerated over the years).
The dark fact of Viking violence can be accompanied by another – in a frightened age, they were bold.
Their disposition, writes scholar Kevin Crossley-Holland, was "adventurous and aggressive and scornful of death." They sailed the Atlantic in unprecedented voyages, reaching North America (see Leif Eriksson sidebar). They established or expanded many towns, including Dublin, Kiev, and York. In northwest France they built what would become the most powerful fiefdom in Europe; their descendants, the Normans, conquered Britain in 1066.
The Vikings stimulated commerce. They pioneered the maritime unity of Europe, a key fact of medieval life. Norse women were far more spirited and independent that their sisters in Christendom and Islam. Norse mythology ranks with that of the Greeks for enduring interest and readability, especially in the hands of a gifted contemporary skald - a "court poet" or "warrior poet" - such as Crossley-Holland.
Viking art - wood carvings, picture stones, jewelry, and tapestries - is imbued with beauty, energy, and wit. The Vikings encouraged free debate of the issues of the day (at least, among Vikings); Northern Europe's first democracy was established by Viking settlers in Iceland. Icelanders, in turn, composed the Norse Sagas - tales of voyages, feuds, and heroic deeds, focusing on human beings rather than the gods of the myths - one of the most compelling literatures of the medieval period. Iceland, with a tiny population (for many centuries it held less than 100,000 people) has produced one of the world's great literatures, up to the present day, as exemplified by the 20th century novelist Halldor Laxness.
At the heart of Viking culture were their ships, perhaps the most elegant combinations of function and form to appear in Europe in the 1,000 years between the Roman aqueducts and the designs of Leonardo da Vinci. Sometime around 750 CE, Norse shipwrights, expanding on centuries of experimentation by their forebears and on ideas newly arrived from the Mediterranean, created the first vessels in history that could safely leave the coastlines and plunge far into the open uncharted ocean. The Vikings were now more mobile than any other people. They announced themselves to Europe with small-scale trade; armed raids soon followed.
The emergence of the Vikings in the late 700s was a folk movement, a Teutonic migration - one of many such journeys in the first millennium CE by northern European Germanic tribes seeking better lives. For example, in the late 400s, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians sailed west across the English Channel and descended violently upon the green and lovely isles, which were inhabited by Celtic groups. If King Arthur existed (he’s glimpsed very dimly through the mists of time) he was probably a Celtic Briton who defeated an Anglo-Saxon alliance in about 500 CE.
The Vikings came from from the clans and infant kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, propelled outward by irresistible forces, identified by historian Gwyn Jones: "land shortage, pressure of population, restlessness, ambition or emulation, prospects of trade and hope of easy pickings." A key factor: Scandinavia teemed with younger sons who could not expect to receive good stuff from their father’s patrimony, earmarked, as it was, for the oldest boy. The Norsemen represented the unleashing of a whole new batch of energy upon the world – second, third, and fourth sons armed with axes and shopping lists.
Norse raiders wanted plunder in the form of precious metals (they were also willing to trade for such metals when necessary). They wanted land (they loved the soil and its fruits). They wanted women. They wanted slaves for their estates and for trading to Arab dealers. They wanted Byzantine silk. They wanted access to markets for their furs, ivory, and amber. They wanted to rule over kingdoms and fiefdoms, because all the kingdoms and fiefdoms back home were taken. And, as much as anything, they wanted fame. Erik Bloodaxe, Harald the Ruthless, Bjorn Ironside and others wanted people to speak their names a thousand years hence.
They ranged widely in their dragonships to satisfy their desires. (They settled in large numbers only in northern England and northwest France.) They sailed deep into Russia via the river systems. They swept into the Mediterranean; an Arab who saw them there wrote, "Never had I seen a people of more perfect physique. Tall as date-palms, and reddish in color." Their presence in the British Isles is reflected in the hundreds of Norse words in the English language, including law, sky, happy, angry, ugly, and bread.
In the year 885, a group of Vikings blithely sailed up the River Seine and beseiged Paris. The local ruler, Charles the Fat, promised them 700 pounds of silver if they would go away, mentioning that they could, if they desired, sack Burgundy. Seven hundred pounds of silver changed hands – one can imagine the boisterous loading process, with each bag causing the designated ship to sink a bit lower in the water - and Burgundy was duly sacked.
In the early 900s a Viking army seized northwest France at the mouth of the Seine. The warriors married local women, and within a century the region became "the most enterprising and adventurous province in France," writes historian Will Durant. In 1066, descendants of the Northmen, known as the Normans, won England under the banner of William the Conqueror.
Around that time, the middle of the 11th century, Viking raids began to peter out. Several factors affected this change, including the influence of Christianity in Scandinavia, a shortage of manpower, stouter defense against the assaults, a lack of new places to plunder, and a funneling of Viking energies toward legal trade.
What did it all mean, in the long run of history?
Scholars studying the Vikings have often dwelt on the violence. In recent years, some historians have accepted a revisionist view: Yes, Norse devastations were serious - deadly serious for every person they killed or hurt - but other predators wrought equal or worse damage (see sidebar). According to this revisionist view, the positive contributions of the Vikings deserve significant attention - market towns, literature, a sense of freedom, etc.
As journalist and historian J. Brent Norlem writes, "When they first arrived in the decidedly foul dump they named Jorvik (York, England), it was merely a cluster of near-Stone-Age huts, livestock running loose all over the place (walking about was hazardous). The Vikings laid out straight streets, built pens for the livestock, and established a sewage system, among other improvements. Of course, the natives thought them quite strange, as they combed their hair (sometimes several times a day) and bathed regularly."
The revisionist view, in turn, has been criticized from various quarters. The debate goes on about how to assess the men and women of the north. New answers, or at least new data, will likely be found in fresh archaeological digs.
A central fact is beyond dispute. The Vikings were the first people to brave the open ocean. This, says scholar Kenneth Clark, contributed to something vital in the West: "the spirit of Columbus." The Vikings helped create the quest for the new, the compelling, the better, that resides at the heart of Western Civilization.
Leif Eriksson stacked his gold coins on the table.
Bjarni Herjolfsson, the grizzled sea dog sitting opposite, counted the money and said, "Done."
The two men lifted a cup of mead to seal the deal. Leif had bought himself a ship and was poised to embark westward. The year was 1000 CE, give or take a few decades.
Some 15 years earlier, Bjarni had been thrown off course with his crew in the North Atlantic while sailing from Iceland to Greenland. They traveled blind for days in a chilly fog, with no guidance from the sun or stars, utterly lost, perhaps offering prayers to Njord, guardian of seafarers. By and by they sighted a forested land with low hills – the northeastern tip of North America. Bjarni squinted at the land from his position astern, announced that this wasn’t his intended destination, and said he would not put ashore. He turned his prow in the opposite direction, and in four days found Greenland. For years thereafter, he endured pointed remarks from his friends and kinfolk about his lack of curiosity.
Leif Eriksson was intrigued by the story of territory to the west and decided to try for it. He was a big, strapping, handsome and thoughtful man, born in Iceland, bred to the sea, part of an intrepid family – his father, Erik the Red, a native of Norway, was the first Viking to intensively explore Greenland.
Perhaps Leif bought Bjarni's ship in the superstitious belief that "ships know the way back." On a summer day, he and his crew set sail from western Greenland, bound for parts unknown. His voyage west across Davis Strait may have required only a few days, and possibly was relatively easy, except that no journey on the ocean in a small open ship is easy, without charts or compass, where no one has ever gone before. As the plaque said on President Kennedy’s desk, "Oh God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small."
Many historians now agree that Leif the Lucky reached northeast Canada and strode up on a beach, becoming the first European to set foot in the New World.
(One version of the story says it was Leif who was blown off course to North America, not Bjarni. However, many of the best current histories accept that Bjarni made the first sighting and Leif followed.)
Leif and his crew sailed south along the coast and landed at a place they named Vinland – "wine land" – where grapes and wheat grew wild. This may have been southern New England. Wintering there, they returned to Greenland in the spring.
In the 1960s archaeologists began excavating a site in Newfoundland called L’Anse-aux-Meadows (pronounced "lons-oh-meadows"). Their discoveries confirm the presence of a Viking colony there. But was this the Vinland described by Leif Eriksson? Was it perhaps a gateway to other locales for the Vikings? How far south, and west, did these bold travelers range? Intelligent arguments have been offered for Viking expeditions to present-day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Rhode Island, Maryland, Georgia, and Florida. (However, the Kensington Runestone in Minnesota was discredited long ago.) The truth awaits archaeological discovery by some new lucky explorers.
The 1958 film "The Vikings" starring Kirk Douglas begins with an introduction spoken by Orson Welles that's half true and half stupid. Here's the text:
"The Vikings, in Europe of the eighth and ninth century, were dedicated to a pagan god of war, Odin. Cramped by the confines of their barren icebound northlands they exploited their skill as shipbuilders to spread a reign of terror then unequalled in violence and brutality in all the records of history. The greatest wish of every Viking was to die sword in hand, and enter Valhalla, where a hero's welcome awaited them from the god Odin. The compass was unknown, and they could steer only by the sun and the stars. Once fog closed in, they were left helpless and blind. After all, the earth was flat; sail too far off course, and the black wind would blow them across the poison sea that lay to the west, and over the edge of the world, into limbo. Their abiding aim was to conquer England - then a series of petty kingdoms, each one the jealous rival of the next. Thus, when the Vikings set forth to rob and plunder England, they never sailed out of sight of land: they confined their attacks to swift overnight raids. It was no accident that the English Book of Prayer contained this sentence: 'Protect us, oh Lord, from the wrath of the Northmen.'"
The Vikings certainly didn't institute "a reign of terror then unequaled in violence and brutality in all the records of history." First of all, "reign" is a problematic word. The Vikings didn't reign in all that many places; in those places where they did reign, they conducted themselves relatively peaceably after initial attacks (for example, in Britain and Normandy). Also, they tended to get absorbed fairly quickly into native populations.
The phrase "unequaled in history" is plain silly. Not equaled, or far exceeded, by the ancient Assyrians, who are sometimes cited as the first practitioners of genocide? The Scythians, who plundered Persia? The Celts, of whom the historian Strabo writes, "The whole race is war-mad"? The Spartans, who devoted their entire culture to war? Alexander the Great, who was murderously cruel not only to his enemies but to certain of his friends? The Romans, whose society was built "entirely on warfare," notes Bruno Heller, executive producer of the TV series "Rome"? The Sarmatians? The Huns of Attila? The warriors of Islam, who expanded their domain by way of ruthless conquest starting in the 600s? The Avars and Magyars, who cut a wide swath through central and western Europe? Not to mention Chingis Khan, who wrought astounding slaughter and pillage a few years after the Viking Age.
The movie introduction declares that the "abiding aim" of the Vikings was to "conquer England." In fact, different Viking groups had different aims; the Vikings of Sweden had almost no interest in the British Isles, targeting Russia instead.