The Vikings are often thought of as warrior peoples who stormed the whole of Europe from the 8th to 11th century. In fact, the Vikings were also raiders and farmers.
The coming of the Vikings
The Vikings were originally Germanic tribes who gradually moved northwards into Scandinavia over 2000 years ago. The name 'Viking' comes from a word in the Old Norse language meaning sea raiding.
At that time, most of the Viking homelands, present-day Denmark, Norway and Sweden, were mainly woodlands or harsh landscapes. The Vikings had no lands for farming. As a result, the sea was taken by them as one way to make a living and to search for treasures, wealth and new farming land.
From the late 8th century to the 11th century, the Vikings invaded and colonised the whole of Europe.
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The invasion by the Vikings of Europe and the world
As traders, the Vikings aimed to develop new trading markets in Eastern Europe and Asia. They also understood winds, currents and tides better than any other seafarers in Europe at that time. By 780 AD, after the Vikings were able to make longships, they started raiding other lands.
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Invasion of Britain
The Vikings attacked the British Isles including the Orkneys, Shetlands and the Isle of Man. From 800 AD to 846 AD the Vikings also invaded the coast and rivers of Germany, the Netherlands and France.
Invasion of Spain
In 1844, the Vikings travelled to Spain where they were defeated by the Arabs. They also sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, reaching Iceland in the year 930 AD, Greenland in 985AD and even North America in 986AD.
Invasion of Russia
The Vikings also founded states in Russia and Ukraine in 860AD and travelled along eastern Europe. They also stopped at Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) where they were employed as the emperor's bodyguard..
Vikings called themselves karls, meaning a person who owned land, a farm and at the same time went to the sea to trade, to raid and to adventure. These karls used slaves for manual labour on farms and in workshops. The Vikings also bought and sold slaves. They called their slaves thralls.
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The most powerful Vikings were those who possessed large areas of countryside. They were called jarls or local kings. As these kings conquered new countries, they became more powerful. In 900 AD, for example, Harald Finehair, King of Vestfold, took all of Norway under his control.
When the Vikings reached a new land, they often attacked easy targets, such as villages, monasteries or other ships. Then they took away all the objects they considered valuable such as cattle, grain, women, slaves, chests of money and even church bells. The Vikings attacked the cities in the richest countries in Europe and forced the kings in these countries to submit money. From time to time, they returned to countries they had previously raided to demand more money and land for settlement. King Charles the Bald of France was forced to pay the Viking leader Ragnar Hairy-Breeches about three tonnes of silver to leave.
Most Viking solders were originally farmers. Whenever there was a call from the king to fight a war or explore new lands, they became warriors. Some Vikings became mercenaries, people who were employed as full-time soldiers. Viking soldiers fought very hard because they considered it glorious to die on the battlefield.
At the same time, the Vikings were also successful merchants. At first they just traded in their homelands such as Hedeby in Denmark, Birka in Sweden and Kaupang in Norway. Later on, as their colonies expanded, the Vikings had more new lands to establish broader trading routes. In 860AD, Swedish Vikings opened up new routes through the lands of the Slavs. They sailed down rivers such as the Volga, Volkhov and Dniepr. After trading with them, the cities of Holmgard (Novgorod) and Könugard (Kiev) became powerful states. Russia also became a state from that time.
The Vikings in early colonies were independent and proud people. Denmark had been ruled by only one king. During the whole Viking Age, Iceland remained an independent republic. Some Viking colonies tried to gain as much independence as possible as they did not want to be ruled by a king from far away.
Influence of Christianity on Viking society
At the beginning of 800AD, the Vikings were still not Christian. They despised Christian monks and even murdered priests or sold them into slavery when they invaded a new land.
It was for practical reason that the Vikings became Christian. They needed to understand the beliefs of the merchants in western Europe in order to trade with them and to hire themselves as soldiers for Christian armies. As most western Europeans were already Christian at that time, the Vikings also adopted Christian beliefs.
In the beginning, Christian missionaries were sent from Germany and the British Isles to Scandinavia. For the Vikings who lived in the Ukraine and Russia, they met monks from Constantinople. In 960 AD, King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark became Christian. In 995AD, Olaf Tryggvason, a Christian king, came to throne of Norway. Sweden was the last Viking colony to become Christian.
By 1100AD the Vikings had become Christian. They became more settled and made fewer voyages.