Who were the Vikings?
The Vikings were the people who lived from the 8th century to the 11th century in Scandinavia. They came from what today is Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. During the Viking age, they sailed around most of Europe, raiding, trading and spreading their influence.
Raiding, trading and searching for new and fertile land to settle on was probably the three most important reasons they had before they decided to jump into one of their longships and set sail.
The Vikings loved to sail and explore so much, that they would eventually discover new lands such as the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. They would, in fact, even sail so far west as to the coast of Canada, and what today is known as Newfoundland.
When the Vikings were not sailing around and searching for new and fertile land, they loved to trade. And the Vikings traded with all sorts of things on their expeditions, such as jewelry, tools, and fur. But it was probably slaves that were one of their best-selling goods.
What language did the Vikings speak?
The Vikings did not speak Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish, they spoke a language which is called Old Norse (In Danish: oldnordisk). And because the Vikings loved to travel and met new people, their language slowly spread into other societies. In fact, Old Norse was one of the most spoken languages across Europe in the 10 century. The language could be heard from Vinland in North America to Volga in Russia.
Old Norse had a major influence on other languages as well, and languages such as English and Russian still has words that originate from the Viking language. However, there was, of course, different dialects, the Danes and the Swedes spoke Old East Norse, and the Norwegians spoke Old West Norse.
Today nobody in Scandinavia speaks Old Norse, each country have their own language. However, most people can understand each other, for instance, a Dane can understand Norwegian, and a Norwegian can understand Swedish.
The Icelandic language is the closest of the Scandinavia languages to Old Norse, and that is probably because they have been so isolated in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. So if a Viking somehow time-travels into our time, it will probably only be the Icelandic people, who would be able to understand what he or she says.
How did the Vikings write?
Unlike most of the other countries in western Europe who used the latin alphabet, the Vikings had their own alphabet that consisted of runic letters, called younger futhark. Which is something we know, because there has been found many runestones throughout Scandinavia from this time-period. The inscriptions on these runestones are all in runic. These ancient inscriptions describes everything from honoring the ancestors to bragging about personal achievements.
What did the Vikings believe in?
At this time in history, Christianity was rapidly spreading throughout western Europe by the edge of a sword, however, it had not quite made its way to Scandinavia. The Vikings were still heathens and they had their own religion. Unfortunately, we do not know what they called their religion or if it even had a name at all.
The Vikings believed in many Gods and Goddesses, something that is called polytheism, and you might have heard the names of some of their Gods before. There is, for instance, Odin who is the all-father and the chief of the Aesir. Thor who is the God of thunder, and Freyja who is the Goddess of fertility.
The Viking faith would not last, and the Vikings would slowly convert into Christianity, from around the 10th century. Which is something that can be read on the Jelling stone, that was raised by the King of Denmark, Harald Bluetooth (In Danish: Harald Blåtand).
The inscription on the Jelling stone reads as follows:
“King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyra, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian”.
In Younger Futhark (Old Norse):
ᚼᛅᚱᛅᛚᛏᚱ ᛬ ᚴᚢᚾᚢᚴᛦ ᛬ ᛒᛅᚦ ᛬ ᚴᛅᚢᚱᚢᛅ ᚴᚢᛒᛚ ᛬ ᚦᛅᚢᛋᛁ ᛬ ᛅᚠᛏ ᛬ ᚴᚢᚱᛘ ᚠᛅᚦᚢᚱ ᛋᛁᚾ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛅᚠᛏ ᛬ ᚦᚭᚢᚱᚢᛁ ᛬ ᛘᚢᚦᚢᚱ ᛬ ᛋᛁᚾᛅ ᛬ ᛋᛅ ᚼᛅᚱᛅᛚᛏᚱ (᛬) ᛁᛅᛋ ᛬ ᛋᚭᛦ ᛫ ᚢᛅᚾ ᛫ ᛏᛅᚾᛘᛅᚢᚱᚴ
ᛅᛚᛅ ᛫ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛫ ᚾᚢᚱᚢᛁᛅᚴ
᛫ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛫ ᛏ(ᛅ)ᚾᛁ (᛫ ᚴᛅᚱᚦᛁ ᛫) ᚴᚱᛁᛋᛏᚾᚭ
In normalized Old Norse:
Haraldr konungr bað gǫrva kumbl þausi aft Gorm faður sinn auk aft Þórví móður sína. Sá Haraldr es sér vann Danmǫrk alla auk Norveg auk dani gærði kristna.
Kong Harald bød gøre disse kumler efter Gorm sin fader og efter Thyra sin moder – den Harald, som vandt sig hele Danmark og Norge og gjorde danerne kristne.
There is a misconception about how fast the Vikings were Christianized, because they did not, as some people think, shift from believing in their old Gods to Christianity, from one moment to another. In reality, it took the Church centuries to convert the Scandinavians into this foreign Abrahamic religion.
Of course, this is something that the Church would never admit to, but we do know that it is a fact, because of the many archaeological findings from this time period. Some Vikings would simply not let go of their God Thor, and they would refuse to wear the cross around their neck. There were also those who were standing with one foot in both camps, were they on one side still praying to their old Gods, while attending the ceremonies in the Church.
These people either walked around with the symbol of the God Thor, which is his hammer Mjolnir and the cross from Christianity in the same piece of jewelry. While others would simply just wear one of each around their neck.
What is a Viking?
A typical Viking was much more than just someone who went on raids for riches, fame, and women. There was, of course, some Vikings who did nothing else than to fight and serve their Jarl or King, but that was more the exception then it was the norm.
Most of the Vikings were actually just ordinary people who minded their own business and spend their days by taking care of their farm and family. As I’ve talked about before, the Viking society was split into four social classes which consisted of, slaves, Karls, Jarls, and Royals.
Within this Viking social hierarchy, the majority of the Vikings were part of the social class called Karls, which were the working class within their society. These people had ordinary jobs such as farmers, fishermen, smiths, and merchants, but the overwhelming majority of them were farmers. In fact, it is estimated that 90% of the society in Scandinavia were farmers in the Viking age.
Did all Vikings raid?
This meant that a typical farmer did not have the time nor the necessary fighting experience to participate in these raids. Taking part in these raids were also very time-consuming because raids would often last many months and in some cases even years.
Most of the people within the Viking society would most likely have stayed at home their whole life, and some of them may never have left their local area.
While it was mostly the farmers who went on raids, it was the Jarls would paid for the expedition and provided the ships to sail across the sea.
The Jarls were what we today call the upper-class, and they had a lot more resources at their disposal than a farmer. This also meant that they had some of the best fighting equipment available, and some of them even had a sword, which was a very rare weapon in the Viking age.
The farmers and the other Karls who would go on these raids could only dream about getting their hands on a weapon like a sword, and they had to be satisfied with their own common weapons, such as axes, spears, and shields.
Without advanced ships, there would have been no Vikings
Many people have heard about these Viking raids before, but these raids in Scandinavia was not something new at this time in history, it had taken place for hundreds of years. However, it was the advancements in technology that lead to new opportunities, and there can be no doubt that it was the advancement in seafaring technology, that laid the foundation for what today is known as the Viking phenomenon.
It was the development of a new ship type, the Viking ship, that made it possible for the expansion of Scandinavian civilization into literally all directions. This new ship type made it possible to sail faster and further away from their homeland in a very short amount of time.
Without the Viking ship, there would probably not have been any Vikings, and therefore no Viking age and the map of Europe might have looked much different today.
When did the Viking age begin and end?
As I said earlier the beginning of the Viking age is considered to begin in the 8th century, or to be more precise, it started on June 8, 793 when the Vikings attacked the Monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. This raid has been described by the monks to have been a very devastating attack, that not only shocked the Church but sent shock waves throughout western Europe, all the way down to the pope in Rome. The Vikings were merciless and not only did they plunder all the riches from the monastery, but they also killed most of the monks.
Letter to King Ethelred of Northumbria by Alcuin
”Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made.
Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples.”
-Alcuin of York
Just like the Viking age was born in blood on the British Isles, it would also end in the same way. Only 273 years after the attack on the Monastery of Lindisfarne, there were two huge and important battles, that would decide the fate of the Britsh people.
The first major battle took place on the 25 of September in 1066 at Stamford Bridge, when Harald Hardrada who was the King of Norway, had gathered an enormous army of somewhere between 7,000 – 9,000 men, who had crossed the sea from Scandinavia on 300 huge Viking ships.
However, the English outsmarted the Vikings and Harald Hardrada was killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge. While Harald Hardrada laid on the ground coughing up blood, his army defended him to the very last man. Harald’s army that had been split into two earlier suffered a crushing defeat, and because of their loyalty to their King, they were almost totally wiped out by the English army.
Later the same year, the descendants of the Vikings who had settled in Normandy in Northern Francia (Normandie), crossed the English channel and attacked and defeated the English army on the 14 of October at the battle of Hastings. The Normans completely wiped out the English army and conquered all of England. The battle of Hastings is when according to the historians, marks the end of the Viking age.
It could be argued that the Viking age, went beyond this date, but the raids did almost come to a complete hold after these two huge battles. It should also be said that while the Viking age is said to have started in 793, the date could be pushed further back. Because the people from Scandinavia had in decades prior to the attack at Lindisfarne, raided both the shores of the British Isles and the areas around the Baltic Sea.
How do we know so much about the Vikings?
The reason we know so much about the Vikings today is because of a combination of the archaeological findings throughout northern Europe, and the many written sources. Although we should bear in mind that most of the descriptions and the history of the Vikings have been written down by other societies.
The Vikings did not write down their own history on paper, or at least there hasn’t been found any evidence of this so far. So unless we want to scratch our knowledge together about them, by just looking at their runestones. We have to use sources written down by either the monks or the Islamic travelers.
How did the Vikings help shape Scandinavia
The Viking age had a huge impact on how the countries in Scandinavia would take shape. According to the Jelling stone, it was as I mentioned before, Harald Bluetooth who united the Danes into one country called Denmark. And according to the sagas, it was Harald Fairhair (In Norwegian: Harald Hårfagre) who unified the Norwegians into one country, called Norway.
The Swedes, being the typical Swede, would not become a unified country before many hundreds of years after the Viking age. But the territories in Scandinavia was more or less defined during this time in history.