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The Vikings: A Brief History

The Vikings were Scandinavian warriors who raided the coasts of Europe, the British Isles, Iceland and Greenland during the 8th to 10th centuries. However, the Vikings were merchants as well as raiders and they exchanged furs, amber and fish for European goods. They sailed to their destinations in longboats, which were magnificent ships that were over seventy feet long and were fast, flexible and easily maneuvered. The adaptable longboats permitted the Vikings to cross both oceans and the shallow rivers of Europe.

Traditionally, the Scandinavian kings were chosen by the earls and they acted as leaders among equals, rather than as autocrats. Yet, at the end of the 8th century, the kings began to consolidate their power. Consequently, the earls and royal pretenders who were threatened or displaced by the kings, began to go viking, or raiding, in order to replace the wealth or influence they had lost at home with booty from abroad. In general, the Swedish Vikings looked east and traded with the Slavic and Byzantine Empires while the Norwegians moved into Ireland, Scotland and later, Greenland, Iceland and North America. The Danish Vikings focused on England and the Frankish Empire.

The Viking raids on England in the 8th and 9th centuries are described in great detail in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Year after year, the Danes landed and plundered the countryside before being driven off or leaving of their own accord. To begin with, their raids were brief summer affairs, but in 851 they retreated only as far as the Isle of Thanet in east Kent and they stayed there for the winter.

The Norman people, or Northmen, were descendants of the Vikings. Under their Chief Stirgud the Stout, the Vikings violently attacked the Orkneys and Northern Scotland in the 9th century. A century later, under their Jarl Thorfinn Rollo, they invaded and devastated France. After Rollo laid siege to Paris, the French King Charles the Simple conceded defeat and granted northern France to the Vikings. Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy, the territory of the North Men. Under Cnut, the Scandinavian Vikings ruled England from 1016 to 1042, when Edward the Confessor reascended the throne. These warriors had also been long established in the Dublin area of Ireland until they were evicted by King Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In 1066, England was attacked on two fronts, by Harold Hardradi, the King of the Norwegian Vikings, and by William, who was the Duke of Normandy and a descendant of Rollo. William was the victor at the Battle of Hastings and Norman rule was established in Britain until 1135.

Viking society was composed of three distinct social classes. At the top of the hierarchy was the jarlar, who were wealthy chiefs or earls. The jarlar had numerous servants, slaves and free retainers. The middle class, which formed the majority of the population, consisted of peasant freeholders. At the bottom of the hierarchy were thralls, or bondsmen. The Scandinavian Vikings enjoyed personal glory and the many spoils of war. They valued military ability and political power, which were skills that were equally prized in women as well as men. In comparison to European society, particularly before the 10th century, Viking women had a considerable amount of freedom and authority.

This page was last modified on 15 May 2003.

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