Until the 1880's, historians knew very little of Vikings and their society and culture except for the stereotypical – large horned helmets, murderous and ignorant barbarians, etc... It was during this time in Norway that some archeologists found an amazing discovery in the ground at several burial sites - large ships filled with goods and military items, etc... clearly a tomb and luckily for us, very well preserved. This gave historians the evidence to suggest that this people had an elaborate burial system, clearly that they believed in a very active afterlife, and the goods themselves would show a more complex culture that was previously believed. And when excavations had begun, it was not necessarily believed that these ships that were discovered were able to be seaworthy. Research and experiments show us that these ships were extremely seaworthy and easily used... giving us more insight into their past culture and lives. This post will hopefully give the reader some brief images and understanding of the complexity of the Viking civilization and some of the leaders of these differing groups. (Some aspects of their culture reminded me a bit of the early Egyptian society actually.... not to change the subject. )
Life was very different for the groups of Vikings who living in the times before 'raiding' became part of their culture. They were considered a sedentary society based on agriculture. The societies were organized around small villages or clans/groups- it is guess that these were based on families, but this is really just a guess. Peace was the norm although disagreements and war between different groups was not unknown. The economy was based on raising animals and growing food and this was truly the basic economic unit of this society. The shot growing season was a time of tremendous pressure to grow and produce the food for the longer, cold period of time.
So... what made the Vikings become raiders...? In this culture, a king was a man who owned a large farm who would have his 'workers', farmers, slaves, etc... Raids became 'necessary' as the amount of food and farm land needed for these growing populations became too scarce to support the larger numbers. This 'military tactic' was first used on the surrounding groups as the stronger preyed and slaughtered the weaker groups... taking the resources and substance to support themselves. (They would basically attack, kill, take everything.... and then leave.) However, this really wasn't sustainable as eventually weak Viking groups would no longer exist. Wealth and resources would again be scarce and so some members would start to look out to the seas and the lands beyond for their potential of resources and wealth. One truly scary aspect of the Viking raiders is that all the different groups were independent of each other. While historians tend to talk of 'Vikings' as a noun (a solid group), this word really describes in some ways a verb.... groups that have some outward similarities, but have no loyalty towards other groups, no political ties, and no understanding or wish to work with each other. So any groups who needed to fight the Vikings would be unable to negotiate, bribe, etc.... to stop the violence.... any treaty would only be with that particular raiding group. The only agreement they would have was they might agree to fight together to conquer other groups... and that was about it. Their traits of greed and terrorism were also hard to combat by their victims.
The Viking long boat gave the Vikings a real edge against other groups of people and became a very significant part of their culture and success. These boats, once developed, allowed for a vessel that was able to be produced in as little as 4-6 weeks that could travel safely in the North Atlantic ocean. Smaller versions of this ship could be made that were light enough to travel in waterways that large vessels couldn't travel safely in... such as rivers. It was this ship that allowed these groups to become a serious fear to the rest of the 'reachable' world. These boats were really a great technological feat for this time creating a ship that has low draft and high maneuverability. These boats are narrow and needed very little water to travel in. Rivers then became significant waterways because this allows these groups to use these smaller ships to get inland quickly and with little warning to the on-land populations. This allowed the Vikings to attack areas that were populated by people who were not used to attack from its waterways leaving these populations especially vulnerable.
While most groups throughout history were attracted to gold, these Viking groups found silver very attractive. And as such, monasteries would have easily been seen as the best places to attack. After all, the monasteries would be the most wealthy groups in almost all of the lands of England and Europe. And, most importantly, monasteries would not be heavily armed and were well trained in 'passivity'. If you have choices of groups to attack, these would have been the most attractive- you were more likely to get huge amount of wealth and resources with much less risk or injury or death to you and your allies.... why would you attack anywhere else that was less wealthy and will more risk of damage/death?
The first known monastery to have been attacked was the monastery of Lindisfarne on the northern most coast of England in the year of 793 AD. This attack was considered a milestone for the Vikings (the first major Viking sea raid) and was recorded in a historical document called 'the Anglo Saxon Chronicles' in words of pain, fear, and anger. This attack was so successful that as word traveled throughout the Norse world, other groups of Vikings started building ships to come and conquer and steal the wealth in Europe that was easily 'taken'. This really started the onslaught of Europe by these groups.
The idea that these Viking had no common leader or king is extremely significant. When you have a group such as the Huns led by Attila, you have more potential ways to end combat. One leader can be bribed or can be worked with though diplomacy or mediation. If a group with one leader needs to try and work with several leaders of several groups, he is very much at a disadvantage. Each of these leaders has no loyalty to each other and has no reason to abide by any agreement made with the other leaders.... which pretty much removed any possibility of non violent means of ending the conflicts. And once fighting had commenced, stopping the violence is again very difficult as there was not the benefit of one leader to call a halt to the fight. So fighting could and would continue long after the 'conquered' had attempted to surrender. This scenario reminds me of groups of children on a play group and how they can be pretty much uncontrollable until a feared teacher calls them into line.... the Vikings would not have had the feared 'teacher.' So the death and violence could literally continue until all enemy combatants including infants were dead. It is no exaggeration that the Vikings were terrorists and used terror, like other past and future leaders, to psychologically convert the people they wanted to conquer.... and the spreading of the stories of their acts of violence to begin the 'psychological' conquering of future European groups/cities.
One of the most well known Viking leaders was a warrior called Ragnar the Dane. Ragnar quickly became known as a notorious and vicious military leader during his career. He was ambitious and he completed the first major river conquest by the Vikings. In 885 AD, he took a fleet of 120 ships down the Seine river towards Paris. Once there, he conquered the French military forces by the river and marched them inland... then 'hanging' until dead all survivors which were estimated at around 111 individuals. As Ragnar matched to Paris, it's leader Charles the Bald attempted and was successful in bribing Ragnar and his army to leave his city alone by paying an extremely huge ransom of six tons of gold. (This was a sign that the 'Reign of Terror' caused by the Vikings was really working as Paris was actually really well defended, but Charles was unwilling to even take the risk of fighting the Ragnar and his Viking army.) This bribe did cause Ragnar to leave, but the stories of the amount of wealth that was available passed across the continent like wildfire and was the cause of even more Viking groups traveling to the European continent for their share of these vast and seemingly endless amounts of riches and wealth. And since each group had its own king, no other Viking leader felt the need leave the inland cities alone. Soon every river in Europe was being used by the Vikings to conquer every city within reach of these waterways... which was pretty much all the cities in Europe at that time.
The Christian religion played a huge role within the differing Viking groups. As it was with other populations around Europe during this time, Christianity became a tool used by the various Viking leaders to subdue and tame their people as well as the conquers. It is thought that Leif Ericson was the major missionary to the different viking groups of this religion – there is some thought that a Viking King in Noway asked him to specifically convert the outer-lying colonies to Christianity. He is fairly successfully although many tribesmen were reluctant to convert from their pagan traditions. Over time, Christianity was followed by the vast majority of Viking tribesmen and groups... and it was the only successful idea that unified these separate groups... as they still had no common kings/leaders or reasons to unite with each other.
Another important Viking leader was Harold Hadrada... who was a half brother of King Olaf- the king of Norway.. At fifteen years old, Harold was known to be fighting in some of the civil wars at the time. (Norway was in the midst of a civil war between the differing groups and the war had pretty much become a war between King Olaf and another leader, King Canute the Great.) After Harold was injured in the civil war when he is sixteen and King Olaf has been killed (about 1030), he is exiled from his homeland and he heads out and finds protection for himself in the city of Kiev in Kievan Rus (Russia) – ruled at that time by Yaroslav the Wise. He learns more lessons in the craft of war and becomes leader of a military force that is used by Prince Yaroslav to keep down insurrections among his people. His work and military prowess for this Prince of Kievan Rus was great and he was only able to leave his 'protection'.... by sneaking out of the country.
When Harold had become wealthy and powerful, he quietly left Keivan Rus and headed back to Norway... and within a year of co-rule with his nephew, he became the only ruler of Norway. Anyone who was suspected of treason or disagreement with Harold Hardrada was killed and he ruled his people through force... through the simple message of 'submit' or die'. He then took the knowledge that he learned in Kiev of trade and commerce and promoted it in his lands understanding that his people would be strongly united under him if the population were wealthy and prosperous. He developed a major trade center in the city of Oslo which sold goods from all over the currently known world. Unfortunately for the country of England, Harold's ambition did not fade over time and eventually an alliance was formed with the traitorous brother of the current king. The alliance with Tostig Godwinson gave Harold the excuse he was looking for to sail out and try to conquer England. The English army is extremely strong and formidable and Harold's vanity and confidence is so strong that he makes a huge tactical error and loses the fight.... and his life. Some historians see this particular battle and the death of Harold Hadrada in 1066 as the end of the 'Viking Age'.
In conclusion, what is the legacy that the Vikings left behind? One benefit of these numerous raids to the Vikings that is not commonly thought of is the tremendous amount of differing cultures and societies that they were exposed to in their quest for conquest and wealth. The legacy of the Vikings to our current world is quite vast. They leave the lasting legacy of the tales of their triumphs, ferocity, terror, and brutality. The lands that they settled in became very discreet lands with their own cultures- Norway became a solid country, Russia does as well... each with its own identity, cultures, etc.... England would fall to the Normans which would then become its own country. These individuals and groups would assimilate into the lands that they moved into and their culture would intertwine and merge with the culture around them. The practice of raiding caused the heavy fortification of Europe as well as significant feelings of 'nationalism'... something that hadn't really been seen before. The Vikings also give us the legacy of significant social and political changes, unifying with other populations by the presence of Christianity, the significant development and changes across Europe in ship building, and their legacy of improved economic growth and trade. While these groups brought lots of negatives to the areas that they interacted with, our world is truly richer because of them.