What You Need To Know About The Viking Era

Viking Era

Between A.D. 800 and the 11th century, many Scandinavians fled their homelands to pursue their fortunes abroad. They will make their mark as pirates, raiders, merchants selling Viking bracelets, and explorers on most of Britain and the European continent, as well as areas of modern-day Russia, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, over the next three centuries.

The Life of Vikings

The Vikings were not a “race” bound by shared descent or patriotism, and any particular sense of “Viking-ness could not characterize them.” The majority of the Vikings whose practices are better known come from the regions now known as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. However, there are references to Finnish, Estonian, and Saami Vikings in historical documents as well. Their common ground–and what distinguished them from the European peoples they encountered–was that they were from a distant country, that the Vikings were not “civilized” in the local sense of the term, and, most notably, that they were not Christian.

The precise motives for Vikings leaving their homeland are unknown; some speculate that it was due to overpopulation, but the earliest Vikings were looking for wealth, not the territory. Europe was becoming wealthier in the eighth century A.D., fueling the rise of trade centers such as Dorestad and Quentovic. Scandinavian furs were highly valued in the emerging trading markets; through their trade with the Europeans, Scandinavians learned about new sailing technologies and the increasing prosperity and ensuing internal tensions within European kingdoms. This experience will be used by the Viking forefathers–pirates who preyed on merchant ships in the Baltic Sea–to spread their fortune-seeking operations into the North Sea and beyond.

Viking Raids in the Beginning

The Viking Age began in A.D. 793, with an assault on the Lindisfarne monastery off Northumberland’s coast in northeastern England. The perpetrators–most likely Norwegians who sailed straight across the North Sea–did not wreck the monastery, but the attack rocked the European religious community to its heart. Unlike other races, these mysterious new invaders showed little regard for religious structures like monasteries, which they often left unguarded and unprotected along the coast. Two years later, Viking raids hit the undefended Hebridean island monasteries of Skye and Iona, as well as Rathlin. The first documented raid in continental Europe took place in 799, at the island monastery of St Philibert on Noirmoutier, near the Loire River’s estuary.

For several decades, the Vikings restricted themselves to hit-and-run attacks against coastal targets in the British Isles, particularly Ireland and Europe, which was the trading center of Dorestad became a target after 830. Once the death of Louis the Pious, emperor of Frankia, was announced in 840, his son Lothar welcomed the assistance of a Viking fleet in a power struggle with brothers. Other Vikings soon discovered that Frankish rulers were willing to pay them large amounts to keep them from assaulting their subjects, rendering Frankia an unstoppable destination for further Viking action.

Viking Era

Viking Settlements in Europe and Other Places

Meanwhile, Viking forces remained involved in Europe in the ninth century, sacking Nantes on the French coast in 842 and invading towns as far inland as Paris, Limoges, Orleans, Tours, and Nimes. Vikings stormed Seville, then dominated by the Arabs in 844 and Pisa in 859, despite being battered by an Arab fleet on the way back north. In 911, the West Frankish king gave Rouen and the surrounding territories to a Viking leader named Rollo in exchange for the latter granting other raiders access to the Seine. This northern French territory is now known as Normandy, or “land of the Northmen.”

Scandinavians, primarily Norwegians, started to colonize Iceland in the ninth century, where no one had yet settled in significant numbers. By the late 10th century, particular Vikings (including the legendary Erik the Red) had traveled much further west to Greenland.

Later Icelandic historians say that some of the early Viking settlers in Greenland were the first Europeans to find and explore North America. They named their landing spot Vinland (Wine-land) and founded a temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in modern-day Newfoundland. Aside from that, there is little evidence of Viking activity in the New World, and they did not establish permanent settlements.

Viking Era
Norse chessmen, from a Viking hoard, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Viking Age Comes to an End

In England, the events of 1066 essentially marked the close of the Viking Age. At that time, all of the Scandinavian nations had been Christian, and what remained of Viking “lore” had been incorporated into Christian Europe’s culture. The Viking tradition’s signs can still be found today, mainly in the Scandinavian roots of some words and place names in the regions where they settled, such as northern England, Scotland, and Russia. The Vikings had an extensive body of literature and even Viking insignias, which become popular symbols in merchandise like the VikingLair necklace, the Icelandic sagas, in which they enjoyed their most triumphant victories.

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