Monday, January 16, 2017

Who were the Vikings? (Part 1)

Guests from Overseas by Nicolas Roerich
"From fury of Northmen, deliver us Lord"
- phrase of an English prayers

Who were the Vikings?

The Vikings – synonymous with terror, savagery, and violence, often wrongfully depicted wearing helmets with horns. But who were the Vikings really are?

The word Viking came from Vik meaning to gather in a bay or harbor to raid. But besides Vikings, they were also called Norsemen and Northmen, pointing out they came from the Northern regions of Europe called Scandinavia, now composed of the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They lived in very cold and tough conditions than the rest of Europe.

Their main source of livelihood were agriculture, animal husbandry, and fishing. Their agriculture, however, suffered from short growing periods because of the cold and damp climate of the north. Thus, many relied on growing livestock and fishing from the numerous rivers, lakes, and fjords.

With fishing, they developed shipbuilding, products of which stood as the foundation for the success in the Middle Ages.

Craftsmanship also flourished in the Viking world. Smiths and jewelers made decent living in making axes, swords, and spears along with peaceful and aesthetic objects such as pendants, necklaces, and other ornaments made with precious stones and metal. Excavated burial ships filled with the riches of the deceased stood as evidence of the excellent craftsmanship of the Vikings.

Another way for Vikings to live was becoming a merchant. They made contact with Western Europe but also with the Middle East. Coins from Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, reached Viking settlements.

Politically, Vikings had no kingdoms nor principalities. They lived scattered across the Scandinavian landscape with their respective clans and villages. Clan chiefs reigned but important decisions for the community had to be decided by a thing, a body composed of the members of the village. An early form of parliament, which later evolved to modern-day legislative bodies Storting of Norway, Althing of Iceland, and Folketing of Denmark. 

In the arts, Vikings also developed their own. Besides jewelry and ornaments, they also have rune stones that depicted their letters called the fupark, which composed of 24-16 characters depending on the group of people. Rune stones were used as a memorial to fallen warriors or relative. Also, Vikings had poetries such as the runic and eddaic. The rune poems gave a poetic introduction to the runic alphabet, while Eddaic depicted stories and sagas of Gods and Kings. Responsible for the creation of these literary works were skalds or poets who composed in the courts of Scandinavian leaders.

Vikings also had a religion and rich mythology. Today, gods like Thor, popularized by Marvel, were worshiped by the Vikings. Other Gods include Odin and Freya, whom the Vikings worship with festivals and sacrifices, sometimes with human life. Their religion highly upheld warriors, especially those who perished in battle, by giving them an exclusive place in Valhalla alongside Odin and other Gods. While the rest of Viking society had to content with nothing in their afterlife.

The Vikings had a rich culture, from arts, literature, and religion. They had difficult way of life due to their harsh climate. But what made the Vikings emerged from their everyday life in the Scandinavia and rampaged across Europe?

What propelled them to World History?

Many Vikings took the seas to take lives in order to live in their homelands. From the icy fringes of Scandinavia, they set out on a 300-year reign of fear, plunder, and terror to find riches as well as new homes. And Western Europe, licking from its setback from the fall of Rome, fell prey to them. With a brutal attack in 793, the Viking Age dawned.

Emergence as Fearsome Barbarians

The most widely known reason for the sudden change in the Vikings was overpopulation. This is what drove the Vikings to move from living simple lives in Scandinavia to spreading terror and plundering Europe.

During the Medieval Era, the climate in Scandinavia and in the rest of world increase with few degrees. It resulted to an increase in food production for the Vikings as winter became less harsher and growing period longer. The increase sustained a growth in population that later on outpaced the rate of increase in food production. Therefore, overpopulation set in. Vikings fought for land to grow more food for their large families. Some in desperation then looked for their salvation overseas.

In 793, in a holy island off Northumbria called Lindisfarne, a monastery stood that will bear witness to the start of the Viking Age. As monks of the Lindisfarne monastery go about their daily routines, they had no idea nor warnings when suddenly Viking ships landed in the coast and rough thuggish men with round shields and axes charged their monastery. The defenseless monastery gave in immediately and the Vikings did as they wish. They looted gold and silver, killed monks, and desecrated sacred images. They let some monks live, especially the abbot of the monastery, who they returned only after ransom payments. Some of the monks, however, suffered enslavement in the hands of the Vikings.

The Viking Age

The attack on Lindisfarne brought condemnation from Europe, but this attack only signaled more onslaught throughout the continent. Danish Vikings attacked England and Northern France. Norwegians raided modern day France, Spain, Italy, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Swedish on the other hand concentrated east, to modern day Russia, striking on defenseless Slavs.

Villages and towns along the Vistula, Oder, Elbe, Rhine, Seine, Loire, among many rivers in Europe, fell victim to Viking onslaught. An atmosphere of fear, terror, and uncertainty befallen Europe.

In 844, audacious Vikings attacked the Cordoba Caliphate, raiding Seville, Lisbon, and Cadiz.

In 845, cities of Hamburg and Paris suffered from Viking attacks. King Charles the Bald, after failing to stop the Viking advance, paid the Vikings with gold and silver as protection money and convince them to spare Paris. Protection money to Vikings became known as danegeld. However, danegeld had the opposite effect. Rather than convincing the Vikings to stop, it just attracted them to raid more to be paid more.

Nevertheless, the Vikings faced staunch resistance from Europe from time to time. By the middle of the 9th century, Vikings saw Northern France defending themselves by living inside fortified towns and walled villages. In 861, Vikings suffered a resounding defeat in the hands of Spanish Muslims that ended the exploits of Vikings in Mediterranean.

But even with European resistance, Vikings only continued to flow into Europe in search of booty and violence. In 865, the Danish Viking warlord Ivar the Boneless led his Great Heathen Army to Anglo-Saxon England and captured East Anglia. They captured the city of York and made it as their base of operation. Their conquest of England almost succeeded if not for a single kingdom in the south stopping them.

The Vikings met strong resistance from the Kingdom of Wessex, ruled by King Alfred the Great. In 871, they won a battle against King Alfred, which forced him to hiding. After 7 years, in 878, the leader of the Danish Viking Guthrum met Alfred once again in a battle in Edington. This time, however, the Vikings suffered a defeat and forced to negotiate a settlement with Alfred. The settlement between Guthrum and Alfred resulted to the division of England between Kingdom of Wessex and the Viking English state called Danelaw, with York serving as its capital. The Danelaw existed until 954 when Alfred’s grandson Edward the Elder expelled them from the British Isles.

See also:

Backman, Clifford. The Worlds of Medieval Europe. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

"VIkings." In Encyclopedia of European Peoples. Edited by Carl Waldman et. al. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006.

"Vikings." In Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by Marsha Ackermann et. al. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008.

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