Friday, January 20, 2017

Who were the Vikings? (Part 3)

Harald Hårfagre i slaget ved Hafrsfjord by Ole Peter Hansen Balling
The Vikings earned their success through their ships and their skills in their chosen weapon. Then how did this successful pirates, raiders, and explorers quietly faded in history?

How did the Vikings Faded in History?

The Vikings did not disappear as a defeated people – annihilated and subjugated. But rather they assimilated to become the modern people we now know today as Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes. They adopted many of Western Europe’s culture – powerful monarchies and off course, Christianity.

The one thing that led to sporadic Viking attacks that Europe dreaded was the lack of Kings and fledgling of hundreds if not thousands of Viking chiefs and village leaders. Starting in the 9th century, almost a hundred years after the early attacks in Lindisfarne. Vikings in Norway started to consolidate and establish a united Norwegian Kingdom.

In 872, King Harald Fairhair declared himself King of Norway. He got his nickname for his oath that he would not cut his hair until he unified Norway. And he succeeded in his quest, after winning the Battle of Hafrsfjord, he defeated the last resistance to his rule. Those who loved their freedom had no option but to leave Norway and settle in the islands of Britain, Iceland and Greenland.
Harald Bluetooth in Sid Meir's Civilization V
Another century passed, and in 930's, Denmark united under King Grom the Old. Finally, King Olof Skotkonung or Olaf the Tax King unified Sweden.

These Kings limited the authority of local Viking warlords, resulting to decrease in number of raids. But another factor led to subtle the Vikings – Christianity.

Rise of Christianity

In the 9th century, German missionaries went to Scandinavia to convert the Viking heathens with little success. Only in the following century did number of converts rose. In 960, Harald Bluetooth converted to Christianity. The same happened to King Olaf I Tryggvasson of Norway. And in 1000, King Olaf the Tax King followed the line of first Christian Kings.
Ansgarius predikar Christna läran i Sverige by Hugo Hamilton

Many factors led to the rise of Christianity among the Vikings. Exposure to Western Europe was one. The Vikings saw adaptation of Christianity as a means to improve commercial and political transaction. It became a way to blend in or fit in among the Europeans and avoid being called barbarians. Contacts between Vikings and Western Europeans in by then flourishing Viking centers, such as Hebedy, Birka, and Oslo, led many to be aware of the benefits of converting to Christianity.

Another and more fundamental reason was the huge difference between the Nordic religion and Christianity.

Nordic religion placed emphasis in becoming a great warriors while Christianity only promoted becoming a great individual. Norse version of paradise called Valhalla only had a place for warriors who died in battle and no other else. Christianity on the other hand had heaven open for all human beings provided they lived as good persons in Earth. This afterlife for all won converts who also felt weary of a place in the afterlife. Another contrast was between God and Norse gods. Christianity preached God as the almighty, invincible, and the judge at the end of the world. As for the Vikings, among the main tenants of their religion was the knowledge of Ragnarok, the death of the gods. This difference to whom they believed also allowed many Vikings to abandon their mortal gods for an immortal and more powerful God. Although Christianity rose, much to the credit to the sponsorship of Kings, some resisted and maintained the old religion. Nevertheless by the end of the 12th century, all of Scandinavia had been Christianized.

Christianity, with its Ten Commandments stating not to steal and kill, led the Vikings to mellow down. Generations of Vikings who grew up with Christianity started to abandon raiding and pirating, following the teachings of Christianity for mercy and compassion. Nonetheless, many Vikings remained the most terrifying and feared warrior in Europe.

Harald Hardrada
Battle of Stamford Bridge from The Life of King Edward the Confessor
Battle of Stamford Bridge from The Life of King Edward the Confessor
The final blow that ended the Viking age came in 1066. King Harald Hardrada of Norway, seasoned commander from his experience as a Varangian Guard for the Byzantine Empire, ambitioned to conquer England. His great Viking Army landed in Northumbria and captured York. His opponent, King Harold Godwinson marched quickly north to cease his advance. King Harald met King Harold in the Stamford Bridge. This narrow bridge became the site of a decisive battle. A berserker tried to buy the Viking time to regroup and mount a defense against well-armed and well-trained English army. But once this brave and valiant berserker fell, the English army stormed Harald’s army. In the end, the Vikings fell along with Harald who passed away with an arrow in his body. Harald Hardrada’s death and defeat in Stamford Bridge signaled the end of an era.

Ironically, however, Harold Godwinson followed Harald as a fallen King in the hands of Duke William of Normandy, whose ancestors were Vikings. Harald’s death marked the end of the Viking Era, but their legacy lived on as Vikings themselves became Europeans and shaped the history of that continent and of the world. 

Summing Up

The Vikings gave another color to Medieval Europe. They came up hampering Europe's recovery of their civilization from the fall of Rome, thus earned a reputation as ruthless barbarians.

But they were not outright barbarians. Their ferocity came in battle. They had a culture shown by the richness of their crafts, literature, and religion. They knew to govern themselves through community institutions like the Thing. They made themselves into master shipbuilders and explorers.

Their ingenuity of their longship led to their success as raiders, pirates, and explorers. Through the fear towards them, they acquired riches and lands, some of which grew to become influential powerhouses of Europe.

For example, the Duchy of Normandy that conquered Europe and Southern Italy descended from Vikings. Russia itself traced its roots to the Rus who were Vikings. 

in the end, the Vikings adapted the ways of their Western European victims, being open to their institution, culture, and most importantly, their religion, which led to their evolution from Vikings to modern Norwegian, Danes, and Swedes. They did not walked into the dusk as a ruined people, but rather these people that captured the imaginations of so many even to this lived on as a part of European society. 

See also:
Who were the Vikings? (Part 1)
Who were the Vikings? (Part 2)

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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