“The pagans from the northern regions came with a naval force to Britain like stinging hornets and … robbed, tore and slaughtered … even priests and deacons, and companies of monks and nuns” To what extent did the Vikings deserve this bad press? How would you characterise Viking activity in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries? Originating from the sparsely populated, barren and virtually resourceless land of the Scandinavian peninsulas, the Vikings set out in the late 8th century to capture the wealth and resources of their trading partners. Throughout the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, the Northmen brutally killed and destroyed as they conquered much of Europe, earning a reputation as a violent and remorseless people. But were the Vikings really the bloodthirsty barbarians that history has so often portrayed them as?
The Attacks throughout Europe certainly were brutal and created a period of fear throughout Europe. Still, these attacks were also extremely well planned and organised, while those they attacked were largely unprepared for battle. In addition to this, the Vikings tactics of violence were not unusual or uncommon during that time. It is unlikely that the Vikings, who had struggled for survival for centuries, would have known any other way of successfully gaining control of the lands they conquered. There is also evidence to suggest that, despite the countless accounts of campaigns of violence and brutality, the Vikings wanted nothing more than free access to the fertile land and wealth of Europe, which did not exist in the peninsulas of Scandinavia.
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Beginning in the late 8th century and not completely ending until the 11th century, the Scandinavian Vikings, who consisted of the Danes from the Jutland Peninsula, and the Swedes and the Norse from the Swedish-Norwegian Peninsula, Vikings induced a state of fear in the people throughout Europe. Each Viking race, striving to capture the perceived wealth and fertile lands of their European trading partners, so different to Scandinavia’s barren and resourceless peninsulas, efficiently moved throughout areas of Europe, violently conquering as they travelled. The Norwegians moved towards Western Europe, invading countries like Scotland, Ireland, Greenland, Iceland and Newfoundland. The Danish invaded the South, conquering areas such as the Frankish empire, Seville and Southern Gaul. The Swedish raiders moved towards the East, invading parts of Russia, Constantinople, Baghdad, and it is suggested moved even as far as Western China.
(David M. Wilson, The Vikings and Their Origins (New York: A&W Publishers inc. 1980), 65-71) United by a Common Language, the Scandinavian people are portrayed by history as little more than violent thieves who used force to invade Europe and terrorised the continent for over a century. The Viking attacks throughout Europe were perhaps best characterised by two things: the inhumane violence and savagery of the attacks and the swiftness, stealth, and incredible mobility of the people. Many records of Viking attacks create images of murder, mayhem and destruction. A record of a Viking attack on Constantinople in 860, recorded by Patriarch Photius, a native of Constantinople, gives a graphic description of the brutal Viking attacks, encapturing not only the ruthless nature of the Vikings but also the extreme fear they spread throughout Europe.
Patriarch Photius states, “a nation dwelling somewhere far from our country, barbarous, nomadic, armed with arrogance, unwatched, unchallenged, leaderless, has suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, like a wave of the sea, poured over our frontiers, and as a wild boar has devoured the inhabitants of the land like grass or straw or a crop…sparing nothing from man to beast”. (Donald Logan, The Vikings in History (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 190-191) This account of the Viking’s attack captures the incredible violence of the invasion, as do many other accounts on other raids. The speed and mobility of the Vikings were other characteristics that terrified the people of Europe. Extremely skilled craftsmen, the ships built by the Vikings were unique and an enormous asset to the Vikings. Typically about 24 metres long and 5 metres wide, the ships could hold up to 40 men each and were suitable for travelling along rivers and in the sea. (Anne Civardi and James Graham-Campbell, Viking Raiders (London: Usborne Publishing Ltd., 1993), 8-9)
These two characteristics made the Vikings formidable enemies, as they were able to attack swiftly and powerfully, making it difficult to prepare a defence. It is undeniable that the era of the Viking invasion and all the attacks made were indeed brutal and barbaric when viewed with modern eyes. However, during this period of history, as the dark ages emerged in Europe, violence was not uncommon to make gains. Throughout Europe in the middle ages, battles between rivalling leaders vying for control were common. In fact, it was undoubtedly one of the most commonly used tactics of the time, in a period where countries were not unified but rather existed as isolated townships, completely independent. The Vikings were merely another invading force, though their mobility and indiscrimination about whom they slaughtered set them apart from other violent forces. The Vikings, who had dwelled in the harsh land of little value, perhaps merely set out to gain control of fertile land and the wealth that came with it, using tactics of violence that they knew to be reliable.
Targets for these attacks were, in all likelihood, chosen based on the ease of conquering and the profit gained from the attack. There is no evidence to suggest that the Vikings were attacking for reasons beyond this. A well-known example of a Viking attack that was carried out purely to gain riches is an attack on the Monastery of Lindisfarne in 783. This attack is generally accepted as the beginning of the Viking age. This attack perhaps epitomises the negative depiction of the Vikings throughout history, as the event is portrayed as a ruthless attack on an isolated religious centre, where needless destruction occurred, and many unarmed religious men and women were brutally murdered. According to Symeon of Durham, the Vikings attacked “like stinging hornets”, arriving by ship and surrounding the isolated religious centre. Symeon states that the invaders “dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church”.
The considerable wealth contained within monasteries, combined with the fact that monasteries were deliberately built-in isolated locations and had no means of defence, would have made them a very attractive target for the Viking raiders. As the Vikings were polytheistic and had no affiliation with western religion, Lindisfarne was a religious centre would have been irrelevant. While those who attacked saw the attacks as a deliberate invasion of the sanctitude of Christ and their religion, the Vikings saw the monastery only as an easy and profitable target. (Symeon of Durham, “History of the Kings”, in Portraits and Documents: the Early Middle Ages, ed. Derek Baker (London: Hutchinson, 1966), 25-30)
The negative effects of the Viking era throughout Europe are clearly defined in many texts recounting the Viking invasion beginning in the late 8th century. These primarily include the extensive destruction of towns throughout Europe, the extremely high numbers of murders that occurred as a result of the numerous attacks and the mass theft of countless valuables from all over Europe, all of which disrupted the contributed to the period known as “the dark ages”, which threatened to arise even before the Vikings began to invade. These prominent negative consequences of the Viking attacks throughout the early middle ages are typical of what history remembers the Scandinavian invaders for due to the seemingly shocking nature of their brutal tactics and the extent to which they used them successfully throughout Europe. As a result, the Vikings have earned a reputation for terrorising the entire European continent for well over a century. There were, however, numerous positive consequences that resulted from the invasions.
Perhaps the most significant positive consequence of the Viking invasion was the numerous trading stations established throughout Europe. Traders by nature, because the Scandinavian peninsulas were unsuitable for farming, the Vikings continued to survive through trade as they moved. Previously most townships throughout Europe were largely self-sufficient and isolated, existing independently, with little contact between towns occurring. However, the Vikings established permanent trading stations as they moved throughout Europe, which benefited the continent by stimulating commerce and encouraging the growth of towns. (P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe, AD 700-1100. (London: Routledge, 1992) 1-7) Europe was a step closer to becoming united, as trade invited communication between towns. Many areas of Europe did become more unified as a result of the Viking invasions.
To protect their towns and the people within them, many countries began to unite and create a defence system for their towns. To do this, leadership had to be established and a constant system of government with it. The Franks were among the most successful at achieving this and could defend themselves effectively for a period of time before internal political struggles became the cause of a weakened line of defence. While the Vikings were still too formidable an enemy to defeat, the unification of many regions of Europe was an extremely positive outcome of the Viking era. (P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, 4)
As the Vikings moved throughout Europe, another positive outcome was the introduction of Scandinavian craftsmanship into Europe. While widely considered to be barbaric and somewhat primitive, the Vikings, in fact, were quite advanced in many areas, most notably shipbuilding. The Scandinavian boat designs were quite different to the larger, more cumbersome designs being constructed throughout Europe. However, it was not only European boats that underwent design changes due to the Viking movements. The Vikings, too, were able to learn ship design, most significantly learning the use of masts and sails on their boats. (P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, 4) Scandinavian art and jewellery featuring animal motifs and intricate patterning were also introduced into European life. (James Graham Campbell and Dafydd Kidd, The Vikings (London: Book Club Associates, 1980) 131-179)
The Vikings were also responsible for the extension of the boundaries of Europe. During the Viking movement, as most of Europe was under the influence of the raiders’ campaigns, the Vikings continued to move further away from the Scandinavian peninsulas- The Norwegians to the West, the Danish to the South, and the Swedish to the East. Each of the three groups is partially responsible for the expansion of the boundaries of Europe. Notably, the Norwegians were responsible for colonising the Atlantic islands, such as Iceland and Greenland. It is speculated that the Swedish were responsible for developing the area that is now Russia, as they established trade routes to the Byzantine and Arab markets. (P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, 4)
It must also be stated that while the attacks carried out by the Vikings from the late 8th to the 11th centuries were violent by nature and legendary for their extensive destruction, there is evidence to suggest that the raiders may have merely aimed to gain wealth and fertile land, which they had lacked in the Scandinavian Peninsulas. Not all Vikings lived a nomadic lifestyle; many were content to settle permanently in one area. (David Salariya, Vikings and Their Travels. (Hempstead: Simon and Schuster Books, 1989) 28-29) Some European rulers granted land to Viking settlers, perhaps as an attempt to avoid the attack. These settlers assimilated to the lifestyles of the communities they settled into, even going so far as to reject their own polytheistic religion in favour of Christianity, rather than forcing the inhabitants to convert to their lifestyle and religion (P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, 1).
This willingness by the Vikings to learn the lifestyles of the Europeans suggests that they harboured no ill will towards those they had conquered but were focussed primarily on gaining wealth and fertile land. Taking all aspects of the Viking invasions of Europe into consideration, it is probable that the differing views of the Vikings and their intentions all have some element of truth to them. Portrayed throughout history as a race of brutal, barbaric, bloodthirsty and primitive people, the Vikings devastated many areas of Europe due to their violent campaigns. However, perhaps the generally accepted ‘bad press’ is not entirely warranted. These attacks, while undeniably vicious, were not as mindless as portrayed but were in fact well organised, efficient campaigns carried out to obtain wealth and resources, a tactic that was quite common in the early middle ages and proved to be quite successful. While the Northmen induced a state of fear throughout Europe for well over a century, there is no evidence to suggest that these violent tactics were anything more than the Viking’s attempt to gain free access to the fertile land and wealth of their trading partners throughout Europe.