Who were the Vikings?

Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/man-knight-warrior-axe-armor-6027220/
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/man-knight-warrior-axe-armor-6027220/

The Vikings were a group of people that originated from the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. During the 8th to 11th centuries AD, the Vikings sailed across Europe, Africa, and even to North America, for trade, expansion, and theft. This period of time is often referred to as the 'Viking Age', and it was typified by violent clashes between the Vikings and the people they encountered on their travels.


The beginning of the Viking Ages is usually assigned to the Viking attack on a religious monastery in northern England in AD 793. On the island of Lindisfarne, which was only inhabited by monks, the Vikings attacked suddenly and left with anything of value that they could find. To Christian Europe, an attack on a holy site was shocking, and as a result, the Vikings gained a reputation for being greedy, bloodthirsty warriors with no sense of morality.


For the next three centuries, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes attacked any vulnerable community in a similar way. Popular places for Viking attacks included the British Isles, France, Italy and even Russia. In practice, Vikings preferred to attack locations close to the sea, as they were easy to reach. They preferred to strike quickly, hopefully without any warning, steal as much movable wealth as possible, and escape in their ships before anyone could arrange a counterattack. 

Source: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/viking-ship-drakkar-sailing-6366228/
Source: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/viking-ship-drakkar-sailing-6366228/

Who were the Vikings?

Even though we use the term 'Viking' to mean a specific group of people, this isn't really the most accurate use of the word. A 'Viking' was actually a job, and was similar to being a soldier. A person from any Scandinavian country that spent their time raiding other countries for wealth was a 'Viking'. It is easy to think of 'Viking' as something you do, not something you are.


Therefore, anyone from one of the Scandinavian countries that didn't go out and raid were not, technically speaking, a 'Viking'. People from these regions could also be farmers, merchants, metalworkers, or craftsmen. Despite this, most people still talk about these people groups as 'Viking cultures', even though only the warriors were actually doing the 'Viking-ing'.

Why did Vikings begin raiding?

What is surprising to most people, is that the inhabitants of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, had not raided like this ever before. It seems to be a new idea that took on quite quickly. Therefore, modern scholars are trying to work out what motivated these cultures to begin raiding in the first place. There is no simple answer as to why this began, but here are some of the most popular theories:

  1. Climate change had caused a series of bad crops, and starvation forced the Vikings to look for new ways of making money
  2. There was a lack of land in Scandinavia and young men were encouraged to find new homes by invading other countries
  3. The Viking cultures began encountering rich people from other lands through trade and, when they learnt that churches were undefended and very wealthy, they took advantage of the situation for their own gain 


At the time that the Vikings began raiding, they had developed a sophisticated kind of ship that was unique to their culture. Most ocean-going ships had to sit deep in the water to avoid sinking in rough seas. What was remarkable about Viking longships is that they were very shallow. Theoretically, they should not be able to survive a long voyage over open seas. However, Vikings had built them in a way that they could do so. Some longboats were even designed to hold up to 200 men: an ideal size for a raiding party.


The benefit of having shallow ships like this is that they could sail them right up to the beach and disembark very quickly. In the same way, when a raid was finished, they could quickly get back into their ships and sail away. In addition, these ships were also ideal for sailing up rivers, which meant that they could use river systems to raid deep inland and then sail back down the rivers to get away quickly. 

Vikings in North America

With these clever longboats, the Vikings were even able to sail from Europe to North America safely. They managed this by settling at two key locations on the way: Iceland and Greenland. They used these sites as resting places on the long journey. As a result, the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach the Americas, five hundred years before Christopher Columbus.


End of the Viking Age

Most historians date the end of the Viking age to AD 1066. One group of Vikings, called the Normans, had settled in France. The Normans eventually adopted French culture, language, and religion. By 1066, they were not much like the traditional Vikings. However, it was the Normans who invaded England and won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In fact, the process of adopting the cultures of the lands they settled in is what ultimately brought the Viking period to an end. After a few generations, it was no longer obvious who the Vikings were in any given country, because they acted and spoke the same way as the locals. The invaders had even adopted Christianity instead of their traditional gods. Therefore, the Viking essentially disappeared into the rest of European culture.