What was the Vikings' impact on world history? How did they shape developments in the Christian world?

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mrkirschner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Vikings are often mistaken as unmerciful brutes that plundered and destroyed cultures in Europe and around the world. While Vikings were masters at raiding villages and plundering rations, they were equally skilled at establishing trade and forming strong economies. The Vikings were able to create an extensive trade network that extended to all parts of the known world. Their expertise at navigating the rivers of Europe and Asia opened trade in Eastern lands as far east as India and China. Norsemen established trade networks with the Byzantine Empire and further east that Europeans would utilize for their economic benefit for centuries to come.

The strong misconception about the Vikings is that they were uncivilized. Because of this misconception, people may find it remarkable that Vikings established strong city-states throughout Europe and Asia. Despite all the chaos and destruction that the Vikings brought with them, these city-states were some of the best-organized and most dynamic states on the continent. In the Tenth Century, the Vikings established Normandy in western France that operated as an independent state. Descendants of these Vikings are known as the Normans and their exploits in Europe are well documented. After establishing an efficient government in France, they looked towards the north and conquered England in 1066 which laid the foundations for that modern island nation. In the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, the Vikings conquered the southern part of Italy and the island of Sicily where they also established strong states in the Mediterranean. The Normans from this area would become Crusaders and joined the First Crusade in which they conquered Antioch in Syria. The Normans held control of Antioch for nearly two hundred years.

The political influence of the Vikings was not limited to Western Europe. Other Vikings that were known as the Rus moved eastward and founded the first state in the region at Kiev. Russia bears the name of these Viking raiders. Another trading outpost established by the Vikings would become modern-day Moscow. From Russia, the Vikings would make further contact with powerful empires in the Near East. The Rus would raid the Byzantine empire at least once every generation. Byzantine missionaries would eventually travel with the Vikings back to Russia where they introduced Christianity, Byzantine architecture, and the Cyrillic alphabet to Russia. These elements would become staples of Russian culture moving forward.

The case of Russia is not the only example of Viking culture being assimilated through contact. Norse culture had a tremendous impact on England and Ireland. This is particularly true of the language. There are over a thousand words in the English language that are derived from the Norse language because of the impact of the Vikings. These are common words that are used every day around the English-speaking world. By-law, club, slaughter, husband and wing are some common examples. The days of the week strike a resemblance to the Viking gods of Thor and Freya.

In addition to the synthesis of Norse and Germanic languages, the religious tradition of the Vikings has also been influential. The yule log and Christmas tree are both Christian adaptations to Norse traditional religious practices. It is important to note that the archeological record indicates that Vikings were open to worshipping the Christian God alongside their pagan gods. This is demonstrated in excavations of burial sites in France and include. With this in mind, elements of the Viking religion and culture have made their way into Christian tradition including the canonization of Scandinavian kings.

The Vikings also had a dramatic impact on government and economics in Europe. They established elected parliaments in most of the states that they created and established courts with juries. Their form of government was more democratic than the monarchies that they displaced. Economically, the Vikings introduced a coin system that they brought back with them from Arab lands. The coinage system allowed for easier trade and the creation of wealth in Europe. Vikings essentially laid the foundations for mercantilism and modern trade in Europe.

In addition to the socio-economic influence the Vikings had on Europe, they had a dramatic effect on Christianity in Europe. Because monasteries had vast sums of capital and were weakly defended, they were attractive targets for Viking raids. The churches would pay local governments large sums of money to defend the properties from Viking raids. This had a significant economic impact on the church. It also affected the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Western Europe. The Vikings abhorred the idea of a church thousands of miles away governing the beliefs of adherents locally. The Vikings embraced the idea of community beliefs and religious organization. This would impact the future of Christianity in Western Europe in that countries like Germany and England would break from the Catholic Church in the centuries that followed. It can be said that the Vikings weakened the position of the Roman church in Northern Europe.

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