The Viking World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in the year A.D. 793, “ravaging of the heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne through plunder and slaughter.” Those heathen men were probably Norwegian Vikings who had crossed the North Sea to raid the Lindisfarne monastery. With that attack the age of the Vikings had commenced.

In the old Scandinavian language the word “viking” (or more accurately, “vikingr”) meant pirate or raider. The word still conjures up a picture of hordes of ruthless barbarians descending on peaceful monasteries and coastal towns, bringing terror and destruction. “Stinging hornets,” “fearful wolves,” “wrathful, foreign, purely pagan people,” are some of the epithets that Christian chroniclers of the early Middle Ages used to describe the Vikings. For well over two centuries, the Northmen massacred, burned, plundered, and enslaved the communities and people of Western Europe, leaving a permanent memory of havoc and horror. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the Vikings themselves delighted in their own bloodthirstiness: in the words of a tenth century Icelandic poet, “I’ve been with sword and spear slippery with bright blood where the kites wheeled. And how well we Vikings clashed! Red flames ate up men’s roofs, raging we killed and killed; and skewered bodies sprawled sleepy in town gate-ways.”

The attack on the Lindisfarne monastery was a hit-and-run affair, as were subsequent raids on other monasteries and towns on the east coast of England and Scotland in the next few years. Then, in the early ninth century, the Norwegian Vikings were joined by other pirates from Denmark, and the attacks on the British Isles became more frequent and were carried out by larger numbers. In the mid-ninth century, the Vikings began no longer to raid and return home but to establish permanent bases along the coasts of England and Scotland where they would spend the winter and prepare for new raids further inland in the following spring. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the year 865 “a great heathen army came to England and took up its winter quarters in East Anglia.” In the following year that army moved to capture the English town of York, and within a few years had seized control of most of eastern England from York to London. The Vikings had come to settle and stay.

To the west, Norwegian and Danish Vikings commenced their raids on the east coast of Ireland in the mid-ninth century and soon, as in eastern England, they had established winter bases. One of these bases, called “Dubh-Linn,” would, in time, become the chief settlement of the Scandinavians in Ireland, and the place from where they launched new raids up the rivers and along the coasts of Ireland.

The Viking attacks upon the continent of Europe also commenced in the mid-ninth century. As a monk of the Frankish monastery of Nourmoutier would write in the 860’s, “the number of ships grows: the endless stream of Vikings never ceases ... the Vikings plunder all in their path ... Rouen is laid waste, plundered and burned: Paris, Beauvais, Meaux taken, Melun’s strong fortress leveled to the ground... .”

Unable to drive the Vikings off, the local rulers of England and Frankland tried to bribe the raiders to leave the Christian communities in peace. The bribes were at first only one-time payoffs, but that seemed to have whetted the Viking appetite for more; so, they became regular periodic payments, known as the Dangeld. From contemporary French records, one learns that some thirteen Dangeld payments were made by the French kings in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that they totaled some seven hundred pounds of gold and more than forty-three thousand pounds of silver.

The causes or reasons for the aggressive irruptions of the Scandinavian Vikings in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries can only be guessed. Certainly the search for wealth must have been a primary motivation. Pressures of increased population in the Scandinavian homelands apparently drove many to seek new land for settlement and stimulated what the Vikings called “landtaking”: the seizure of additional territories. Also, it appears that strife among the warrior aristocracy in the Scandinavian kingdoms led many to become pirates and conquerors of distant lands.

More important, however, was the development of the famous Viking longships in the eighth century, which both stimulated and made possible the swift and successful raids from the Shannon to the Seine and from the Rhine to the Rhone over the next two hundred years. One of the longest chapters of The Viking World is therefore devoted to a detailed explanation of the construction of the longships and other Scandinavian vessels. Shipbuilding methods are explained, and drawings of typical ships are presented, based on recent and on-going archaeological discoveries in Scandinavian burial sites. It has been determined that the Vikings built ships of several different types, depending on whether they were to be used for raiding or trading. The longships were those built for speed. They were long and slender (approximately sixty feet by eight feet) with a very shallow draft which enabled them to make landings directly on beaches. They were primarily propelled by oars, but carried a short mast and square sail to be used when possible. Modern reconstructions of the longships have attained speeds of seven knots and more under oars. The Vikings themselves did the rowing and the navigation. They steered by the stars, the angle of the ocean swells, and the prevailing winds and landmarks. Using these...

(The entire section is 2304 words.)