Tommy L. wants me to write about the culture of vikings. Tommy L. is awesome. Here goes.
There never was a viking culture and there never were any vikings. Vikings as we know them– villains wearing horned helmets who sacked dark-age Europe– were just a name and a story told by people who weren’t vikings. To the northmen, no one was a viking unless he or she was on a viking, which is what they called their raids. In general use, viking was an exonym: a named used by people outside the group. Among themselves, the vikings were known as the Northmen or the Norsemen– not to be confused with the Normans, whom we’ll discuss below.
Norsemen were the people of the Nordic countries. At some point in the 8th century of the Common Era, the Norsemen decided to go sailing and bust some heads. They were a bustling culture already, but advances in art, technology, and specifically seafaring were what spurred the Viking Era.
(At least, that’s one way to look at it. The other way is that growing food in Fennoscandia sucked, and there just wasn’t enough noms to go around, so they had to start traveling. The “we need more room to grow food” reading turns out to be useful for a lot of wars throughout history.)
(And there’s a third way to look at it: Charlemagne might have incited the whole deal. His religious campaigns of conquest might have put the pagan Norsemen on the defensive, which would later provoke them to attack.)
So with their new longships, some shields, some swords, some axes, the twin spirits of adventure and enterprise, some empty bellies, and some religious fervor to taste, the Norsemen went on a viking.
First stop: Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England.
It wasn’t a large raiding party, but they were vicious. The monastery at Lindisfarne for some stupid reason was completely defenseless. In the summer of 793, a handful of Norsemen robbed and killed the monks. The reaction among the English Christians was universal: these men are bloodthirsty pagan barbarians who have come to destroy.
A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine.
“God, save us from the fury of the Northmen.”
The Christians of England were kind of right. That raiding party was brutal and at least a little religiously motivated, but the Norsemen did more trading than raiding– just not at Lindisfarne.
It’s abundantly clear that the “vikings” were not savages. For centuries, their longships were marvels of technology, peerless on the open sea. They sailed to Greenland, and then to Canada, and at neither place did they commit genocide or set off devastating declines in genetic diversity. When the Norsemen invaded your land, they mostly just started farms. They spent much more time planting barley than they did disemboweling monks. More often than not, there was no violence at all when the Norse came to town– just an exchange of goods, which the Norsemen had a lot of. Their tools were some of the best in Europe at the time– as evidenced by their fall-flung travel and impeccable hygiene. (Unlike the English, the Norsemen bathed regularly.)
None of that is to say the vikings were “better.” Norse invaders practiced chattel slavery. Thralls, as they were called, were captured from defeated peoples primarily on the British Isles and forced into private service. Their children were slaves and their children’s children were slaves. They were the lowest rung of society– sold as goods within Norse communities and to the east.
Here’s the part where we discuss Beowulf. Beowulf is an epic poem written during the viking age and about vikings (or at least set in the Nordic countries), but the version that has survived was written by an anonymous Christian Anglo-Saxon in England. Beowulf is a warrior whose buddies get killed by Grendel, so then Beowulf kills Grendel and Grendel’s mom too for good measure, then Beowulf gets old and gets killed by a dragon, the end. Like so much else in history and in viking history specifically, Beowulf is best understood as the result of transactions. The story was likely crafted in Scandinavia, then recounted to the English, then repurposed with a new religious framework over many iterations by the only people who could write: Christian clergy. (It’s also possible the story comes from a totally other culture, and the monks recast the characters as Norse because those were the people who happened to be killing them at the time, so they were on their minds.)
Anyway, this is how the vikings worked: small groups of raiders and traders from dozens of different societies doing commerce when they could and killing when they had to, taking slaves, sometimes planting crops, often moving promptly on. But for a century after Lindisfarne, the vikings of Norway never did what the English feared: they didn’t came back to conquer– until the Great Heathen Army.
In the 9th century, around one thousand Norsemen finally laid claim to the British Isles. They were scuttled and rerouted a few times, but in 878 the vikings were finally defeated outside Bath, not too far from the southern coast of England. The Great Heathen Army sued for peace, and then they just kinda stuck around. Most of the surviving Norsemen converted to Christianity and settled in East Anglia, around where Norwich is now. They came, they saw, they conquered, they lost, then they didn’t actually leave.
Shortly thereafter, a totally different group of vikings skipped England altogether and dropped in on northern France. They liked it there, and in exchange for converting to Christianity, not killing everyone, and fighting off any subsequent vikings, the French surrendered some land that would become Normandy. The viking people of Normandy were called the Normans, and at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 the Normans conquered England. It took three hundred years, but the vikings basically did what everyone feared they would do– except they weren’t called vikings anymore.
The Norsemen also occupied Ireland for a few centuries, and they never really left there either. A bunch of Irish cities and ports were founded by the Northmen, and over time it became less of an occupation and more of a merging. Today, many Americans of Irish descent are also of viking descent, including your humble author, whose name in the northern tradition means “discord and strife.” (In the southern tradition it means “guy who fishes for dolfin,” but I like the first one more.)
The viking era ended sometime around the 13th century, but not because the vikings were ever really defeated. It’s more like they won so slowly and perniciously that they stopped being vikings altogether. Much of viking culture disappeared, co-opted and corrupted by comic books and opera, but the people never did.
That was fun. Thanks for the donation and the topic, Tommy.
Cool viking things to read and see and hear:
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