The Vikings. A people that have captivated the modern world and sparked great admiration of their kind. But who really were the Vikings, and how did their society collapse? The word “Viking” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “one of the pirate Norsemen plundering the coasts of Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries”. In the mind of modern man, however, “Viking” seems to simply denote someone of historic Scandinavian ancestry.
Scandinavian does not actually equate to Viking, and every Viking was not Scandinavian. Furthermore, the Merriam-Webster definition also seems flawed, as, in actuality, the Viking age did not end until the 11th century – though, to be fair, it was at the very start of this century. So who were the Vikings and what did they do? Records of these people today remain limited, given that most accounts we have of the Vikings came either from their victims.
who would, of course, have some bias in their recounting, or from Scandinavian sources that were not written until centuries after the actual Viking Age.From what we know, the majority of the pirates we refer to today as Vikings came from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, with some others hailing from Finland and Estonia. These people were Norse and differed from the growing number of Christians that surrounded them.
They were generally viewed by the societies they invaded as “uncivilized foreigners”. The goal of the Vikings, as most historians have found, was riches. Their methods, however, were what often deemed them to be greatly uncivilized and dangerous. Although they were not necessarily war-loving or blood-lusting people, they still wasted no time in massacring those who resided in the places they plundered.
Additionally, since the Vikings were not driven by religion and simply wanted to raid targets that would prove easy to access and would provide a plethora of booty, one of their frequent destinations for forays became monasteries, which further pushed the narrative for the horrified Christian Europeans that these people were barbarous savages.
One raid, in particular, often recognized as the commencement of the Viking Age, was then unsurprisingly carried out on a monastery. On June 8, 793, off the coast of Northumberland, the Lindisfarne monastery was stormed by a group of Scandinavian pirates. These Vikings were not intending to destroy the building.
but they did still cause damage throughout their looting of the monastery’s relics and valuable possessions; and even worse, sending a shockwave through the unsuspecting European world, they massacred every monk who stood in their way and sold the survivors into slavery. This was only the start of the new reign of terror that many Europeans would face under the Viking dominance, but things were still not as simple as they may seem.
The Vikings were different than other invaders in multiple regards, with one being the fact that they had absolutely no goals of building an empire or establishing colonies. Remember, these were pirates, not a nation or even an ethnic group. What made a Viking just that was his career of raiding and plundering. So, although the Vikings began voyages to invade and steal from territories.
throughout Europe and even North America on a regular basis, they had no plans of maintaining any of these lands for themselves. The absolute main focus of the Vikings was always money, and they just didn’t view colonization as a very lucrative route. Instead, these Scandanavian pirates used a combined method of raiding, trading, and slave selling to build up their income and worth.
To really grasp the extent to which the Vikings would go to gain their riches, it may be important to remember that they, at one point, even attempted to sack the holy city of Constantinople itself in 860. The Byzantines were ultimately the more powerful opponent and were able to protect their land and possessions, but the Viking enthusiasm is still evident.
Furthermore, the Byzantines were actually impressed with these foreign invaders, and some Vikings were even hired to join the emperor’s personal guard after the raid ceased. They were also able to set up a few trading towns throughout the region so the Vikings could trade with the Byzantines in the future as opposed to further raids. Shortly after this unexpected success, the Vikings began to realize that they could actually make more money by executing milder raids and essentially ransoming the possessions.
they stole back to the people they stole them from, or allowing themselves to be paid off to avoid raiding some targets, whilst continuing their trade elsewhere. This resulted in the Vikings obtaining the land that would soon become the Duchy of Normandy when the Frankish king was unable to bribe them by any other means of payment.
This led to a group of Vikings staying in Normandy and beginning to assimilate with the French Christian culture. The rest of the Vikings, however, changed trajectory and made their way up to what is now the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to continue their raiding and trading ways. This directed them to another exception from the overarching goal of taking no land though.
Whether it was their initial plan or not, between 865 and 878, the Vikings not only plundered but conquered the Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. While these Vikings never really established a true state or centralized government over the occupied territories, they did establish the Danelaw, which gave them some legal power, as well as cultural and linguistic influence,
throughout all three kingdoms. This feat was both impressive and unanticipated, but it was not a long-lived success on the part of the Vikings. In 927, the neighboring kingdom of Wessex launched an incursion into the Viking-occupied region in hopes of reclaiming the Saxon lands. They were successful in this endeavor, and the Kingdom of England was created from the union of the 4 separate entities.
From this point, the Vikings reverted back to their foundational habits, particularly targeting monasteries in Ireland across the way, and capturing some of the inhabitants to sell into the slave-trade as they had previously done with the Slavs and Western monks. When the Scandinavian pirates stumbled across Iceland next though, they did chose to settle the island.
as it was an easy target with no resistance. This is about the time that the Viking Age as a whole began to change. One significant development was the increasing number of Norsemen converting to Christianity, in response to missionary efforts by the Christians and simply being exposed to the religion through their travels. Near the end of the 10th century, the number of converts drastically increased, and a notable amount of these new Christians were of the Scandinavian elite.
While the sudden boom in Christianity was a change for the Viking Age, the only impact it really had on the Vikings’ behavior initially was simply that some began to call their raids Crusades now. At home, however, this new relationship with fellow Christian nations and the religion as a whole seemed to impact the statehood within the Scandinavian nations and began a markedly slow shift toward the countries that make up that region today.
and over time the new nobles and leadership within the area began to crack down on the Vikings’ less civilized endeavors. This was the beginning of the end of the Viking Age. As the culture and lifestyle of the Scandinavians and their pirates began to adapt to the world around it, the Viking life began to fade on its own. In an environment that no longer encouraged it to grow, and moreover tried to prevent it from expanding.
further, the Viking’s influence and power dwindled over the next decades. 1066 is generally marked as the final year of the Viking Age in particular. When Harald III, King of Norway, attempted to invade and seize part of England, his troops were presently crushed by those of the Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, and Harald III himself was killed during the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
This was the last significant Viking invasion of anywhere in Europe and is generally seen as the collapse of the Vikings as they had once been known… So why did this happen? Why did the Vikings collapse? Well, the answer is not as clear as one might hope. Even the Battle of Stamford Bridge was not some type of huge catalyst in the Vikings’ downfall.
Yes, it is usually seen as the official end of the age, but, the Vikings’ way of life had already been fizzling out. The introduction and mass conversion to Christianity might, of all things, be the main factor in this slow fade out, but even more, it was the decision of the new Scandinavian nobility to discourage and eventually put an end to the Viking raids and incursions that really began to seal the coffin.
It was essentially a fairly modest chain of events that in time led to a society that no longer allowed the Vikings’ most prosperous acts to continue, sequentially bringing an end to their lifestyle, culture, and any global influence or power. People would still write about the Vikings for centuries to come, and a slightly skewed view of their legacy has lived on even today. But, nonetheless, the Viking Age came to end almost as easily as it had begun.
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