Vikings were Scandinavian seafaring warriors who, throughout the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, terrorised large swathes of Europe. While at home in Norway, Denmark and Sweden the Viking people were largely independent farmers operating under land-owning chieftains, while abroad they were ruthless opportunists, pillaging lands of their riches in fearsome raids. From the northern reaches of England and Scotland to as far afield as Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and the Americas, no civilisation was safe.
While cross-land raids were frequent, the Vikings became most known for their cross-sea raiding parties, with powerful longships carrying bands of warriors around the seas of Europe – and beyond – in a series of fearsome lightning-strike offensives.
This type of high-speed, undetected attack was what the Vikings specialised in, typically choosing targets that were relatively undefended and then sacking them in a brutal hit-and-run. Any lo ot was then immediately loaded back onto their longboats and returned to their native country, often with nothing more than the smouldering remains of the settlement revealing the Vikings had ever been there.
Of all the nations in Europe it was arguably England that bore the full brunt of the Vikings’ taste for raiding by sea, with a succession of blitz raids and full-on invasions occurring from the late-eighth century right through to the early-iith century.
These led to vast areas of England being taken by the Vikings and numerous clashes with the native rulers. One of the most notable of these was Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex, Alfred the Great. Alfred saw the kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia captured by the Vikings and only through a treaty and then further conflict did he halt the expansion of the Danelaw (Viking societal rules) and their territories.
Interestingly, however, while the age of the Vikings was characterised in western Europe by military conquest, in the east it was typified by trade. Indeed, while there is evidence of sporadic raiding in the Baltic region, no Viking presence was ever enforced here via the sword. In contrast, Viking expeditions into Russia, Turkey and Greece opened up previously non-existing trade routes and commercial revenue streams, with many products, materials and techniques from other cultures returned to Scandinavia.
The Vikings’ dominion came to an end in the 11th century. This was caused by a variety of factors, but none more so than their geographic and cultural dispersion. In making expeditions and raids throughout the world -ranging from Newfoundland to Byzantium – foreign culture, religion and practices were carried back to Scandinavia, all of which had a significant influence on the Norse inhabitants. While in the eighth century Vikings were largely poor pagan people living off the land and ruled by chieftains across a host of segmented kingdoms, by the late-iith century Denmark, Norway and Sweden were becoming unified countries, Christianity had taken root, towns had been transformed into administrative centres and market sites, and established royal dynasties had emerged. By the 12th century the marauding way of life was simply no longer popular – or indeed necessary.
Today, the influence of the Viking era is marked. Many modern towns and cities can trace their roots to Vikings (such as Scarborough in northern England), while many words that are now in common use were introduced from the Old Norse tongue. For example, ‘bag’ stems from the Old Norse word ‘baggi’). Further, studies of genetic diversity have shown that many individuals to day across the planet possess the Y chromosome haplogroup I-M253, which is a strong indicator of Scandinavian descent.
According to evidence discovered at various archaeological sites – such as bones, seeds and other remains Vikings ate a great deal of domestic and wild meats, as well as foraged foods such as nuts and berries. Meat tended to be either boiled in large stewing cauldrons or roasted on spits directly over the fire. Prior to cooking, some meats and often fish – were smoked and dried for preservation. Vikings also ate a lot of bread, which was made from rye or barley flour, while they used animal milk to make dairy goods like cheese and butter. Common beverages included ale, mead and buttermilk.
The final journey
Viking burial customs were diverse, with everything from tumuli burials – large earthen tombs – to runestone-marked pits and cremation. One of the most famous practices was the ship burial. This entailed laying the deceased along with grave offerings on a wooden ship – either on land or on water – and then covering it with a huge pile of stones and soil or setting it alight. Interestingly, the concept of the longship in relation to funerals in the Viking age was very strong, with even certain tumuli and runestone markers laid out in a ship pattern. This came from a belief that the deceased were making their final journey to Valhalla – Norse heaven.