History of the Vikings
(SCAND 370 / HSTAM 370)
Several overheads are shown in class in connection with the
lectures for the History of the Vikings course. Because of the large
number of students in the class and the occasional difficulty in seeing
the screen, the information from the overheads is given below to
supplement student's class notes only.
A Viking by Any Other Name...(Names by which the Vikings
- Normanni (France, Continent)
- Northmen, Danes, Host, Heathens (England)
- Lochlannach - "Northmen" (Ireland)
Lochlann - Irish name for Norway and Norwegian area of Scotland
- Gall - "Foreigner" (Celtic/Ireland) as in "Galloway"
- Finn-Gall - White Foreigner - (Norwegians?) (Ireland)
- Dubh-Gall - Black Foreigner - (Danes?)as in "Dubh-linn" (Ireland)
- Ruotsi - "Swedes" ("Rowers") (Finland)
- Rus or Ros - probably related to Ruotsi - (Russia, Byzantium)
- Varangian - probably related to Varyag, ie. trader/merchant
- Al-Madjus - "Heathen" (Spain)
- Ascomanni - "Ashmen" (Germany)
- Adam of Bremen in Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclasiae
notes that "Ascomanni" is a name used by the Germans, but that the
pirates "call themselves, Viking."
Origin of the term "Viking:"
Several explanations for the etomology of Viking have been suggested. The four below are the most commonly cited:
- Viken - region around the Oslofjord - east and west shores. However,
people here used the term "Vestfaldingi," rather than "Viking."
- Wic - meaning "settlement, or camp." Possibly related to latin term
- Vik - bay, inlet. Perhaps because many Scadinavians/Vikings lived in
areas in/near bays, inlets.
- Vikja - verb meaning "to leave, to turn away from, to depart." Used
in modern Scandinavian languages as "vike av" (to turn away). Fritz
Askeberg in Norden och Kontinenten i Gammal Tid(1944) argued that
"Viking" probably originated as a verb to describe the action to describe
those who leave, turn away from home to pursue a particular type of
activity - ie. raiding, as opposed to trading.
Some Major Written Sources:
- Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclasiae Pontificum
(History of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen) 1070-75. Adam was
a German cleric working for the Archbishopric in northern Germany that had
responsibility for the conversion of the Nordic pagans, ie. Vikings.
Danish king, Sven Estridsson, a Christian, is one of Adam's informants.
Adam is the first documentary source to mention "Vinland" in the
historical record and tells us that grapes were found there. His source
may have been the Icelandic cleric, Isleif Gizursson.
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Record of the struggle of the
Anglo-Saxons (English) against the Viking raiders. Begun by Alfred the
Great in the 880s; ended in 1140.
- Universal History of Orosius This is a 9th century English
translation of a manuscript by a Spanish monk's history of the world.
Important because of two additions made by the English - Ottar's journey
along the coast of Norway and Wulfstan's journey into the Baltic.
- War of the Irish with the Foreigner 12th century mss. Colorful,
quotable, anti-pagan ramblings of Irish monks. Internally contratidictive
and largely inaccurate. It has been characterized as "wonderful
- Annals of St. Bertin (Bertinianni Annals) 9th century France. Royal
court and church records of Viking activity in France, Seine River valley.
Louis the Pious meets "vikings" with delegation of diplomats from
Constantinople in 839. Two principal authors: (a) Prudentius, Bishop
of Troyes, 843-861 and (b) Hincmar, Bishop of Rheims, 845-882.
- Gesta Normannorum, by Dudo of San Quentin. Account of the
Norman Dukes, including founding of the Duchy of Normandy.
- Asser's Life of King Alfred. 10th century. Life of King Alfred
of Wessex, 871-899.
- Vita Anskari, by Rimbert. 9th century. Life of St. Ansgar,
Christian missionary to Scandinavia in first half of 9th c.
- Constantine Porphyrogenitus, On the Administrtion of the
Empire. AD 1054. Byzantine handbook by the 10th century emperor.
Gives detailed account of the RUS trade and the trade route down the
- The Russian Primary Chronicle. early 13th century mss. but
based on compilations no earlier than 11th century. Accepted as guide to
mid-10th century and later. Written in Kiev, tels of the coming of the RUS
- Ibn Fadlan. 10th century Arab diplomat. Encountered RUS at the mouth
of the Volga River and writes of his experiences in AD 922. Mss. serves as
the basis of Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead and the film
The 13th Warrior.
- Ducuil, De mensura orbis terrae 825 CE. Irish monastic scholar
and grammarian. Tells of visit of Irish hermits to Iceland. Notes the
"perpetual day" of the northen latitudes and volcanic activity.
- Islendingabok (Book of the Icelanders), written by Ari
(The Learned) Thorgilsson in late 11th century. Short account of the
discovery, settlement and Christianization of Iceland.
- Landnamabok (Book of Settlements). Early 13th century. Account
of main families of Iceland and settlement.
- Heimskringla (Sagas of the Norse Kings), Account of the Viking
kings of Norway in the Viking age written by Snorre Sturlason.
- Poetic Edda. Various poems from the Viking age, including
- Prose Edda. Stories and accounts from the Viking age, compiled
primarily by Snorre Sturlasson. Includes information and lore needed by
the Skaldic poets.
- Scaldic poetry, preserved primarily in Iceland.
- Family sagas from Iceland in 13th century, include Laxdaela
Saga, Njal's Saga, and Egil's Saga among many
others. There are some 30 family sagas.
- Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, late 12th-early 13th centuries.
Latin history of the Danes. Blends myth and legen of pre-Christian period,
incl. Vikings. Source of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Causes of Vikings Expansion
Vikings activity was motivated by several factors. Different factors
undoubtedly influenced activity at different times.
- External Threats. Reaction to real and perceived threats from
the the Carolingian Empire and the aggressive conversions carried
out by Charles the Great (Charlemagne) in the late 8th cenhtury,
especially against the Saxons. Scholars in recent years have assessed this
possible cause as among the most compelling explanations of early Viking
activity, especially in the western Baltic and along the North Sea and
- Desire for adventure and riches. The would be manifested by
small-group prirate raids in the early Viking period. Increased in
intensity as decades passed.
- Commerce and Trade. This activity occurs throughout the Viking age
and sometimes parallels raiding and settlement activity. Swedish vikings
emphasized trade and individuals, such as Ottar (Othere) [cited in 9th century English
translation of Orosius Universal History]
was a "trader," not a "raider."
- Colonization and Settlement. This becomes a major factor of Viking
expansion after mid-9th century, especially in England, Normandy, North
- Military/Political Expansion. With the emergence of the nation
states of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Viking raiding assumes the character
of invading national armies. This most apparent with the Danish invasions
of the early 11th century let by Svein Forkbeard and Knut the Great and the
1066 attack on England spearheaded by Harald Hardrade.
- Overpopulation and Enticements of New Land. The growing population
of Scandinavia, especially in the coastal areas of Norway and the
Danish islands, have surpassed the limits of available resources
and available farm land. There is an internal migration, especially
in Sweden and eastern Norway, but many choose to migrate across the
North Sea as earlier Germanic peoples (Jutes, Angles and Saxons) had
done in centuries past.
- God's Punishment. This explanation was prominent among Christian
clerics in the early Viking period. Alcuin explained the surprising attack
on Lindisfarne monastary in 793 CE by claiming that God was unhappy with
the English for "turning away from God" and therefore, sending the Vikings
as evidence of his wrath.
The 13th century manuscript (mss.) Hirdskra, a law code in Norway
from approx. AD 1270 claims:
"Weapons in war are trust and protection, in peace, honor and distinction,
and they represent good capital investments available for whatever needs
may arise in any emergency."
The personal weapons of a Viking were importan and large sums of money
could be spent on them. In addition, craftsmen clearly expended enormous
energy and ingenuity on the decoration of weapons. Principal weapons
- iron hat (helmet)
- bow and arrow
- chaim mail - used occasionally, but very expensive;
most soldiers probably substituted reindeer hides or sheepskin.
Rigsthula is a poem which describes the origin of the class system.
The structure, as described in the poem, is rigid and seems to be based on
an agricultural model. The account attributes the origin to the divine
intervention of the god Heimdal as the father of the first of the male
line in each of the three classes.
The poem is probably from the 10th century, but the oldest manuscript
dates from the mid-14th century.
- Slave class - Workers: Thrall
- Middle Class - Farmers: Karl
- Upper Class - Leaders/Chieftans: Jarl (Earl)
Writing in 13th century Iceland, Snorre Sturlasson (1178-1241) preserved
for all time the accounts of the gods and mythical heroes of the Viking
age. His dramatic Heimskringla is the story of the Norse kings to
the coming of King Sverre in 1177 and the Edda presents the
religious ideology and mythical literature with a remarkable versification
of old Norse poetry.
Before there were men and gods there was the great void, Ginnungagap.
North of this void was Niflheim, dark and misty. South of the void was
Muspell, fiery and hot. From their cataclysmic union was born the giant
Ymir, nourished by the "great cosmic cow," Audumbla emerging from the
melting frost, licking the salty ice blocks and fashioning a human form,
Buri. Buri had a son Bor who had three sons, Vili, Ve, Odin. Killing Ymir,
they formed the world and from driftwood along the shor, created the
first man and woman.
The earth was a round disk(?) surrounded by the ocean. The world of men
was Midtgård, the world of the giants was Jotunheimen, the world of
the gods was Åsgård. Here was the Hall of the Slain,
Valhalla. Central to the world was the great ash tree, Yggdrasil, the
branches of which reached to the shy and covered the earth.
Among the principal gods, Adam of Bremen tells us that a trinity of sorts
were worshipped at the great temple of Uppsala. Odin, Thor and Frey.
Two families of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir.
The Aesir, militaristic dieties headed by Odin, had overcome the Vanir in
some prehistoric confrontation that may well have been a mere cultural
reminder of the displacement of an earlier culture by the Germanic
tribes during the migration period of the late Iron Age. In the Prose
Edda, Snorre gives us numerous stories explaining the roles of the gods,
giants and numerous other spirits and beings.
Catalysts for evil and destruction emerges
gradually in the person of Loki and his three offspring, the Fenris Wolf,
the World Snake and Hel, the guardian of the underworld. Odin's search
for wisdom and knowledge preoccupies his time and efforts as he tries
vainly, it turns out, to save his perfect som, Baldur, whose death is
prophysied as the beginning episode of the final days leading to the great
battle between the forces of good and evil, Ragnarok.
Questions to consider:
Has Ragnarok happened? If not, why? How is the heroic portrayed in the
conflicts represented in the mythology? How does it differ from the
portrayal of the heroic in the Sagas? Does it? What is a hero in Norse
Odin: Gungnir - Spear; Draupnir - Ring; Sleipnir - Horse; Hugin & Munin - Odin's Ravens
Thor/Tor: Mjolnir - Hammer; Girdle of Might/Strength=Giving Belt; Iron Gauntlet; Two Goats
Baldur: Odin's perfect son whose death brings about Ragnarok
Tyr: early warrior god, Tacitus said he was equivalent of Mars, sword god
Heimdal: Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge(Bifrost)
Frey: also known as Yngvi-Frey: gog of fertility; Skidbladnir (ship); Gullinborsti (boar)
Freya: female fertility diety; Brisingarmen (shining neclace thought to represent the rising sun).
Njord: god of fertility. Father of Frey and Freya. Associated with earlier fertility dieties such as Nerthus. Njord rules over wind and sea and is god of seafarers and fishermen. Njord name appears in coastal area place names in Norway and Iceland, inland in Sweden(near lakes).
Loki: the catalyst of chaos and trouble. Originally a practical joker, trickster and troublemaker who gradually becomes more evil. Closest god to a "devil" in Norse religioh. He is nemisis of gods but also their friend and helper. Plays many roles. Responsible for the death of Baldur and coming of Ragnarok.
Loki has three offspring: The World Snake (Jormungand); The Fenris Wolf; and Hel (Female guardian of the Underworld).
After the Mid-Term
Vikings in England
A great deal has been written about Vikings in England. The documentary
record, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is extensive as is the
archeological record. Viking activity in England begins with the attack on
Lindisfarne on June 8, 793, and ends with the battle of Stamford Bridge on
September 25, 1066. In between there are three distinct periods:
- Period of pirate raiding featuring hit and run attacks. No permanent
presence. AD 793 to approx AD 850.
- Period of Settlement. Large raiding armies enter England and spend
longer periods. Over-wintering in the early years, then around AD 876, the
Vikings begin the process of settlement/land-taking. Treat of Wedmore in
AD 878 sets up a divided England with Anglo-Saxons in the south, in
Wessex, and Danes/Norwegian in the north, in the Danelaw.
- Period of national armies. Beginning in the 990s, the character of
the Viking onslaught changes to be conflicts of national armies as Denmark
under Svein Forkbeard and Knud the Great conquer England by 1013, forcing
the exile of the Anglo-Saxon Ethered the Unready. Knud reigns as a
Christian king until his death in 1035 when he is succeeded by Edward the
Confessor. Edward's death in January, 1066, leads to the final showdown
of forces at Stamford Bridge and Hastings in September and October, 1066.
Vikings in France
Coastal raids in the western Carolingian empire include raids of numerous
towns, monastaries and churches. In AD 845, Vikings sail up the Seine
river for the first time, all the way to Paris, which is sacked on Easter
Sunday. Leader supposedly was Ragnar. West Frankish king, Charles the
Bald, paid a "danegeld" (ransom) and Vikings left. Another raid on Paris
occured in AD 858. The largest raid on Paris, according to documentary
sources was the "massive" attack in AD 885-86. Paris was defended by 200
men led by Bishop Gozlin and Count Odo. Reportedly, 40,000 Northmen came
up the Seine river and beseiged Paris for 11 months when King Charles the
Fat paid a Danegeld to get them to depart.
In AD 896, Rollo enters the documentary record with a brief mention, but
it is in AD 911 that he signs a treaty with King Charles the Simple and
becomes the first Duke of Normandy. Giving the Vikings/Northmen/Normans
the land at the mounth of the Seine River, this transfer of land to Rollo
and his men (who were in possession of it anyway) established the Duchy of
Normandy and served to protect Paris from future Viking raids. One hundred
and fifty-five years later, Rollo's direct descendent, William of
Normandy, will lead an invasion of England in 1066.
The North Atlantic
Iceland was discovered and explored by several individuals before
settlement began in the middle of the 9th century with Ingolfr Arnarsson.
By AD 930, the population had reached a point where land was scarce and
conflict frequent. A decision to develop a national assembly led to the
appointment of a national lawspeaker, Ulfljot, who had studied the law of
the Gulating in Norway before returning to Iceland to the establishment of
the Althing at Thingvellir. A natural volcanic amphitheater, Thingvellir
became the site of the annual assembly for Iceland.
Condemned to outlawry in the latter part of the 10th century, Erik the Red
left Iceland and explored Greenland for three years before returning to
market the property and encourage settlement. A new daughter colony from
Iceland was established at two sites, the Eastern Settlement and the
Western Settlement, along the west coast of Greenland. Erik the Red make
his home at Brattahlid. From here, around the year AD 1000, the son of
Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson, sailed west and established an new settlement
at a place called Vinland. Like Iceland and Greenland before it, Vinland
was probably a region. Explorer/writer Helge Ingstad of Norway discovered
a Viking settlement site in northern Newfoundland in the late 1950s which
was probably a part of Vinland. Anne Stine Ingstad led the excavatioon of
the site at L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, finding a spindle
whorl of Soapstone, a pin, and evidence of two castings of bog iron.
Eight house sites and a smitty were subsequently identified over the years
The Vinland site probably lasted no more than a generation. Conflicts with
the native people, called "Skraelings," pressured the Vikings and the
westenmost site was subsequently abandoned. Greenland lived on until the
late 15th century when it too, probably due to the changes in weather,
Iceland remained the most successful and lasting of the most western
Viking settlements, but the memory of the others remained and the
archeology has also confirmed the saga records. It might even be that a
sailor in the 1470s visiting Iceland on an English ship from Bristol heard
stories of land to the west. That sailor, seeking to make a name and
fortune for himself, called himself Christoph Colon, but is known to
history as Christopher Columbus.
The End of the Viking Age
Copyright © 2013 Department of Scandinavian Studies,
University of Washington,
Seattle, WA 98195-3420