They helped lay the foundation of a Polish state, indeed of the very idea of Poland itself.

The collapse of Rome and westward migrations 

If you ask a would-be historian to write an article on early medieval European history, they will inevitably trace it back to the Roman Empire. 

However, this historical episode, as argued by many scholars more learned than I, remains a trauma from which Europe has never fully recovered. 

The collapse of Roman authority in Western Europe coincided with what 19th-century historians called the Migration Period, which climaxed around the turn of the 6th century. 

Germanic peoples flooded into the former borders of the Roman Empire from both the north and east. 

The northeastern frontier of what was once Rome never quite touched Polish soil. However, a wealth of archeological evidence from this period suggests some sort of contact, even indirectly, with the might of Rome. 

From about the 6th century, Germanic peoples came into what is now Poland, settling there alongside a Slavic population and the Balts, who inhabited the northern fringes. 

There is an ongoing academic debate about how long Slavic peoples have been in Poland, with old estimates of 1500 years (placing them as one of the many peoples that migrated westward following the collapse of Rome) believed to be incorrect. 

Recent genetic studies have shown that Slavic peoples may have been in what is now Poland for centuries longer. 

By the turn of the 8th century, Poland was populated by a multilingual mix of peoples with Germanic, Baltic, and Slavic backgrounds. 

With its abundant natural resources, large population, and strategic location at the central crossroads of Europe, the area held immense potential for growth and development. 

It would not be long before this glittering prize attracted attention from the north. 

Vikings navigated the Vistula River, leveraging its strategic course to penetrate Poland and extend their reach across Eastern Europe. Photo: Lukasz Pawel Szczepanski / Shutterstock 

The Vikings cometh! 

It is widely believed that the Viking Age began with the famous Viking raid on Lindisfarne, although some, like us at The Viking Herald, prefer to trace it back to an earlier raid on a Baltic Island in 750.

By this time, the West Slavic peoples and the Lechitic were organized into tribal units, and they had settled along the river Vistula and throughout the Baltic basin. 

Just across the Baltic Sea, however, lay Viking societies, and from the latter 8th century onwards, increasing contact – sometimes commercial, sometimes violent – took place between these peoples and the local population of the Baltic basin of Poland. 

This eastern route for Viking peoples would take them from Scandinavia eastward, across much of Poland, to utilize the many river systems of Eastern Europe. 

Their eventual destination, downstream, was the Black Sea, and from here, the riches of the Byzantine and Islamic world. 

To get there, however, they had to cross what is now much of Poland and deal with the local Slavic, Germanic, and Baltic populations. 

Initially drawn by trade prospects, people from Viking societies ventured into the Baltic region, establishing trade networks and engaging in commerce with the local populations. 

Slave traders and Slavic peoples 

Despite the lure of profit, interactions between people from Viking societies and those living in what is now Poland and its surrounding areas were not always peaceful. 

Coastal and river-bound communities were subject to frequent raids and violence. 

Not only were communities devastated by the destruction and looting of property, but many Slavic and Baltic people found themselves captured and entered a life of forced servitude. 

These slaves either served their Viking masters throughout the Viking world or were sold at slave markets (including Dublin) to enter service in the Byzantine or Islamic world. 

The role of slavery in the Viking economy cannot be overstated. 

Not only was it a massive source of free labor for construction and agriculture, which helped build the new Viking settlements in the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and beyond, but it was also a lucrative trade. 

This trade was responsible for a significant amount of wealth pouring into Viking societies. 

The frequency with which these local populations were enslaved by the Vikings was said to have been the origin of the ethnonym "Slav," but modern historians believe this is little more than an apocryphal tale. 

It is true, however, that Slavic populations would remain a target for Viking slave traders for the remainder of the early medieval period. 

Despite the personal and communal violence committed by Vikings, opportunities for more permanent settlements in the fertile lands of Poland soon beckoned. 

Wolin Island in Poland served as a central point for Viking interactions in the region, a legacy commemorated today through the annual Slavic and Viking Festival. Photo: Artur Bociarski / Shutterstock

The Jomsvikings, Wolin, and the formation of the Polish state 

Given the proximity of the Polish Baltic coastline to Scandinavia, it was only a matter of time before people from Viking societies returned to this region with more permanent ambitions. 

One such significant settlement was on the island of Wolin, just off the northwest coast of Poland. This has been identified with the legendary Jomsborg – the fortress home of the mythical Jomsvikings

Not only was this warrior brotherhood seen as the elite Viking mercenary force of its day, but it was also said to have swung many a battle with their ferocity, allowing Sweyn Forkbeard a famous victory, including at Svolder around 1000

Despite recent archeological excavations, there is no conclusive proof that the fortress existed on Wolin, as portrayed in many of the rich tapestries of Norse sagas and literature. 

However, Wolin's strategic location facilitated trade along the Baltic coastline and beyond, especially as Viking societies increasingly sought profit and plunder in the Kievan Rus

It also provided a base for further Viking expeditions into the interior of Poland and its surrounding areas. 

Several local rulers and elites in Poland sought to harness the martial prowess of the Vikings – whether Jomsvikings or not – by employing them as mercenaries and incorporating them into their retinue. 

This strategic alliance between local rulers and Vikings proved equally effective in Poland as in all the lands the Vikings sailed to. 

By the 10th century, rulers such as the founder of the Piast dynasty, Duke Mieszko I, had bolstered the military strength of this newly emerging Polish state and had contributed to its territorial expansion. 

Christianity and other cultural connections 

Similar to Scandinavia, the emergence, spread, and proliferation of Christianity was evident in Poland throughout the early medieval period.

This conversion to Christianity further transformed the dynamics between people from Viking societies and people living in what is now Poland. 

The spread of Christianity brought new religious beliefs and cultural practices into what was, like Scandinavia, a "pagan" region. 

This helped foster ties with Christianized lands in Western Europe, particularly the Frankish realms, while distancing Poland from its pagan roots and past. 

Similar to Scandinavia, Poland's conversion to Christianity was a long process that involved a great deal of violence and bloodshed in the battle for people's souls. 

Nonetheless, by the end of the Viking Age (c. 750 -1100), most of Poland's population had embraced Christianity and aligned themselves with the church in Rome. 

Along with Christianity, cultural exchange played a significant role between people in Viking societies and the many tribes of Poland. 

What would become the Polish language, a western form of the Slavic tongue, absorbed words of Scandinavian origin, including the Polish words for consul, ladder, and key, reflecting the linguistic encounters between the two groups. 

With its picturesque cobblestone streets and magnificent Gothic architecture, Gdansk Old Town offers a glimpse into Poland's Viking-era past, where it served as a bustling hub of trade and cultural interchange. Photo: Zbigniew Guzowski / Shutterstock 

A legacy passed on through the ages 

Towards the end of the Viking Age, the Piast dynasty had established a foothold as rulers over much of what is now Poland. 

Despite ongoing Viking raids, this nascent Polish state was becoming more organized and better equipped to deal with its northern neighbors. 

Recent archeological discoveries continue to shed light on the Viking presence in Poland during this period, including Viking-era ship burials at what is now Gdansk and Swinoujscie. 

However, the less tangible legacy of this Viking contact still reverberates in Poland today. 

From the Norse influence on the geographical landscape to folklore, myths, and legends that intertwine Slavic and Norse elements, to the growing cooperation between Scandinavian and Polish governments (not least in military affairs), the Vikings had left an indelible mark on Poland throughout the ages. 

For a recent exhibition on the links between Poland and the Vikings, visit Norway's History Museum here

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