Over the course of just under three centuries, the Vikings spread throughout Europe and beyond, raiding, settling, exploring, and trading with all manner of people across four continents.
They left such a strong impression that they are still talked about all over the world today. But what kind of impact did they have at the time, and how did they help shape the course of history?
The Viking Herald investigates!
The Viking Age marked a turning point in European defensive warfare, as the Norse conquests and raids prompted the construction of extensive fortifications and fostered greater military collaboration among European powers. Illustration: The Viking Herald
1) Shaped defensive warfare in Europe
The Vikings were a clear existential threat to the people of Europe. First, isolated raids caused fear and panic along the coasts. Then came the ever-increasing incursions inland.
Finally, the military might of the Norse grew to such an extent that they were soon conquering great swathes of land and threatening major seats of power.
Their attacks demanded a reaction, of course, and the leaders in these countries often looked to unite in ever greater numbers in a desperate bid to retain power.
In simple terms, until this time, it was often enough to ensure you had a larger and better army than any of your neighbors.
Yet if you were suddenly faced with the prospect of large, hostile forces – like the Great Heathen Army – appearing swiftly and unexpectedly from overseas, it was essential to be able to call on a far larger number of men and arms at any one time.
The Vikings also caused local leaders to work harder on building up defenses – King Alfred and his successors, for example, constructed a series of "burhs," or fortresses, specifically to defend against the Northmen.
While many other factors were undoubtedly at play, the greater concentration of forces in Western Europe during this time arguably helped pave the way for the later development of nation-states.
By showcasing the potential of sea power through their long-distance voyages and raids, the Vikings significantly influenced the naval capabilities of European powers, paving the way for the era of naval exploration and conflict. Illustration: The Viking Herald
2) Demonstrated the true value of sea power
The Viking longboats were both a serious, devastating weapon of war and a unique mode of long-distance exploration.
Of course, it is impossible to determine the extent to which witnessing the Vikings' seafaring exploits inspired Europeans to develop their own naval capabilities.
At the same time, it seems certain that their feats will have left a searing impression in the collective memory of Western Europe.
There is a reason that Alfred the Great encouraged the construction of the first full-scale navy of England after his people were threatened by the invading Viking hordes.
As one of the first peoples in Europe to employ ships in raiding, trading, and exploration expeditions of such vast distances, the Norse arguably laid down a gauntlet for other peoples to seek out naval domination.
This challenge would later be fully taken up by countries like England, Spain, France, and Portugal, eventually culminating in the Golden Age of Discovery and brutal naval warfare in the form of clashes such as the Battle of Trafalgar.
With their journeys to regions as varied as the Mediterranean and North America, the Vikings played a crucial role in interlinking the medieval world. Illustration: The Viking Herald
3) Linked north, south, east, and west
The Norse were not, of course, the only people to roam the lands of Europe in the chaotic period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of larger kingdoms and territories of the Middle Ages.
In the Great Migration Period, the Franks, Goths, Huns, Angles, and many others all played their part in spreading terror, chaos, and culture throughout the continent and beyond.
Yet the extent of the Vikings' activity was truly astonishing – they roamed farther, invaded more countries, and generally had a larger impact than many of the other groups that preceded them.
This kind of mobility is also, of course, extremely conducive to the spread of both trade and culture.
Although it is in many ways hard to truly measure the extent of the latter, we do have solid evidence of how the Vikings traded goods from all corners of the known world, demonstrating their reach and influence.
At Hedeby alone, artifacts from all parts of Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the Byzantine Empire have been discovered, indicating that the Vikings traded as far south as Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
The Vikings were also the first people to complete the circle of human migration from Africa around the globe.
Here, though, their legacy was short-lived.
Yes, they may have been the first humans to travel west and encounter the indigenous people of the American continent who had journeyed east so many thousands of years ago.
However, the swift departure of the Norsemen from the shores of Canada meant the significance of this reconnection would only become truly realized nearly 500 years later through the voyages of Christopher Columbus.
Norse deities like Thor and Loki, once central to Viking legends, have been reimagined for a global audience in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, highlighting the timeless appeal of these mythological figures. Illustration: The Viking Herald
4) Legends that have lasted through the ages
There was clearly something truly powerful about the Germanic/Nordic legends told over the centuries throughout Scandinavia and beyond.
Christianity was dominant across almost all of Europe by the end of the Viking Age, and the belief in Norse gods dwindled to near non-existence in a remarkably short period.
Yet, the compelling nature of Norse mythology is so strong that it has survived and thrived beyond the emergence of Christianity and the many efforts to suppress it, not only in the famous sagas of Iceland but also through fairy tales, literature, and epic stories passed down from generation to generation.
Arguably, though, it is only since the 19th century that Norse mythology has truly emerged as a well-known and more appreciated aspect of European culture.
Viking assemblies, known as Tings, where free men and landowners collectively decided on laws, played a foundational role in shaping the early political structures that would influence democracy in Northern Europe. Illustration: The Viking Herald
5) The stirrings of democracy in Northern Europe
Although it would be an exaggeration to say that the Vikings founded democracy – there are many earlier examples of democratic systems, while there was certainly no truly democratic voting in Scandinavia during the Viking Age – the Norse did play their part in shaping the political structures of North-West Europe.
Most notably, the Tingstads, or Tings, were a common type of assembly in countries such as Sweden in this era.
Here, the local chieftain gathered with free men and landowners to decide upon the laws and rules of the land.
Although this was not a genuine democratic system, as many people were excluded and the most powerful often held sway, attendees were usually encouraged to air their opinions.
Decisions were often made collectively, contrasting with many other systems of that time.
It's undeniable that the Norse exported their system of governance as well; evidence of this is found in the widespread "ting" sites discovered across Britain.
Indeed, Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man, which lays claim to being the oldest continuous parliament in the world, was founded by Vikings.
It should be noted, however, that it is also extremely difficult – if not impossible – to gauge the extent to which the Norse approach influenced the later emergence of democratic institutions outside of Scandinavia.
One thing is for sure, however: in another thousand years, everyone will still be talking about the Vikings.
For more information on what made Vikings so successful in warfare, even against their own, read an article by Science Nordic here.
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