The Viking attack on Lindisfarne, in England, on June 7, 793 CE is generally agreed as the start of the "Viking Age." The Vikings were a seafaring people from what is now modern Scandinavia that left a large imprint on European history from the 8th to 11th centuries CE. Though most of Viking society was employed with farm labor, the fearsome nature of its warriors, who raided much of Europe in their notorious longships, has left a deep legacy on European culture and history.
The age of Vikings is neatly bookended, by modern historians, with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE when the Norman army of William the Conqueror defeated an Anglo-Saxon army of Harold Godwinson. From this point on in history, the "Vikings" appear to almost vanish from historical records. However, this is not one of history's great disappearing acts. To put it simply, the Vikings did not disappear, but they assimilated into many of the countries, cultures, and civilizations that they had raided, traded, and settled in.
The Vikings did not "disappear" - they kept on living in and shaping the now modern Nordic countries into the "High Middle Ages" whilst also founding and settling dynasties in what is now Normandy, Sicily, Russia, and Ukraine. They also kept a presence at the Byzantine Court long after the so-called "Viking Age."
They never left the Nordic countries
For hundreds of years throughout Europe, many people feared the sight of a longboat pulling up on the shore and fierce warriors coming to raid, pillage, and steal. Contrary to popular belief, the Viking society was not geared up simply to pillage and plunder.
The Vikings came from what is now, in English, termed "Scandinavia" – modern-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Taking advantage of the insecurity and uncertainty throughout much of Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Vikings were able to raid and settle from Spain to Russia, from Sicily to the Baltic Sea.
The first and most obvious fact about the Vikings is that many in their society actually never "left" home. Despite their fearsome reputation, only a small proportion of men (and young at that) were sent over the seas to raid, trade, and settle. The majority of Viking society was employed in agricultural work.
The Vikings definitely took advantage of the power vacuum that was left after the disintegration and collapse of the Western Roman Empire. However, towards the 11th century CE, the situation in Europe changed. The Norman invasion of England meant a final end to the constant raids of people from the sea, including the Vikings. William the Conqueror set about creating an English kingdom with a fearsome army to protect it. Across the Channel in France, the Frankish Kingdoms morphed into the Holy Roman Empire, again providing security, defense, and institutional power not seen since the days of Roman legionnaires.
At home in Scandinavia, the small Viking kingdoms would eventually evolve into the medieval kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (with more or less recognizable boundaries and borders that they possess today). Rulers here thought it less and less profitable to send the cream of their warrior youth overseas. With more political certainty and security throughout Europe by the 12th century BCE, the Viking raids soon ceased.
As political certainty and security in Europe consolidated by the 12th century BCE, the Viking raids soon ceased. Photo: wolvie_74 / Pixabay
They settled and intermarried in many societies
For those that did leave Scandinavia, pillage and plunder was not the only reason to jump on a longboat. Many Vikings actually played a central role in the foundation of societies, from Iceland to the shores of the River Volga. Historical record about the Vikings appears to diminish as the early Medieval period gives way to the High Middle Ages as many Vikings became assimilated in the countries where they had settled.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is the French region of Normandy. Viking raids had plagued this area, on France’s northwest coast, since the early 10th century CE. Successive Frankish rulers became so fed up with the pillage and plunder that King Charles III of France offered a small parcel of land to the Viking jarl, Rollo, in the early 10th century CE.
Soon more and more of Rollo’s people came to the area from Scandinavia, and it became full of "Norsemen," hence the name "Normandy" (Land of the Northmen). The Vikings soon intermarried and intermingled with the local Gallo-Frankish inhabitants but did not lose their fearsome fighting spirit and martial skills.
So the Vikings did not exactly "die out," but they assimilated with local cultures where they settled, intermarried, and within a small number of generations, had their own distinct martial culture. The Normans would play an important part in the First Crusade and were seen as a rising European during the 11th to 13th centuries CE.
Within the next century and a half, the Normans (as they were now called) went one step better than their Viking ancestors and secured power in Sicily, Normandy, England, and much of Ukraine and Russia.
Leif Erikson, also known as Leif the Lucky, is thought to have been the first person to have discovered America, some five hundred years before Columbus. Photo: Tim Foster / Unsplash
What about Vinland and Greenland, though?
There is, however, some truth in the fact that Vikings did "die out." It is only within the past few years that scholars and academics have finally agreed and confirmed that Vikings did reach North America. Despite being discovered in the 1960s, the Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows, in modern-day Newfoundland, Canada, has been at the center of academic debate and discussion. What is known definitely is that Viking settlers came to Greenland in the late 10th century. They established two settlements in the east and west of the country, numbering approximately 400 farms.
The settlement's relatively short distance to what is now northeast Canada made it easy for the Viking settlers to trade with the local Inuit people as well as hunt seals, fish, and walrus. The old Norse sagas state that the settlers started to explore the lands west within a few years of settling in Greenland. In 985 CE, a Norse Greenlander merchant was blown off course with 400-700 settlers and ended up sighting land. Though they eventually managed to get back to Greenland, he told his story to Leif Erikson, who returned to the area and created a small settlement a decade and a half later. He named this land "Vinland" (The Land of the Wine) in what was, perhaps, the first historical case of false advertising of real estate.
The Viking settlers met the local Inuit people, but, unlike in Europe, they refused to integrate or intermarry in both Vinland and Greenland. As such, the small Norse presence in modern-day Canada was never to flourish. By 1261 CE, the settlers not only had a bishopric (at Gardar) but had also accepted the overlordship of the Norwegian king. The western settlement in Greenland was abandoned by the early 15th century, and the eastern settlement followed suit shortly after.
The Vikings resurgence
The Vikings developed a presence throughout the Western hemisphere from the late 8th to the early 12th centuries CE. However, by the latter stage of this period, the once fearsome Viking warriors had ceased to exist in this form. They had settled, intermarried, and integrated with the cultures and people they had once raided and traded with to form a hybrid blend of Viking and local culture, most notably in Normandy.
The Norse settlements in Greenland and further west in modern-day Canada are indeed an example of locations where Vikings did "die out." This was due to generally unfavorable environmental conditions and the refusal of the settlers to integrate into local societies.
With Viking culture and history now making a modern-day resurgence, it appears that the Vikings now have a new lease of life.
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