The Viking Age traditionally is bookended at the beginning by a Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 CE and, at the end, the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE. Yet this was also the age of the Christianization of Scandinavia. From the 8th to the 12th century CE, Christian missionaries, from Ireland and Rome, flocked to this region of Northern Europe to baptize the "heathen" masses whose religion was paganism steeped in Norse and Germanic mythology and lore.
As the Vikings spread out across Europe, they came into direct contact with Christians and the various Christian Churches. This direct contact led to a transfusion of ideas, with the Heiland – an epic poem depicting the life of Jesus as a warrior chief, very much adapted to a Viking audience – being one of the best examples. As much of other European polities during the Viking Age were Christian, there was a political need for the Vikings to convert for political alliances and marriages.
Would paganism have held out longer in Scandinavia if the Vikings hadn't traveled and been in direct contact with the Christian Church and Christians?
The transfusion of the Christian message would have been harder if many people in Viking societies did not have contact with the Church. One only has to look across the Baltic Sea to the Baltic States, where paganism prevailed well into the 14th century leading to a Northern Crusade, to see what possibly could have happened. Less contact with Christian peoples and societies would have made Christianity a harder sell to people in Viking societies. Paganism may well have continued longer than the 12th century CE.
Still very much a Land of the Angles?
The Vikings' impact upon the British Isles cannot be overstated; it was immense. The Vikings found the British Isles a collection of small, warring, petty kingdoms and left it with the medieval kingdoms of England and Scotland. Since the first recorded Viking raid in 793 CE, Viking raiders, traders, merchants, and settlers had flowed westward across the North Sea to the British Isles.
Huge swathes of the Midlands and Northern England were, literally, under the law of Vikings (the Danelaw), whilst cities like Dublin, Cork, Limerick, York, and Repton can trace their foundation back to Viking warriors.
The foundational monarchs of the English and Scottish kingdoms can also be traced back to fending off Viking invaders. The various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms unified under Æthelstan, who was crowned the first "King of the English" whilst, further north, Kenneth MacAplin won his crown as King of Alba (the medieval name of Scotland), fending off Scandinavian raiders and settlers.
A close-up photograph of an old wooden Viking longship of the snekkja type. Alex Stemmers / Shutterstock
Aside from being the existential threat that helped unify petty kingdoms into larger polities, the Vikings also left an imprint on the English language. Had the Vikings never sailed to the shores of the British Isles, Old Norse would never have mixed with Old English to make up part of the colorful and rich English language that is spoken, as a native or learned language, by over 750 million people today.
Had Vikings not sailed to the British Isles, then words such as "Thursday" (Old Norse Þorsdagr meaning Thor's Day), slaughter (slatra), birth (byrðr), death (deyja), and whisk (viska) would never have "invaded" the English language.
No Normans in Normandy?
Across the English Channel, the Vikings also left a huge imprint on what is now the French region of Normandy. Having raided what were then the Frankish realms from the 9th century CE, they were also a unifying force for the various Frankish rulers from Clovis I to Charlemagne.
Viking raids were so successful that Frankish cities, like Paris, were almost constantly being sacked, ransacked, and burned down. Huge swathes of what is now the northern coastline of France and Belgium basically became de facto parts of the Viking world. This case was further accelerated when the Frankish ruler, Charles the Simple, granted a Viking warrior, Rollo, territory. Scandinavian settlers would intermarry and mix with the local Frankish Gallic population to create a new people, the Normans.
Feared for their martial skill – in part thanks to their Viking heritage – the Normans would have a stratospheric rise to power in Europe from the 12th century onwards. The Normans would not only play a role in the last successful invasion of England (under Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror) but would also found the Kingdom of Sicily and conquer parts of Southern Italy, Malta, and other Byzantine and Arab-held territories.
Had the Vikings stayed in their Scandinavian homeland, there would not have been a William the Conqueror or the equally brilliant Roger III of Sicily. The region of Normandy today is famous for its cheese and apples but had the Vikings never sailed up the Seine or raided parts of Northern France, there may never have been a part of the Frankish realm given to the Viking raiders. The histories of England, France, Italy, Malta, and even Jerusalem would have been very different indeed.
For a deeper dive into the last Viking influence on Europe, visit the BBC History Extra website here.
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