Viking Era

The Vikings were Scandinavian Norsemen who explored, raided, and settled distant lands and whose actions have had a lasting social, political, and cultural impact on areas from the shores of North America to Kiev in modern-day Ukraine.

Summary of Event

The Norsemen Norsemen were inhabitants of Scandinavia, which consists of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They were Germanic in origin and had the same basic lifestyle of other Germanic tribes. Norse social structure, however, was more individualistic, perhaps leading to greater tolerance for a more adventurous, rugged spirit. As pagans, Paganism;Vikings too, they were free from the moral restraints of Christianity. [kw]Viking Era (850-950)
[kw]Viking Era (850-950)
North America;850-950: Viking Era[0960]
Scandinavia;850-950: Viking Era[0960]
Expansion and land acquisition;850-950: Viking Era[0960]
Godfred, King
Erik the Red
Leif Eriksson

The word Viking, which probably means “those who go away” (and also, perhaps, “sea king”), applied to the Norsemen who left their homeland beginning in the eighth century and took to the sea. Some became mercenaries and traders. The majority became adventurers, raiders, and invaders.

The infamous Viking method was to sweep in from the sea unexpectedly and attack villages by looting, burning, and raping. They would then retreat before any resistance could be mounted. The first raids to have a permanent, resounding impact were those along the coasts of England England;Vikings raids on . As early as 792, churches in Kent, in southeastern England, were forced to contribute to coastal defenses against “pagan seamen.” On June 7, 793, the famous Lindisfarne Lindisfarne;Viking raid on monastery on a small island off the northeast coast, was sacked by Vikings from Denmark. Some villages tried offering tribute to the Vikings to prevent being looted. In 845, the monastery of Saint-Denis in France offered a sizable tribute. The Vikings accepted the tribute and looted what was left anyway. The monks could only pray, “From the fury of the Norsemen, Good Lord, deliver us!”

Soon there were raids as far west as the island of Iona between Ireland and Scotland. By 870, much of eastern and central England was ruled under Danelaw (Danish law). The climax of the raids was the conflict between Danish king Guthrum Guthrum and Alfred the Great Alfred the Great , king of England. Alfred founded the English navy to stop future invasions, but the invasions were not stopped. Before Guthrum’s death in 890, Danelaw Danelaw
Law;Danish had been expanded and officially recognized by Alfred, and Guthrum in return had agreed to become a Christian.

Artist’s rendition of the funeral of Rurik, who led a force into Russia and set up headquarters in Novgorod near what is now St. Petersburg, becoming its grand prince.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The first Norse king to take an active role in the raids was Danish king Godfred Godfred . In 810, a large fleet under Godfred’s direction attacked Frisia, now the Netherlands, and forced the people to pay tribute. However, the immediate threat ended when Godfred was assassinated and a struggle for succession ensued between his sons.

Vikings from Norway began raiding along the northern coast of France. In 841, they invaded the Seine Valley north of Paris, and in 845, Paris was ransomed for seven thousand pounds of silver. In 852, the Vikings spent the winter in the Seine Valley. Like the Danes, the Norwegian Vikings soon began establishing permanent settlements. They were concentrated along the coast in the area still called Normandy Normandy, Viking settlement in .

Swedish Vikings expanded to the east. They crossed the Baltic Sea into eastern Europe and were soon making raids into what is now Russia. By about 800, the Vikings, whom the Slavic peoples of the area called Varangians, were being hired as mercenary guards by the Slavs Slavs;Vikings and . For about fifty years, the Varangian guards protected the Slavs from other potential invaders. In 856, the Slavs, tired of instability, reportedly issued a call for the Varangians to become their rulers. Povest vremennykh let ( c. 1113; The Russian Primary Chronicle, 1930), compiled over a period of several centuries, recorded the words, “Our land is great and abundant, but there is no order to it. Come rule and reign over us.” The Russian Primary Chronicle also calls the Vikings “rus” (“beyond the sea”), most likely the origin of the word Russia. Because the Vikings normally did not wait for an invitation, the call was probably a means of justifying the Viking takeover. Viking chief Rurik Rurik answered the call about 859. He led a force into Russia and set up headquarters in Novgorod near what is now St. Petersburg, becoming its grand prince. Rurik and his followers left Russia in 873 and a new band led by Prince Oleg Oleg took control. Oleg captured the city of Kiev in 882 and made it the capital. When Oleg died in 912, Igor Igor , the grandson of Rurik, took over. The House of Rurik that began with Igor ruled Russia for several centuries.

From Kiev, the Varangian mercenaries had gone into other areas of service. Their fighting ability soon led them into the service of the Greek emperors in Constantinople. After spending much of the tenth century fighting the emperors’s battles in Mesopotamia, Crete, southern Italy, and other areas, the Varangians were organized into the famous Varangian Guard, which became the personal guard unit of the emperors in about the year 1000.

About 860, the Vikings began voyages west into the north Atlantic. Improvements in shipbuilding and seamanship made possible more adventurous journeys. They reached Iceland Iceland, Viking invasion of in 874. Within a short time, they were establishing settlements and claiming the island as their own. The island’s nonindigenous inhabitants, most likely exiles from Ireland, could not resist the Viking takeover. The Vikings had heard about the Faroe Islands, between the British Isles and Iceland, from the Irish. Irish monks had settled on the island in about the seventh century. From the Faroes, news about Iceland came quickly.

Iceland served as both a home and a refuge for the Vikings. Pasture and cultivatable lands were satisfactory during the summer months. Lakes and rivers were full of trout and salmon. By about 930, most of the habitable land, primarily near the east coast of Iceland, was occupied.

Erik the Red Erik the Red (Erik Thorvaldson), a Norwegian Viking, was banished from his homeland for manslaughter and left Norway for Iceland in about 982. However, his still-murderous ways led to a three-year banishment from his new home, a time spent exploring farther west into the north Atlantic. About fifty years earlier land had been spotted by a sailor driven west by a storm, and Erik set out to find it. In about 985, Erik discovered a large island full of game animals, but apparently devoid of human occupation. Although applied primarily to the coastal regions, he named the new land Greenland Greenland;colonization of , believing that the name would help attract settlers. With his banishment soon over, he first returned to Iceland and prepared to colonize the new land.

The western limits of Viking exploration were marked about the year 1000. Leif Eriksson Leif Eriksson led an expedition across Baffin Bay to Baffin Island, then down the North American coast to Labrador. He then established a colony called Vinland Vinland , which was probably in what is now Newfoundland. The colony lasted only about twenty years, but the forests of Labrador provided timber for Greenland for many years following.


The impact of the Vikings on North America was short lived. Following the collapse of the colony of Vinland about 1020, knowledge of the area was mostly forgotten. Vague accounts written about Vinland in the thirteenth century provided little aid to later European explorers. However, the Viking impact between Greenland on the west and Russia on the east was far greater. In England, Danelaw became a permanent part of English law and custom. Normandy in France retained its Viking character for many centuries. The “axe-bearing barbarians” of the Varangian Guard protected Greek emperors of the Byzantine Empire until the thirteenth century. In Russia, the House of Rurik (Rurik Dynasty) did not end until the death of Fyodor, the son of Ivan the Terrible, in 1598. Viking culture has been preserved through tradition in its Scandinavian homelands, and still, legend surrounding the seafaring and exploring Vikings resonates around the world.

Further Reading

  • Barrett, James H., ed. Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2003. Presents an analysis of the discovery, exploration, and colonization of the North Atlantic by the Vikings. Bibliography and index.
  • Franklin, Simon, and Jonathan Shepard. The Emergence of Rus, 750-1200. New York: Longman, 1996. A comprehensive work that places Rurik and his successors in the general context of the Viking eastward expansion. Maps, extensive bibliography, list of genealogies, and excellent index.
  • Graham-Campbell, James, ed. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. New York: Facts on File, 1994. This atlas is an overview of the Vikings and their cultural impact on the world. It has an excellent chronological table comparing the events of each area.
  • Graham-Campbell, James. The Viking World. London: Frances Lincoln, 2001. A succinct account with a brief but helpful bibliography.
  • Konstam, Angus. Historical Atlas of the Viking World. New York: Checkmark Books, 2002. This atlas covers the entire period of Viking history. It traces Viking expansion from Russia to the north Atlantic.
  • Loyn, H. R. The Vikings in Britain. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. The author devotes three chapters to the early raids and subsequent large-scale invasions of England by Scandinavians. A highly regarded history of the Viking Age.
  • Page, R. I. The Chronicles of the Vikings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995. This book about Vikings, by Vikings and as interpreted by modern historical scholarship, covers Viking records, memorials, and myth.
  • Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. 2d ed. Translated by Susan M. Margeson and Kirsten Williams. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. Provides a solid, meticulous survey. Includes maps, illustrations, an extensive bibliography, a general index, an index of names, and an index of places.
  • Sawyer, Peter, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. With the aid of numerous color plates, maps, and other figures, this book presents a comprehensive picture of the Vikings and their impact on the world.