The Vikings had many things in common, but their longing for a better life held them together – they were from different peoples, but they understood each other. They were united by many things, including the fact that their homeland was the northern extremity of the land and that they prayed to the same gods and spoke the same language.
However, the yearning for a better life held these rebellious and desperate people together the most, and it was so strong that for nearly three centuries, from the eighth to the eleventh century, the Viking Age entered the history of the Old World. The way they lived and what they did was also called Viking.
The word Viking and their gods
The word “Viking” comes from the ancient Norwegian “vikingr,” which literally translates to “man of the fjords.” It was in the fjords and inlets that their first settlements appeared. These warlike and brutal people were very religious and worshipped their own deities in rituals and sacrifices. The main god was Odin – the Father of all Gods and the God of the fallen in battle, who became his adopted sons after death. The Vikings believed piously in an afterlife, so death was not frightening to them.
The most honorable was death in battle. Then, according to ancient legends, their souls were transported to the wonderful land of Valhalla, and the Vikings did not wish any other fate for themselves or their sons.
The overpopulation of the coastal areas of Scandinavia, the lack of fertile land, the desire to enrich – all this inexorably drove the Vikings from their homeland, and only strong warriors who could easily endure hardship and discomfort were able to do this. Troops were formed of Vikings prepared for battle, each consisting of several hundred warriors who obeyed the clan leader and the konung-prince without question. Throughout the Viking Age, these troops were entirely voluntary.
During a battle, one of the warriors had to carry the clan’s banner. It was considered that the flag had a miraculous power that helped not only to win the battle but also to leave the bearer unharmed. But when the advantage of the enemy became obvious, the main task for the warriors was to keep their konung alive. To do this, the Vikings surrounded him in a ring and shielded him with shields. If the konung was killed, they fought to the last drop of blood beside his body.
A special fearlessness had the berserks (from Scandinavians – a mighty, furious warrior). They had no armor and marched at full speed “like madmen, like mad dogs and wolves”, terrifying the armies of their enemies. They were able to put themselves in a euphoric state and, breaking through the front lines of their enemies, inflict devastating blows and fight to the death in the name of Odin. The battle-hardened Vikings were usually victorious both on land and sea, earning themselves a reputation as unbeatable. Everywhere, heavily armed troops operated in much the same way, taking towns and villages by surprise.
So it was in 793 on the ‘holy’ island of Lindisfarne, off Scotland’s east coast, where Vikings sacked and pillaged a monastery considered a major center of faith and pilgrimage site. The same fate soon befell several other famous monasteries. Having loaded their ships with the church’s goods, the pirates set sail for the high seas, where they could not be pursued. Neither could the curses of Christendom.
A quarter of a century later, the Vikings assembled a large force to attack Europe. Neither the disparate island kingdoms nor Charlemagne’s weakened Frankish empire could offer them serious resistance. In 836, they first ravaged London. Then six hundred warships sacked Hamburg, so badly damaged that the bishopric had to move to Bremen. Canterbury, secondarily London, Cologne, Bonn-all these European cities were forced to share their wealth with the Vikings.
In the autumn of 866, ships with twenty thousand warriors landed on the shores of Britain. On the land of Scotland, the Danish Vikings founded their state of Denlo (translated as “Danish Law Band”), and only 12 years later, the Anglo-Saxons regained their freedom.
In 885, under the onslaught of the Normans fell to Rouen, and then the Vikings again laid siege to Paris (before that, it had already been sacked three times). This time some 40,000 troops had landed on its walls with 700 ships. After paying off the Vikings, they withdrew to the northwestern part of the country, where many of them settled permanently.
As the decades of plunder passed, the unwelcome guests from the north realized that it was easier and more profitable to tax the Europeans, who were more than happy to pay off their debts. Medieval chronicles indicate: that from 845 to 926, the Frankish kings paid the pirates about 17 tons of silver and nearly 300 kilograms of gold in thirteen receptions.
Meanwhile, the Vikings were pushing farther south. Spain and Portugal were subjected to their raids. A little later, several towns on the northern coast of Africa and the Balearic Islands were plundered. Pagans also landed in western Italy and captured Pisa, Fiesole, and Luna.
At the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries, the Christians had found weaknesses in Viking combat tactics. It turned out that they were incapable of long sieges. By order of Frankish king Charles the Bald, the rivers were blocked by chains, and in their mouths to make reinforced bridges, on the approaches to the cities dug deep ditches and erected fences of thick logs.
In England, around the same time, began to build special fortresses – burgs. As a result of raids, pirates are increasingly ending badly for them. To dispel the myth of their invincibility, managed, among others, and the British King Alfred, put against the “sea dragons” higher court, which the Vikings could not take on board with the usual ease. Two dozen Norman warships were then destroyed off the southern coast of England. The blow inflicted on the Vikings in their native element was so sobering that the robbery noticeably declined after it.
More and more of them left the Vikings as an occupation. They settled down on captured land, built houses, married off their daughters to Christians, and returned to peasant labor. In 911, the Frankish king Charles III the Simple granted Rouen with adjoining lands to one of the chiefs of the North – Rollon, awarding him the title of duke. This area of France is now called Normandy, or Norman Country.
But the most important turning point of the Viking Age was the adoption of Christianity by King Harald Bluetooth of Norway in 966. Following him, many warriors were baptized under the growing influence of Catholic missionaries.
The final pages of Viking war chronicles include their seizure of kingship in England in 1066 and the enthronement of the kingdom of Sicily in 1130 by the Norman Roger II. Rollon’s descendant Duke William the Conqueror transported 30,000 soldiers and 2,000 horses from the continent to Albion in 3,000 ships. The Battle of Hastings ended in his complete victory over the Anglo-Saxon monarch Harold II. And Rogier, a newly minted knight of the Christian faith, distinguished himself in the Crusades and battles with the Saracens, with the blessing of the Pope, united the Viking possessions in Sicily and southern Italy.
From the raids of small pirate bands to the conquest of monarchal power – this is the framework within which the warlike northerners’ journey from primitive savagery to feudalism fits.
Of course, the Vikings would not have won their grim fame had they not possessed the finest vessels of their day. The hulls of their “sea dragons” were perfectly adapted for navigation in the rough northern seas: low boards, an elegantly upturned stern; a fixed steering oar on the stern side; painted in red or blue stripes or cage sails of rough canvas on the mast, set in the center of the spacious deck.
The merchant ships of the same type and the military ships, much more powerful and inferior in size to the Greek and Roman ones, were far superior in maneuverability and speed. Time helped to really appreciate their superiority.
At the end of the XIX century, in the burial mound in the south of Norway, archaeologists found a well-preserved 32-oar drakar. Having built an exact replica of it and tested it in the ocean waters, the experts came to the conclusion that in the fresh wind, the Viking ship under the sail could develop almost ten knots, and that is one and a half times more than the Columbus Caravels during the voyage to the West Indies… in more than five centuries.