The Vikings. A word that evokes romantic images of
proud ships with a single large sail and gracefully curved dragon-head
decorated bows and sterns. A word that evokes the picture of men clad in
trousers, smocks and fur coats, wielding swords and battle axes, running
up a slope bent on pillage and arson. The word might also evoke memories
of beautifully decorated bracelets and brooches displayed in a museum.
The fact that the Vikings were also settlers, is known,
but little about the details. Piratry and settlement went hand in hand
almost from the beginning in the early 9th century.
Vikings from Norway and Danemark settled in parts of
Norvegians made their home on Isle of Man, in the
Hebrideans, Caithness, the Orkneys, and subsequently became intermixed
with the indigenous people.
Norvegian Vikings settled in Iceland (sometimes via
Scotland) and from there adventured to Greenland and Newfoundland and
tried to establish stettlements there too (in Greenland with some
Danish Vikings were given the land of the so-called "Danelag"
It was also Danish Vikings who established some -
rather shortlived - settlements at the German coast.
Vikings from Norway and Danemark founded the duchy of
Normandy in the early 10th century. The Normans later participated in
the Crusades and in their turn founded the Norman kingdom of Sicily, and
maintained a stonghold in North Africa. They also conquered England.
Swedish Vikings traveled across the Baltic Sea to
Novgorod and along the system of Russian rivers to Kiev where they
established the ruling dynasty of the Rurikides. They also were an
integral part of the Imperial Palace Guard in Byzance.
From the 10th - 12th century, the sphere of influence
of the Vikings or their immediate descendants stretched from ice-covered
Greenland to the hot deserts of North Africa, from the Scottish Highlands
to the plains at the shores of the river Wolga.
Vikings acted as catalysts for the interaction of
cultures. Their ability to adapt to the different cultures they became
acquainted with is amazing: The Rurikides spoke Russian, the Sicilian
"Normans" Italian, William the Conqueror spoke Anglonorman French, and
Somarled probably Gaelic. Usually, about hundred years after the first
permanent settlements the Vikings had so well integrated themselves into
the different cultures that they became Russians, Normans, Scots, rather
than Vikings. In Iceland, where they did not meet with indigenous people,
they developed a social system that was quite different from any other in
Europe at the time.
Their impact on Euopean Mediaeval history from the 9th
to the 12th century, on politics, society and culture, is still
under-estimated, I think. But little known is f.e. the vast amount of Old
Norse literature written in Iceland and Norway.
I will in the following present these fascinating
people more detailed, and - hopefully - put an end to some typical Viking
images inherited form Victorian times.