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The World Of The Vikings Essay, Research Paper

The Viking age has long been associated with unbridled piracy,

when freebooters swarmed out of the northlands in their longships to

burn and pillage their way across civilized Europe. Modern scholarship

provides evidence this is a gross simplification, and that during this

period much progress was achieved in terms of Scandinavian art and

craftsmanship, marine technology, exploration, and the development of

commerce. It seems the Vikings did as much trading as they did


The title “Viking” encompasses a wide designation of Nordic

people; Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians, who lived during a period of

brisk Scandinavian expansion in the middle ages, from approximately

800 to 1100 AD. This name may be derived from the old Norse vik(bay or

creek). These people came from what is now Denmark, Sweden, and

Norway, and had a self-sustaining, agricultural society, where farming

and cattle breeding were supplemented by hunting, fishing, the

extraction of iron and the quarrying of rock to make whetstones and

cooking utensils; some goods, however, had to be traded; salt, for

instance, which is a necessity for man and cattle alike, is an

everyday item and thus would not have been imported from a greater

distance than necessary, while luxury items could be brought in from

farther south in Europe. Their chief export products were, iron,

whetstones, and soapstone cooking pots, these were an essential

contribution to a trade growth in the Viking age.

The contemporary references we have about the Vikings stem

mainly from sources in western Europe who had bitter experiences with

the invaders, so we’re most likely presented with the worst side of

the Vikings. Archaeological excavations have shown evidence of

homesteads, farms, and marketplaces, where discarded or lost articles

tell of a common everyday life. As the Viking period progressed,

society changed; leading Chieftain families accumulated sufficient

land and power to form the basis for kingdoms, and the first towns

were founded.

These market places and towns were based on craftsmanship and

trade. Even though the town dwelling Vikings kept cattle, farmed, and

fished to meet their household needs, the towns probably depended on

agricultural supplies from outlying areas. They also unfortunately did

not pay as much attention to renovation and waste disposal as they did

to town planning, as evidenced by the thick layers of waste around

settlements. In contemporary times the stench must have been


Trade, however, was still plentiful, even in periods when

Viking raids abounded, trade was conducted between Western Europe and

the Viking homeland; an example of this being the North Norwegian

chieftain, Ottar, and King Alfred of Wessex. Ottar visited King Alfred

as a peaceful trader at the same time as Alfred was waging war with

other Viking chieftains. The expansion of the Vikings was probably

triggered by a population growth out stepping the capacities of

domestic resources. Archaeological evidence shows that new farms were

cleared in sparsely populated forests at the time of their expansion.

The abundance of iron in their region and their ability to forge it

into weapons and arm everyone setting off on raids helped give the

Vikings the upper hand in most battles.

The first recorded Viking raid occurred in 793 AD, the holy

island of the Lindisfarne monastery just off the Northeast shoulder

of England was pillaged, around the same time, there are recorded

reports of raids elsewhere in Europe. There are narratives of raids in

the Mediterranean, and as far as the Caspian Sea. Norsemen from Kiev

even attempted an attack on Constantinople, the capital of the

Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately, in the picture handed down to us in

written accounts, the Vikings are portrayed as terrible robbers and

bandits, this is strictly a single sided view; and, while the above

statement is probably true, they had other traits as well. Some of

their leaders were very skillful organizers, as evidenced by the fact

that they were able to establish kingdoms in already-conquered

territories. Some of these, such as the ones established in Dublin

and York did not survive the Viking period; Iceland, however, is still

a thriving nation. The Viking Kingdom in Kiev formed the basis of the

Russian Empire.

The remains of fortresses dated to the end of the Viking

period, have been found in Denmark; the fortresses are circular and

are divided into quadrants, with square buildings in each of the four

sections. The precision with which these castles were placed indicates

an advanced sense of order, and a knowledge of surveying techniques

and geometry in the Danish Kingdom. The farthest westward drive

occurred around 1000 AD, when people from Iceland or Greenland

attempted to plant roots in the North coast of Newfoundland in North

America, however, conflicts arose between these colonists and the

indigenous Indians or the Eskimos, and the colonists gave up.

Eventually, the Vikings plundering raids were replaced by

colonization; in the north of England, place names reveal a large

Viking population, farther south in Britain, an area was called The

Danelaw. The French king gave Normandy as payment to a Viking

chieftain so that he would keep other Vikings away. At the end of the

Viking age, Christianity was widely accepted in the Nordic countries.

It replaced a heathen religion, in which gods and goddesses each had

power over their domain; Odin was their chieftain, Thor was the god of

the warriors, the goddess Froy was responsible for the fertility of

the soil and livestock; Loki was a trickster and a sorcerer and was

always distrusted by the other gods. The gods had dangerous

adversaries, the Jotuns, who represented the darker side of life.

Burial techniques indicate a strong belief in the afterlife;

even though the dead could be buried or cremated, burial gifts were

always necessary. The amount of equipment the dead took with them

reflected their status in life as well as different burial traditions.

A clue to the violent nature of Viking society, is the fact that

nearly all the graves of males included weapons. A warrior had to have

a sword, a wooden shield with an iron boss at its center to protect

the hand, a spear, an ax, and a bow with 24 arrows. Helmets with

horns, which are omnipresent in present day depiction’s of Vikings

have never been found amongst relics from the Viking period. Even in

the graves with the most impressive array of weapons, there are signs

of more peaceful activities; sickles, scythes, and hoes lie alongside

of weapons; the blacksmith was buried with his hammer, anvil, tongs,

and file. The coastal farmer has kept his fishing equipment and is

often buried in a boat. In women’s graves we often find jewelry

kitchen articles, and artifacts used in textile production, they were

also usually buried in boats. There are also instances of burials

being conducted in enormous ships, three examples of this are: ship

graves from Oseberg, Tune, and Gokstad, which can be seen at the

Viking ship museum at Bygdoy in Oslo. The Oseberg ship was built

around 815-820 AD, was 22 meters (72 ft.) long and its burial was

dated to 834 AD.

The Gokstad and Tune ships were constructed in the 890’s, were

24 meters (79 ft.) and 20 meters (65 ft.) in length, respectively, and

were buried right after 900 AD. In all 3 a burial chamber was

constructed behind the mast, where the deceased was placed to rest in

a bed, dressed in fine clothing, ample provisions were placed in the

ship, dogs and horses were sacrificed, and a large burial mound was

piled on top of the vessel; there are even instances in which

servants, who may or may not have chosen to follow their masters in

death, were sacrificed also. Some ship-graves in the Nordic countries

and in Western European Viking sites were cremated, while the large

graves along the Oslofjord were not. There are remnants of similar

graves in other locations and it seems to have been standard practice

to include sacrificed dogs and horses, fine weapons, some nautical

equipment such as oars and a gangplank, balers, cooking pots for

crewmembers, a tent and often fine imported bronze vessels which

probably held food and drink for the dead.

Their sea-going vessels were very seaworthy, as has been

demonstrated by replicas which have crossed the Atlantic in modern

times. The hull design made the ships very fast, either under sail or

when oars were used. Even with a full load, the Gokstad ship drew no

more than 1 meter (3.3 ft) of water, which means it could have been

easily used for shore assaults. The ships were made to be light-weight

and flexible, to work with the elements instead of against them; they

were built on a solid keel, which together with a finely curved bow,

forms the backbone of the vessel. Strafe after strafe was fitted to

keel and stem and these were bolted to each other with iron rivets.

This shell provided strength and flexibility, then, ribs were made

from naturally curved trees were fitted and these provided additional

strength. To increase flexibility, strafes and ribs were bound

together. Lateral support came from cross supports at the waterline,

and solid logs braced the mast.

Our main knowledge of Viking art comes from metal jewelry, the

format of which is modest. The choice of motif is the same as with

woodcarving. The artists were preoccupied with imaginary animals which

were ornamentally carved, twisted and braided together in a tight

asymmetric arabesque, their quality of work was superb. The Viking

raids tapered off around the year 1000. By this time the Vikings had

become Christian, which had a restrictive effect on their urge to

plunder. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway had become separate kingdoms

generally united under single monarchs. Wars wer now steered by the

shifting alliances of the kings. The age of private battles was gone.

Trade relations that were established in the Viking period continued,

and the Nordic countries emerged as part of a Christian Europe.

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