It’s a fact. You can’t make it through any examination of the Early Middle Ages without running into Vikings. They invaded Europe several times, conquered territory, instigated some of the most vicious bloodbaths in the history of the world, set up elaborate systems of tribute, brought culture and order to the lands they invaded, explored all the way to North America, and wore funky hats. They were totally badass.
But you might be surprised to find out who the Vikings were not. Contrary to popular belief, they were not the nation of the north. They were not the society of Scandinavia. They were, in fact, noisy, violent thugs. That is, the Vikings were noisy, violent thugs. The Norsemen, on the other hand, were something else entirely.
But before I explain, I have to brag. These are my ancestors we’re talking about here. My mother’s maiden name is Gyllenhaal (yes, those Gyllenhaals) and we can trace our roots back to 788, the era of the Vikings, in Sweden. But were we Vikings? No. We were land-holding farmer-types, if I understand family history correctly. We stuck around in Sweden for all those years, minding out business, getting involved in commerce, and making some money.
The word “Viking” actually comes from the Old Norse word that meant a journey oversees. And it was a verb. “To go viking” meant that you were going on an overseas raid or pirating expedition. So really, there were no Vikings per se in Scandinavia because if you were a Norseman who lived and stayed in Scandinavia then you were not overseas and therefore had not “gone viking”. But if you and your mates hopped in a long-ship with some swords and those cool helmets and went to beat up on the folks in the British Isles and continental Europe, then you were a Viking. However (and I tip my hat to The Viking Answer Lady on this one) as happens with language, the meaning of the word “Viking” has evolved to be interchangeable with the word “Norsemen”. So it’s okay if you want to use it to describe the folks like my ancestors who stayed home instead of setting off overseas.
Were they really noisy, violent thugs? Well, yeah, they were.
Okay, but why were they noisy, violent thugs? Why would anyone want to leave beautiful, culturally rich Medieval Scandinavia to cause trouble everywhere else?
Well, as with a lot of things about Medieval Europe, you can blame Charlemagne. One theory about the causes behind the increase in Viking attacks starting in the very late 8th century has to do with Charlemagne’s effort to convert Europe to Christianity. Apparently he was so, um, insistent about converting everyone, by force if necessary, that he enraged those who didn’t really want to be Christian. The Viking attacks, therefore, were the Norsemen’s way of avenging those murdered or turned away from the old gods. I’m not completely on board with this theory, but it sure sounds cool.
Another theory also involves Charlemagne. I’ve talked before about the chaos that ensued due to medieval inheritance laws and how the strong, centralized empire that Charlemagne built quickly devolved after his death. The Norsemen may have seen and taken advantage of the weakness and confusion of continental Europeans at this time and moved in to claim a piece of the pie.
Side-by-side with this theory is evidence that suggests there was an overabundance of displaced young Scandinavian men and not enough land to go around back home due to the prosperity of Norse kingdoms. Hmm. Where have we heard stories about excess young men who were restless for a name and land of their own causing so much trouble in their homeland that they were shipped overseas to fight with someone else? Crusades anyone? History repeats itself because the same set of conditions generally causes the same set of results. Depending on who writes the history it’s all violent, nasty raids by Viking savages in one century and noble, righteous reclamations of holy land in another.
That’s all well and good, you say, and you can wrap your brain around the fact that all those Viking invasions were just another instance of a civilization prospering beyond its geographical boundaries in need of territory to expand into. But who exactly were these people?
There were actually three fuzzy distinctions of Scandinavian society. I say fuzzy because this was the era before nationalism and much of society broke down into more or less sophisticated tribes. And there were three of them: Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes.
The Norwegians expanded north and west into areas like Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland. Some famous old Norwegians you may have heard of are Erik the Red and his cousin Leif Eriksson. Leif Eriksson, of course, is the guy who explored all the way to Newfoundland and set up a settlement there in about the year 1000. The Swedes set off to the east, expanding into the areas of Russia that were known as Kievan Rus. The Swedes were highly involved in European trade as well and their influence was felt as far south as Byzantium.
But it was the Danes that most of the people in the English-speaking world probably think of when they think “Viking”. For a time in the Early Middle Ages the Danes were the most powerful people in Northern Europe. Beginning in about 800 and spurred by the same forces that were pushing the other Scandinavians to expand, the Danes began attacking and consequently settling in England (among other places). Within the next couple of decades they gained control of East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia and established the Danelaw. This kingdom carved out of what had been Anglo-Saxon territory had its own laws, customs, and culture that became as much a part of England as the heritage of the Anglo-Saxon and earlier peoples. The Danelaw constantly struggled against the rest of the English kingdoms and the balance of power swayed back and forth for roughly two centuries. For a while all of England was unified under the Danish king Cnut and later his successors until it shifted back to English rule with Edward the Confessor.
So what happened? If the Norse people and their Viking strong-arms were so awesome and powerful that they conquered parts of Europe and explored all the way to North America why aren’t we all speaking Danish?
Because just like everything else in the Middle Ages, Christianity took over. There is a direct correlation between the decline of the Scandinavian peoples as supreme conquerors and the increase in people converting to Christianity. On the one hand, even Scandinavian Christians were subject to what Rome wanted. On the other, the increase in connectedness and trading meant that invasion and conquest of the kind of the Early Middle Ages just wasn’t needed the same way it had been. Prosperity shifted, the impetus to keep fighting waned, and strong leaders like William the Conqueror were able to put the smack down in a way that brooked no argument.
Well, that’s a whole lot of history and historiography squeezed into a tiny little thumbnail of an overview. What I hope you can take away from this is a clarification of the word “Viking” as those adventurous, determined people willing to leave their homeland and take advantage of the political weaknesses of neighboring kingdoms to claim land for themselves, not as a blanket term to define the folks who were happy to stay in their homeland and prosper. Make no mistake, their methods of conquest were bloody and merciless, but so was just about every other means of conquest in the Middle Ages.
Now, if you like Vikings and Viking culture and are interested in learning more, please check out The Viking Answer Lady’s website. And when you’ve done that, come on back tomorrow for an interview with author Julia Knight who’s historical romance The Viking’s Sacrifice just came out today!
[Update: A Gyllenhaal relative wants me to clarify that the Gyllenhaal family can only trace its roots back to a guy named Olof who lived in the 16th century. However, our family tree historian has traced the ancestry of other families that contributed to the Gyllenhaal family line back to the 6th century. So it all depends on whether you want to look at things strictly patrilineally or not how far back we can trace our ancestors.]