The Viking Age

June 12, 2018 Religion

The Viking Age Before gaining a clearer understanding of the term: Viking, the first impression that may came to mind, could be a plethora of simplified notions. Mine was: “Seafaring Barbarians”. My interpretation of the Vikings was that of a nautical savage people who were characterized as more violent, and intolerant than any other people of their time, wanting nothing more than to wreak havoc on an otherwise civilized world. I wasn’t even completely sure where they exactly came from.

The elusive term: Viking, seemed to escape a clear representation leaving a fantasy image of an unknown people who to my lazy understanding were very few in number, came out of nowhere, with no other purpose but to steal, rape, set fires, murder, and die. With out any deeper understanding of these early Scandinavian people or of the Medieval period, and what those situations for living were really like socially, politically, geographically and spiritually all one has is a very limited scope of the Viking Age, if any scope at all.

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Upon this reflection we could not properly encapsulate a worthy definition of what or who the vikings were without referring to the Icelandic Sagas recalling Vikings stories, or without what we now know of Medieval European History, or the History of Scandinavia between c790-1150AD more specifically.

So as I ceased to stop simplifying through a narrow perspective and really search for what The Viking Age means to History, a view expands, and a light shines for a moment, like that beautifully short Scandinavian summer sun which the Vikings themselves enjoyed ever so much, illuminating the early to mid Dark Ages where our fleeting Viking Age begins to take definition. In Northern Europe, after the Germanic Tribes all migrated, after Rome fell, and the Scandinavians were bulging out of their homelands, here a type of people emerged in a time where change was inevitable.

History would record them as a purely Pagan, uncivilized brand of heathens without any real past worthy of remembering except maybe for the Hollywood money maker stuff. At least that is what I sense my conditioning would have me believe prior to this course. If it were not for this occasion where we re-collect the truth and fiction to discover a method for unearthing the history of these Viking People, attempting to get their “saga” correct, we would be left to keep all the old viking cliches around to only barley portray the true Viking Age.

However, now I have Viking Perspective. I like to think. So maybe we will never know exactly how these Vikings felt, or if they would agree with our interpretation, but there is plenty to absorb about this age and people, if we take the time to learn. The Viking Age begins around the late 8th Century , in Scandinavia. Vikings were given different names depending on the places and people whom they encountered. For the most part they traveled west from Norway and Denmark to Scotland, England, Ireland and seen as Pagans, Danes, or Heathens.

From there they went on to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. They also went South to France and were known as Northmen, and around to Spain, into the Mediterranean to Italy. From Sweden they went through Finland to Eastern Europe where they were called the Rus by the Slavs, and later were known as Varangians, then through Russia to Constantinople, and as far as Asia,(Oxford, pages, 273-281). These were indeed a nautical people full of adventure, and they would also portage over land to navigable rivers and bodies of water to continuously explore the map, and reach further destinations.

The Scandinavians were no where near few in number, and due to overpopulation, and feuding within themselves at home, there became many Viking opportunities over the 300+ years where they could branch out to other countries. Though there were small raids in the beginning, the Vikings were an organized group and could gather together in great numbers. This can be illuminated by the account of “a viking force of unprecedented size, numbering 350 ships, which stormed England in 851”, (Oxford, p. 2). With their brute force and ferocious appearance, the Vikings, might not be the sort one would think of writing poetry, or of any deep thinking. However, throughout the sagas, it is commonplace for a viking to stop in a moment of wonder, and jot down their feelings. Although maybe with savage tendencies accumulating a very daring and scary bunch, the Vikings would also show themselves to be settlers, farmers, traders, lawmakers, thinkers, kings, and Christians.

It is my belief that the powerful force of Christianity has worked well at manipulating how the past is defined for us today, which can include Viking history. This may be a way to better suit that Religion’s desire to create as many converts as possible and help put in place a more civil social system. Which eventually led to the extermination of Paganism, until eventually pagan views became largely accepted as general superstition, as they are today. It should be remembered that most of what we understand about the vikings comes through by way of the sags, and other texts written by Christians, (Oxford, pg. 50). I believe Christianity had the biggest impact on the Vikings, more than depleting silver in the East, more than the conquest of land to the West, Christianity was the biggest catalyst for merging the Vikings with the rest of Western Civilization. It was through Christianity that Vikings were able to continuously keep employment after the raiding stopped, through trade, as hired help, and to keep some leverage while incorporating themselves politically at home and abroad.

The shift was slow with a Nordic-Pagan interpretation for while, but Paganism’s polytheism, magic, and which-craft would transform into an ever spreading acceptance of one God. This would offer themselves a way to assimilate sociologically into western civilization, and maybe gain some headway socially. The rest of what we can gather about the Vikings seems largely fantasy-like. We have seen this come through Hollywood ideas of the Vikings, which has largely shaped society’s limited views.

In the Sagas we can glimpse this with even more imagination, especially the sagas covering the eastern expeditions. These stories were preserved by word of mouth for generations later being recorded by Icelandic Christians, and later by the Norwegians and Danes. Some of these saga writers actually explored the physical world and later wrote about it, but it seems the more entertaining and imaginative the saga, the less historically accurate they were. Nevertheless, the sagas tell of how certain Vikings lived and died, and in general tell us very much about mankind in the Viking Age.

The interest geographically to the sagas further helps us gather information about the way these people saw the world, and these saga writers were entrusted to some degree with recording the past. What we can take away from all of this is that Vikings had multiple purposes and ambitions. It is very true that some were violent raiders, and perhaps the worst of sorts. We know that some went out to win fame and fortune- through taking over or ruling a kingdom. Some Vikings used their talents for pay as hired help, or mercenaries. Many more were traders. Others simply sought out relocation.

Later Vikings might even be be described as explorers who set out to convert Pagans to Christianity. What we need to drop from our perception of the Vikings, however, is the most popular generalization, that they were a single-minded people who only wanted to steel, kill, and destroy. To see the Vikings clearly then, we need enough openness to accept them as the global traders they were, the merchants, and bishops they became, and the political thinkers that enabled them to maintain larger Kingdoms by the end of the Viking Age eventually assimilating into European civilization.


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