(For Cecilia, in whom the Viking spirit still resides.)
A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine: “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord.”
This simple prayer was once on the lips of priests and parishioners across all of northern Europe; as sleek, dragon-prowed longships carried savage bands of Viking warriors in search of plunder and conquest. In the midst of the “Dark Ages”, a brutal age of hard men, none were harder than the Northmen!
Starting in the late 8th century there occurred one of those sociological events that, from time-to-time, cause historians and social scientists to scratch their heads in fruitless attempt to explain. For reasons imperfectly known, fearsome warriors from the nascent nations of Scandinavia began to raid throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world. One theory is that a global warming trend produced a surplus of population in Scandinavia; resulting in a bold search for new land to settle. Another theory is that the Saxon campaigns of Charlemagne, in the late 8th century, and his suppression of the pagan religion the Saxons shared with the peoples of Scandinavia; led to a violent counter-reaction by the Danes and Norse.
However, the simplest explanation may be the correct one: they raided because they could. The initial raids of such isolated places as the coastal monastery of Lindisfarne (793AD) in Northumbria were so successful and opposition so weak, they encouraged further aggression.
Wither Danes or Norsemen or Svear, and whatever their motivation, they were known collectively to the terrified peoples of the West as “Vikings”.
It is curious that at a time in history when our boys are taught to “use their words” instead of their fists, and young men are inculcated with a “political correctness” that emphasizes the modern values of sensitivity, inclusiveness and non-violence; that the Vikings are still looked upon with such admiration. They continue to be celebrated in film and in literature. Dozens of films over the years lionize the adventures of Viking heroes. The Icelandic Sagas, written in the 13th century, are read by a far wider audience today than perhaps at any other time in history. Across the world, “Historical Reenactors” spend their leisure time dressing as Vikings, recreating their culture and styles of combat. Currently on American television a dramatic series, “Vikings”, is based upon the saga of the semi-legendary Viking, Ragnar Lothbrok.
So who were the Vikings; and why such an enduring fascination?
To begin to understand the Vikings, it is necessary to first understand what made their seaborne expeditions possible: their longships. These vessels were a marvel of construction, being shallow drafted and yet immensely seaworthy. The former attribute allowed them to navigate even the smallest of the rivers of Europe; their dragon-prowed ships appearing unexpectedly out of pre-dawn mists, filled with iron helmeted warriors bringing death and destruction to the unfortunate local inhabitants. The latter allowed the Vikings to venture across the open ocean, from Norway to North America; from Britain to Byzantium.
These ships varied in size. The smallest (and most common) typically used in Viking raids was the snekkja (or snekke). A typical snekkja was 56 ft. in length, 8.2 ft. width, with a draught of only 1.6 ft. It would carry a crew of around 41 men (40 oarsmen and one coxswain). Skeid (skeið) and Drekkar (Dragons) were larger warships, carrying a crew of up to 100. The Ormrinn Langi (The Long Serpent), the ship of Norwegian King Olav Tryggvason had 68 rowers, and was perhaps 148 feet long. It was the greatest ship of its day. Harald Hardrada had a similar ship, perhaps even a bit larger, called the Great Dragon, sixty years later. A Viking expedition could be a single ship, packed with warriors; or a fleet as large as several hundred ship carrying an army.
Most Viking expeditions were mere commercial ventures launched by a consortium of neighboring bondi, the free farmers that comprised the majority of Scandinavian society at the time. After the spring planting, such men would go to sea for the summer, trading and raiding in foreign lands; returning home with trade goods, looted treasure, and slaves.
Great leaders launched much larger expeditions; pillaging or conquering foreign lands. In 911AD such an expedition arrived on the northern coast of France. It was led by Hrolf Ganger (“the Walker”); an exiled Norwegian warrior too tall to ride a horse! His band of Danes and Norsemen conquered this area of France, which became known as Normandy. A descendent of this Norwegian Viking conquered England in 1066AD, and is known to history as William the Conqueror.
In 864-865, the legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok was supposedly shipwrecked on the Northumbrian coast of Britain. He was taken before the king, Aella, who executed Ragnar by throwing him into a pit of snakes. In retaliation, the sons of Ragnar led their father’s army against England in the autumn of 865.
This so-called “Great Heathen Army” of Danes was commanded by Ragnar’s capable and much feared sons: Ubba, Halfdan, and first-and-foremost, Ivar the Boneless. In just a few short years, the Danes had laid Northumbria, East
Anglia, and Mercia beneath their swords. Only Saxon Wessex, led by Alfred the Great, maintained its independence in the following decades. All of the rest of England became ruled by the Danes; being known as “the Danelaw”.
Vikings raided very far afield, indeed.
In 860, an expedition passed through the straights of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. Led by the Viking leaders Björn “Ironsides” and Hastein (one or both also sons of Ragnar Lothbrok), they raided northern Italy, sacking the towns of Pisa and Luna.
Other Vikings, largely Swedes, settled in Russia; founding such kingdoms as Novgorod and Kiev. Sailing their longships down the great rivers of the Ukraine, Viking expeditions even raided into the Black Sea. Groups of Swedish Vikings and Rus warriors (as the Svear ruling-class in Russia came to be called) were taken into the service of the Byzantine Emperors, forming the famed Varangian Guard. Later, adventurers from across the Viking world came to make their fortunes in this fabled elite force. One such became a captain in the Varangians, amassing a fortune before returning to Norway to become one of its greatest warrior-kings: Harald Hardrada!
Leaving their homeland to free themselves from the rule of King Harald Fairhair, first king of a united Norway, Norsemen in-or-around 930 AD founded a thriving republic in Iceland (where Old Norse is still spoken today as Icelandic). Here the people met on the plains of Þingvellir; where they established the first parliamentary institution in northern Europe: the Althingi. Upon a great flat stone, speakers debated and the free bondi made laws.
This mirrored similar gatherings of freemen in every Scandinavian country; and this fierce love of freedom and respect for the nobility of the common freeman characterized the Vikings wherever they went. It’s a tradition that made its way, via the Danelaw, into English Common Law and tradition; creating the Englishmen’s jealously guarded
respect for the rule of law. This would lead to Magna Charta, a powerful parliamentary system, and eventually influenced the founding principals of America.
Coincidentally, it was a Norseman, Leif Ericson, who made the first recorded and verified voyage from Europe to North America.
He was the son of Erik the Red, founder of the Norse colony in Greenland. (In those climatically warmer times, Greenland was actually green; capable of supporting farming.) Leif ventured westward, exploring and founding a temporary settlement on the east coast of North America, in Newfoundland and Maine (which he named “Vinland”). It would be another four centuries before European shipbuilding caught up with the Norse; allowing Columbus to follow in Leif Ericson’s footsteps, crossing the Atlantic to North America.
Women had a special place in Norse society: with their men away so much of the time, the wives gained a great measure of equality in their society; running the farms and supervising the affairs of the household. Noted for their boldness in speaking their minds, and the readiness with which they asserted themselves, Norse women were perhaps the archetypes of the modern sexually liberated and independent woman.
Such a woman was Freydís Eiríksdóttir (sister of Leif Ericson), who organized her own expedition to North America. She is credited, while pregnant, with taking up the sword of a fallen warrior and driving off attacking skrælingjar (native Americans) from their settlement in Vinland! One suspects she would be very much at home as a business woman, female athlete, or Armed Forces member in today’s modern society.
But it was as warriors, not explorers that the Vikings are best remembered. It is as unapologetic icons of savage masculinity that they are admired by so many men today. There is something that resides deep in the male psyche that seems attracted to these flamboyant avatars of the Id. As society and civilization seeks to fetter men’s primal “maleness”, the image of the untamable Viking warrior becomes ever more attractive. Ever-free, ever-uncompromising, venturing forth with his band of “sword-brothers” to explore new worlds and return home with stolen riches and captive beauties. This is the fantasy that makes the Vikings more popular today than ever before.
“From the fury of the Northmen deliver us!”