(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, 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….
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