Vikings Essay, Research Paper
The vikings were a very influential force in ancient history. The vikings are seen as excellent navigators and warriors but despite this great accomplishment they were incapable of founding a strong state outside of their homeland, Scandinavia. Most would think that any culture that had such complementary strengths would be able to form a strong state but this was not the case for the vikings because of many different factors. Those factors being the centralized monarchies in Scandinavia, advancing civilization of Scandinavians, the adoption of christianity, loss of the viking culture and identity and finally the Scandinavians were too few for their conquests.
Scandinavia is a vast area that is almost twelve hundred miles in length. Scandinavia was comprised of three distinct areas: Norway, Denmark and Sweden. The fjords of Norway, Sweden’s network of streams and lakes and Denmark’s 500 islands had influenced the inhabitants of Scandinavia to take to the sea to find new land because the fertile land in Scandinavia was quickly being used up.
The age of the vikings began at 800 A.D. and ended at 1050 A.D. The vikings found Western Europe by sailing across the North Sea in very unstable ships. Their ships were still very unstable because they were only designed to sail around the coast of Scandinavia. As Scandinavians moved farther away from the coast for new conquests their technology in seamanship increased greatly.
As the ninth century dawned Swedes, Danes and Norwegians swept out of Scandinavia in search of wealth and glory. Vikings were fierce warriors because of their sheer savagery and lust for wealth but they also were very accomplished traders. They traded furs and slaves for luxuries from the southern and eastern areas.
In the west, Danes and Norwegians probed all islands and inlets and streams from the North Sea to Spain in search of wealth and trade goods. Viking fleets managed to harass London Bridge, Paris and burned mosques in Andalusia and took slaves in North Africa.
Viking sailors always displayed a strong interest in exploring new territory but long voyages were very limited because their ships were fragile. As the vikings continued to pillage Europe their knowledge of the sea and seamanship increased greatly. The vikings pioneered the construction and design of fast, strong ships. A strong affinity for ships marks every phase of viking history.
The religion that vikings adopted had little theology and no promise of salvation. The only mortality offered was to those of a high position or for warriors. When a viking died fighting the belief was that magnificent warrior maids called Valkyries would escort the warrior to Valhalla. When the warrior arrived in Valhalla he would fight all day and banquet all night until the time when the God’s themselves would fall.
Using their superior ships and their great lust for wealth and glory the Scandinavians struck out in force in the ninth century. Dane’s and Norwegian’s ventured to the ill-defended coasts of Britain, Ireland and continental Europe.
The Swedes travelled across the Baltic and burst into the vast birch forests and steppes of Russia. They travelled down rivers and streams and made portages across land when necessary and they continued to travel south. They headed toward the trading markets of Baghdad and Byzantium. At key points the Swedes built strongholds : Smolensk, Rostov, and Chernigov. These strongholds were trade centres that dealt cargoes of furs, honey, amber, wax and fair slaves which they traded for silks and silvers of the orient. The largest trading stronghold was located in Russia and was called Norvgod. The Swedish vikings entered Russia and took control of the native population. They maintained their supremacy of natives in Norvgod until 1020 and thereafter the Swedish vikings were quickly absorbed into the Slavic population and culture. The Swedish vikings gave up their viking culture and identity to become part of the Slavic culture.
The Swedish vikings displayed their excellent seamanship to reach Russia and their fighting prowess by keeping the natives in check. The reason they could not form a strong state was they let themselves be absorbed into Slavic culture so the viking presence ended in Russia with there culture being forgotten.
The Norwegians became starved for land in Scandinavia so they began to settle the Shetlands and Orkneys of the British Isles. These settlements were not the prime target of the Norwegians, Ireland was what they really coveted. Vast numbers of monasteries and churches fell and as the century pressed on, the Norwegian vikings attacked in ever increasing strength.
Ireland had been christian for three centuries before the viking invasion. The vikings quickly established a settlement named Dublin and in 853 two sons of a minor Norwegian ruler- Olaf and Ivar- established a norse kingdom in Ireland that lasted more than two centuries.
The vikings controlled the harbours of Ireland but they had little success in conquering all of inland Ireland. This was due to the fact that the Irish political system was based upon numerous tuaths which were small areas ruled by kings of local clans. Conquering many of the small kingdoms was relatively easy, but consolidating their domains was another matter. Because the vikings lacked the manpower to occupy every tuath they stuck to their coastal strongholds.
As time passed by the Irish ignored their traditional tribal customs and in order to purge the vikings from their land they developed a continental unity. In the year on 1014 the first high king of Ireland, Brian Boru, was able to lead the newly united tribes and defeat the vikings in a climatic battle at Clontarf. The consequence of the battle at Clontarf was the end of viking domination in Ireland.
The one significant reason the vikings couldn’t conquer Ireland was that they didn’t have enough people to successfully occupy Ireland. This is another example of the vikngs inability to establish a strong state.
In the year 834 the Danish vikings appeared in great numbers. The Dane’s concentrated their efforts on both shores of the english channel. The Dane’s sailed up the Loireriver and then the Seine and attacked many places along the way. The Frankish kings could not mount an effective defense against the vikings because they were busy defending their chaotic frontiers. The Franks lacked the proper number of soldiers patrol and defend the coasts and rivers so the vikings roamed virtually at will.
In the ninth century instead of returning home for the winter which the Danish vikings usually did since they pillaged only seasonally. The Danish vikings decided to settle in some of France’s rivers.
Eventually the Danish vikings moved onto the very advanced civilization of the Moors in 844. The Moors held all but a few areas of Spain and Portugal. After many engagements with the Moors the vikings sailed up the Guadalquivir and occupied Seville. In Seville the vikings slaughtered everyone, even going as far as killing a coterie of aged men who sought refuge in a mosque. This sacrilege outraged the Moors and inspired them to fight the vikings. The vikings losses were great and those left living quickly adopted the Islamic religion of the Moors.
Spain would see the vikings once more in 859 when a viking chieftain named Hasteinn and his co-leader Bjorn took 62 ships on a pillage quest. The fleet followed the shores of the Bay of Biscay and attacked the Moorish city of Algeciras. After they sacked the city they moved on to North Africa and marauded as they went. They pirated eastern Spain, the Balearics and southern France. These vikings then discovered the city of Luna and overran it and decided to settle within the city. A prosperous trade market was established but this all came to an end when nature ruined Luna. Gradually the harbour silted which destroyed the trade market and the swamp that was created from the marshy remains attracted mosquitos. The mosquitos brought malaria and this forced Hasteinn to flee with his fleet.
The vikings wanted to head home but the only route home passed through the Strait of Gibraltar which was heavily patrolled by the Moors who had a score to settle with these vikings. Since the vikings could not think of another option they fled through the Moors and took heavy losses but the surviving fleet had gained great wealth and glory.
These Danish vikings again demonstrated their seamanship and their extensive fighting skills but this time it was a fluke of nature that prevented them from establishing a strong state.
The Dane’s struck hard in the European continent, but England ultimately ended up bearing the brunt of the Dane’s assaults. Danish fleets and armies invaded and captured the northeastern area of England. While King Alfred of England ensured that there would still be an England, he could not drive the vikings from the northeastern third of England.
The vikings settled and established two kingdoms in York and in east Anglia. This whole area became know as Danelaw. The Dane’s enjoyed farming more than fighting so they happily settled on farms. Toward the end of the tenth century the kings in England were of poor quality so the vikings attacked England again and obtained many riches. They made the settlement of Normandy which was one of two settlements that survived the viking age, the other being Iceland.
This example of conquest is what all viking invasions should have entailed. These Danish vikings combined all of their special traits to build a strong state. Those being excellent seamanship and their excellent fighting abilities. This colony seems to have done what most other viking invasions could not, these vikings kept their territory and produced a strong state.
Vikings in Scandinavia still lusted for fertile land but there wasn’t enough left in their home so they sailed in search of virgin land. A Norwegian viking, Grim Kamban came out of Ireland with his family and livestock in search of new land. Grim headed for the Faeroes and settled their and welcomed other viking settlers. Vikings moved on from the Faeroes to Iceland where the soils were fertile and started a colony in the year 870 and settlers began to pour in. The colony in Iceland also was a strong state but this was essentially due to its extreme isolation. The colony was essentially left alone by the outside world.
A viking named Eric the Red was banished from Iceland for murders he committed, because of this Eric went in search of new land. Eric the Red founded Greenland and began to settle the area. The settlers established two colonies, one settlement at Greenland’s southern most point named Cape Farewell and 640 kilometres northwest was the western settlement.
Life on Greenland farms depended exclusively on the arrival of merchant sailors who brought necessary goods for survival. Those being iron and timber. Sometime in the fourteenth century contact between the two settlements began to decline. The western settlement disappeared and after 1410 the Cape Farewell settlement also became extinct. The loss of Greenland came about because the merchants never returned to the island to trade the essential goods that the Greenland settlements needed to survive and also pirates raided the settlement and burned it to the ground.
The vikings that settled Greenland displayed their increasing knowledge of seamanship by sailing so far from Scandinavia but Greenland’s isolation is what eventually crumbled the settlement. When the merchants stopped bringing the needed supplies the colonists could not survive for a prolonged period of time.
Before the extinction of the settlements on Greenland a merchant named Bjarni Herjulfsson was blown past his destination and witnessed the coast of North America. When he returned to Greenland he recounted his story to Eric the Red’s son Leif. Leif immediately bought Bjarni’s ship and sailed off to explore this new land. He discovered Helluland, Markland and Vinland and he spent the winter in North America. When Leif returned to Greenland and told the story of his discoveries to his brother Thorvald, Thorvald sailed to North America. When Thorvald went ashore he killed some of the native Skralings and they retaliated in force and killed Thorvald and most of his party.
The most significant campaign to colonize North America was in the eleventh century when Thorfinn Karlsefni took men and women and colonized Vinland. The colony lasted for three years and eventually they had to pull out because the Skralings continued to attack and harass their efforts. By the third winter they took their belongings and headed home. The colony failed because the weapons of the vikings and skralings were equal but the skralings vastly out numbered the vikings.
At the beginning of the viking age the Scandinavians had never been exposed to christianity but as the viking age came to an end, Scandinavia was being christianized. The christian church throughout the viking age had been sending christian missionaries to Scandinavia to convert the vikings. While some vikings were converted in Scandinavia early on many more became christians as the viking age came to a close. Many vikings that occupied invaded territories were exposed to christianity by those around them and many vikings accepted and followed the christian faith. At the beginning there was much resistance by the vikings to adopt christianity but as soon as their leaders adopted christianity their subjects were forced into the new religion. Denmark adopted christianity around 1000, in Norway it was 50 years later and in Sweden it was a hundred years later. The exposure to christianity tamed the vikings spirit because previous viking acts were scorned by the church.
The inability of vikings to build a strong state was due to the development of centralized monarchies in Scandinavia. The centralized monarchies discouraged vikings from heading out to sea to seek out free enterprise. This restraint on the vikings instinct of exploration ultimately tamed their spirits. Scandinavia also became very civilized and its rulers discouraged the savage activities of vikings and the society developed a very tame social life. The adoption of christianity further tamed the viking spirit since the church looked down on the uncouth activities of vikings. Scandinavia was being integrated in Western European culture. The final problem with the viking empire is their lack of great numbers. The vikings didn’t have sufficient numbers to occupy the large areas that they attempted to conquer and settle.
Throughout the viking age the Scandinavian people have undergone many dramatic changes. They developed from savage warriors to an almost peaceful and civilized culture. Because of this transition the vikings will always be known as magnificent warriors and seafarers but they were incapable of building a strong state.