Our knowledge of early Scandinavian history is very poor, apart from few inscriptions in the runic FUTHARK alphabet and in SAGAS
codified centuries later, they are from foreign sources, written by their enemies. The Scandinavian people - the Norse, SVEAR,
GOTAR, Gotlanders (Gutar) and Danes, were pagans. The central element of their constitution seems to have been their Law.
Every landscape had a thing (assembly) which functioned both as a law court and as a political forum. The position of king,
while recorded in the documents, seems to have been all but firm, and kings were constantly fighting to establish and extend their
authority. The Norse, Danes, Svear, Gotar seem to have felt as part of a nation, although they did not have permanent institutions like
a common thing and law.
Viking society was agricultural; there were few settlements with a few hundred inhabitants, such as BIRKA, HEDEBY, KAUPANG. The
standard was a community of farms spread over a wide area. The Viking was farmer, craftsman, sailor and warrior in one. The
Viking longboat enabled them to row up shallow rivers as well as to sail over the sea. Traditionally, sailing ships followed the
coastline (as the sky over northern Europe usually is cloudy, so that the stars could not be depended on for orientation). In the late
8th century, the Vikings developed an improved navigation system, which allowed them to cross the open sea, directly heading for
B.) VIKING RAIDS; THE GREAT ARMY; VIKING CONQUESTS
In 793 LINDISFARNE monastery was raided by men from the North. A typical Viking raid used the element of surprise. The Vikings
would suddenly appear, land, rob the place, abduct people, and disappear before a local defense force arrived. In the 820es and
830es, Viking raids intensified. With their numbers swelling, they changed their strategy, challenging (and often defeating) the local
defense forces. The Vikings sailed upriver, targeting the major settlements. The major object of these raids was booty or payment
(Danegeld). In 845 a mainly Danish force threatened Paris. The Vikings began to winter in the lower Seine valley; the sources
report of an army - the GREAT ARMY. In 865, the larger part of it crossed over to England, where they conquered the DANELAW.
In 885 the Great Army laid siege to Paris; the inability to defend the city costed Charles the Fat his crown and resulted in a
constitutional change, the consolidation of the West and East Frankish kingdoms. In 911 West Frankish king Charles the Fat accepted
reality and enfiefed Viking chieftain ROLLO as Count of Rouen (the nucleus of the DUCHY OF NORMANDY). In the North, Vikings had
established the Jarldoms of the ORKNEYS, the Hebrides. They had conquered the ISLE OF MAN and founded the cities of
DUBLIN and Waterford (in Ireland). In the east, mostly Swedish Vikings had used the network of Russian rivers as routes to the
Byzantine Empire and to the Abbasid Caliphate. Ca. 860, RURIK established himself as master of NOVGOROD. His son Oleg conquered
Kiev in 882, establishing the Empire known as KIEVAN RUS. Swedish Vikings, in the sources called Rus or VARANGIANS, served as
palace guards in Constantinople. The cities of Russia were bases for trade with as well as raids on the Byzantine and Islamic world.
The Vikings were not a monolithic block. Viking chieftains raided and fought for quick success, i.e. booty. If resistance at one place
seemed too stiff, they turned elsewhere. Often, they fought each other. In 860, West Frankish king Charles the Simple paid the Viking
Weland to break off his siege of Amiens and fight the Vikings who camped on the island Oissel in the river Seine instead, with the effect
that most of the Vikings on the lower Seine (the GREAT ARMY) moved to England in 865. In 890, Olaf the Svear conquered (Danish)
HEDEBY, which his dynasty ruled until 935.
Viking raids, reaching as far asSpain (859) and Luna, Italy (860), continued into the 11th century.
C.)THE VIKINGS FOUND STATES
There were different types of states the Vikings founded - states modelled after their own at home, such as on ICELAND, GREENLAND,
the FAROES, with their Law and a thing (assembly) as central institutions. These states were dominated by Viking settlers. A Viking
settlement at L'ANSE AUX MEADOWS on Newfoundland was given up soon after it's establishment in 1018. Then Jarldoms such as the
ORKNEYS and Hebrides, the ISLE OF MAN, which had a mixed population. Yet the constitution was Scandinavian, also with a thing,
and the Scandinavian title of Jarl. The DANELAW seems to have mirrored the previous description of Viking Scandinavia, being split in
several regions and lacking a central leadership. Step by step, It was conquered by English Wessex and Mercia by 918.
Then there were areas in which a small Viking minority ruled over a huge majority - Kievan Rus, the Duchy of Normandy. For some time,
the Viking preserved their identity, but then they assimilated - the Normans speaking French, converting to christianity and adapting
feudalism, the Varangians speaking Slavic. Even though contacts to their Scandinavian homelands were held up for centuries, and they
were aware of their Viking heritage.
In 1013, Danish king SVEN FORKBEARD, during a successful raid on England, instead of being paid the Danegeld he demanded, was
crowned king of England. His son CANUTE THE GREAT (1016-1035) ruled over England, Denmark and Norway. Like Sven and Canute,
successful Viking chieftains tried to establish Kingdoms and Empires for themselves. HARALD HARDRADA had an illustrious career.
After having served in Constantinople's Varangian Guard, he returned home to NORWAY, where he established himself as king in
1042. Raiding Denmark a number of times, he died in the battle of Stamfordbridge, on his bid to conquer England. In his lifetime, he had
also visited Jerusalem, fought in Sicily (for the Byzantines) and Poland (for the Kievans).
While the Empire of Canute the Great fell apart soon after his death, the Duchy of Normandy and Kievan Rus proved lasting. They were
successful mergers of Viking initiative and local structures.
D.) THE END OF THE VIKING ERA
Christians, in theory, were not allowed to trade with pagans. In international diplomacy, it was also advantageous for Viking chieftains to be
christian, for only then could they marry christian noble ladies (and claim new titles). When enfiefed with the county of Rouen in 911,
ROLLO nominally converted to christianity (and continued pagan rites). King Harald Bluetooth of DENMARK converted to christianity in 965,
King Vladimir of Kiev in 988 (to orthodox christianity), King Olav Tryggveson of Norway in 1004. In ICELAND and GREENLAND, with Norwegian
encouragement, the things voted to convert, as did the thing of GOTLAND, around 1000.
The coronation of SVEN FOLKBEARD as King of England in 1013 marks a turning point in Viking history. While raids continued, there were no
more Viking conquests (the Norman conquests of Sicily (1027-1091) and England (1066) belong into another chapter). Scandinavia itself
underwent a process of change. Kings, with the assistance of the church, reduced the authority of the things and institutionalised the kingship
(which hitherto was temporary and much depending on the person of king).
E.) THE LEGACY OF THE VIKINGS
1.) Scandinavian settlement of the North Atlantic islands
2.) The establishment of the Russian state
3.) The discovery of America by LEIF ERICSSON
4.) The Viking memory, preseved in the SAGAS
5.) The Viking contribution to medieval central Europe - improvements in defense technology (castles, bridges)
6.) The change of the consitution of the West- and East Frankish kingdoms, in order to meet the Viking challenge, and the unification of England
This page is part of World History at KMLA Last revised on August 28th 2001