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					                                 The Vikings
                             By Katarina Wikholm

  The Norsemen Before They Were Vikings: 500 - 700 AD
  Trading, Raiding, and Travels
  Law and Society
  Longships and Battles
  Women and the Household
  The Aftermath

An Introduction
The scene is a village, somewhere in the British Isles. The time is early morning, some day
in the early Middle Ages. Suddenly a band of longhaired pirates, complete with swelling
muscles and horned helmets, jump off their secretly beached longship and attack the
sleepy villagers. One of Viking pirates grabs an unwilling maiden, drags her back to his
ship and off they go. Later the maiden discovers that a loving heart of gold beats beneath
the rough exterior of her abductor turned husband.

Whoa! Let's rewind this tape a bit. The paragraph above may be the outline of a romance
novel that could make an author's sales-figures look like a rocket launch, but from a
historical viewpoint it is rather questionable.

While the Viking fashion was for longish hair on men, and rowing a longship did produce
strong muscles, horned helmets were the vogue when Julius Caesar invaded Gaul. Celts,
not Vikings wore those helmets and there was a time difference of about 800 years.
Imagine a modern CEO in full plate armor, and you'll see just how anacronistic this picture
of a Viking really is.

As for marrying a captive, however attractive it may be in fiction, it did not happen that
much in real life. The Vikings were slavers, and many of their captives from the British
Isles ended up in Iceland. Their business along the Russian rivers was so extensive it
brought the word slave, from Slav, into most Western languages. Examples of captives
being made into concubines and their children legalized, exist but there is little support in
the chronicles and laws of the time that a full marriage would have been acceptable.

The charge of piracy is a matter of opinion. To the coastal settlers of the British Isles,
France and Russia, the Vikings were thugs and pirates. Archeological sources show that
trading was a larger source of income than raiding, and that areas captured or colonized
were turned to farming. However, it was the chroniclers in the West who got the last word,
when their account of events made it into the history books.

So, who were the Vikings? In a quick summary: Viking is the term for the inhabitants of the
Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden and Denmark who during the period 700-1100
A.D., journeyed from their homelands for the purpose of acquiring wealth, new land and,
possibly, fame. Wealth could be amassed by trading, sometimes increased by robbery.
New land was colonized, for instance Iceland, or invaded, such as Normandy. By 1100 AD
the Vikings had been more or less Christianized and their countries had joined the family
of kingdoms in Medieval Europe.

The Norsemen Before They Were Vikings: 500 - 700 AD
In the period 500-700 AD there are no records of Vikings either in the West or the East. The
people we now call Norsemen who were the ancestors of the Vikings who would later
make seismic shock waves across Europe were busy at home, fighting each other.

For the Norsemen, it was a time of civil unrest as evidenced by the construction of wood &
earth forts and buried treasures of precious metals. There are tantalizing suggestion that
men turned to the gods to achieve peace or victory, as there have been finds of offerings
of bent swords in bogs and natural springs, and hints of human sacrifice. There are few if
any written records of this period, and the conclusions must rest on the archeological

The archeological finds tell of a rich society, with skilled artisans in woodwork, metalwork
and the textile arts. There have been graves excavated that yielded weapons, helmets and
horse harnesses decorated with exquisite gold filigree. The quality of grave gifts varies
greatly, which suggests a highly stratified society. This is especially true of grave fields
close to rich and powerful settlements. Already, the burial mound was in practice. Some
finds of early use of runic inscriptions have been made.

Whether the owner was rich or poor, the basic building was the longhouse. Of varying
length, it had a steep roof covered with thatch or peat, with sleeping areas along its length.
There were no windows, but there were openings for ventilation. These openings were
covered with the translucent skin off a pig's stomach to admit some sunlight. Warmth and
additional light came from the open hearth in the middle of the house, from which the
smoke rose through a hole in the roof. In poorer houses, small farm animals, such as
goats and pigs, would be kept indoors during winter. At richer establishments, parts of the
longhouse could be sectioned off with screens of wood or draperies, assuring some

The culture of these people was mainly a dairy one, with cows, goats and some sheep.
Besides the ever-present pigs, meat was provided by fishing and hunting. A horse was a
sign of wealth, as well as a symbol of the gods Odin and Frey. The cereals grown were
mainly rye, barley and oats, commonly served cooked, not as bread. Turnips and
rutabagas were vegetable staples along with cabbage and peas and the most common
spices were homegrown mustard and horseradish. Garlic was grown for medicinal
purposes, and herbs did not become common in cooking until after the late Middle Ages.
The people drank mead and beer, but little or no wine, and strong liquor had not been
invented yet.

The main trading products were furs and amber, possibly also copper and iron, which
were exported by sea. The main imports were salt, essential for meat preservation, and
luxury goods such as gold.

There are no archeological findings that suggest that the life of the average Norseman
changed drastically around 700 AD, with the advent of the Viking age. The lords of the land
and the trading princes grew powerful, taking the violence outside their home countries,
but beyond that, life for the vast majority went on as always.

Trading, Raiding, and Travels
The home of the Norse was, and still is, the modern day nations of Denmark, Norway and
the southern half of Sweden. The area was heavily forested with oak, beech and birch in
the south, which was replaced by pine and spruce in the north. Another characteristic is
the abundance of waterways: rivers, lakes and a multitude of islands. The easiest way to
travel was by water, which was supported by a plentiful supply of raw material for boats:
wood. An old adage goes: water unites, land divides. When looking at Viking routs of
travel and expansion, this is good to keep in mind.

The expansion in the West went in two main directions. The Norwegians were looking for
new farmland, since Norway is a country of mountains and steep valleys. They found new
land in such unexpected places as Iceland and Greenland, where Norse settlements
survived until the 15th century. They also visited the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, and
are said to have founded Dublin. The settlement at Vinland, on the North American coast,
was short lived due to difficulties with the previous inhabitants. The Danes are most
known for attacking England and France. Their modus operandi was more large-scale with
fleets and armies, as they faced more organized resistance: the Carolinian empire and the
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. They extorted Paris, plundered their way up various
rivers and captured the eastern third of England, known as the Danelaw. Eventually, Knut
became king of both Denmark and England 1016-1035AD. His successors failed to uphold
this dual monarchy, and the crown came back into English hands.

The Viking expansion in the East was initially a trading operation. When Mohammed's
revelations caused the rise of a new power in the Middle East, which cut off the southern
trade route to Eastern Asia, the northern route over Russian became vital to customers
used to amenities such as silk and spices. Traders went by boat down the river system of
the Dniepr to the Black Sea and Byzans or into the Volga to the Caspian Sea and the trade
city of Astrakhan. The traders brought slaves down river and oriental luxuries the other
way. Russian and Scandinavian sources disagree to what extent the Vikings were involved
in the founding of Kiev Russia. A reasonably fair account would be that the earliest
princes of Kiev (the princes of Russia would not be czars until the fall of Byzans) have
Norse names and their daughters marry Viking kings, an example is King Knut's mother.
However, they were assimilated within a few generations, with Slavic names and
converted to the Orthodox faith. Adventurous Vikings in the East could aspire to join the
Byzantine emperors Varangian guard, which only enrolled foreigners in order to stay loyal
to the emperor in the competitive Byzantine politics.

These travels were helped by navigational instruments, such as the equivalent of a sextant
and a primitive compass, and the development of rigging that allowed sailors to tack
against the wind. It allowed Viking exploration to stretch from the Caspian Sea across the
North Atlantic, with records of occasional forays into the Mediterranean.
Law and Society
There were three levels of society among the Vikings: the thralls, the free men and the

The thralls were in practice - slaves. Either born into slavery or captured abroad, they did
much of the menial work. A thrall could win his or her freedom by great acts of bravery
and loyalty to the owner. In early Christian times, thralls were sometimes freed by the last
request of their dying owner. In Sweden, thralldom was formally abolished in the 13th

The free farmers and artisans were the mainstay of society. Each man had the right to be
heard at the thing (assembly) and was expected to take part in the defense of his district.
Besides his ordinary life, a free farmer might be a rune carver, a skald (storyteller) or a
priest. Only rich farmers could afford to own more than one thrall, and so they were
expected to work the fields themselves.

The lords were merely free men from rich and powerful families. While they had no special
legal rights, as the lords of feudal societies later had, they often ended up with special
rights and privileges through their connections and influence. These were the men who
could afford longships and distant trading ventures.

While kings existed, they were elected locally and had to be approved by the free citizens
of their district. Approved is not a mere phrase. There are tales of newly elected kings who
failed to charm the inhabitants of certain districts. They had him killed, and sent word back
to the election assembly for a better king. During the Viking era, however, the kings
consolidated their power, and while kingship was still not completely hereditary, the nuclei
of the present-day monarchy in Denmark, Norway and Sweden emerged.

The thing was the assembly of the freeborn of the district. Here legal matters were settled,
marriages negotiated, and crews for expeditions were gathered. The thing was presided
over by the lawman, whose distinction from his peers lay in the fact that he could recite
the entire law at need. There were no written laws as yet; the oral traditions began to be
codified only in the 12th century. The use of weapons at the thing was banned, and an
offender would be branded an outlaw.

The thing would also accept someone's oath of innocence if supported by the oath of
twelve good men. An institution similar to the jury system existed to advise the lawman in
these cases. The most common punishment for a crime was fines. Manslaughter carried a
graded fine depending on whether the victim was a local man, from a neighboring area or
a foreigner. Killing an outsider was far cheaper. The families of the parties involved were
charged with enforcing the thing's decision. Murder, that is killing in secret without
accepting the ensuing fine, was viewed harshly. In some districts, the inability or
avoidance to pay a fine would automatically cause the culprit to be regarded as an outlaw.
Outlaws were stripped of their possessions, often of their membership in their family, but
no prices were put on their head. However an outlaw was not safe, as you were allowed to
kill one without being fined. Killing a thrall ranked with the killing of a cow or horse, unless
done by the owner.

Given the legal practices, it is quite clear that a grand lord, with a large brood of brothers
and cousins and well-connected by marriage, was an important figure at the thing. It is not
inconceivable that a poor man would have chosen to hold his tongue, rather than provoke
a feud which he had no chance whatsoever of winning.
Longships and Battles
The crew of a longship can be regarded as shareholders in the venture, with the majority
share going to the owner of the ship. Viking longships often operated in fleets, especially
when coming up against an organized enemy. The ships themselves came in a variety of
shapes: from small fishing boats to large trading ships to sleek warships, they were all
still classical longships. What they had in common was a shallow draft and the use of
overlapping boards in the hull. This overlapping technique can still be found in smaller
crafts today. Most of the larger ships could be powered by sail or by oars. The exception is
the harbor defense ships found at the cities of Birka and Hedeby that appear to have been
designed for speed rowing by a crew.

The shallow draft of a longship allowed traders to portage their ships between rivers, but it
also permitted extensive forays upriver to inland areas, where the population was less
prepared for attacks than those who lived near the water. Viking logships needed no
harbor to dock, since the longship could be run aground on a shallow beach which
allowed the crew to easily wade ashore.

Use of cavalry has been documented. On some large-scale expeditions horses were
brought along, which allowed even further and faster exploration inland. When grounded,
a ship could be tilted to allow the horses to jump off into a few feet of water. Given the
value of horses and the risk of braving the North Sea or the English Channel with skittish
horses on board, it is likely that cavalry was used in connection with the full-scale attacks
against England and France, and not on the ship of a lone raider.

The best-known Viking weapon was the battleaxe. Viking warriors also used swords,
spears and bows & arrows. Helmets, often with noseguards (not horns), were in use. The
weapons and helmets were not elaborately decorated. The exception is ceremonial
equipment, which could be decorated to the point of garishness. The helmet found in the
ship burial in Sutton Hoo is very elaborately decorated and had guards to protect the nose
and cheeks. Cured leather was used, to provide some protection from weapons, but not
chain mail - it had not been invented yet.

Part of the Vikings fearsome reputation as fighters is founded on the fact that a good
warrior did not fear death. To avoid battle was deeply shameful, and brave warriors were
given their heavenly reward for dying in the field. They were taken by the warrior maids -
the Valkyries - to Asgard, the Viking heaven. Cowards, and those who died in bed were
consigned to the goddess Hel, whose gloomy and frozen domain is the Norse equivalent
of Hell. Besides being brave and able, a Viking was also expected to be a wily and able
negotiator, as shown by stories told by the skalds. Several heroes are renowned for using
their brains rather than their brawn.

Women and the Household
Life for a Viking wasn't just hard work, trading and raiding. They knew how to have fun,
too. Games for summertime included footraces, wrestling, and playing a game that was
like bowling. Betting on fighting dogs and stallions was popular, too. During winter there
were board games similar to chess and checkers, skating on bone skates, skiing and
storytelling. Dice and gambling was popular around the year.
Bathhouses existed at the more affluent farms, and offered steam or hot water. Sauna is a
Finnish word, by the way, not Norse. Hair combs were a necessary and very personal
possession, and chewing gums made of spruce resin have been recorded. There are
sources that talk of make-up, in use by both men and women, and one Anglo-Saxon
source heaps scorn upon the Danes in England for being fops and ridiculously fastidious
about their personal hygiene.

The men dressed in shirt and trousers. The shirt could be covered with a wool tunic and a
cloak. The footwear consisted of shoes or low boots, and hats or caps were common. The
garments lacked pockets, and personal belongings were worn in a pouch or purse on the

The women dressed in a full-length dresses with long sleeves. In richer households the
dress would likely be made of accordion pleated linen. Over this a shorter, wrap-around
dress in contrasting color was worn, with shoulder straps that were held in place by metal
buckles. A warm shawl closed by a large brooch was the outermost garment in cold
weather. Women's fashion called for advanced hair-dos, with braids and knots held in
place by ornaments.

Men and women alike preferred bright colors and decorated their clothes with ribbons,
furs and elaborate embroidery. Both sexes used jewelry; the men mainly bracelets, the
women added multiple necklaces and sometimes ear rings, too.

Women remained members of the family into which they were born, regardless of who
they married. Their children became part of their husband's family. Polygamy was not
uncommon, but women who were concubines had less protection under the law. Their
children had to be publicly acknowledged as their husband's issue to be allowed to share
in the inheritance, for example. A woman had the right to initiate divorce and retained
ownership of her own possessions when she married. She had the right to bring matters
to the thing, but her word was regarded as half the worth of a man's there. When the
husband was away, trading or raiding, the wife ruled the household and her authority was
undisputed. There were powerful ladies who had enough money and influence to erect
memorial stones over family members who died abroad. While the myths mention warrior
women, Valkyries, there has been little material support for the suggestion that women
were trained in the use of weapons and actually fought alongside the men.

A woman was under the protection of her family and of her husband's family. An
interesting law mentions a scale of fines for grabbing a woman by the ankle, with the fine
rising the higher the man moves his hand. Touching above the knee carries no fine, as it
was called "a fool's grip." Quite likely, anyone who groped a lady's thigh or somewhere
higher would have had to answer to her father and brothers, and the resulting court case
would have been one of assault, but not assault to the lady - the offender would have been
lucky to escape with a beating.

The Norse religion put strong stress on fertility and some festivals of the year had an
orgiastic component. Fertility and sexuality came under the auspices of the divine twins
Frey and Freya. Frey was in charge of the agricultural side of fertility, while human
reproduction and sexual pleasure belonged to his sister, Freya. Not only do the myths say
she had a succession of divine husbands and lovers, they insisted that her door could be
magically locked against anyone she did not fancy. Her symbol was the cat, especially
female cats.

The written stories and myths of gods and heroes that have survived are quite bawdy and
earthy. It is clear that in a society in which such stories were told and enjoyed, there was
no such thing as prim attitude towards the physical side of life. Vikings were certainly not
troubled by any Christian concept of sinfulness, sexual or otherwise.

The Aftermath
Viking raids in the West fizzled out by the 11th century. A partial explanation is the
increased feudalism of their victim countries, which allowed for greater military ability. A
Viking fleet of longships could land troops and light cavalry, but Viking foot soldiers had
difficulty standing up against heavy cavalry. Harold's defeat at Hastings by the armored
knights of William of Normandy bears witness to this. It is ironic to note that Normandy
was named from its first Duke, Rolf or Rollo, who settled the duchy with his Norse

The Viking's eastern trade slowly lost its pivotal role in their economic life. With peace
developing in the Middle East, the southern long-distance trade routes began to reopen to
Middle Eastern traders. While trading around the North Sea and the Baltic remained lively
for many centuries, the transit trade was gone, and thus the great wealth that had been a
monopoly of the Vikings for so long.

The role of the Church in the lives of the Vikings should not be discounted. While the
Viking expansion was mainly driven by economic reasons, the Norse religion and culture
strengthened its military traits. When Scandinavia was Christianized, their world-view
gradually changed. It was not acceptable to enslave fellow Christians, and the belief in the
rewards of courage in battle, was replaced by the Christian belief in the rewards of heaven
for correct living.

The long-term impact the Vikings had on Europe is mainly the hastening of feudalization
of the Western countries. Also, they permanently settled Iceland, helped found Russia and
conquered England twice, if you count their descendants the Normans. After that? They
went back home to their own countries and settled down.

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