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THE VIKINGS 1 History tends to remember the negative side of the Vikings, while forgetting, ignoring, or even being totally unaware of the good they did. Sure, the Vikings robbed, burned, destroyed, and generally made life uncomfortable for many Europeans during their reign of terror. But, they did their part to encourage economic and urban development throughout Europe and were expert seamen. Scholars have long worked to separate Viking reality from Viking legend, and now they have the chance. This year marks the millennial anniversary of the Vikings’ arrival in Newfoundland, Canada. In 1000, under the command of Leif Ericson, the Vikings made history: for the first time, the Old World made contact with the New World across the Atlantic. It was “the first step in the process by which human populations became reconnected into a single global system,” says archeologist William Fitzhugh. “Humanity had finally come full circle.” 2 The Viking raids began in the late eighth century, primarily because of Denmark’s growing power. Danish kings began to extend their control to Sweden and Norway, and many local lords and landowners chose exile and a life of raiding rather than submit to Danish rule. Still, the Viking legacy goes beyond ruined villages. They “redistributed the wealth that was stored by the churches, kings, and landowners,” says Peter Sawyer of the University of Leeds. “They stole it, shared it out and spent it.” This circulation of money stimulated urban development from Kiev to Dublin as quiet villages turned into vibrant trading towns. “Contrary to the stereotype,” says Sawyer, the Vikings “were experienced actors on the international political stage, and this required more talents than brute force.” 3 The Vikings’ economy was actually based on agriculture. While the men went to sea, their families stayed home and farmed. However, the Vikings were truly people of the sea, able to read the water currents and winds well enough to navigate the North Atlantic without instruments. They also navigated by learning the migration habits of whales and birds, which lead the Vikings to Iceland and later Greenland. And, although they rowed their boats until 700, their development of the sail transformed history, since there would have been no Viking age without it. The discovery of rigging, which allowed the boats to sail into the wind, gave the Vikings true maritime superiority. The sails were so good that the Vikings could escape even if the wind was blowing toward the land they had just raided. 4 With the best and fastest ships of the time, the Vikings got around. Some even served as bodyguards to Byzantine emperors. But did they reach North America 500 years before Columbus? Although old Norse legends described trans-Atlantic voyages, few people believed them until the 1960s. It was then that the ruins of the first European settlement in North America were discovered at l’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. The Vikings apparently used the site as a base from which to explore to the south. While the Vikings did not establish a permanent settlement there, their journey may have made a lasting effect. As long as the Norse colony on Greenland endured (from 985 to 1450), so did knowledge of the land to the west. As Icelandic narratives spread the knowledge of these new lands to Europe, it is likely that Columbus knew about the Viking discovery of Newfoundland. The Vikings abandoned l’Anse aux Meadows after only a few years, but the deed had been done. The Old World had reached out across the Atlantic to the New, opening the door to the age of discovery.
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