View Full Version : Through the Looking Glass: The Viking Age
Feb 2nd, 2011, 9:10 PM
I have made a few threads associated with Viking history here, but I don't think I have ever attempted to define the Viking Age. In truth, no one can truly define the Viking Age because there exists no historical records or literature written by the Scandinavians during the period, and archaeological evidence, although abundant to some extent, has not provided us with any definitive uniformity. Certainly we have secondhand data, mostly written by Christian monks victimized by Viking raids, but these accounts, probably not contemporary to the events, are biased at best.
The early medieval Scandinavians had a distinct and unique culture, one which stood drastically apart from the cultures found in Europe, and one so aggressively potent it almost brought both European Christians and Muslims to their knees. Tribal communities scattered throughout Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) shared a taste for raiding in such a way that nations, even empires, fell victim and attempted to tap and exploit this behavior.
What follows in this post is Part 1 of a series of posts within this thread. This post is meant to be an introduction in hopes to hook the reader. The series will summarize the Viking Age, the Vikings, and the Scandinavian influence on the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. Feel free at any time during this series to pose questions. But to keep this thread moving, I request that you try and stay on topic and refrain from ranting.
This is a very specialized field and no way can I cover everything. I will, however, attempt to cover all the major bases.
WHO AM I?
A lot of information, though summarized and simplified, will be presented in this thread. The amount of information and even some of the details presented can easily be found in a number of public sources. This is a discussion forum and not an academic journal, so I seriously doubt any of you would like half of my posts to be made up of reference sources.
Before we get started I should say a little something about myself and this topic. I am a practicing historian, graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in history and a minor in German. Although I minored in German, I spent 90% of my minor studying Icelandic literature and the Old Norse language. I know a little German and a little Old Norse, but I'm sure I know more Old Norse than I do German. During my time at SHSU I helped create a local organization called The Society for Norse History & Culture. Before long I became the president of this organization as I continued my Old Norse studies.
During my time as president of The Society for Norse History & Culture, I gave regular lectures on medieval Scandinavian history; spoke at three local conferences on topics related to the Viking Age, primarily pertaining to the Norse occupation of North America (Greenland and Canada); pioneered three research expeditions to a mysterious rune stone in Oklahoma, two of which were met by world renown scholars in the field (Richard Nielsen, Ph.D and Henrik Williams, Ph.D); wrote two papers (both being edited for publication), one a short linguistic paper briefly summarizing the influence of Old Norse on the English lexicon, the other a larger works focusing on the possible location(s) of the legendary Vínland.
I am particularly passionate about medieval Scandinavian history. I take it very seriously and thus I would not offer such a thread if I wasn't sure I could deliver.
WHERE THERE'S A WAY THERE'S A WILL
I believe it is important to understand what led to the Viking Age, what led to the raids, the trade, the exploration, before we actually attempt to define what a Viking is; a chicken and egg exploration.
There are a number of theories explaining why the Scandinavians began raiding outside their domain. Many of the common theories including overpopulation and greed have now been discredited, at least to an extent insomuch that those theories are less significant and likely untrue. We do not know why the Norse began raiding, but we do know a few things that likely influenced both directly and indirectly the raids.
Perhaps the most realistic theory revolves around the advancement of maritime technology; more or less the development of the langskip (longship). Later on I will present dates significant to the Viking Age, and one approximation is most important: A.D. 750. The langskip was centuries in the making, but around A.D. 750 the Norse attached a single mast to their naval vessels and added a sail, thus creating the longship.
Earlier prototypes of the longship were used regularly in the Norwegian fjords when clans fought against one another. Warriors would row into the fjord to meet their enemy, also rowing into the fjord, and the two vessels would meet and battle would ensue. Not naval battles, mind you, but the two vessels were roped together and warriors would fight on deck. The mechanical-powered predecessors of the longship were perfect for negotiating the rivers that fed into the fjords, and negotiating the fjords both shallow and deep. Once the mast and sail were added to the design the Norse were capable of navigating open seas.
We all know the saying, "Where there is a will there is a way." I believe the reciprocal is apparent with the Norse. Once the technology became available, that is, once the langskip that we know about was developed, the will followed. Once the Norse realized they could sail out into open waters and explore the seas and new lands, it's only logical that once they realized land was out there they'd go after it.
I cannot imagine a population of Scandinavians groaning to themselves because they have yet developed the technology to go abroad. Instead, I see them as developing the technology and then reaching an epiphany.
DAWN OF THE VIKING AGE
We know that the earliest prototypes of the longship were developed around A.D. 750, so it is reasonable to believe a number of experiments were conducted. It's irrational to think Norse warriors just piled into ships and headed toward open ocean in hopes of finding lands to plunder. It is apparent enough that the Norse pagans were well aware of Christian monasteries before they assaulted them, and the first raids (at least those recorded) were calculated assaults on directed targets.
Although there is no evidence to suggest this, I believe after A.D. 750 the Norse began taking their longships out into the oceans. Many vessels were lost, yet enough returned with reports of lands beyond, and especially reports of unguarded monasteries!
The earliest accounts of Viking raids come from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical epic describing the events taking place since the Angles and Saxons first occupied Britain.
A.D. 787. This year King Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife. And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers. The reve then rode thereto, and would drive them to the king's town; for he knew not what they were; and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation.
The earliest recorded report of a Viking raid comes from the year A.D. 787, from the port of Dorset. The entry is not clear regarding the events that led to the death of the reve, but some evidence suggests there was a trading dispute and the Norse responded with violence. Six years later a genuine raid occurred at the monastery of Lindesfarne, considered a beacon of knowledge in all of Britain.
A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter. Siga died on the eighth day before the calends of March.
For some reason historians focus more on this entry than the one in 787. I find this boggling, especially considering the 787 entry specifies who the marauders were. This entry is much more poetic and embellished. And the marauders are simply called heathens instead of "Northmen" or "Danish." There is no doubt among historians that Vikings hit Lindesfarne and burned it, but it's still fascinating to see historians ignore the 787 entry.
Although it's entirely possible that raids occurred before A.D. 787, that year is significant in that it officially marks the onset of the Viking Age because the first Viking attack was recorded.
The Viking Age basically consists of the centuries (roughly 300 years) in which the Vikings raided and terrorized the British Isles, Northern Europe, and the Mediterranean. There is no true way to define an age, nor is there a way to put one in a box with definitive borders. I say the Viking Age ended in A.D. 1066, though many historians will argue that date, and rightly so. Raids continued up until the end of the eleventh century, though they were much smaller and less...productive. I will explain this later.
Unfortunately the nineteenth century created a romantic visage of the Vikings (thanks, Wagner!), and thus all medieval Scandinavians are called Vikings. Vikings were Scandinavians, but Scandinavians were not exclusively Vikings. Although the Vikings were mostly Scandinavians, we know that Saxons, Celts and Slavs also ran with the Norse during raids.
To get an idea of what a Viking was, we must approach the etymology of the word. Linguistically the word comes from Old West Norse, a dialectal branch of North Germanic spoken by medieval Norwegians and eventually Icelanders. The word víking is a verb, meaning to go raiding. The word víkingr is a noun, meaning one who goes on raids. There is an Old Norse phrase (rarely used): fara í víking. It means to go a viking or to go on a seasonal raid.
Vikings were not commanded by kings or even generals. A man wealthy enough to build a ship pieced together a crew hungry for the possibilities of adventure and riches. So, in all reality, Vikings were civilians who took initiative. This is a little difficult to explain this early on without a explaining of the political soup making up Scandinavia. Alas, we're not quite ready for that just yet.
Because Vikings were not soldiers, nor were they sent out by political leaders, those joining a raid normally supplied their own equipment. Raiding parties were piecemeal, as well was the equipment in which they carried. Contrary to popular belief, swords, although highly treasured, were not commonly carried by Vikings early on. Crafting swords required considerable skill and plenty of money, thus they were more commonly found carried by wealthy men, chiefs, etc. The common Viking, on the other hand, wielded an axe and a spear. Both these weapons were used domestically and only required minor augmentations for use on the battlefield. The breiđǫx (bearded axe) was perhaps the most commonly used weapon in melee, yet the langspjot, or long spear, was also used regularly. Most abundant of Viking Ages weapons found by archaeologists are axe and spear heads. Viking armor consisted of a helmet with nose guard and probably a hide or lamellar cuirass. A form of lamellar or scale was most likely used, made up of overlapping leather flaps hung from the shoulders. Mail armor was utilized much later in the Viking Age and by upperclassmen. It was expensive to make and thus considerable wealth was required in order to own a suit of mail and a sword.
Neither winged nor horned helmets were ever used during the Viking Age.
According to the Icelandic sagas, written a few centuries after the end of the Viking Age, raids were conducted seasonally. Vikings were farmers and craftsmen, among other professions, and they would sail from Iceland during certain seasons (perhaps dependent upon abundance of drift ice) and conduct raids for a few months before returning home to farm. Although the literature states this, the archaeological evidence does not support this behavior...at least in Iceland. (More on this later.)
The point here is that Vikings made names for themselves, both properly and mythically. Individuals were able to go a víking and attain wealth and reputation, but most of all the Scandinavians as a people were most notable for being Vikings during the Middle Ages.
This concludes Part 1. The next part will go into more detail regarding raids and those involved. It will also introduce the political soup of medieval Scandinavia, a foul situation that led to raids and migration.
Feb 2nd, 2011, 10:04 PM
Great start... I'm just interjecting my opinion on the lack of historical-literature/writing: that the tales of past doings were meticulously re-told over night-fires, etc. Every night of the year. The details were never changed. Tribes learned their history 'first hand' in this manner, and I believe certain members who displayed a gift for 'telling' were encouraged to become bards.
Feb 2nd, 2011, 10:57 PM
I'm glad you mentioned this because it is truly important. I'm not yet sure if I'll cover the evolution of the Norse saga (which is derived from oral tellings) because it is perhaps more interesting to literature buffs as opposed to history buffs. I may, however, mention it in passing.
Either way, I'm glad you brought this up early on. Norse literature as we know it is a result of Christianized Icelanders putting the early pagan oral tales to parchment long after the stories had, to some degree, died out. The sagas that we read today, even the skaldic poetry that remains, shows definitive signs of Christian bias. On one side of the coin it is unfortunate that historians have to wade through the mud, yet on the other side many of these tales, even with Christian embellishments, describe life in Iceland more or less accurately. The trouble to the layperson is discerning fact from fiction. And no literature recorded by the Icelanders accurately describes Scandinavia.
First, cool thread...
I'll add Birka as a good example of early Viking age, it was founded by an unknown King ( as recorded on their rune) in the mid 700s as a point of trade with the Baltic area.
Birka started about the same time that kingdoms were being established in several parts of Europe, and the new kings were forced to secure their power. One way to secure power was to establish trading posts. These were founded in many places in Northern Europe, for example in Hedeby and Ribe, but Birka houses some of the greatest surviving evidence of early Viking age on the entire Scandinavian peninsula.
This establishment is classic as an example of the trader Viking as well as the farmer, coins from as far as Rome and the British Isles are found over a huge area, as well as huge piles of garbage buried outside the towns foundations. This garbage is a treasure trove of what they ate and grew, some 5 tons of material has been recovered.
The picture shows how advanced this trade had established itself with the rest of northern Europe. Weapons from Spain and Germany are found, as well as unused metal blocks of high quality ore, presumably for swords and knives.
Animal hides from north Africa and southern Europe are found wrapped in oil skin to preserve them, and most have survived the 1200 years! Stone carvings and figures with remarkable craftsmanship, and tablets with stories of events that marked Birka's 500 years.
They are still excavating Birka today, and more housing foundations are being exposed, as well as storage ( Lada) barns. Boat building tools are the most well preserved artifacts to date, showing how important the sea was to this town. Research is hoping to establish just how far these people ventured in there search for trade, and judging by the goods already found, its seems they put some serious miles behind their long boats..
I'll dig up some photos of their rune, and perhaps Laz could shed some light on the text.
Here is some reconstruction of what Birka looked like in its high period, probably no other find in Scandinavia better represents the Viking age as it really was.
In the second half of the 10. Century mother nature has her way and land locked birka with the Scandinavian Land rise from glacial ice ( around 1 inch a year) and cutting off the access to the Baltic sea from her fresh water island, ending the 300 year rule as Scandinavia's largest center of commerce.
From the original site altogether over 3.500 grave hills from the Wikingerzeit, were excavated already more than one hundred years ago. Most of the important relics are in the Historiska Museet in Stockholm, as its the icon of Swedish Viking culture.
Below are a few photos.
Feb 5th, 2011, 6:03 PM
I'll dig up some photos of their rune, and perhaps Laz could shed some light on the text.
I will do my best, but I may not be much help. Runology is a highly specialized field with which I have yet to become intimately familiar. I could reference the elder fuţark, the long-branch and short-twig, and perhaps provide a crude translation at best. Old Norse as studied today is extremely limited insomuch that it was developed in Iceland centuries after the close of the Viking Age in order to record old oral tales into written saga form. Thus the grammar that applies to the later medieval sagas perhaps was not in use orally in the eighth century. Moreover, many Swedish runestones are recorded in Old East Norse or Old Swedish, the latter of which appearing much later. Old East Norse is not drastically different from Old West Norse (the language of the sagas), but significant enough to cause some translation obstacles.
Feb 13th, 2011, 1:06 AM
It has been a few days and I originally aimed to add to this thread regularly, so I thought I would provide a little update. I've been a little busy lately and also I am working on the next addition to this thread. I write offline and then submit when I have enough to make a good post (at least in this section of the site).
The next logical step, one of which I have begun, is to describe the political makeup of Scandinavia during the Viking Age (ca. 750-1100). Unlike the rest of Europe, especially during the ninth and tenth centuries, the Scandinavians had no stable government to rely on. And the political environment at home possibly encouraged raiding. For certain the broken political situation in Scandinavia during the early Middle Ages influenced the Norse pushing out into the North Atlantic, particularly during the times they settled in the British Isles and Iceland. As this political situation evolved over time, and especially after the Christianization of western Scandinavia and Iceland, the Viking Age came to a close and dwindled, like a candle fire slowly fading as its oxygen source is depleted.
While I am working on the next major post (Part 2), I would certainly welcome input and/or questions. Either option can help me better add to this series on the history of the Norse. Not only do I aim to educate in this thread, I also wish to answer the burning questions. TC made a great post about Birka, Sweden, a topic I probably will not cover in this thread unless asked. However, his addition encouraged me to spend more time on trade than I had originally planned.
I hope a number of you are looking forward to my next addition. I am certainly excited about sharing the information!
I appreciate all of those who read and care about this thread and topic. Hopefully we can learn together!
Feb 13th, 2011, 1:13 PM
Part of this history could be linked to the supposed voyage through the Hudson bay and finally the field with the Kensington stone. Two stories appear in Götland (Sweden) that use the same text from the Easter table.
The church at Lye ( Götland) shows the same text that had previously brought discredit to the Kensington rune, but here are two unique runes on the KRS which share a common trait - both the /U/ rune and the /L/ rune have a cross bar on them which caused critics to condemn the stone.
One of the pentadic ( hope I spelled that right) numbers is also marked with a punch at the bottom of the staff (a cross mark on a pentadic number can cause confusion as to the value of the number). If these three marks are 'plugged in' to the Easter Table, it gives us two possible dates - 1343 and 1362.
Obviously this voyage precedes Columbus by some 140 years. And would change history as we know it. But this text does exist and can be traced to two church's in Götland.
The study by Nielsen/Wolter " note that there are over a dozen inscriptions in Gotland, For example the runic inscription on the bell in Sands church reads (translated) "k is the Sunday Letter and it is the Year in the 13th column of the Easter Table" In brief, two letters and a number can be used to determine a year.
To answer the Kensington problem by simply suggesting that the runes were 'made up' by a forger, is to easy and convenient for the septics who doubt a voyage that far was possible, and remarkably outside the supposed Viking era. but rune forms that had been used as a mark for the purpose of dating are confirmed, and the strongest argument for this theory is that it works.
I don't know if Laz has looked into this later research, as some of this information didn't come to light until 2006.
Feb 14th, 2011, 4:43 PM
I don't know if Laz has looked into this later research, as some of this information didn't come to light until 2006.
I am up to date with the most recent research on the KRS. Dr. Nielsen gave me a copy of the book [I think] you are referring to, one he co-authored with Scott Wolter. I met with Dr. Nielsen just a few months ago in Oklahoma, along with Dr. Henrik Williams of the University of Uppsula, on their lecture tour around the United States. We discussed some KRS anomalies that have yet been verified and a few potential routes the Norse would have taken to get to Minnesota.
It is a fascinating topic and the journey was certainly plausible. Those who dismiss the KRS simply because it was possibly carved 300 years after the end of the Viking Age typically have little background in North Germanic history. The climate was changing drastically beginning in the 14th century, and the Western Settlement of Greenland would have experienced these changes much earlier than anyone else in the North Atlantic. There is enough evidence to suggest the Greenlanders continued to tap lumber resources in Labrador up until the abandonment of the settlements in Greenland, and if they were desperate enough for resources they certainly could have gone further inland.
Feb 14th, 2011, 11:36 PM
The first part of this thread was an introduction to the Viking Age, and in that introduction I mentioned elements that may have led to raids and expansion. Among the most significant factors leading to the raiding and migrations of the medieval Scandinavians was the technological development of naval vessels, particularly the langskip or longship. While access to new naval technology certainly allowed the Norse to leave the relative safety of their fjords, various political powder kegs encouraged migration. These migrations, beginning in the mid-ninth century, shaped the language and laws of other peoples.
NORSE EMPIRE NIXED
Too many times have I read enthusiastic historians claim that the Scandinavians established an empire spanning from the Caspian Sea to the eastern coastlines of North America. This claim is so absurd that simply calling it a misnomer isn't appropriate. Those historians who publish such claims have little or no academic background in Scandinavian history, and it is a real shame they have a naggingly bad habit of going out on far-reaching limbs when discussing Viking or Norse history.
Archaeological evidence attests to Swedish traders migrating into Eurasia as far as the Caspian, and the recovery of a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland shows that Greenlanders made it to North America. (Arguably, however, is the fact that Greenland is considered part of North America.) But to claim these Norse migrants were part of a reaching empire anywhere on par with the Greeks, Romans or Persians is simply untrue. The Swedish Rus’ who moved into Russia and assimilated with the tribal Slavs had absolutely no political relationship with the Icelanders who migrated to Greenland, and those Greenlanders involved with the experimental Vínland settlement of North America. For all intents and purposes, these two groups were worlds apart culturally, politically, and to an extent, linguistically.
Although debunking the claims of an expansive Scandinavian empire is not part of my formula here, it is important to stress that any claims attesting to the existence of said empire are strictly wrong. What follows should shed light on why this claim is bogus.
THEY WEREN'T NATIONS
The definition of a nation is "a politically organized body of people under a single government." The definition of nation alone attests to the fact the Norse during the Viking Age were not nationals of any kind. The modern Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, did not exist between A.D. 750 and 1100. Early medieval politics in Denmark were different from those in Norway, and Swedish politics evolved independently. Although Sweden is the most abundant in rune stones and medieval diplomas, most of the information we have pertaining to Viking-age politics comes from Norway and Iceland.
Centuries before Christianity and its political hierarchy was introduced to Scandinavia, the people of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were loosely segregated into "clans." There existed an extended family and its slaves, and each family shared marriages insomuch that they became united to an extent with other families.
A tangent: Although I use the word "clan," this social construct should not be confused with the Celtic family system of the same age. By definition, a clan is two or more families united under one banner/name, and that banner was more likely related to family than politics. The dominant family of a clan (more members) would have the clan named after it, hence Celtic clan names such as McGregors/McIntyres. The social situation in Scandinavia was far removed and I only use the term "clan" to illustrate a social bond.
THE CONCEPT OF KINGSHIP
There are nearly half a dozen words in Old Norse that mean either "king" or "chief," and what it boils down to is regional context. There are more names for "king" as they relate to Norway than any other realm of Scandinavia.
Examples in Old Norse are: jarl, konungr, hersir, gođi.
The word jarl is partly responsible for the English "earl." The Modern German König is a derivative of the Old Norse konungr, but the word "king" in English comes from the Anglo-Saxon cynning. (They are all Germanic and thus linguistically related.)
In western Norway families made bonds or feuded, and those individuals with significant wealth and military prowess became "kings." These kings were always self-appointed, and many times they would ride in the company of men either asking for devotion or threatening in order to extract fealty. Many fought against others for the sake of being declared king. And many times a strong and wealthy man claiming to be king would threaten landowners in order to gain favor and/or impress them into his army. For example, a self-declared king would ride to each farmstead in his district and shout that he would be next king, then ask for support. A farmer had an "option" to support this king.
"I will become king, so swear fealty in my service, and fight for me against my enemy," the proposed king would say. "If you do not, once I become king I will be sure to not only burn your farm to the ground, but I will make sure to kill every man and have every woman raped."
Most had no power or influence to reject a self-declared king, so, although given a choice, the safest decision was to swear fealty. However, many were killed trying to become kings, so the forced fealty, although necessary in oath, was quickly erased.
The Norse were out of control. Only those with strength, large families, reputation, wealth, etc., could declare themselves king, but it was regular enough to drive the Norwegians to sea. And more than once a man with just enough support and military savvy controlled a significant part of Norway.
THE ICELANDIC MIGRATION
Every few years some new strong-arm established enough wealth and military might to oppress the common man. Fleeing the region was not an option available to just anyone. How can I survive? Where would I go? Is Francia or Okrney better than here? How can I afford to leave? These types of questions may have plagued the minds of Norwegians during the 8th and 9th centuries. Escape is never easy, and it was much more difficult during the Middle Ages.
The Norse tales of migrations and new settlements are encouraging to an extent, but it took significant wealth and influence to leave Norway. Not only did the construction of a vessel come into play, but if one were to leave, what would he take? One cannot start over in new lands without wealth, meaning without livestock. Only the wealthy were able to leave Norway.
Harald Fairhair is credited with uniting Norway (870-930). He was able to accomplish what no other self-claimed king could in the past: he took control of the population. Although Harald Fairhair gets kudos for bringing together all the Norwegian clans, he pissed a lot of people off in the process. Norway was certainly united under his reign, but after his death the region fell apart again for a generation or two when Olaf Tryggvasson (in just 5 years) reunited Norway by introducing Christianity.
We don't know much about Harald Fairhair, but the sagas describing the discovery and settlement of Iceland help us understand that he was oppressive. Two manuscripts, Íslandingabók and Landnámabók, describe the land-taking in Iceland and mention that many families fled Norway because of oppression. According to these manuscripts, the purpose for settling Iceland was to create a new home and government appealing to both nobility and freemen. The Icelanders established a parliamentary government wherein a bonafide, supported official would represent a community. These officials were not elected, yet this system of government was much more democratic than both the Greek and Roman systems.
The Icelandic political system was fairly complex, especially considering by this point most European countries were just beginning to formulate simplistic, hereditary monarchies. The Icelandic governing system was more than a millennium ahead of its time. Icelanders met regularly at local assemblies, then every year they would assemble at one location for a month or more. Regional issues regarding taxes, supplies, marriage announcements, divorce announcements, feuds, alliances, were all mentioned at the local assemblies. If issues could be solved locally, they would be at these assemblies. If not, then the next step would be to bring them to the annual assembly called the Alţing.
I have not yet made a decision on Part 3. Until I do, I surely hope you readers will post questions or add thoughts to this thread. The information in this post is highly condensed (obviously), and many questions may remain. The point of this Part 2 was to give readers an inkling of an idea of the political situation in Scandinavia leading into and during the Viking Age. I could easily write a 100-page article on medieval Scandinavian politics...there's just so much diversity and issues to discuss. But I'm simplifying. Don't hold that against me.
Please ask if you want more. Please add if you know more.
Apr 8th, 2011, 5:48 PM
When the Norse moved west they applied pressure on Scotland, Ireland and Britain, and all the minor islands surrounding the landmasses. The movement to Iceland (c.A.D. 870) came decades after the Norse already had a foothold in both Britain (including Scotland) and Ireland. Emigration to Iceland has been mentioned briefly before, but more details will come in a later part of this series, for that emigration is one of the most significant events in Scandinavian medieval history.
Assaults on and emigration to the British Isles is significant for a number of reasons. Not only do these early assaults mark the opening of the Viking Age, but significant changes to Anglo-Saxon politics and society, as well as linguistic changes, occurred during this time. Viking raids on the British Isles are perhaps, to a degree, much more significant than the raids on continental Europe. This post will describe in a nutshell the events that transpired in the first century of the Viking Age.
To save time and space in this post I will apply a few scholarly abbreviations. The abbreviations used herewith are as follows.
MS = Manuscript
ON = Old Norse (language)
Something I failed to mention in the first part, the introduction, is the sources from which we gather our knowledge of Viking and Scandinavian history during the Middle Ages. It is important the reader understands that the vast majority of primary documentation concerning the Viking Age was recorded by either victims/observers or by Scandinavians long after the Viking Age came to a close. Because contemporary documents were written mostly by victims, the information provided therewith is oblique at best. However, contemporary observers, namely Arab emissaries and geographers, although short in supply, provide us with a small wealth of first-hand accounts of medieval Norse society and culture.1 On the other hand, historians tend to rely heavily on the sagas for insight into Viking behavior and exploits.
The saga is an Icelandic literary construction--perhaps developed in the early 12th century in such a way that pays homage to the oral tradition--devised to record oral traditions. The sagas consist mostly of tales about prominent families fleeing Norway and settling Iceland, their genealogies, and heroic or socially grandiose exploits. The Old Norse word saga is not easily translated into English, but mostly it refers to historical accounts founded in tradition. Much of the content found within sagas is comparable to legends such as King Arthur or Robin of the Hood, though they were written in such a fashion to link every protagonist with a prominent Norwegian family and show that he became legendary independent of the political mess in Norway. The sagas are an admixture of fact and fiction, and the style and form is much different from the fictional prose and verse we find in contemporary French and German romantic literature. Young saga scholars are easily swayed by the point-of-fact nature of the sagas, yet much of the information is likely fiction. This has led historians to abandon the sagas and treat them simply as fiction. What many historians fail to realize is the sagas provide a unique and culturally pure insight into medieval Scandinavian society (at least in Iceland). The sagas should be taken with a grain of salt, because much of the details provided (and there are always numerous) are fictional or simply recycled motifs spawned from North Germanic oral tradition.
Since the late 19th century archaeology has provided us with a wealth of information regarding Norse culture. The archaeological record has provided historians a baseline for determining what did and did not happen during the Viking Age. Archaeology by no means tells historians whether or not a specific person performed a specific action, it provides a more accurate contextual framework, or environment for historical exploits. And archaeology, although classified as scientific, is quite subjective, same as history.
The first "official" raid against Britain and the Christian Church was in A.D. 793, when an unknown number of Vikings struck viciously the Lindisfarne Monastery on Holy Island (Northumbria). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is mostly what's cited by historians when referencing this date, though there are contemporary sources confirming the year.2
A contemporary document responding to the raid at Lindisfarne is a letter written by Alcuin of York to Ćthelred I of Northumbria.
Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples.3The Lindisfarne raid is classified as the first wave of aggression by the Norse, though an earlier entry in the Chronicle mentions a killing in southern Britain. The entry most commonly cited by historians follows:
A.D. 793. Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense flashes of lightening, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 June the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God's church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter.
The earlier entry (787 in the Petersborough MS and 789 in the Winchester MS, the latter believed to be the most accurate) in the Chronicle does not mention a raid but a killing of the reeve at Dorset by Danish men. The circumstances behind this killing are unknown, but it is certain that the killing was performed by Vikings.
A.D. 789. Here Beorhtric took King Offa's daughter Eadburh. And in his days there came for the first time three ships; and then the reeve rode there and wanted to compel them to go to the king's town, because he did not know what they were; and they killed him. Those were the first ships of the Danish men which sought out the land of the English race.
Raids similar to Lindisfarne occurred for decades along the coastlines of the British Isles and Europe, primarily targeting Christian monasteries at first. The Norse knew that Christian monasteries were unprotected and ripe for plundering; moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the Vikings focused on Christian monasteries at first not just for plunder, but as retaliation for atrocities committed against pagans in Saxony by Christians. (This will be addressed later.) During the course of these raids, most of which were likely committed by men of Norway, a number of Norse remained behind and settled land in Northumbria. These numbers were minimal, of course, and a significant flood of Norse did not come to Britain until the second half of the 9th century. The first raid of Ireland came just after Lindisfarne at Lambey in A.D. 795, and it was the first of many sporadic strikes made by the Vikings. Furthermore, similar to Northumbria, the Vikings penetrated far inland. Raids along coastal Europe did not occur until the mid-9th century, the bulk of which occurring throughout the 10th century.
PART 3.1: IRELAND
Control of Ireland was attempted a few decades before an attempt on Britain, perhaps because the Celts were not as well-equipped or unified as the Anglo-Saxons.4 After the raid on Lambey in A.D. 795, the next major assault on Ireland was the massacre at Iona Abbey, on the Isle of Iona, just off the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland, which occurred in A.D. 806. After Iona Abbey raiding either quieted or any records of assaults on Ireland have been lost.
In c. 832, a fleet of 120 longships under Turgeis (Thorgest) invaded kingdoms along the northern and eastern Irish coasts. We first here of Turgeis in the north in Ulster, and then he eventually makes his way south along the coast into what became Dublin. As witnessed by Christians, Turgeis established himself as a religious [heathen] king, regularly desecrating Christian holy places. The late Gwyn Jones, a scholar and translator of Norse literature and history, mentions the following regarding Turgeis and his early behavior in Ireland:
Having expelled the abbot of Armagh, he sat himself down in the abbey as its heathen high priest, and at the altar of Clonmocnois his wife Ota (Aud) chanted spells and oracles. Possibly this was the way Turgeis chose to present himself to his people as leader, sustainer of sacrifices, and guarantor of good seasons, on the Norwegian model.
The actual story of Turgeis and his exploits is fragmentary. Sources mention he comes to Ireland in 832 but does not attempt to forge a kingdom in Ireland until 839, when he shifted from coastal raiding to inland raiding by way of river systems. However, this does make a little sense militarily. Before Turgeis could establish a significant foothold in Ireland, he had to take the time to suppress and destroy any indigenous populations that were capable of challenging his control. After seven years of raids he finally begins to establish a Norse kingdom in Ireland in 839 by traveling upriver further inland. By 845, though, he was captured by the Irish king Mael Seachlainn of Meath (also Mide) and executed by drowning. Below are some dates of significant Viking actions during the time Turgeis was in Ireland before his capture and execution.
836. Vikings press deep inland and are now no longer a threat to just coastal populations.
837. Large Viking fleets appear on the River Boyne and the River Liffey.
838-41. A small Viking fleet entered the River Liffey in eastern Ireland, probably led by the chieftain Saxolb (Soxulfr) who was killed later that year. The Vikings overwinter on Lough Neagh in 840 and set up a base, which the Irish called longphorts (ON: langport). This longphort would eventually become Dublin.
839. Turgeis reaches Armagh and begins forging his realm, which includes Ulster, Connacht and Meath.
841. Turgeis expels the abbot at Armagh and establishes himself as high priest. The first langport is built at Linn Duachaill (now Annagassan).
842. First report of Viking-Irish alliance.
845. Turgeis is captured and executed.
After the death of Turgeis some rest came to Ireland for a few years, or at least there is no surviving mention of Viking raids in the lands. In A.D. 484 the Irish battled a number of invading Norwegian armies, defeating at least four on various battlefields. But in c. A.D. 850 a new threat came to Ireland, one that was welcomed at first. Between 850 and 852 the Danes arrived. The Irish welcomed them at first, thinking them a gift from God, because when they arrived all they did was fight off the Norwegians. The Irish aided the Danish in a few encounters and the Danes rewarded them with gold and silver.
The Norwegians returned in 853 perhaps led by Olaf Ingjaldsson (Olaf the White of saga tradition5) and pushed out the Danes. Perhaps most importantly here is the fact Dublin was under the command of the Norse between 841 and 999. Dublin began as a Celtic trading community but was converted at first into a stronghold by the Norse; from there a Norse kingdom was established, and during that time Dublin evolved into trade port city. Despite 150 years of Scandinavian rule, the Celtic name was retained: Dubh Linn, meaning “black pool.” In A.D. 999, the Celtic King of Cashel, Brian Boru, sacked Dublin and a renewed Celtic revival spawned. Although a Scandinavian king remained in control of Dublin, the Norse influence waned under Celtic cultural supremacy. That supremacy was snuffed when the Normans invaded between A.D. 1169 and 1172.
We're only just starting with the invasions of the British Isles, and with my introduction to this part, and the history of Viking pressure on Ireland, it is best to stop and allow you to digest the information. Perhaps this information may inspire some of you to comment or pose questions. In a few days I will continue with Part 3.2, the invasions of Britain.
1 Ahmad ibn Fadlan's Risala records his travels into southern Russia along the Volga River to meet the Bolğars (Bulgars). During his stay at Bolğar (a trading center that became a city), Fadlan encounted the Swedish Rus, a Viking tribe that traveled from Sweden to Russia, then south by way of the Volga River. A fifth of Fadlan's Risala consists of first-hand witness of Swedish Viking culture and society.
2 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned by Alfred the Great in A.D. 890, thus the authors were of a later generation reporting on either oral tradition or from manuscripts long since lost. The only surviving contemporary source of the raid on Lindisfarne is Alcuin of York, who was living in the Frankish court at the time the monastery was ravaged. The written sources are letters sent from Alcuin to King Ćthelred of Northumbria and the Bishop of Lindisfarne.
3 Around A.D. 449 the Anglo-Saxons (Angles, Jutes and Saxons) took the place of the Romans in England. When the Romans abandoned England in A.D. 410, the Romano Celts (Celts who assimilated into Roman society and were protected by the Roman Empire) had to fend for themselves, fighting other Celtic tribes such as the Scots and Picts. The Anglo-Saxons were hired to protect the Romano Celts, but they quickly became the new overseers.
4 This may be somewhat misleading. During the first attempts on Britain the Anglo-Saxons were broken up into scores of minor kingdoms ruled by petty kings, similar to how Norway was broken up before Harald Fairhair united the country. The Anglo-Saxon political puzzle was much more refined than the Norwegian one, however. It was easier for them to muster against an invading enemy than it was for the Norwgians.
5 It is unclear who actually led this Norwegian reentry into Ireland. The various annals simply say “the son of Lochlann,” which is a Celtic proper name of an unknown Norwegian king, perhaps Ingjald Helgasson, a Norwegian hersir or warlord ruling over various Scottish islands. The timeline agrees with saga tradition and the reign of Olaf the White (son of Ingjald), who was called King of Scotland. Yet, according to the sagas, Olaf was born in Ireland, so he would not command any loyalty from Vikings of Norway.
Apr 22nd, 2011, 9:17 AM
Sorry to interject, but I'll be brief. Isn't the Sam Houston State University formerly the Sam Houston Institute of Technology, home to the famous S.H.I.T marching band?
You may now return to intelligent conversation...
Apr 26th, 2011, 7:16 AM
Sorry to interject, but I'll be brief. Isn't the Sam Houston State University formerly the Sam Houston Institute of Technology, home to the famous S.H.I.T marching band?
You may now return to intelligent conversation...
The university was founded in 1879 as Sam Houston Normal Institute. It changed its name three times during the 20th century, none of the names reusing "institute," nor has it ever held a name with the word "technology."
1879 - Sam Houston Normal Institute
1923 - Sam Houston Teachers College
1965 - Sam Houston State College
1969 - Sam Houston State University
Your comment may have been funny if it were true, but the humor is lost since it's completely made up.
Apr 26th, 2011, 10:32 PM
Good work Laz!
Your coments about the Norse not technically being an Empire reminded me of a comment my prof made in class years ago when asked about the idea of a Norse Empire. He said that all Empires eventually fall but the Norse never did so they were never an Empire. It was more elaborate than that, but it's kind of the idea. There really was no cohesion amongst tribes as far as a kingdom goes, but I do like reading historical accounts of them working together. I'm fortunate that I can be proud of my Norwegian and Swedish ancestors and not have to pick one Norse group. Equal opportunity all around.
Apr 29th, 2011, 5:44 PM
As I said in the previous part of this section, the Viking invasion of Britain (and peripheries) is perhaps the most important movement out of Scandinavia other than the settlement of Iceland. It is difficult to judge which event is more important. The settlement of Iceland and the unique social evolution the environment provided is the only reason we have extensive Scandinavian literature. Iceland, although considered a backwater at first, became the land of poets, researchers, bards, and scribes of Scandinavian culture. Norwegian kings would pay Icelanders to travel to and live in their courts in order to weave poems and tales based on their exploits.
The "Viking" invasion of Britain in the 9th century is just as important but for different reasons. Scandinavian invasions and settlements in early England influenced the way the Western world spoke and practiced law. By the time of the Norman Conquest in A.D. 1066-67, Scandinavians, although a minority, had already transmitted their language and culture throughout the British Isles, significantly altering the language, dress, naming conventions, etc. Although Scandinavian influence is not solely responsible, it played a significant role in preserving the English language under Norman rule, and much of the common/domestic words we used today in English are Scandinavian in origin.
After the Romano-Celts paid the reputed Germanic tribes (Angles, Jutes, Saxons) to protect them against aggressive Celtic tribes such as the Scots and Picts, those Germanic mercenaries took over the island. The Romano-Celts were converted to Anglo-Celts and the Anglo-Saxons pushed all other Celtic groups to the fringes of the island. By A.D. 470 the Anglo-Saxons controlled nearly all of Britain save for Wales, Ireland and the northern reaches of Scotland. Before the dawn of the 6th century these same Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and thus begins the real history of England.1
The Anglo-Saxons divided Britain into a number of petty kingdoms. This was not done as an afterthought but more likely a natural result of specific tribes occupying and controlling different regions of the island. In the first two centuries after occupation Anglo-Saxon England was divided into more than a score of petty kingdoms, the most prominent of them in the 7th century being Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex, and Kent. By the end of the 8th century, the time the Vikings first raided the coasts, most of the smaller kingdoms were absorbed by larger and more powerful ones, leaving a nucleus of four kingdoms: Northumbria in the northeast, East Anglia on the central and southeast coast, Mercia in the central midlands, and finally Wessex in the southwest. Despite the absorption and overall contraction of English kingdoms into fewer political bodies, this move did not improve each kingdom’s ability to negotiate or withstand a foreign invasion.
In primary documents describing how the Anglo-Saxons worked together to repel the Vikings, they called themselves all English. This was more of a cultural and ethnic identity than a unified political one. When the first Viking armies arrived in the middle of the 9th century, there was no unification to combat the marauders and invaders. Instead each king had to call upon his own resources and people to defend his territory.
In this section of Part 3 I will mention both England and Britain but not interchangeably. Britain refers to the larger island but can sometimes refer to the entirety of the British Isles, at least up to the slow decay of the British Empire. England, however, strictly refers to the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons.
INVASION & OCCUPATION
Whether or not the Vikings were aware of this political fragmentation is not known. However, decades of raids and attempts (especially in Ireland) surely indicated that there was no unified national, ethnic, or societal force to prevent occupation. The invasion of England by the Norse is significant regardless, and it occurred in waves.
Raiding was seasonal, the first raids beginning in the spring and lasting throughout the summer, then the Vikings would head to a safe haven (Orkneys, Faroes, sometimes maybe the Hebrides and Dublin) or return to domestic responsibilities back home. The concept of the Old Norse phrase fara í víking ("to go raiding") was based on quick raids executed by a small band of shock troops, in and out before the victims knew what happened. Prolonged occupations, including land and siege warfare, were far from the norm, and in many instances failures, but the events in which they were successful are historically significant. Strong leaders with a reputation of successful raids and accumulated wealth were able to convince other chiefs and raiding leaders to combine forces. The more soldiers the more likely of success. Promises of riches, trading of slaves and the promises of good marriages, might have influenced a number of these Viking leaders to combine forces.
In 851 the terms of the Viking presence in England altered drastically. Anglo-Saxon kings faced Viking aggressors on a number of fronts, including Wemburg (Wembury, southwest England) and Kent (southeast England). Moreover, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle marks this year as the first in which Vikings overwintered, spending the season on the Isle of Thanet off the Kentish coast. This same year 350 (Danish) Viking ships entered the mouth of the Thames and "the crew of which went upon land, and stormed Canterbury and London...and then marched southward over the Thames into Surrey." From Surrey the invading army headed north toward York. Two claimants to the throne of Northumbria, Osbert and Aella, were so caught up in fighting each other that they failed to recognize the outside threat until it was too late, leading to the fall of the city and rule passing to the Scandinavians in c. 866.
Part of the army left York in 868 and marched south into Mercia, taking the fortress at Nottingham, then it continued into East Anglia, consuming the kingdom. In all three kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, the Norse installed puppet leaders. These leaders were local Anglo-Saxons willing to do the bidding of their politically shrewd conquerors. Mercia took longer to conquer than East Anglia. The Norse established a military foothold in Nottingham and continued to East Anglia. After East Anglia was consumed by the Norse, they pushed back north into Mercia, striking a number of key Christian centers. By c. 874 the Norse controlled most of England: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Kent. Wessex was the last kingdom to hold out against the flood of heathens. By the time of the first assaults on Wessex in the late 9th century, Northumbria had already been rapidly domesticated by the Norse. At first the Norse were raiders, and then the Chronicle states in its 876 entry that, "The same year Healfden[e]2 divided the land of the Northumbrians; so that they became afterwards their harrowers and plowers [sic]."
Wessex became the prize and conquering the kingdom would place control of nearly all of Britain in Scandinavian hands. If the assault on Wessex was successful, within thirty years the Norse would control all of mainland Britain save for Wales and pockets of Scotland, Eastern Ireland, and every habitable periphery island in the region (Orkneys, Hebrides, Man, Sheppey, et al). The first assaults on Wessex began in 876, and the Norse captured key fortresses in Wareham and Exeter the same year, forcing the West-Saxons into a corner. King Alfred of Wessex was forced into hiding and most of the kingdom was under Norse control. In 878 Alfred returned and defeated the Norse at Ethandun, causing the Danes to retreat east to Chippenham. Alfred then laid siege and soon forced the Norse to surrender. As one of the terms of surrender, Guthrum, the Scandinavian responsible for leading successful assaults in Mercia and Wessex, was baptized a Christian. 3
Peace held until 884 when Guthrum assaulted Wessex again, though he was defeated by Alfred. Until the Norse encounter Wessex, Anglo-Saxon leaders and kings were killed on the battlefield by the invaders, and some Norse leaders also met their fates in combat. Alfred, on the other hand, accepted surrender by Guthrum twice. The first time he had Guthrum baptized and the second a treaty was drawn up. Peace codified in the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum established the geographic boundaries of the Danelaw, permitting Alfred to consolidate his power in Wessex and further east, whereas the Norse were relocated north into Mercia. In the first decade of the 10th century, however, the Mercians reclaimed territories in both the Midlands and East Anglia, pushing the Danes further north.
The Danelaw became the part of Britain given to the Danes in the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum wherein the Norse were allowed to govern under their own system of laws. When the Mercians pushed the Norse out of the Midlands, a number of Danish jarls (earls) were permitted to keep their lands. The laws of these lands became a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian, and taxes were of course paid to Mercian kings. The southern boundary of the Danelaw was Watling Street, which gave the Danes most of Northumbria and East Anglia, leaving Mercia and everything south to the Anglo-Saxons. Within the Danelaw the northern and eastern part of Britain was governed by Scandinavians and therewith the embryo of Modern English began to form.
OLD NORSE & ENGLISH
More than two-thirds of the English language is Germanic in origin. After A.D. 1066, when the Normans took control of England, an enormous number of French loanwords was borrowed into Anglo-Saxon (Old English). At first many of these words were political in nature, names of courts and officials were borrowed from Norman.4 Within a century the language began to change significantly, replacing the Germanic inflection with the French preposition. Even in Modern German prepositions are restricted to cases (something the French also helped abolish in English), a restricted list existing for each of the four Germanic cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, with barely a handful of prepositions shared between cases, primarily accusative and genitive. By the time of Middle English (beginning as early as A.D. 1100) most Germanic inflections were lost, and today's English is devoid of the classical inflection system, though some remnants remain.
When the Norse first began to occupy Northumbria at the end of the 8th century, their language quickly mingled with local Anglo-Saxon. Because both Old English and Old Norse are Germanic languages, and they were spoken during a period in history in which Germanic dialects were various but only slightly different, the invading Norse could communicate with the local Anglo-Saxons with relative ease. For the most part inflections and pronunciations were different, meaning both vocabulary and grammar were easily understood between the two peoples. The nominative form of most words was, to a degree, the same in both languages but inflections based on cases provided the biggest obstacle. Over a short time (less than a century, probably) it became easier for the two linguistic groups to drop the disparate inflections—the dative and genitive cases in both Old English and Old Norse are very much the same, thus it’s likely the accusative case was dropped and the nominative slightly modified. This occurred at first in the rural parts of Northumbria but definitely became common place in East Anglia and even parts of Mercia wherein Danish jarls still held sway.
The English language, as originally instituted by the Anglo-Saxons, was beginning to change in the rural parts of the Midlands and Northumbria, and the new version of English would continue to develop throughout the countryside long after the Normans came. Still today a lexicon of more than 300 words (probably more akin to 1,000 if you count place-names) in the English language originates from Old Norse. Most of these words are affixes found in place-names, yet a considerable number of simple, domestic words we still use today have origins in Scandinavian.
The following information may prove to be a trivia treat for native English speakers.
Notes on Special Consonants
Two consonants will appear forthwith that may be unfamiliar to you. Although you may have seen these consonants before, you may not know how they are pronounced. These characters are đ and ţ and their Old Norse pronunciations follow.
đ (eth): voice dental fricative like th in English "them," following d in the Icelandic alphabet.
ţ (thorn): voiceless dental fricative like th in English "thick," following ý (which follows y) in the Icelandic alphabet.
The most apparent words derived from Old Norse are found in place-names in England. The Scandinavians had a number of words for town, village, home, settlement, etc., and the affixes associated with these simple types are still apparent today. Common Scandinavian place-name elements in their Anglicized forms are by (búa), meaning “settlement, town,” as shown in Derby, Grimsby; those of thorp (ţorp), “village,” as Althorp, Linthorpe; those adding thwaite (ţveit), “isolated ground, manor,” as seen in Applethwaite; and those adding toft (topt), a dwelling with adjacent buildings and adjoining lands, as Eastoft and Nortoft.
Phonology: Consonant Clusters
Phonological influence on English by the Scandinavians is reflected in the Proto-Germanic consonant cluster /sk/, which became palatalized in Old English: thus sc is pronounced /š/ (sh as in the word shine). North Germanic retained the velar /k/ when following s, therefore sk is pronounced /sk/ and not /š/: thus we have English church and Scandinavian kirk, English shirt and Scandinavian skirt5, English shrub and Scandinavian scrub. Other words borrowed from Old Norse using /sk/ include sky, skull, scare, scab, scathe, scowl, and bask. On the domestic end we know silence the k in knife when it was vocalized in its Old Norse cognate knífr
Old Norse was also responsible for a number of domestic words such as mother (móđir), father (fađir), sister (systir), and house (hús). It is difficult to trace the origins of brother because the Old English brōţar and the Old Norse bróđir are so similar. The Modern English wife is from Old English wīf, meaning “woman, wife,” whereas the same meaning in Old Norse appears as kona. A handful of verbs were also adopted by the English before the Norman Conquest, though these words were most reflected in populations with substantial Scandinavian influence. For example, the verb “to take” in Old Norse is taka, which is used in Modern English; this appears in Old English as niman (Modern German: nehmen). Even in Middle English take and nime are used depending on the region and Scandinavian influence. English also uses Old Norse kasta, “to cast,” being that the Old English form is weorpan. Another verb clearly borrowed from the Scandinavians is “to call;” this appears as Old Norse kalla—this is opposed to the Old English ceallian.
Perhaps most notable of the Scandinavian loans are found in pronouns, prepositions and adverbs. Old Norse affected the third person plural forms of personal pronouns they, their, them; the third person plurals in Old English can be classified as h-forms as opposed to th-forms: hīe, hira, him. The Old Norse forms are ţeir, ţeirra, ţeim; the archaic thou is also rooted in Old Norse ţau. Although not primarily pronouns, English both and same are of Scandinavian origin: báđir (in some cases bćđi) and sem (sometimes sém). We get the Middle English spelling from (dative case) but it predates the Norman Conquest in the Old English fram, which certainly could have been borrowed from the Old Norse frá (predating A.D. 950). In addition, the English preposition with is derived from Old Norse viđ. From the same source comes the conjunction though (ţo), the Old Norse equivalent of Old English ţēah. Perhaps most notable is the present plural are (from the irregular infinitive vera) from the verb “to be.” In Wessex this construction was syndon, thus the Modern English form undoubtedly was influenced by the Danes.
The invasions of the British Isles by the Norse established new trade routes and new staging areas for both raiding and later expansion into the North Atlantic (e.g. Iceland, Greenland, North America). More importantly, the presence of the Danes unwittingly altered the face of England by forcing Alfred of Wessex to unify against the invaders, yet they contributed significantly to the development and evolution (and sustainability) of the English language. The Norse occupation of the British Isles is certainly one of the most significant aspects of the Vikings Age, and in the next part of this thread we will explore why and how this occupation fed Iceland new settlers.
1 England is named after one of the primary Germanic ethnic groups who occupied the country after the Romans left: the Angles. The early Anglo-Saxon name of the island became Angleland. The English language, in its earliest form, also derives its name from the Angles (Anglish).
2 Anglo-Saxon Healfdene and Old Norse Halfdan is a proper name of a man meaning "half-Dane." Although legends of this name predate the invasion of Britain by centuries, the name became common for male children in Northumbria and East Anglia, insinuating that many male occupiers married local women and had children. The name remained common for male children even after the Norman Conquest, signifying continued Norse social and linguistic influence in those regions.
3 The Christianization of Scandinavia began in c. A.D. 998 led by Óláfr Tryggvason and Norway was considered successfully Christianized by 999. More than a century before, Scandinavian chiefs underwent baptisms probably only to satisfy the Anglo-Saxon kings by which they were defeated. This will be discussed in more detail later, but for now it is probably true that Guthrum underwent baptism merely to appease Alfred. It is quite obvious Guthrum did not take the baptism seriously because he attacked Wessex a decade later.
4 In 876 (same year Guthrum assaulted Wessex), a Viking named Rollo (Robert of Normandy) landed in northern France and took advantage of the vacuum created by the collapse of Charlemagne's empire. Using northern France as a staging ground, Rollo successfully sacked Paris in A.D. 911. The same year he became a vassal of Charles the Simple and was granted a fiefdom which became known as Normandy ("land of the northmen"). Modern French is a derivative of Parisian; the French brought to the British Isles during the Norman Conquest was not Parisian but basically Vulgar French, an unrefined backwater dialect with some Scandinavian mixed in.
5 The English skirt derives from the Old Norse [I]skyrta, which is a shirt or kirtle (knee-length tunic). It was not until later that it was defined as a garment solely worn by women covering the lower portion of the body.
May 24th, 2011, 4:14 PM
I began Part 3: Into the West by stating that the invasion of Britain, especially England, was one of the most significant events of the Viking Age. I also mentioned that its significance was only challenged by the settlement of Iceland and that it was difficult to judge the more important of the two events. Both events are historically momentous within the context of the Viking Age, yet it is possible to claim that the settlement of Iceland would not have occurred, or at least in the way that it did, if not for the fact the Norse occupied and gained a foothold in Britain. Naturally in historical retrospect we can say, "If this didn’t happen then that wouldn’t have happened." Fatalism and quantum entanglement aside, certain circumstances beginning with the occupation of Britain certainly proved vital in the context of Icelandic settlement.
The settlement of Iceland is described in much the same manner throughout most of the Íslendinga sǫgur (Sagas of the Icelanders) including two famous texts named Íslendingabók and Landnámabók (both of which will be described later). These Norse sagas, written from oral tradition in Iceland beginning as early as the 12th century, describe in some detail the events leading to and the circumstances of the initial settlement of Iceland by Scandinavians in A.D. 870.
Discussing the settlement of Iceland is very difficult to simplify for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that we know much more about medieval Icelandic culture than any other Scandinavian country because nearly all Old Norse literature was composed in Iceland before A.D. 1350. The second reason is directly connected with the first in that we must understand Icelandic society in order to appreciate the tales written of Vikings. Although nearly all the literature we have describing Norse society is Icelandic and does not directly describe society in Norway, Denmark or Sweden, the information provided indirectly connects some of the archaeological evidence.
In order for me to move forward in this thread I will have to break this part on Iceland into sub-parts, just as I did with the invasion of Britain. The difference is that this part will consist of more than two sub-parts. For now let’s deal with...
PART 4.1: INTRODUCING ICELAND.
Iceland’s geography is described by T. Ellwood in his introduction to a translation of Landnámabók (1898). Despite the age of this introduction, Ellwood’s description of the Icelandic landscape and its geographic position in the North Atlantic is still valid today.
The distance from Iceland to Greenland is about 250 miles, to Norway 600 miles, to the Faroe Islands 250 miles, and to Scotland 500 miles. Its superficial area is 40,300 square miles, more than one-third larger than Scotland, length from east to west 300 miles, breadth from north to south 200 miles. As will be seen upon the map, the north, west, and east coasts are very much indented by bays and firths, which are wanting on the south coast. Its circumference from point to point would be about 900 miles, but following in the indentations of the coast line, it is about 2,000 miles.
Iceland’s volcanism once provided a modest layer of fertile topsoil, offering sporadic but viable pastures for grazing livestock. Unfortunately, Iceland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle proved challenging for early settlers despite fertile soil. The first few generations found plenty of pasture for sheep and goats and a modest number of cattle; the latter was kept for dairy as opposed to meat. The fertile pasture was limited, however, and later generations suffered as a result of over-grazing by initial settler livestock. Moreover, there was never much timber available in Iceland. Most early buildings were constructed of turf and driftwood, not locally felled timber. By the end of the settlement period (circa 930) much of the available pasture was either lost from grazing or already claimed. Within less than a century of initial settlement of Iceland there was hardly any pasture left for livestock.
Although the climate of Iceland resembled Norway’s coastal regions, the fact that it was an island and was caressed by more than one current system made life on the island difficult. The medieval Scandinavians were a hardy bunch and for the most part were used to colder climate. No matter how hardy these folk were, though, they had to adapt to Iceland’s geologic features, its geography, and especially its climate. When looking at time measurements mentioned in medieval documents from Iceland, this becomes much more apparent. Iceland only had two seasons: winter and summer, and the summers were short. Because medieval Icelanders measured seasons this way historians have to adjust any dates or seasonal measurements found in Old Norse documents. Because of this yearly measurement based on only two seasons, when a saga mentions five years has passed, the reality is only two and a half years have passed. Trading was seasonal as well, probably based on summers. Winters were probably onset by arctic drift ice in the north. Whereas Europe would never see this ice, the Icelanders would become trapped on the island because of ice, plus that ice brought cooler temperatures.
The physical geography of Iceland is no picnic either, and it was much less accessible a thousand years ago. Even today the bulk of Icelandic populations resides along the coastlines. In the Middle Ages this was much more serious. To get from the east side of Iceland to the west side, a traveler was forced to move along the coastline. The interior of Iceland was riddled with volcanic floods, marshes, mountains, etc. It was impossible to traverse. Limited pastures reached into the outer interior, but there was no extensive grazing for livestock.
LEADING TO ICELAND
The settlement period of Iceland ranges approximately from A.D. 870-930. In early texts this settlement period is attributed to the rise of Harald Fairhair in Norway, but this early settlement period has been confirmed with radiometric dating1. The sagas and the two manuscripts Íslendingabók and Landnámabók describe a settlement of Iceland as a result of Harald Fairhair rising to power and pushing out wealthy and reputable families. The archaeological evidence, however, does not entirely agree with this reasoning. Since this is not a thesis, I will not compare and contrast the manuscripts and the archaeological record. Instead I will simply describe what most likely occurred.
It is certainly important to recognize and appreciate the efforts of Harald Fairhair, particularly in order to comprehend the context within which the settlement of Iceland occurred. Before Harald came to power Norway was loosely divided into localized agrarian communities with local chieftains overseeing a region. These chieftains had many names and each region’s chief had different responsibilities outside the blanket one of maintaining happiness and security. For the most part these coastal Norwegian communities functioned as agglomerate clans. Before we continue allow me to be clear what a clan is.
Family (nuclear) - A group made up of parents and children within a household.
Extended Family - Beyond the nuclear family, including immediate relatives of both the mother and father. (Includes aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, all directly associated by blood.)
Clan - A close-knit group of interrelated families. This means families connected by marriages (in-laws).
We are unsure the details of early medieval clanship in Norway, which gives the sagas some credence when describing the genealogies of early Icelandic settlers. We do know that some groups were smaller than others, and there exists the word in Old Norse hersir, which basically refers to a warrior-chief or lord; a person of title and a land-owner (plural hersar). What is concluded by specialists in this field is that the coastal Norwegian landscape was more or less occupied by free-holding farmers and fishermen.
The long-standing tradition was that an individual owned a flexible amount of land based on ancestry. The local hersar was part of these scattered land-holdings and would protect a region from neighbors. Freemen were not indebted or in service to a lord; there was no aristocracy - this was long before feudalism reshaped European political and agrarian society. A freeman owned his own land by birthright, through bloodline or inherency. Freemen probably paid little or no taxes to hersar charged with protecting the realm, but would have to supply sons to the militia in case of war. Haralrd Fairhair changed the political landscape of Norway.
Just before 872 a man named Haraldr hárfagri (Harald Fairhair/Finehair, Harald/Herold I) came to significant power in Norway. Although the Icelandic sagas call him a tyrant, he was the first to unite Norway, an enormous feat for the 9th century. We do not know for certain his genealogy (though some speculate), which is why you will never find conclusive dates to his birth/death nor his length of reign. It is generally accepted by historians and archaeologists that Harald Fairhair reigned 870-930. This is probably inaccurate if only slightly, because this date range is provided only by Icelandic literature and no other reliable source. We believe Harald died shortly after anointing his son, Eirík Bloodaxe, sometime around 933.
Harald Fairhair certainly did not unite all of Norway, but his unification efforts provided inspiration for future leaders, namely Harald Sigurdsson2, the last Viking king. Harald assembled an army large enough to challenge local hersar, and he advised them to join his cause or step aside. As Harald’s army grew he began establishing new taxes, taxes resembling those of early feudalism in Europe - taxes that would eventually support a kingdom as opposed to a free-holding community. He taxed soldiers, number of livestock, and even transportation of goods on his roads. Eventually Harald was able to unite a good portion of Norway’s populated areas, though he did not completely unify the country. Most people residing in the hinterlands were little if unaffected by Harald’s unification efforts.
Perhaps more than just stomping around in the backyards of freeman, the introduction of new taxes as a means to finance and maintain a unified state drove a number of families out of Norway. However, there’s no evidence at all to suggest any family of wealth (per the sagas) was involved in the initial settlement of Iceland.
The first Scandinavians to come to Iceland and establish farming communities were likely not from wealthy families. If any were they certainly neglected to bring with them their wealth. The archaeological record showing the early stages of Icelandic settlement is a far cry from the romantic idea that good, wealthy families fled Norway in order to create a democratic state free of tyranny. In the next part we will discuss in more detail who actually first settled Iceland.
1 This radiometric dating is based on what is called the landnám tephra layer, a volcanic ash layer found in the sedimentary strata. There is no evidence of human impact on the landscape below the landnám tephra layer, and it is dated to 871 +/- 2, marking the settlement period of Iceland. The radiometric dating concludes that the medieval documentation claiming a settlement date of 870 is accurate.
2 We know little about Harald Sigurdsson (a.k.a Harald harđráđi) outside Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla. Without corroboration in other historical manuscripts we historians cannot with a straight face agree with what is told in the Heimskringla about Harald’s legendary past. However, we can be sure that he fled Norway at an early age and became a Varangian for the Byzantines, aiding in the empire securing property in the Mediterranean; he returned to Norway and reclaimed his father’s title as king; he for a short time was king of Denmark; early in the year of 1066 Harald invaded England and was killed on the battlefield facing Herold Godwinson’s army.
Feb 4th, 2012, 2:53 PM
PART 4.2: THE LANDNÁM AND LANDNÁMSMENN
The early settlement period of Iceland is called landnám, or land taking, and the people who settled first in Iceland are called landnámsmenn. According to legend, once the first people spotted land they would toss over highseat pillars (sometimes called Thor’s pillars) and wherever these pillars washed ashore the Norse would establish their first settlements. The actual process of landnám is debatable but, according to Hauksbók, no man should take possession of an area larger than he could take fire over in a day. When the sun was low in the east (dawn) a fire would be set, and a members of the crew would fan out in different directions, setting fires along the way until nightfall so that the smokes could be seen. Upon nightfall, whatever the distance covered, this would become owned by the settler in charge. Many times these encompassed large regions, even entire fjords. Women, however, had a slightly different approach. At dawn on a spring day they could set out leading a two-year-old heifer until sunset. This would also yield a substantial plot of land, yet the size was smaller than what a man could claim.
Upon establishing the first farm, the so-called leader of the expedition would become gođi (pl. gođar), or priest-chief, of the claimed region. Within the region crewmembers would establish homes under the influence of the gođi. This was a crude but effective way to establish the first administrative districts of Iceland. But who were these gođar?
A number of sources claim that the first settlers of Iceland were prominent and wealthy families fleeing the tyranny of Harald Fairhair. These sources include the sagas Laxdćla saga, Egils saga and Brennu-Njálssaga, as well as chronicles such as Landnámabók and Hauksbók. The archaeological record, however, disagrees with the literary sources. More likely the first settlements were established by exiles and warriors rather than the Norwegian nobility.
Previously I discussed the invasion and occupation of Britain and its periphery islands. Although the Norse nearly took control of all England, they eventually were pressed back into Northumbria. Alfred the Great established peace with the Northmen, but that peace was not lasting. After the death of Alfred a few conflicts broke out between English and Norse, one of which leading to the full conquering of England by the Danes under Knut the Great (c. A.D. 1016). During the landnám period a few English kings waged genocidal war against the Norse, exterminating any and all Scandinavians found on English soil. This resulted in a hostile environment for many Scandinavian families, and such some of those families fled Britain. Not welcome in the Scandinavian homelands nor Britain, some of these families had no choice but to take to the sea. Auđ the Deep-minded, considered the matriarch of Iceland, was one such person. Her son, Thorstein the Red, successfully took over more than half of Scotland but was swiftly betrayed by his own men and killed on the battlefield. With nowhere to hide for long, Auđ commissioned the secret construction of a knarr (a large merchant vessel) and set sail to Iceland with her family and slaves. Auđ is perhaps one of the exceptions here, her being married into a wealthy family who vied for control of Scotland. Nonetheless, the bulk of the families settling in Iceland were not purely Scandinavian!
Genetic testing performed in Iceland in recent years has yielded some interesting results. More than 90% of Icelandic males are of Scandinavian origins but 60% of females are of British descent. Although these genetic results are not definitive, they do help us paint a different image of Icelandic settlement. They imply that the first settlers of Iceland were a mixed batch of Scandinavian men and British (Celtic or Anglo-Saxon) women. They show that, for the most part, entire Norwegian families did not migrate from Harald Fairhair’s Norway to Iceland. Some Norwegian families perhaps made the trip much later, but the bulk of the Icelandic settlers were not strictly Scandinavian. What does this tell us?
Vikings first began raiding the British Isles at the end of the 8th century, and by A.D. 830 many of these raiders were rooting themselves along the fringes of English and Celtic societies. Winter camps were established on the Isle of Man and the Hebrides, and even some Vikings stayed on the mainland. By the mid 9th century a number of Norse communities had been established in the north of Britain, and within these communities the Norse mingled with the English; many warriors took on English and Celtic concubines and sired children, and others took English and Celtic wives. The fact that Iceland is made up of over 90% male Scandinavians and 60% female British tells us that the early settlers were likely single warriors or servants who took British concubines and/or wives from Britain. Male raiders and warriors came from Scandinavia to Britain, stayed a while, then took local wives and moved to Iceland.
The author of Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) traces the early settlers’ lineage to noble families of Norway, but unnecessarily. The fact is, there exists no written records from Norway to corroborate any evidence that early Icelandic families hailed from there; this is true mostly for the fact 9th-century Norway had no written language used for administrative purposes. Same with all of Scandinavia during the Viking Age, the only “literature” comes in the form of runes carved into wood, bone or stone, the latter of the three the only surviving. These inscriptions served a number of purposes, though none of those include sophisticated record keeping. (I will discuss runes later in more detail.) The original date of Landnámabók is unknown, but the earliest extant copy dates to the second half of the 13th century. Some historians, however, suggest the original might have been composed at the end of the 11th century or first decades of the 12th. By even the earliest date, the shape of Scandinavian society had changed significantly. Harald Fairhair’s new system of government was contagious and spread throughout the three Scandinavian lands, thus by the end of the 11th century the concept of nobility had changed dramatically. Because the interpretation of nobility changed so much, the “necessary” association to noble families came to the forefront of Icelandic historians during the medieval period. What these early scholars did not see is the fact the first settlers of Iceland created a new form of nobility in their own right and did not need to be ancestrally linked to prominent families abroad.
Regardless, Iceland became a new start for the early settlers and even those who came later. It was a small island of opportunity—one free of any political regime wherein those exiled and those looking for a new life could possibly find haven.
PART 4.3: RENEWED DOMESTIC LIFE
This particular part can get very detailed and somewhat dry, so I am not going to get into it unless readers request more information. For the most part this covers how domestic life in Iceland was dramatically different from the rest of Scandinavia, as far as agriculture, animal domestication, and technology are all concerned; and it also covers the development of the Grágás (Grey Goose Laws): the laws of the Commonwealth of Iceland; how the legal system of Iceland drastically surpassed the others in the western medieval world by centuries—such as providing the first representative-democratic society in the West since ancient Greece, or the the liberal ideology related to women's rights and how an Icelandic woman was entitled to half the estate in the instance of a divorce.
Iceland truly was a new home for the Norse, and that home provided not only a new life for struggling Scandinavians, it became the centerpiece of Scandinavian lore. The lore will be mentioned in more detail at the end of this thread, but the domestic details are withheld mainly because they're boring, and they will be provided upon request. (And when I say they're boring, I mean much more boring than some of the details already presented in this thread.)
Feb 5th, 2012, 11:49 AM
God what a piece! I just read the entire thing, fantastic work!!!!
Feb 7th, 2012, 6:53 PM
Thanks, friend. The piece is near its end, though. Going to deal with Greenland, Christianity, then close it all out with a bright red bow. :)
Dec 29th, 2012, 9:27 PM
There is a Viking story passed down in our family about how the Vikings settled into part of France. The story goes that all winter long, the young men planned a trading mission, hoping to trade gold, furs, and amber for French Wine, raisins, and fine goods. They parked by the shore and brought some trade goods out and set them where people could come to buy.
Trading was good and they got barrels of wine, and ther were some French girls that they flirted with and did feats for like throwing axes, and rolling cart wheels high up on sides of buildings - but the French locals decided to steal back their sutff, so their little king made a raid that no one expected and they captured the vikings. The king knew that vikings were men of their word, so he forced them to swear their loyality to the little king, and then he insisted that they kiss his toe. He sat on a kind of stool . Lyality was swore but the demand to kiss the toe was too much - he gave a signal to his men, and when commanded to kneal, he flipped the king over and stalked away with his troops.
All winter long he brooded, how he would get revenge, but still keep his word. In the spring he returned with his crew and they hid and watched until the Kings daughter came to bathe. Then they rushed out and kidnapped her.
He then showed up at the King's hall and announced that he was going to marry the girl, and demanded that he get half the country as her dowery. The king said "such a son I've gained." He gve him the land but made him promise to keep the rest of the Vikings away.
It was a good marriage and they had a lot of kids... but our ancestor was a heathan and he took a liking to the local church and its contents. It was strong walled and well guarded, but they came up with a trick to get in. Our viking invited the bishop to talk to him about religion, and he said he wanted to be baptised, and he was. Then he said he was dying and wanted a church funeral. So thy opened the gates and let his troops in, and they carried him inside in a coffin. Once inside he popped out and began to toss the goodies into the box, and his men raided the place and departed.
The old bishop went to visit him, in his hall, and explained that when he was baptised he had made promises, and now his honor was at stake. He was a man of his word, so he ordered all his men to be baptised so they would be stuck with the same promises. Then he called them in order and had them return what they had stolen. All his men wer loyal and complied, except one, who rather than surrender his loot, took a stolen vase and deliberately dropped it so that it was broken.
Our viking said nothing but waited a bit, then called all his troops together and said he would inspect their arms. He went from man to man until he came to the one that broke the jar. He took the man's axe, looked along it, and said "It's a bit rusty", swung it and killed the man. Then he took up the broken peices of the man and the vase and returned them to the Bishop. Thus his honor and his word was kept.
And so our viking became civilized and helped establish Normandy.
Dec 31st, 2012, 11:31 PM
Another Viking story is about Halfdan. He traded gold and furs for oranges. He traveled south and got them from Islamic lands and they were worth their weight in gold up north, because vitamin C was hard to come by in winter times, and if you didn't have enough you lost your teeth. You could get a little from eating raw fish and whale blubber, but oranges were still the best source. They called them golden apples, and they were thought to bring about long life. Halfdan went all over the seas exploring and buying and selling and got as far as Constantanople. He went inside a great church and carved his name there. It is now a mosque, but up toward the dome, if you look for it, you can see that he carved "Halfdan was here". Someday I would like to go there and find it.
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