Norsemen were a Germanic people native to Scandinavia identified by their use of the Norse language. They established states and settlements in areas which today are part of the Faroe Islands, England, Scotland,Wales, Iceland, Finland, Ireland, Russia, Canada, Greenland, France, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,Poland, and Germany. Their descendants are the speakers of Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, Swedish andDanish language.Guests from Overseas, Nicholas Roerich (1899).
Regarding the question of ethnic origins, evidence developed by archaeologists and linguists suggests that a people or group of peoples sharing a common material culture dwelt in a region defined by the Nordic Bronze Age culture between 1700 BCE and 600 BCE. The Germanic tribes then inhabited southern Scandinavia, Schleswig-Holsteinand Hamburg, but subsequent Iron Age cultures of the same region, like Wessenstedt (800 to 600 BCE) andJastorf, are also in consideration. The change of Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic has been defined by the first sound shift (or Grimm’s law) and must have occurred when mutually intelligible dialects or languages in aSprachbund were still able to convey such a change to the whole region. So far it has been impossible to date this event conclusively.
Map of the Nordic Bronze Age culture, around 1200 BCE
The clinker-built longships used by the Norsemen were uniquely suited to both deep and shallow waters. They extended the reach of Norse raiders, traders and settlers along coastlines and along the major river valleys the world. The earliest date given for a Viking raid is 787 AD when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a group of men from Norway sailed to the Isle of Portland in Dorset. There, they were mistaken for merchants by a royal official. They murdered him when he tried to get them to accompany him to the king’s manor to pay a trading tax on their goods. The beginning of the Viking Age in the British Isles is, however, often given as 793. It was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the Northmen raided the important island monastery of Lindisfarne:
- “AD. 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 (Lindisfarne), by rapine and slaughter.” –Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
In 794, according to the Annals of Ulster, there was a serious attack on Lindisfarne’s mother-house of Iona, which was followed in 795 by raids upon the northern coast of Ireland. From bases there, the Norsemen attacked Iona again in 802, causing great slaughter amongst the Céli DéBrethren, and burning the abbey to the ground.
The end of the Viking Age is traditionally marked in England by the failed invasion attempted by the Norwegian king Harald III (Haraldr Harðráði), who was defeated by Saxon King Harold Godwinson in 1066 at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; in Ireland, the capture of Dublin by Strongbowand his Hiberno-Norman forces in 1171; and 1263 in Scotland by the defeat of King Hákon Hákonarson at the Battle of Largs by troops loyal to Alexander III. Godwinson was subsequently defeated within a month by another Viking descendant, William, Duke of Normandy (Normandy had been conquered by Vikings (Normans) in 911). Scotland took its present form when it regained territory from the Norse between the 13th and the 15th centuries; the Western Isles and the Isle of Man remained under Scandinavian authority until 1266. Orkney and Shetland belonged to the king of Norway as late as 1469.
The Norsemen also ventured up the rivers of Eastern Europe. The Viking Rurik expanded to the east and in 859 became ruler either by conquest or invitation by local people of the city of Novgorod (which means “new city”) on the Volkhov River. His successorsmoved further, founding the state of Kievan Rus with the capital in Kiev.
From Rus they continued south to the Black Sea and then on to Constantinople. Whenever these Viking ships ran aground in shallow waters, the Vikings would reportedly turn them on their sides and drag them across the land into deeper waters. The Eastern connections of these “Varangians” brought Byzantine silk, coins from Samarkand, even a cowrie shell from the Red Sea, to Viking York. The kingdom of Rus persisted until 1240, the time of Mongol invasion.
The Kingdom of the Franks under Charlemagne was particularly hard-hit by these raiders, who could sail down the Seine with near impunity. Near the end of Charlemagne’s reign (and throughout the reigns of his sons and grandsons), a string of Norse raids began, culminating in a gradual Scandinavian conquest and settlement of the region now known as Normandy. In 911, French King Charles the Simple was able to make an agreement with the Viking warleader Rollo, a chieftain of disputed Norwegian or Danish origins.Charles gave Rollo the title of duke and granted him and his followers possession of Normandy. In return, Rollo swore fealty to Charles, converted to Christianity, and undertook to defend the northern region of France against the incursions of other Viking groups. Several generations later, the Norman descendants of these Viking settlers not only identified themselves as French but carried the French language, and their variant of the French culture, into England in 1066. With the Norman Conquest, they became the ruling aristocracy of Anglo-Saxon England.
Iceland was discovered by Naddoddr, one of the first settlers on the Faroe Islands, who was sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands, but got lost and drifted to the east coast of Iceland. Naddoddr named the country Snæland (Snowland). Swedish sailor Garðar Svavarsson also accidentally drifted to the coast of Iceland. He discovered that the country was an island and named it Garðarshólmi(literally Garðar’s Islet) and stayed for the winter at Húsavík. The first Scandinavian who deliberately sailed to Garðarshólmi was Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki). Flóki settled for one winter at Barðaströnd. It was a cold winter, and when he spotted some drift ice in thefjords he gave the island its current name, Ísland (Iceland). The first permanent settler in Iceland is usually considered to have been a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson. According to the story, he threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found in the southwestern peninsula, now known asReykjanesskagi. There he settled with his family around 874, in a place he named Reykjavík (Bay of Smokes) due to the geothermal steam rising from the earth. It is recognized, however, that Ingólfur Arnarson may not have been the first one to settle permanently in Iceland — that may have been Náttfari, a slave of Garðar Svavarsson who stayed behind when his master returned to Scandinavia.
Two areas along Greenland’s southwest coast were colonized by Norse settlers around 986. The land was at best marginal for Norse pastoral farming. The settlers arrived during a warm phase, when short-season crops such as rye and barley could be grown. Sheep and hardy cattle were also raised for food, wool, and hides. Their main export was walrus ivory, which was traded for iron and other goods which could not be produced locally. Greenland became a dependency of the king of Norway in 1261. During the 13th century, the population may have reached as high as 5,000, divided between the two main settlements of Eystribygð (Eastern Settlement) andVestribygð (Western Settlement). The organization of these settlements revolved mainly around religion, and they consisted of around 250 farms, which were split into approximately fourteen communities that were centered around fourteen churches, one of which was a cathedral at Gardar. The Catholic diocese of Greenland was subject to the archdiocese of Nidaros. However, many bishops chose to exercise this office from afar. As the years wore on, the climate shifted (see Little Ice Age). In 1379 the northernmost settlement was attacked by the Skrælings (Norse word for Inuit). Crops failed and trade declined. The Greenland colony gradually faded away. By 1450 it had lost contact with Norway and Iceland and disappeared from all but a few Scandinavian legends.
A Norwegian ship’s captain named Bjarni Herjólfsson first came across a part of the North American continent ca. 985 when he was blown off course sailing to Greenland from Iceland. Subsequent expeditions from Greenland (some led by Leif Erikson) explored the areas to the west, seeking large timbers for building in particular (Greenland had only small trees and brush). Regular activity from Greenland extended to Ellesmere Island, Skraeling Island and Ruin Island for hunting and trading with Inuit groups. A short-lived seasonal settlement was established at L’Anse aux Meadows, located in the northern part of Newfoundland, Canada. The Greenlanders called the new found territory Vinland. It is unclear whether Vinland referred to in the traditionally thinking as Vínland (wine-land) or more recently as Vinland (meadow- or pasture-land). In any case, without any official backing, attempts at colonization by the Norse proved failures. There were simply too many natives for the Greenlanders to conquer or withstand and they withdrew to Greenland.
In Scandinavia the Viking age is considered to have ended with the establishment of royal authority in the Scandinavian countries and the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion. The date is usually put somewhere in the early 11th century in all three Scandinavian countries. The end of the Viking-era in Norway is marked by theBattle of Stiklestad in 1030. Although Olafr Haraldsson’s (later known as Olav the Holy) army lost the battle, Christianity spread, partly on the strength of rumours of miraculous signs after his death. Norwegians would no longer be called Vikings.
A form, of polytheistic heathenry / paganism related to other equivalent Germanic religions followed by a slow Christianization that took hundreds of years.
The Norsemen spoke Norse a North Germanic language. The changing processes that distinguish Old Norse from its older form, Proto-Norse, were mostly concluded around the 8th century, and another transitional period that led up to the modern descendants of Old Norse (i.e., the modern North Germanic languages) started in the mid- to late 14th century, thereby ending the language phase known as Old Norse. The first major dialectal distinctions in the language arose in the Old East Norse, Old West Norse, and Old Gutnish dialects. No clear geographical boundary exists between the Eastern and Western dialects. Old East Norse traits were found in eastern Norway, and Old West Norse traits were found in western Sweden. Most speakers of Old Norse dialects spoke the Old East Norse dialect originating in what are present-day Denmark and Sweden. Old Gutnish, the more obscure dialectal branch, is sometimes included in the Old East Norse dialect due to geographical associations. It shares traits with both Old West Norse and Old East Norse but had also developed on its own.
Old Icelandic was essentially identical to Old Norwegian, and together they formed the Old West Norse dialect of Old Norse and were also spoken in settlements in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Norwegian settlements in Normandy. The Old East Norse dialect was spoken in Denmark,Sweden, settlements in Russia, England, and Danish settlements in Normandy. The Old Gutnish dialect was spoken in Gotland and in various settlements in the East. In the 11th century, Old Norse was the most widely spoken European language, ranging from Vinland in the West to theVolga in the East. In Russia, it survived the longest in Novgorod, probably lasting into the 13th century there. The age of the Swedish language’s presence in Finland is strongly contested (see Swedish-speaking Finns), but by the time of the Second Swedish Crusade in the 13th century, Swedish settlement spread the language into the region.
A main element uniting Norse societies is kingship, in origin asacral institution combining the functions of military leader, high priest, lawmaker and judge. Norse monarchy was elective; the king was elected by the free men from among eligible candidates of a family (OE cynn) tracing their ancestry to the tribe’s divine or semi-divine founder.
In early Norse society, the free men of property each ruled their own estate and were subject to the king directly, without any intermediate hierarchy as in later feudalism. Free men without landed property could swear fealty to a man of property who as their lord would then be responsible for their upkeep, including generous feasts and gifts. This system of sworn retainers was central to Norse society, and the loyalty of the retainer to his lord was taken to replace his family ties.
All freemen had the right to participate in general assemblies orthings, where disputes between freemen were addressed according to customary law. The king was bound to uphold ancestral law, but was at the same time the source for new laws for cases not addressed in previous tradition. This aspect was the reason for the creation of the various Norse law codes by the kings following their conversion to Christianity: besides recording inherited tribal law, these codes have the purpose of settling the position of the church and Christian clergy within society, usually setting the weregilds of the members of the clerical hierarchy parallel to that of the existing hierarchy of nobility, with the position of an archbishop mirroring that of the king.
In the case of a suspected crime, the accused could avoid punishment by presenting a fixed number of free men (their number depending on the severity of the crime) prepared to swear an oath on his innocence. Failing this, he could prove his innocence in a trial by combat called Holmgang. Corporal or capital punishment for free men does not figure in the Norse law codes, and banishment appears to be the most severe penalty issued officially. This reflects that Germanic tribal law did not have the scope of exacting revenge, which was left to the judgement of the family of the victim, but to settle damages as fairly as possible once an involved party decided to bring a dispute before the assembly.
A reconstructed Viking Age mead hall.