The Icelandic sagas tell of the mighty deeds of courageous Northmen who set out on the high seas to conquer the known world in turbulent times. While the origins and etymology of the term Viking are disputed, it comes from the Old Norse “vikingr” and probably means voyager or sea-rover. This term does not apply to all Scandinavian peoples, but only those tribes that set sail for conquests or trade voyages.
The End of the Viking Age
How did the Viking Age end? The Battle of Hastings is usually used as the fixed point which marks the official end of the Viking Age, just as the plundering of Lindisfarne Monastery in 793 AD is often used to mark its historic beginning.
The Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 AD and went down in history alongside the name “William the Conqueror.” However, the demise of the Vikings was a rather gradual process, which is only marked by a fixed historical event for the sake of providing an exact date.
Moreover, the Christianization of this culture which took place around 1000 A.D. ensured that the intrepid tribes from the north, whose gods were as heroic, strong and daring as the Vikings themselves, gradually became sedentary and peace-loving people who eventually abandoned their old faith and rolled up the sails of their once fearsome dragon ships. But in order to understand their end, we must first look at their beginning.
The Beginning of the Viking Age
The beginning of the Viking age is mostly equated with the attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, England in 793. From the first colonies in Great Britain, the Vikings continued to extend their sphere of influence to Iceland and Greenland. The success of this conquering people was chiefly based on their shipbuilding and sailing skills. Their ships, whose hulls were fashioned to depict the forms of dragons and snakes, were narrower, faster and lighter than the those of all other Europeans.
Attack on Lindisfarne
St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, an island monastery off the northern coast of England near the border of Scotland. At dawn on the morning of June 8, 793, the monks saw ominous silhouettes on the horizon of the sea, which approached rapidly towards the shallow sandy beaches.
Long, stretched out boats gradually became recognizable, with fearsome dragon and snakehead carvings on their bows. Once ashore, heavily armed men poured out of their ships and advanced upon the monastery.
The Viking warriors mercilessly attacked the Islanders, slaughtering everything and everyone who moved. They plundered the church and monastery, looting crosses of gold and precious stones, candelabras, cups, and valuable manuscripts.
Alcuin of York, the famous English scholar in the court of Charlemagne, tells us about the Viking attack on Lindisfarne: “Never before has such a horror appeared in Britain as we now have suffered at the hands of pagans. Behold, the church of the holy Cuthbert is deluged with the blood of the priests of God, is spoiled of all its ornaments; the place more venerable than any other in Britain is given as a prey to pagan races.”
Historical records bear witness that this 793 raid on the St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne monastery is the first recorded large raid of the Vikings. But it was not the last.
The plundering of the Vikings persisted deep into inland Europe for the next almost three hundred years. Vikings from Denmark invaded France and southern England. Those from Norway came to Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and northern England – as far as the Faroe Islands and the Shetlands.
Vikings from the Swedish region turned east, using the complex river system to travel in Eastern Europe. They came to Novgorod and Kiev, the Black Sea and even Constantinople (today called Istanbul).
The Golden Age of the Vikings
Between 800 and 1050, the Vikings had conquered large parts of northern Europe and had also extended their empire to the coasts of North America and Russia. Because the Vikings had not only distinguished themselves as warmongers and as superior seafarers but also proved themselves to be skillful traders and strategists, they traded with countries as far as Italy and Spain.
Vikings as Tradesmen
Vikings not only operated in Central Europe with the intent to raid and make war. They were also merchants who in the second half of the first millennium A.D. traded their wares at coastal areas and some islands of Europe. They partly colonized and established a dense trading network in Europe and the east.
These traveling merchants were not there for the spoils of war, but for commerce. Wine, glasses, ceramics, and millstones came from the Rhine area and textiles from Friesland. England provided fine jewelry, while swords came from Franconia. The Arabs provided jewelry, rings, bowls, buckles and fittings, silk, probably also spices, wine and southern fruits and apparently many silver coins were procured.
A particularly important branch of trade was the selling of slaves, who were sold to the Near East. Slaves were often captured by the Vikings on their numerous raids. Trade with Byzantium brought brocade and silk to the north. Viking merchants brought furs, slaves, wax, and honey by way of Western Europe and to the Orient by way of Russia.
Why Did the Vikings Leave Greenland?
The Vikings lived long in Greenland. But why did they leave at the end of the 14th century? In addition to abandoned settlements of the northerners, scientists have now found clues to the causes of their desertion. A warming period in the Middle Ages, known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly or sometimes called the “Little Ice Age,” plunged Europe into great difficulties: Harvests failed, diseases spread, and wars are also attributed to the harsh climate. Even the rugged Vikings were hard hit by this Little Ice Age, as a recent analysis of regional sediment samples shows.
From the middle of the 14th to the beginning of the 15th century the Northmen retreated from Greenland. It had long been suspected that, in addition to battles with the neighboring Inuit people and limited trade opportunities, climate changes, in particular, could have provoked the mass exodus. However, there were few written records of the end of the Viking settlements and the archaeological remains left many questions unanswered.
Even ice core samples taken from the vast frozen surface of Greenland did not reveal the climate directly at the site of the Viking settlements. But Researchers from the United States and Great Britain have eliminated this gap. Two lakes near the Viking settlement area around the present town of Kangerlussuaq provided sediment samples from which they were able to compile a thorough climate history of the last 5,600 years. Their findings were reported in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
“This is the first quantitative temperature record from the area they were living in,” said William D’Andrea of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “There was actually a drop in temperature just before the Vikings disappeared.” As a result, the time for arable farming was shortened and there was less fodder for the cattle.
In addition, the cold season would have significantly impeded trade, as the sea would have been blocked by ice for much longer. D’Andrea’s colleague, Dr. Yongsong Huang, said, “It is interesting to consider how rapid climate change may have impacted past societies, particularly in light of the rapid changes taking place today.”
In addition to the Vikings, the scientists had also investigated how the climate could have affected the civilizations preceding that of the Northmen. Here, too, they were able to demonstrate a considerable influence of the climate. A Paleo-Eskimo culture called the Saqqaq reached Greenland around 2,500 BC. When temperatures dropped considerably in 850 B.C., the Saqqaq were displaced by the Dorset, who were more used to hunting on the ice. In 50 B.C., it became too cold for the Dorset. They disappeared and left Greenland uninhabited for approximately 1,000 years until the Vikings appeared in 980.
When the northerners established their chain of small colonies along the west coast and in the south of the island, the climate was relatively mild, comparable to today’s conditions. In this “Medieval Climatic Anomaly” Greenland itself greened – hence the name of the island. When the average temperatures later dropped, the Vikings first tried to defy this climate but eventually had to succumb to the uninhabitable climate.
The Effects of Christianization
The advance of Christianity was not a strictly religious development. It had a holistic effect on the life and work of the Viking tribes and transformed the social structures of the individual peoples significantly, radiating from the smallest social group outward. Originally, the pagan Viking tribes lived in tribal associations with individual chiefs and based their rights and privileges on the laws of blood, ancestors, and clan. The clan was more than kinship or friendship, it was the religious and political fabric of a Viking tribe, a kind of fundamental law of community living.
However, as Christianity progressed and gained power, the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish kings tried to use the church to consolidate the central royal power. The church helped the kingship with the management and collection of taxes. The new Christian conception of the state and state religion of the influencing kingdom weakened the traditional democratic order of the Viking peoples. More and more the individual chiefs lost their influence, which also affected the cultural practice. Christianisation brought about a comprehensive change in the political and social landscape, which gradually brought an end to the Viking age.
A Decline in Predatory Raids
Since Christianization had been on the advance since 1000 AD and also intervened in the life and work of the Vikings, the predatory raids and looting by the Viking tribes continuously decreased. Many of the seafarers and fighters who were once warriors had settled down and built settlements which they never left to carry out raids on the high seas. Other peoples had also gradually adopted the Viking’s seafaring knowledge and had begun to dominate the trade and waterways, which brought the business of the Scandinavian tribes to a standstill.
The Battle of Hastings
This historic battle of 1066 marks the recognized end of the Viking Age, but the decline of the Viking Empire was undoubtedly a gradual process influenced by many factors. The advancing Christianisation of Northern Europe and the strengthening of the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden made for more peaceful conditions, and the attractive call of the open seas was gradually being answered by other peoples.
In the Battle of Hastings in, which took place on October 14, the French Norman William the Conqueror conquered England together with his army, which was under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons by Harald II. After his victory and successful conquest, William let himself be crowned as William I the King of England and introduced some important social, legal, and political innovations in the following years of his reign, which to this day represent the foundations of England and its history. He also ensured that the country was strengthened and fortified in order to prevent further attacks by the Vikings.
Loss of Monopoly
After Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the countries from which the Viking tribes originally came, were strengthened and became great kingdoms, many of the Vikings settled down. They were also gradually forced to give up their trade monopoly. Other countries had acquired similar skills and proficiencies in shipbuilding and trade, and the European order began to change, bringing the Viking era to an end.
The Viking Legacy
The Vikings’ period of prosperity spans only about two hundred years, but the legacy of the brave men of the north, the intrepid rulers of the oceans, is still with us to this day. Countless stories and legends tell of the old times, the old gods and the old warriors.
The tribes of the Vikings have left their mark on the history of Central Europe and have never left the consciousness of history, the sails of their dragon ships still cast their fearsome shadows over the pages of history books. They have made their mark as sailors, warriors, and merchants who, in their Golden Age, dominated the Central European region.
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