All you need to know about… Vikings!

Elena Hochheiser, Editor

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Swords clash and shields block flying axes with a dull thud. Screams arise and are drowned out by the sounds of battle. Welcome to one of the thrills in the life of a Viking warrior in the medieval ages. Today, the Vikings are known mainly for two things– their discovery of the North America in 1243 A.D., over 400 years before Amerigo Vespucci, and their bloody and legendary conquest of Northern Europe spanning hundreds of years and thousands of miles. However, the Vikings were a people that did more than just raid old churches and kill helpless women. They had an impressive social system, and a diaspora that spanned the area of 42 of today’s countries, and were one of the first societies to allow women to own land or property, lead men into battle, and trade.

The Vikings as we know them are Norsemen, “scandinavians that left their homelands to seek their fortunes elsewhere” (National Geographic), from areas such as modern day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. There were also Estonian, Finnish, and Saami Vikings, but the majority were from the first three places listed. The first Vikings were believed to have left their homes in Scandinavia in the 500s, perhaps because of overpopulation, but the real cause is unknown. They started their years in Europe and Eurasia peacefully, trading Scandinavian furs (a precious commodity in those areas at the time) for European goods such as glass beads, steel knives and axes, and knowledge of sailing ships and the world beyond.

The first attack by Vikings occurred in 793 A.D., at the Lindisfarne Monastery off  the coast of Northumberland, England. Although the Vikings left the monastery intact and killed few, the attack chilled Europeans to the core. The Vikings were unlike any other enemy they had ever faced– with no respect for the established religion, the Vikings felt free to attack and pillage churches and monasteries, and continued to do so for many years.

In 1799, the Viking conquest of Europe took another turn with the first invasion of continental Europe. At first, they only permitted themselves to do small, hit-and-run raids along the coast of England and Northern Europe. But as fear of their power and strength spread throughout the rest of the continent, the Vikings expanded their raids, going as far as Spain to the South, and Germany to the West. During one of those events, Lothar, son of Louis the Pious (the deceased ruler of Frankia, present day France and Germany), invited a party of Norwegian Vikings to support him in war over his father’s land against his brothers, promising to pay them a significant fee at the end. From there on out, many of the toughest Vikings used the internal turmoil in Europe to their advantage to gain as much riches and fight as many battles as possible.

By 951, the Vikings had conquered all of England except for one area– Wessex– that successfully defended against their attacks for over 20 years, and in 871, their king Alfred the Noble defeated a Danish Viking party and eventually forced the Scandinavians out of the British Isles permanently. However, that wasn’t the end of the Viking empire– not even close. They raided and fought their way into control of all Frankia, settling most notably in the area now called Normandy (North men) after the people that lived there so long ago. They also expanded Eastward, with large groups moving to Iceland and Greenland. It is believed that in in the late tenth century, Leif Eriksson (son of the famous Erik the Red) discovered North America on accident, meaning to steer a ship into Europe but forced by the wind to sail in the opposite direction.

The Vikings didn’t just expand towards the East, though– they made their way South, through Spain and into Northern Morocco, and West, into Russia and Poland. They traded with the Swiss for glass beads and exquisite metalwork, and sold African slaves to Arabs throughout the Arabian Peninsula. And it wasn’t only men that did this– researchers recently found after thorough examination of the body of one of the greatest Viking leaders that they were actually female, not male– a surprising yet great revelation that shows that women played an equal role in Viking society. Overall, the Vikings were a complex, interesting people– a society that we should be intrigued by and curious about, rather than afraid of.

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