Vikings, Norsemen or Northmen, common names for the inhabitants of Scandinavia in the period 800-1050. The origin of the word Viking is disputed, as are the reasons for the sudden expansion of Scandinavian activities in this period, though over population, the weakness of neighbouring states, and favourable trading conditions were probably influential factors.
Although the Vikings are best known as pirates, some of their raids were political in nature, and they were equally energetic as colonists – with colonies stretching from North America to central Russia – and as traders, with main trading posts at Birka (near Stockholm) and Hedeby (near Schleswig).
A signal for the start of Viking raids on the British Isles was the sacking of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793. Soon Viking rule was established in the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, and parts of north and western Scotland, in parts of Ireland, and increasingly in England. The kingdom of Wessex under Alfred the Great resisted strongly however, and was victorious in 899.
In the 10th century the Scandinavian settlers in England lost their power, but towards the end of the century raids from Denmark increased, culminating in the invasion and conquest of England under Sweyn I and Cnut (Canute) the Great. The Vikings in Ireland however, were halted by their defeat at the battle of Clontarf, 1014.
Under Charlemagne and his successor, Louis the Pious, the Carolingian empire proved too strong for the Vikings, but after the latter’s death in 840 they raided the areas round the Seine and the Loire frequently, sacking Paris in 845. As in England, they were prepared to be bought off by Danegeld. In 912 the Viking Rollo was granted lands in France which were to form the nucleus of the duchy of Normandy.
In Spain and the Mediterranean the Vikings met determined opposition from the Arabs and made only infrequent raids.
In the Atlantic, the Vikings had colonised the Faeroes and Iceland by the end of the 9th century. Eric the Red began the settlement of Greenland in about 986, and his son Leif Ericsson discovered ‘Vinland’ in North America in 1000, though the Viking colonies that were established there do not seem to have survived long. In the East, the Vikings (known as Rus) traded down the Dnieper and Volga rivers, establishing trading posts at Novgorod and Kiev, where they founded a dynasty. Vikings also served in the imperial guard in Byzantium, where they were known as Varangians.
Viking success was based very much on their superior ships and seamanship, whether in the military longship or in the colonists’ broad knarr. Viking ships are preserved in Oslo and in Denmark at Roskilde. The Vikings were not disorganised pirates, but had an established system of law and social organisation and a rich poetic culture.