History of the Vikings
A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS
THE barbarians of the distant and little-known north, of Scandinavia, that is, and of Denmark, became notorious in the ninth and tenth centuries as pests who plagued the outer fringes of the civilized world. In chief, this was because the coasts and river-valleys of Frisia and Francia, then a part of the western Roman Empire ruled by the house of Charles the Great, suffered heavily from their onslaughts; but it was not only the monks and merchants of these two countries whose voices, lifted in shrill lamentation over the smoking ruins of plundered monasteries and towns, added to the disquiet of a Christendom already preoccupied with its own disorderly affairs; for the loud cry of terror was heard reechoing from the religious houses of Ireland, and it was told how half Saxon England had fallen into the hands of these ruffian robbers from the north. Even Constantinople herself, the lordly capital of the Eastern Empire, then ruled by the Iconoclast and Macedonian dynasties, was shocked suddenly into recognition of these wild and redoubtable heathens; only once seriously affrighted, and never persistently assailed, but twice or thrice compelled to come to terms with the Swedes of Russia, and thereafter willing to enlist such splendid warriors in her service.
These adventurous people of Scandinavia and Denmark are known to history as the vikings. It is a word that was often heard in the talk of the Northmen themselves, for among them a man could not hope for sweeter praise than to be called by his fellows víkingr mikill, a great seafarer, while to go í víking was their accustomed expression for the favourite enterprise of trading and plundering across the waters. Yet to employ this word viking as a collective name for the three peoples of the north, whether at home or abroad, to speak of the viking nations, or even of the Viking Period, these are only modern uses of the word. For in antiquity, though the name may have been current not only in Scandinavia and Denmark but also through
out the whole Germanic north, it does not find its way into the chronicles and histories of either of the two Roman empires, nor into Celtic and Saxon annals, as the designation of the northern buccaneers, even during and after the time of their most notable exploits; in fact it was only after it had long dropped out of ordinary use that scholars, who from the seventeenth century onwards had become familiar with the term in the sagas, perceived its fitness to do duty in historical works as the keyword of the most remarkable period in the whole story of the northern lands.
The Northmen employed the name in the sense of 'one who fared by sea to his adventures of commerce and of war', and, later on, with the debased meaning of 'robber' or 'brigand'; among the Frisians and the English the word viking seems to have been a synonym for 'marauder from across the ocean', and in England it was so used at a date considerably earlier than that when the Viking Period, as it is ordinarily defined, begins. (1) But what exactly it meant originally, whether 'men of the camps' or 'men of the creeks', is uncertain; (2) it cannot even be said positively that it is of Norse and not of Frisian or English coining. That which is now assured is simply that it was current among Germanic folk in general as a name for filibustering rovers of the sea, and that it is merely a convenience of modern historical machinery to monopolize the name for the three peoples of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark in the amazing centuries of their outpouring upon improvident Christendom.
1. Examples of the English use of the word wícing in the early eighth century will be found in the Saxon poetic version of Exodus (Bibl. der A. S. Poesie, ed. Grein, v. 333), in Widsith (II. 47, 59), where it appears as an alternative tribal name for the Heathobards, and also in certain glosses (cf. E. Björkman, Festskrift K. F. Johansson, Göteberg, 1910, p. 7). The OFris. form is witsing or wising; for its occurrence, see K. v. Richthoven, Altfriesisches Wörterbuch, s.v. wiking.
2. According to the favourite derivation, the element vik is to be connected with the word still current in the Scandinavian and Danish tongues for creek or bay, the vikings therefore taking their name from the haunts whence they sailed and where, in the unhappy lands of their robberies, they best loved to beach their boats. Another supposition, much less likely, is that the word means warriors, the first element, on this view, being derived from ON. víg, meaning strife or battle. A third and the best etymology (that of E. Björkman) connects vik with CE. wíc a camp, which in turn is a borrowing of the Latin vicus, an inhabited place. As it is easily understandable that the name, bestowed in England or Frisia, should mean the folk of the camps, it seems unnecessary to insist that the primary meaning was townsmen, with the rider that it was a result of the seafarings and depredations of the merchants from the German towns that the name was subsequently applied to the Northmen in the debased sense of robbers from overseas (cf. E. Wadstein, Le mot Viking, Mélanges de Philologie offerts á M. J. Vising, Göteberg and Paris, 1925, P. 381). A fourth etymology, suggested by W. v. Russow, declares the word viking to mean seal-catcher, the first element being connected with wikan, a seal, in the dialect of Runö in the Gulf of Riga. As the etymology is dubious there are no means of deciding whether the word is to be pronounced rhyming with licking or liking. Continental historians usually keep the i short; in England the long i is an accustomed pronunciation. It is, however, better to learn to say viking rather than viking, if only for the convenience of being instantly understood when referring to the early Northmen in the presence of the living scions of their stock.
As a collective name, then, for the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes during a certain period of their history, the vikings, though not always theirs exclusively, is sanctioned by modern usage and must remain, of course, unchallenged. But viking enterprise is even less a special phenomenon of this period than is the occurrence of the word itself; for the vikings did not invent their favourite employment of sailing the seas in search of fortune and adventures; they were not the first shipbuilders of the north nor the first great maritime folk of these waters. Seafarings in search of plunder had long been familiar exploits in the dark Germanic world, and the Baltic had been crossed and crossed again by warrior-bands and the North Sea coasts had been pirate-haunted from the earliest centuries of the Christian era. The Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons, those persistent raiders of the luckless 'Saxon shore', had all been vikings in their day; in the middle of the fifth century the Heruls of Denmark bad made a piratical descent not merely on the coast of France but upon Spain, and in the year A. D. 516, nearly three centuries before the Viking Period begins, there had taken place the raid of the Scandinavian Hygelac (or Chlochilaic, as the Franks called him) upon Frisia; he had attacked the lower Rhine country, laid waste a part of the realm of Theuderic, King of the Franks, and had taken many prisoners and loaded his boats with plunder before he was caught and overthrown by Theuderic's son.
Nevertheless the Viking Period of history-books, as is everywhere understood, does not extend backwards to include such early exploits but begins only at the end of the eighth century when the Scandinavian peoples and the Danes show unwonted activity and more than usual daring and persistency in their robberies across the seas. The actual beginning, so far as history can tell, belongs to the last two decades of that century, and the first appearance of the Northmen that has been recorded took place some time between the years 786 and 793 in the debased sense of robbers from overseas (cf. E. Wadstein, Le mot Viking, Mélanges de Philologie offerts á M. J. Vising, Göteberg and Paris, 1925, P. 381). A fourth etymology, suggested by W. v. Russow, declares the word viking to mean seal-catcher, the first element being connected with wikan, a seal, in the dialect of Runö in the Gulf of Riga. As the etymology is dubious there are no means of deciding whether the word is to be pronounced rhyming with licking or liking. Continental historians usually keep the i short; in England the long i is an accustomed pronunciation. It is, however, better to learn to say viking rather than viking, if only for the convenience of being instantly understood when referring to the early Northmen in the presence of the living scions of their stock.
reign of King Beohtric of Wessex when three Norwegian boats put in to the Dorset coast and the crews murdered the king's reeve. But in 793 there was a much more serious and ominous happening, namely the plundering and destruction of the Lindisfarne monastery on Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast and the massacre of some of the monks. This outrage by the Norsemen surprised and frightened the English; 'it was not thought possible that they could have made the voyage', wrote Alcuin, the Northumbrian scholar at the court of Charles the Great, and 'never before', he said, 'in the three hundred and fifty years that we and our forefathers have dwelt in this fair land has such a horror appeared in Britain as this that we have just suffered from the heathen'. It was, however, the grim announcement that a reign of terror had begun; in the monastery of Jarrow was robbed and that of Monkwearmouth threatened; marauding Northmen landed in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales in 795, and in the Isle of Man in 798, and in the Aquitaine province of France in 799. The opening of the next century saw these raids continued; the almost empty Orkneys and Shetlands were seized by emigrant Norsemen; the Hebrides were infested with the pirates from over the sea; Columba's monastery on Iona was burnt in 802 and again in 8o6; in the following year the mainland of Ireland was the scene of a prolonged and vicious foray by the Northmen. And on the Continent, too, the evil hour that witnessed the coming of the viking terror had struck; as early as the year 8oo Charles the Great had been compelled to look to the defences of the Frisian coast, and in 808 the Danish king declared himself the open enemy of the emperor by an attack upon Charles's Slavonic allies, the Obotrites of Mecklenberg and western Holstein; in 810 with a fleet of 200 ships the Danes descended upon the coast of Frisia, a prelude to the shattering and ferocious onslaught so soon to assail this tempting and unhappy country. And while this was happening, the Swedes had begun to raid the East Baltic coasts, had found their way up into the Gulf of Finland and were winning for themselves a province around the Ladoga lake, where they built a stronghold on its shores close to the modern town of Novaya Ladoga, some 70 miles west of Leningrad.
The end of the Viking Period, according to the usual reckoning, comes in the middle of the eleventh century, and between this point of time and the end of the eighth century the three viking peoples did many brilliant and astonishing things. The Norwegians created and owned towns in Ireland and possessed themselves of most of the Scottish islands; they colonized the