Viking success spread from the end of the Eighth Century through to the Twelfth Century.<1> A number of skilful traits peculiar to the Vikings, and favourable external circumstances, enabled the northern pirates to acquire vast hoards of booty and terrain outside of Scandinavia. With command of the seas and prime enthusiasm the Vikings outside spread terror with great mobility, leaving the populace of the cities and towns they ravaged in a state of anger and bewilderment. It is no great surprise that the Vikings were so prosperous outside their own territory, but it is often wondered why they did not prosper longer. The Vikings disappeared as an historical force as quickly as they had become one. Some historians agree that the decline of the Vikings as a leading global force cannot be efficiently explained. There remains some evidence, however, of circumstantial changes that took place within and around the communities of the Vikings that appear to have caused their dispersion.
Viking raids extended from Russia in the east to as far as Greenland in the west, and encompassed much of the European continent. During the Viking period, many Scandinavians left their homelands in search of wealth, trade and new land. Compelled by a desire for profit, material commodities and arable land they set sail; westward across the North Sea and the Arctic Ocean, eastward across the Baltic; and southward through the Atlantic and Mediterranean around to the Black Sea.<2> They envisaged acquiring large reserves of wealth from the European churches and monasteries, and numerous opportunities for trade to the south, east and west. Their limited supply of arable land was insufficient to suffice for their entire population, and they were keen to find new pastures in unknown territory.<3>
The degree of mobility that Viking vessels created was imperative to their success. Towards the end of the Eighth Century, Vikings became the elite force in ship building and nautical techniques. Their towering vessels were well crafted and displayed great skill and knowledge of seamanship. As water transport was important for communication in Scandinavia, the Vikings had adequate skill in nautical techniques.<4> The stem and stern posts of the ships, with their 'snakelike' terminals coiling nearly five metres above the waterline, gave an impression of power and strength.<5> The vessels were specially crafted to provide an extent of elasticity within the securely placed planks of the hull, that permitted the ships to ride with the waves without weakening the structure.<6> Containing a large number of oars, the vessels could summon an auxiliary form of power when becalmed, in a state of emergency, or in need of careful manoeuvring.<7> The vessels were powerful tools for use in both shallow and deep waters as well as narrow and open passages. This allowed the Vikings to attack and depart with speed giving their assailants little opportunity to muster counter-attack or defence. Proficiency on land as well as water proved useful to the Vikings. Horses provided another form of escape or transport, and the harshness of the Scandinavia climate forced the Vikings to become extremely proficient in utilising sledges and skates.<8> This proved advantageous in the similarly harsh Russian climates.
As the Vikings were Pagans they shared little regard or respect for the laws of Christianity in the territories they invaded. Throughout the European communities, religion was the centre of social, political and economic life (and continued to be so for centuries after the decline of the Vikings). Christian doctrine denoted the foundation of European existence. The disrespect that the Vikings showed towards Christian law and the violations that they committed against the sacred sanctions created a great amount of terror amongst priests and monks who witnessed their attacks. As a result, the atrocities of the Vikings tended to be exaggerated and this was responsible for the European image of the Viking: large, frightening, red-headed barbarians with a passion for tearing people from limb to limb.<9>
Viking success during their reign of terror and expansion was not only due to their strengths on the seas, their enthusiasm for wealth, land or trade, or their frightening reputation. Defenses were weakened in surrounding empires due to political factions and dissension amongst rulers which left them vulnerable to external forces. Conflict between empires over territory also presented a golden opportunity to the Vikings. Vast amounts of uncharted water aroused the Viking spirit of adventure, and undiscovered territory presented a constant chance for profit and expansion.
Christian churches and monasteries of immense wealth were abundant along the coastlines of Frankia and England. They held large reserves of treasure that were tantalising to the Vikings. P.H. Sawyer suggests in his book The Age of the Vikings that many of the religious buildings were exposed near the coasts of the European continent and were often left without defence, making them easy targets for the early Vikings.<10> Whether defended or not, the churches and monasteries were extensively plundered by the Scandinavians. The Vikings seized valuable treasures and reserves of silver, capturing slaves or precious objects which they ransomed for extra reserves of silver or goods.<11> Irish cities were not were fruitful in cattle and potential slaves as were the Russian regions.<12>
Disloyalty, rebellion and civil war continually plagued the regions of Europe, England and Ireland left their cities vulnerable to raiding. Firstly, with the demise of the Frisian Empire (and its incorporation into Frankish territory), the North Sea became a power vacuum for the Danes during the first half of the Ninth Century.<13> Around the end of the Ninth Century, the internal political disputes and consequent weakness during the disintegration of the Frankish empire into separate regions, provided opportunity for the Vikings to attack.<14> Civil war in Northumbria enabled the Norwegians and Danes to seize the area and from there they penetrated further west.<15> There were also further divisions and weaknesses amongst the rulers of Wales and England.<16> The continual dramatic changes to borderlines throughout the Ninth and Tenth Centuries alone indicate the degree of political disunity and weakness that would have been present between and within states during the Viking period.
Seizing the moment, the Vikings took up sword and shield, donned helmet and breast-plate, and set sail in their mighty vessels in search of land and wealth, and no doubt excitement.
Fanciful horror stories have descended from the European victims subject to the plundering of the Scandinavian Vikings. However the limited evidence that remains in the present era of Viking influence outside of Scandinavia from the pre-medieval period may suggest these pirates were earnest traders as well as raiders. Remnants of Viking influence include traces of Scandinavian agricultural techniques, the establishment of trade routes, and evidence of migration. The Vikings became famous for fortifying 'mercantile practice with piracy and conquest abroad'.<17>
There were three separate groups of Vikings: Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. Swedish (and some Danish) Vikings concentrated to the east, across the Baltic. They extorted tribute and established trade routes within the Byzantine, Bulghar, Khazar and Magyar empires.<18> They traded in various commodities from food, livestock or textiles, to various minerals including large amounts of amber and silver. <19> By the end of the Ninth Century the cities of Kiev, Novgorod and Birka became established Viking trading centres.<20> Trade routes to Constantinople were built, exposing the exotic markets of the Far East and Arabia.<21> In Byzantium, the Norwegian Vikings joined Danes (among others) and formed the 'feared and famous' Varangian Guard, the elite bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors.<22>
With the North Sea as a power vacuum, after the demise of the Frisians, the Danes took advantage of the situation and constantly raided cities among the crumbling Carolingian Empire.<23> Their attacks included the cities of Hamburg, Paris, Nantes and Bordeaux. In 911, they accepted a piece of land in Northern France, given to them by the French king as a treaty, and here they established Normandy.<24> In the final stages of the Viking era, descendants of those who had settled Normandy travelled to England and Sicily, taking with them farming techniques, their language, and introducing the jury system into law-keeping administration.<25>
Across the North Sea to the west, the Norwegian and Danish Vikings raided extensively. Paris, the Loire Basin and coastal regions of Spain were all under attack. Many regions of Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland were also affected by the land and trade-hungry northern raiders. Both the Danish and Norwegians took control of Shetland and Orkney, extensively raiding throughout Ireland.<26> They established Ireland's first trading towns, including Dublin, and became involved in political squabbles between rival Irish clans.<27>
A Scandinavian Empire of the North Sea was established in the Eleventh Century including northern England, Denmark and Norway.<28> In England they subjugated the Danelaw and many settled there as farmers and traders, establishing mercantile cities such as York.<29> They travelled across the uncharted waters of the Atlantic, settling in the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland.<30> From Greenland, they launched an expedition to settle in North America, 500 years before Columbus, but the expedition was abandoned due to the hostility of the natives.<31> (Little physical evidence remains to support this theory, save a large amount of mediaeval Icelandic literature.)
As any great empire is eventually destined to do, the Viking era came to an end. There is less evidence why the Vikings disappeared so rapidly in the east as opposed to more substantial cause for decline in the west. Raiding ended early in the east, around 970, the only evidence of the cause being a shift in trade, moving north, removing opportunity from the Vikings and stifling their reserves of wealth.<32> So the Vikings from the east moved south to raid the regions of the Slavs and the former areas of Frankia.<33>
In the west, the social backbone of the Viking communities began to change. The once adventurous Vikings formed settled communities and began to concentrate on farming and expanding their new territories. As the Scandinavians settled into their new land, they lost the degree of nobility that had been so crucial to them during their reign of success. As a settled community, the warriors became vulnerable to military pressure as their victims had once been.<34> By the middle of the Ninth Century, Ireland successfully mustered enough force to attack and eventually gain control of Dublin from the Vikings.<35> After political factions within the Viking groups along the north coast, the Irish were also able to eradicate most of the Viking strongholds. Finally, by the middle of the Eleventh Century, the Scandinavian communities that were settled within England were forced to accept the authority of the English kings.<36>
The rich pastures of Ireland and England satisfied the Scandinavians who settled there. With no need to return to their homeland, the new communities began to break away from their homelands and assimilate into the new country. Slowly, many of the colonies throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland distanced themselves from the authority of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In 965, Iceland declared independence from the Danish king.<37> Around the same time, the Duchy of Normandy separated from the Danish Vikings who had established the city half a century earlier.<38>
As the need and opportunity for raids and exploration decreased, Viking power also began to decline. Due to the wealth of the European churches and monasteries, Vikings were increasingly paid sums of money to discourage raids.<39> Also, as there was no further need to continue acquiring new land for migration, Viking exploration decreased.
As the need for raiding declined, the settled communities began to concentrate on improving their land. The young men remained at home to tend to their land and became disinterested in the adventures of Viking raiding and exploration.<40>
Thus numbers of Scandinavians who continued to raid were in short supply. Shortly after, Viking raids disappeared completely as there were no more eager young Scandinavians to continue in the footsteps of their great Viking predecessors. The last recorded raid was on England, under the command of Knut the Great in 1083, and evidently was a failure.<41> By this stage, the Vikings were no longer the elite force in naval attack. The European empires had also developed their own warfare techniques on water as well as land and were able to equal the Viking's strength.<42>
Once settled, the Scandinavians came in contact with Christianity. This implemented a change in the social structure of the previously Pagan communities. Many converted to Christianity accepting the laws and beliefs of the communities they once showed little respect to. Vikings and their descendants intermarried amongst the European ethnic groups and integrated into the European lifestyles. A new type of authority came into power, an aristocracy who were concerned with stability and development, rather than the trade, wealth and land-seeking Viking captain that aspired to prepare his fellow raiders for expeditions of plunder and discovery.<43> The aristocracy of the society began to concentrate on economic prosperity as opposed to military ambition, and emphasis on politics and economics gradually replaced the occupation of war as the Scandinavians became more interested in profit and development than adventure.<44>
A final cause of the decline of Viking influence and power, was the growing political disunity within the Scandinavian people as a whole. Although connected by a Scandinavian religion and society that flowed through each of the Scandinavian regions, the three separate countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) continued to fight amongst themselves for territory and power.<45> This disunity and civil conflict caused similar disunity and conflict amongst the Viking fleets, and eventually assisted in hastening their decline as an historical force. Given the fortunate opportunities for raiding at the beginning of the Viking period, and considering the Scandinavians' skill in seamanship, it is little wonder that they were so successful. The Vikings can be remembered for their bravery, their great mobility, their skill at sea, and their entrepreneurship for trade. However, it is considered that the Scandinavian Vikings had not possessed the manpower, the reserves of wealth, the political experience, or the cohesion at home to maintain the empire that they had created.<46> As the settled Scandinavian communities assimilated into their new surroundings, the driving force behind the Viking's success - mobility, strength, and zeal - had vanished. The Vikings had accomplished the migration and trade that they had ventured to gain, and once satisfied they disappeared from the globe as an historical force.
T. Griffiths, Scandinavia, South Australia, 1993, p.
2 G. Jones, A History of the Vikings, Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 2.
3 C. McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 46.
4 T. Griffiths, Scandinavia, p. 6.
5 D. Wilson, Vikings and their Origins, London, 1980, p. 45.
6 Wilson, Vikings and their Origins, p. 79.
7 Jones, History of the Vikings, p. 88.
8 Wilson, Vikings and their Origins, p. 8l.
9 P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, New York, 1982, p. 94.
10 P.H. Sawyer, The A-C of the Vikings, 2nd edition, London, 1971, p. 205.
11 Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, p. 94.
12 Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, p. 85.
13 McEvedy, Medieval History, p. 46.
14 Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, vol. 27, Harper and Row, 1984, p. 63.
15 Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, p. 86.
16 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 203.
17 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 2.
18 Sawyer, Age of Vikings, p. 2l3.
19 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 2.
20 Sawyer, Age of Vikings, p. 2l3.
21 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 63.
22 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 63.
23 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 63.
24 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 63.
25 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 64.
26 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 64.
27 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 64.
28 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 63.
29 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 63.
30 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 64.
31 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 74.
32 Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, p. l45.
33 Sawyer, Age of Vikings, p. 2l2.
34 Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, p. 85.
35 Sawyer, Age of Vikings, p. 2l2.
36 P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, New York.
37 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 394.
38 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 394.
39 Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, p. 85.
40 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 392.
41 Sawyer, Age of Vikings, p. 221.
42 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 391.
43 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 392.
44 Jones, History of Vikings, p. 393.
45 Funk and Wagnalls, p. 64.
46 McEvedy, Medieval History, p. 47.
47 McEvedy, Medieval History, p. 49.
48 McEvedy, Medieval History, p. 51.