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A History of the Vikings

A History of the Vikings

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by T. D. Kendrick

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This enthralling, well-documented, and vivid account chronicles the activities of those bold sea raiders of the North who terrorized Europe from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. A dramatic narrative takes readers from the White Sea in the Arctic to Africa’s Moroccan coast, from Viking operations in Russia, England, and Ireland, to daring exploits in


This enthralling, well-documented, and vivid account chronicles the activities of those bold sea raiders of the North who terrorized Europe from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. A dramatic narrative takes readers from the White Sea in the Arctic to Africa’s Moroccan coast, from Viking operations in Russia, England, and Ireland, to daring exploits in Iceland, Greenland, and America.
Written by a former curator of the British Museum’s Department of Medieval Antiquities, the volume is one of the first complete accounts of the Nordic raiders. Amply illustrated and written with freshness and vigor, this perennially appealing story of conquest will be valuable to scholars and students of Nordic history.
“A titanic subject and in [the author’s] hands, it becomes absorbing drama.” — Bookman.
“Undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive study … it would be hard to name a work in any tongue which could rival its treatment of the subject.” — Times [London] Literary Supplement.

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A History of the Vikings

By T. D. Kendrick

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12342-4



AT the dawn of European history the brightening day that illuminates with welcome suddenness the Graeco-Roman world breaks only as a grey and impenetrable twilight over the far-off northern lands where later the viking peoples lived. But to the night-eyes of those trained to see in the full darkness of prehistory these countries of the north were already thronged stages whereon had been enacted dramas of cultural changes and altering populations no less interesting than those that were a prelude to the development of the historical civilizations of early Greece and Rome. Therefore, here in the north as elsewhere it is necessary to have some knowledge of the buried and forgotten past as revealed by archaeological research, in order to have a proper appreciation of the antecedents of the vikings, to know the stock whereof they came and to understand the forces that had moulded them and given them the stamp of a race apart. For of such poor and dubious stuff are the beginnings of their written story made that only with the help of archaeological data is there hope of interpreting correctly the first glimpses of them, or of their forefathers, that are discernible in the half-lights of the earliest records or in the full illumination of the risen sun of history.

The Stone Age in Scandinavia and Denmark, in the formal sense of this term as a definitive era wherein the use of metal was everywhere unknown, was a long period that lasted according to present reckoning from about 7000 B.C. to about 1800 B.C., the date when bronze was first commonly employed in Denmark and Sweden. This immense stretch of time is divided into two periods, and of these the first extends from the beginning of the Stone Age until 4000 B.C., or thereabouts, and is considered by most archaeologists to have witnessed the initial population of the land. This was effected, it is thought, by a series of immigrations from the south and south-east, all these first adventurers to the north being tribes of hunters that were forced into the cold wilderness left bare after the retreat of the ice-cap by new races who were gradually driving them from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe.


Originally such a Central European folk, and the bearers of a late palaeolithic hunting-culture, were the Maglemose or Ancylus people (c. 6500 B.C.) who represent one of the first established Stone Age folk in these northern lands. 2 To these succeeded in the sixth or fifth millennium B.C. the well-known Kitchen-Midden, or Ertebölle, people, who were as firmly established in Norway and southern Sweden as in Denmark itself. That the Ertebölle folk were the direct descendants of the Ancylus people has been disputed, and the immigration of a new race invoked to explain the hiatus that is at present thought to separate the two cultures. But it is a fact that the likeness between the simple equipment of stone and bone tools utilized by both peoples is remarkable, and it is always to be remembered that the subsidence of the land that took place during the Ertebölle stage has occasioned the loss of the greater part of the ordinary trusty racial criteria, both archaeological and anthropological. Thus it seems that it is impossible as yet to reach a decision on this point, and that there is at least a likelihood, if not a probability, that the Ertebölle folk were in fact the direct descendants of the Ancylus people. But here it is sufficient merely to record an advance in the arts of life in this Ertebölle culture, as notably in the first introduction of pottery.


The end of the Ertebölle culture, about 4000 B.C., closes the first period of the Stone Age that thenceforward includes not only settlements of a folk who lived by hunting and fishing, but peoples who had added the profitable occupation of agriculture to their means of livelihood. Yet this introduction of agriculture does not seem to have involved, nor to have been caused by, a revolutionary and sudden change, and it is best explained as the most important of the new arts acquired in the course of the gradual introduction of the neolithic culture; for by this time the attractive and enviable advantages of neolithic civilization were becoming known among all the remaining hunting-peoples or Europe. Thus, some of the kitchen-middens of the Ertebölle culture themselves supply proof of the influence of these neolithic fashions on the Ertebölle folk, and such a midden is the Signalbakken, near Aalborg in Denmark, that yielded axes with pointed butts, and decorated potsherds with a white inlay to show off the pattern. Again, many of the Stone Age dwellingsites in Denmark show the same fusion between the Ertebölle and the 'full Neolithic' culture.


It is, in fact, the dwelling-sites that first present the new agricultural civilization of Scandinavia in its developed form with an equipment of polished stone implements and well-made decorated pottery; indeed, in Sweden (as far north as Norrland) and in Denmark, and more doubtfully in Norway, a 'dwelling-site culture' is now recognized that is held by some archaeologists to represent the earliest stage of the full neolithic culture in Scandinavia, but it is not by any means established that this 'dwelling-site' phase can really be differentiated in southern Scandinavia and Denmark as a chronologically distinct prelude to the full neolithic civilization which includes the earliest stage of the 'megalithic' culture. The remarkable stone-built tombs known in English archaeological jargon as megaliths, and that give this culture its name, begin in the north with the simple dolmen form, and there is a long and interesting series of them that from start to finish most certainly represents an established and prosperous people; their distribution shows that this megalithic culture was to be found at its most brilliant in the Danish islands, especially in Zealand, and is confined to southern Scandinavia, the megalithic area including, in addition to the whole of Denmark, all the provinces of Götaland in Sweden, and the islands of Öland and Gotland, while there is a north-western extension of the cist-graves (the latest megalithic tomb-type) into Norway in Östfold and in the neighbourhood of the Oslo Fjord. But the influence of the megalithic culture extended far beyond those districts wherein the big stone tombs, that give the culture its name, are to be found. Throughout northern Scandinavia fashions plainly derived from the megalithic zone can be detected in the dwelling-sites of the agricultural neolithic population. In Norway, for instance, flint implements of Danish manufacture were imported in large quantities, not only axes and smaller tools, but also many of the magnificent flint daggers that are the most remarkable of the products of the astonishing megalithic flint-industry. To this may be added the certainty that it is to the inspiration of the megalithic culture in southern Scandinavia that must be attributed the real and effective propagation of the knowledge of agriculture in the northern and more remote districts of the peninsula. One thing alone the folk in northern Scandinavia did not copy from their neighbours in the south, and that was the custom of building communal burial-places; on the contrary, they remained true to their old-fashioned single interments which were frequently found on the sites of the habitation-places themselves.

The origin of the megalithic civilization in Scandinavia has been the subject of a considerable controversy, some regarding this surprising cultural development as the direct result of an invasion, or at least a strong cultural influence, from the outside world, while others deem it to be an autocthonous achievement that was itself the example that inspired the building of similar tombs elsewhere in Europe. This last view, however, although it has not lacked redoubtable exponents, is becoming increasingly difficult to defend. For this Scandinavian megalithic culture is but a part, albeit the most brilliant part, of a large North European megalithic culture extending from the river Weichsel to the Zuider Zee, and there is no doubt that the larger culture is, despite the tombs, closely linked with—one might even say founded upon—the contemporary, but non-megalithic civilization of Central Europe. Moreover, this northern province is culturally quite distinct from the western megalithic provinces where the typical Scandinavian tomb-equipment is lacking. Only the custom of megalith-building unites the Atlantic and the Northern European megalithic civilizations, and megalith-building, as can be demonstrated in Scandinavia itself, is a curiously localized and capricious fashion. It is better, therefore, since these two great civilizations of Northern and Western Europe are in other respects dissimilar, to explain their megalithic tombs as being due rather to a common stimulus from the Mediterranean world than to invention and enterprise in the north. On the whole, then, the rise of the megalithic culture in Scandinavia should probably be read as the result of outside influence—and by influence is meant the ordinary results of trade and minor adventurous enterprises—acting upon the descendants of the Ertebölle people, for there does not seem to be any compelling reason to suppose that a large and sudden invasion of a new folk is involved.


An invasion, however, is the most probable explanation of the origin of another people who appear in Scandinavia during the period of the megaliths. These are the 'Single Grave' folk whose burial-practice, as the name implies, was directly opposed to that of the megalithic people who favoured communal burial in a large tomb. The Single Graves were almost as unpretentious as the megaliths were grand, for they were nothing but tiny mounds covering a body laid on its side or back in a clumsy oval or rectangular enclosure of big pebbles. Furthermore, the tomb-furniture is entirely different from that of the big communal graves, characteristic finds in the Single Graves being stone battleaxes and beaker pottery with cord-ornament. In Jutland these graves are found in the central and south-western part of the peninsula, whereas the megaliths are clustered in the northern part and along the eastern coast. Single Graves of the same type as those in Jutland have been found in the extreme south of Sweden, and many battle-axes of related forms have been discovered elsewhere in that country; there are also graves and battle-axes representing a parallel culture in Finland.


The explanation that best fits the facts assumes the Danish Single Graves to be a later and distinct manifestation of an alien 'Battle-Axe Culture' that is represented in Finland by an earlier and separate invasion. This culture is thought to have originated in Central Europe—where the copper battle-axes of Hungary perhaps served as models for the stone battle-axes that give the culture its name—under an influence coming from South Russia or Asia. It then spread northwards by various movements, and thus it is that the Danish graves seem to represent newcomers travelling by the Elbe-valley route, while the Finland Battle-Axe Culture is likely to be the result of a direct and different movement to the Baltic by a route leading through the Danzig neighbourhood. In Sweden the new culture seems to be due to a separate branch of this Baltic invasion, launched perhaps from north-east Germany.

This interpretation, however, does not hold the field unchallenged. For it has been argued that the Battle-Axe Culture in Scandinavia is not of Central European origin, but is rather an indigenous Nordic civilization having its roots in the Ertebölle culture. Thus it is asked whether it is not likely, if the communal graves represent a foreign custom, that the single graves might well be the ordinary native burial-places: and, furthermore, it is contended that some of the Danish Single Graves are at least as old as the Dolmen Period, that is to say the earliest stage of the Megalithic Culture, and that a study of the pottery can provide the necessary link between the Ertebölle Culture and that of the Single Graves. Moreover, it is argued that a map showing the distribution of the battle-axes suggests a northern centre of expansion. Such arguments, however, seem to lose importance in face of the decisive fact that the Battle-Axe Cultures of Denmark, Sweden, and Finland are so far different from one another that a common origin in the north itself is in the highest degree unlikely, and that in each area it is not hard to find plain evidence of continental sources that suggest separate invasions from north Germany and the eastern Baltic coast. It is possible, naturally, to admit the existence of an indigenous element in both the Battle-Axe Culture and the Megalithic Culture, particularly in the last-named, since there is good reason to suppose, as has been said, that the Ertebölle folk survived into the Megalithic Period; but no argument hitherto adduced lessens the probability that the Battle-Axe Culture was imposed on these northern lands by invading hosts. It only remains, therefore, to note here that battle-axes representing both the Danish and the Baltic invasion found their way into Norway, but without the accompanying characteristic pottery, so that it must have been at second hand that the stimulus of this new culture reached that country.


No new invasion, so far as can be determined, brought about the establishment of the full Bronze Age in Scandinavia. But this period, lasting from 1800 B.C. to about 600 B.C., is a time wherein a medley of extraneous influences was profoundly altering the northern culture. The strongest link remains always, it is true, with Central Europe, and Hungary is considered to have been the source of much of the raw metal that was used in the north before the native copper resources were exploited; but despite this general attachment to Central Europe, and to the Aunjetitz Culture in particular, there are many other influences discernible, their variety being customarily explained on the grounds that the newly established amber-trade introduced the men of the north to fashions current in far-off lands.

One of the earliest of these culture-contacts, one that was in fact established considerably earlier than the beginning of the Bronze Age, is that between the north and the British Isles. Indeed, it might almost be said that during the late Stone Age eastern England shared in the north German and Baltic Culture-Province, while at the very end of the Megalithic Period the 'porthole entrance' in the Swedish cists has been thought to stand as evidence of a connexion through the medium of north Germany and north France with megalithic Brittany and western England, districts that were at that time included in an Atlantic Culture-Province. In the Bronze Age, however, a less equivocal link with Great Britain is the finding of flat metal axes of an English-looking type in Denmark, while, for a rather later period, there is the discovery in the same country of two gold lunulae of the Irish kind. But there were other influences of an equal, if not greater, importance. Thus, Italian axes and an Italian fashion in swords, attest cultural relations extending across the Alps into the north Italian plain, while there is also small doubt of a connexion in the early Bronze Age between the north and the cultures of the Aegean world, this being discernible not merely in a few imported articles, but, it is thought, in the ornament that was used to decorate many of the northern bronzes.


New fashions of the Bronze Age in Scandinavia are the oak-tree coffin burials, a northern custom that is found also on the eastern shores of England, and the gradual introduction of cremation and of urn-field burials. Of a high interest, too, is the appearance at the end of the Bronze Age of 'Boat Graves'. These are found most of all in the island of Gotland, where over eighty are known. They consist of large enclosures, some over a hundred feet in length, in the shape of a ship, and are edged by big standing stones (Fig. 9), or, if the 'boat' is of small dimensions, by round boulders. Inside were one or more burials, sometimes cremation-deposits and sometimes inhumations. Although the special development of this Boat-Grave cult in Gotland is in itself a remarkable proof of the individuality of the island-culture, it is most of all likely that the custom itself is but a manifestation of the widespread primitive belief in the water-barrier separating the world of the dead from the world of the living, and it may well have an origin that must ultimately be traced to the Ancient East. Here in the north, it is best deemed to be a part of a group of religious ideas, much resembling that of Ancient Egypt; for whereas these graves presumably represent the Boat of the Dead, the contemporary rock-carvings seem to show that the 'Sun Boat' too was already a familiar idea in this early northern mythology.


Excerpted from A History of the Vikings by T. D. Kendrick. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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