In AD 800, the Scandinavians were just barbarians in longships. Though they held sway in the north, their power meant little more than the ability to pillage and plunder, which they did to bolster their status at home. But as these Norse warriors left their strongholds to trade, raid, and settle across wide areas of Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic, their violent and predatory culture left a unique imprint on medieval history. The twist that no one predicted, however, was a much slower, insidious takeover than any the Vikings would execute, and by a turn of the tide, they themselves became its target. For as they made their mark on Europe, Europe made its mark on them. By the year 1200, what remained of the Vikings’ pagan origins floated beneath the surface and the strong, strange territories of the north had become a part of Latin Christendom.
Northmen is there to tell the tale, to pay homage to what was lost and celebrate what was won. Focusing on key events, including the sack of Lindisfarne in 793 and the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, medieval history expert John Haywood recounts the saga of the Viking Age, from the creation of the world through to the dwindling years of halfhearted raids and elegiac storytelling in the thirteenth century. He does so with meticulous research, engaging narrative, and sensitivity for his subject, shedding light and blood along the way.
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The Viking Saga AD 793â"1241
By John Haywood
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 John Haywood
All rights reserved.
Thule, Nydam and Gamla Uppsala
The Origin of the Vikings
The Vikings did not spring into life fully formed at the end of the eighth century, even if it may have seemed that way to their startled and appalled victims. In reality, the breaking out of Viking raiding was the consequence of centuries of social and political evolution, which had created in Scandinavia a violent and predatory society. If these developments passed largely unnoticed in the rest of Europe it was only partly because of Scandinavia's remoteness. In the literate Greco-Roman world of Classical antiquity, a deep cultural prejudice against the 'barbarian' meant that the peoples of northern Europe were little studied and rarely written about. This prejudice survived into the Christian era, when Scandinavians were doubly damned for being pagans as well as barbarians. As Scandinavians themselves did not develop a fully literate culture until after their conversion to Christianity at the end of the Viking Age, contemporary written evidence of Scandinavia's historical development before the Viking Age is extremely scarce: Scandinavia's prehistoric period was a long one.
Pytheas' voyage to Thule
Scandinavia's earliest known literate visitor was the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia, who made a long voyage in the northern seas in the years around 320 BC. On his return home Pytheas wrote an account of his travels entitled On the Oceans. Unfortunately, this was lost in antiquity and is known today only from extracts preserved in the works of later Greek and Roman geographers. These show Pytheas to have been a scientifically minded traveller who estimated the latitude of the places he visited on his journey by measuring the height of the sun at noon and by the length of the days. In his own time, however, Pytheas was believed by many to have invented the whole story, so fantastic did it seem.
Pytheas' home port of Massalia (now Marseilles), was founded in 600 BC by settlers from the Greek city of Phocea. The sheltered natural harbour was an obvious attraction and it was close to the valley of the river Rhône, which at that time was a major trade route bringing British tin and Baltic amber to the Mediterranean. The Phoceans had the reputation of being the most adventurous Greek seafarers. Soon after founding Massalia they had sailed through the fabled Pillars of Hercules–the Straits of Gibraltar–into the Atlantic Ocean to trade with the mineral-rich Iberian kingdom of Tartessos. One of them, Midacritus, was rumoured to have gone even further and brought back tin from Britain. However, around 500 BC the Phoceans were shut out of the Atlantic when the powerful North African city of Carthage gained control of the Pillars of Hercules. Carthage lived by trade and did not welcome foreign merchants in its sphere of influence. Pytheas' expedition, therefore, was probably commercial, to seek out new trade routes for Massalia in areas not controlled by Carthage.
When he set out, Pytheas probably bypassed hostile Carthaginian territory by travelling overland from Massalia to the Bay of Biscay and there chartered a ship from one of the local Celtic tribes to take him on to Britain. The Veneti of Brittany were particularly well-known for building sturdy wooden sailing ships with which they carried on a brisk trade in tin with Britain. Pytheas landed at Belerion–Land's End–and travelled the whole length of Britain. Everything the Greeks knew about Britain up until then was based on hearsay. For the first time Pytheas added some reliable facts. His estimate of Britain's circumference as around 40,000 stades, approximately 4,500 miles, is remarkably close to the actual distance of around 4,700 miles. The next stage of Pytheas' journey took him far beyond the edge of the known world. Setting out from an unidentified island off Britain's north coast, Pytheas sailed north for six days until he reached the land he called Thule. Pytheas' observation that the sun was below the horizon for only two or three hours at midsummer fixes Thule's latitude at about 64° north. However, Pytheas had no means of calculating longitude. There is no doubt that Thule was a land in the far north but where exactly? The uncertainty of its location has made Thule more a symbol of ultimate hyperborean remoteness than a real place.
Iceland or even Greenland have been proposed as possible locations for Thule but, as this comment on Pytheas' account by the Greek geographer Strabo (c. 63/64 BC–AD 24) makes clear, Thule was inhabited by farming peoples:
'[Pytheas] might possibly seem to have made adequate use of the facts as regards the people who live close to the frozen zone, when he says that, the people live on millet and other herbs, and on fruits and roots; and where there are grain and honey, the people get their beverage, also, from them. As for the grain, he says, since they have no pure sunshine, that they pound it out in large storehouses, after first gathering in the ears thither; for the threshing floors become useless because of this lack of sunshine and because of the rains.' The Geography of Strabo, bk IV 5.5 (Loeb Classics, 1917).
Greenland was inhabited only by early Inuit hunter-gatherers at this time, and Iceland by no one at all, so neither could have been Pytheas' Thule. This means that Pytheas' landfall must have been somewhere around Trondheim Fjord on Norway's west coast. Despite its northerly latitude, the Norwegian coast has a relatively mild climate thanks to the influence of the warm Atlantic Gulf Stream current, which makes farming possible even north of the Arctic Circle. Trondheim Fjord's sheltered south and east shores have some of Norway's most fertile soils and farmers were settled on them as early as 2800 BC. Pytheas sailed still further north and his observations make it clear that he crossed the Arctic Circle. He also claimed that a day's sail north of Thule was the Frozen Sea, though it is not clear if he actually saw this for himself or merely reported what other seafarers had told him.
Following his visit to Thule, Pytheas headed south to explore the Baltic, which he must have reached via the Skagerrak, the Kattegat and one of the passages through the Danish islands. Pytheas visited the unidentified island of Abalus from whose shores amber was collected. A translucent fossil resin with a fiery colour, amber had been prized in the Mediterranean world for thousands of years, not only because of its beauty but because of its seemingly magical electrostatic properties: called electrum by the Greeks, amber has given us the word 'electricity'. The origins of amber were the subject of several myths but Pytheas was the first to establish its true source. Abalus has been identified as the Danish islands of Sjælland or Bornholm, the Samland peninsula near Kaliningrad (the richest source of amber today), and the North Sea island of Heligoland. Heligoland seems unlikely as Pytheas says that Abalus was a day's sail from the lands of the Goths, who at that time lived on the Baltic coast. Pytheas explored the Baltic at least as far east as the Vistula, before returning to Massalia by a round-about route, following the River Tanais (Don) south to the Black Sea, where he would have had little difficulty finding a ship to take him home at one of the many Greek colonies there.
Brief though it is, Strabo's extract from Pytheas, quoted above, is the earliest eyewitness account of the lives of the Vikings' ancestors that we have, but beyond telling us that they enjoyed drinking mead and ale and had to dry their grain indoors, it doesn't tell us much. If Pytheas did have more to say about the languages, customs and social institutions of the people of Thule, his readers did not think it worth preserving. To learn anything meaningful about the Vikings' earliest ancestors we have to turn to archaeology.
Scandinavia in the Stone and Bronze Ages
The ancestors of the Vikings were most likely Stone Age farmers who began to colonise Scandinavia around 6,000 years ago, displacing or assimilating hunter-gatherers whose own ancestors had arrived at the end of the last Ice Age some 6,000 years earlier. These pioneer farmers belonged to the Corded Ware Culture (named for the way its pottery was decorated by pressing twisted cords into the wet clay), which originated on the north German plain. Although the connection will probably never be proven beyond doubt, this culture is associated with the early spread of the Germanic, Slavic and Baltic languages. If true, the settlers probably already spoke an early form of the modern Scandinavian languages, which all belong, with modern German, English, Dutch and Frisian, to the Germanic language family. The close genetic similarity between modern Danes, Norwegians and Swedes on the one hand, and modern north Germans on the other, strengthens rather than weakens this conclusion. No convincing evidence exists for any further substantial migration into Scandinavia before the later twentieth century. Scandinavia would make its mark on history as an exporter of population.
About 1800 BC bronze artefacts began to appear in Scandinavia. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, neither of which were available in Scandinavia at that time (Sweden's rich copper reserves were not discovered until the Middle Ages). Scandinavians were, therefore, completely dependent on imported bronze. At first, finished bronze artefacts were imported, but after Scandinavian smiths mastered the skills of bronze casting they probably relied on imported bronze ingots, which were widely traded around Europe. This was the period when amber first began to be traded widely in Europe, so it was probably the commodity the early Scandinavians used to pay for their bronze. The high value placed on amber ensured that bronze was never in short supply in the north. The increase in long distance trade helped stimulate the development of a more hierarchical society, as demonstrated by the appearance of small numbers of richly furnished elite burials marked by earth barrows. Stone suitable for toolmaking is widespread but bronze's exotic origins, and the specialised skills needed to make and cast it, allowed its distribution to be monopolised by a small elite whose power and status were thereby greatly enhanced. In the more fertile areas of southern Scandinavia, farms began to cluster in small villages. The typical dwelling was a longhouse–a long narrow building in which the family and its livestock lived under one roof, the people at one end, the animals in a byre at the other. The livestock helped keep the house warm in winter. The presence of a single large dwelling among otherwise smaller dwellings indicates that villages were dominated by a single headman or chief. In Norway and much of Sweden, dispersed settlement remained the norm until the end of the Viking Age.
Bronze tools were a great advance on stone tools but bronze was even more important for making status symbols, such as weapons, jewellery, razors, horned helmets, lurs (horns) and fittings for wheeled vehicles, and cult objects such as the magnificent 'Sun Chariot' from Trundholm in Denmark, a model of a four-wheeled horse-drawn wagon carrying a brilliantly gilded sun disc. The horned helmets, misinterpreted by antiquarians in the nineteenth century, helped give rise to the romantic, but mistaken, belief that Vikings wore horned helmets. Sadly, Vikings never wore horned helmets. The Bronze Age elite probably also achieved close control over the use and distribution of amber. Amber beads and other ornaments are common offerings in Stone Age graves in Scandinavia, but they are virtually absent from those of the Bronze Age. Amber is so light that it floats in salt water–another property that made it remarkable to the ancients (it also burns)–and is washed up on beaches around the North Sea and the Baltic for anyone to pick up. However, it appears that the elite claimed ownership of all amber washed up in their territories and could prevent others using it so they could prioritise its use for export.
It is during the Bronze Age (c. 1800 BC–c. 500 BC), that the importance of seafaring in Scandinavia first becomes obvious. No Bronze Age ships have yet been found in Scandinavia but representations of them are everywhere, carved on rocks and etched into bronze vessels and tools such as razors, and most prominently as stone ship-settings. The latter are groups of large stones arranged to form the outline shape of a ship that were used to mark graves. Sometimes taller stones are placed at the ends of the settings to give the impression of raised prows and, more rarely, there are raised stones in the position where, in a real ship, a mast would have been. Most ship-settings range in length from around 6 feet (1.8 m) to 50 feet (15.25 m) but the longest, the now largely destroyed setting at Jelling in Jutland, is about 1,100 feet (335 m) long. Over 2,000 settings survive, with a major concentration on the Swedish island of Gotland, but these are probably only a fraction of those originally built. Many of the survivors are now incomplete as a result of farmers removing stones to build walls or clear land for the plough, and it is likely that many more have been completely destroyed in this way. The first ship-settings were built in the second half of the Bronze Age and they continued to be built almost until the end of the Viking Age, nearly 2,000 years later. It is impossible to be certain what beliefs were associated with these symbolic ships or, for that matter, that those beliefs remained the same throughout the long period in which the settings were built, but they were probably intended in some way to transport the soul of the deceased to the afterlife. The use of real ships in burials, which began in the centuries immediately before the Viking Age, was probably a development of these beliefs.
Even more numerous than ship settings are petroglyphs showing large canoe-like boats crewed by warriors armed with spears and axes, as well as wheeled vehicles, animals and sun discs. The boats are always shown in silhouette and have distinctive double beaked prows at each end. No other details of the boats' construction are shown on the petroglyphs, however. The boat petroglyphs are usually carefully sited in natural channels on the rocks, along which rainwater and melted snow would flow to create a lifelike scene. It is unlikely that the petroglyphs were carved simply because Bronze Age people liked to see pictures of boats. They probably depict mythological scenes or had some ritual purpose. The ships are often associated with petroglyphs of sun discs which, with artefacts like the Trundholm Sun Chariot, should probably be interpreted as evidence of a solar cult. Solar cults were widespread in later Bronze Age Europe and are indicative of an increasing importance of sky gods, which were, of course, the dominant gods of the Norse pantheon in Viking times. Another religious change that affected much of Europe in this period was the adoption of cremation as the normal way to dispose of the dead. This was accompanied by a decline in the practice of placing grave goods in burials. Clearly these developments must reflect a major change in attitudes to afterlife. The valuable metalwork that would have gone into graves was now buried as votive hoards in bogs. As places where the separate realms of earth, water and air mingled, bogs were seen as particularly numinous places. However, votive hoards were not merely a way of appeasing the gods; they helped maintain the status of the elite by creating an artificial shortage of metals.
Because of environmental changes most Bronze Age petroglyphs cannot now be appreciated in their original context. A good example is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Tanumshede in Bohuslän on Sweden's west coast, where there are around 600 petroglyphs spread over a 126 acre (51 hectare) site. When originally carved the Tanumshede petroglyphs were on the shore of a shallow fjord, but they are now well inland and surrounded by pine forest. During the Ice Age, the enormous weight of the Scandinavian ice sheet depressed the land surface by over 2,000 feet (610 m). When the ice sheets melted, sea levels rose and this vast depression flooded, forming the Baltic Sea. Relieved of its burden, the land, more slowly, began to rebound and will continue to do so for thousands of years to come. This process, which is known to geologists as isostatic uplift, means that Scandinavia's coastline has been constantly changing throughout human history. Fishing and trading communities that depended on access to the sea have often been forced to relocate themselves as the uplift has left them high and dry. The Baltic Sea is steadily shrinking and in about 2,000 years time its northern arm, the Gulf of Bothnia, will be mostly dry land.
Excerpted from Northmen by John Haywood. Copyright © 2015 John Haywood. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of ContentsMaps
1 Thule, Nydam and Gamla Uppsala: The Origin of the Vikings
2 Lindisfarne, Athelney and York: The Vikings in England 789-954
3 Dorestad, Paris and Rouen: The Vikings in Francia 799-939
4 Iona, Dunkeld and Orkney: The Vikings in Scotland 795-1064
5 Dublin and Cashel: The Vikings in Ireland 795-1014
6 Seville and Luni: The Vikings in Spain and the Mediterranean 844-61
7 Kiev, Constantinople and Bolghar: The Vikings in Eastern Europe to 1041
8 Thingvellir, Brattahlid and L’Anse aux Meadows: The Norse in the North Atlantic 835-1000
9 Maldon, London and Stamford Bridge: England’s Second Viking Age 978-1085
10 Hedeby, Jelling and Stiklestad: The Scandinavian Kingdoms to 1100
11 Palermo, Jerusalem and Tallinn: From Viking to Crusader
12 Largs, Reykholt and Hvalsey: The Viking Twilight
Index of Viking Kings and Rulers c. 800-1100