The Vikings: Overview

Who are the Vikings?
Where do they come from?
What sort of people were they and what impact did they have on Medieval Europe?

The Vikings came from the countries of Scandinavia, in the area we now know as Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

The name Viking is thought to come from 
  • either the Old Norse word vik meaning creek or bay
  • Old English word wic for camp
  • Old English word vig  meaning fighting
The Vikings were also called Danes, Norsemen and Northmen. They originated in the North of Europe and so this led to their various names.

They were originally farmers, fishers and hunters, who initially traded with the countries around them. They formed lose community groups based on their clans, and had a simple form of self government. They traded for centuries and there is evidence that they traded as far as India. 

The trade connections the Vikings established appear to have collapsed by the 790s, and they sought other ways of supporting their communities. They turned to what many have described as piracy.

The Vikings gained a reputation for brutality and violence through raiding settlements throughout Europe and even as far as North America. 

These raids probably had a number of causes. Some of them were that
  • The lucrative trade that had happened between other settlements and the Scandinavians had stopped
  • There were too many people and not enough land to go around
  • they needed to establish more settlements to expand their trading

The countries of Scandinavian were covered in large tracts of dense forests, with very little arable farming land which was flat and fertile. There were high mountains and most farming took place on coastal strips of land. The coastline has a number of very steep sided bays known as fiords.

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The Vikings had a limited written language so the evidence of what drove them to become feared throughout Europe, and parts of the Middle and Far East is based on archaeological diggings and often the recollections of their victims. 

The Vikings themselves left very few written sources except for runes which were usually found on large stones. The runes were based on a very limited alphabet.

By 793, groups of Vikings had come raiding the wealthy settlements of Europe. Their boats were strongly put together and crafted to withstand the open sea, but also shallow enough to use rivers to go far inland. This was especially the case in England where many of the rivers were wide and had prosperous townships along them.

The Vikings continued their raiding activities till the mid eleventh century. They also began to settle in many of the areas where they had previously raided. This meant the Vikings brought with them social structures, including their laws and their form of government which could be loosely termed democracy.