01: The Vikings in Medieval History
Hostile Christian sources demonize the Vikings; Muslim accounts render them exotic; and recent revisionist historians downplay the impact of Norse raids. Archeological finds such as ship burials, coin hoards, and human remains, combined with close study of the Norse sagas of Iceland, can enrich and balance our understanding of Scandinavia's place in medieval history.
02: Land and People of Medieval Scandinavia
Scandinavia's landscape shaped its culture. Dense forestation led to small, close-knit communities, skill in woodworking, and to sailing as the primary means of long-distance transport. Long, harsh winters engendered skill in cold-weather travel, a unique cosmology, and the emergence of great halls where storytelling and hospitality traditions were born.
03: Scandinavian Society in the Bronze Age
The physical evidence, expertly interpreted, paints a compelling picture of the Bronze Age in Scandinavia (2300-450 B.C.) Viking ancestors traded Arctic goods, amber, and slaves in exchange for foreign copper and tin to produce impressive bronze objects. New wealth fostered larger villages led by chieftains. A gilt bronze sun chariot, rock tracings, and other material culture indicate the beginnin...
04: Scandinavia in the Celtic and Roman Ages
Scandinavia fed off of trade with the Celts (450-50 B.C.) importing improved cart, ship, and metalworking technology. Contact with Rome (c. 50 B.C.-A.D. 400) enriched the upper classes with fine silver, ceramics, and glass. More ominously, Scandinavians returning from Roman military service brought back advanced weapons and armor. Petty kings surrounded by loyal bands of warriors emerged, along wi...
05: The Age of Migrations
Between 400-700, as the Roman political order collapsed in Western Europe, Scandinavians poured in: Anglo-Saxons in England, Franks in Gaul, Swedish Goths in Italy and Spain, Danes in Frisia. Cultural ties were so close that Scandinavian legends celebrated legendary West Germanic figures for centuries. But in the 7th and 8th centuries, Christianization and linguistic change transformed these immig...
06: The Norse Gods
Norse religion was integral to Scandinavian life. A creation myth tells of primeval frozen wastes and sacred trees. The pantheon contained gods of war (Odin), sky (Thor), and fertility (Frey and Freya). The afterlife in Valhalla and other great halls was a reward for great deeds. Worship of these gods, and veneration of the ancestors united communities and separated them from Christendom.
07: Runes, Poetry, and Visual Arts
As a non-urbanized culture, Viking society expressed its visual genius in elaborate woodcarving and intricate jewelry, not architecture. Gods were represented by charming cult statues and contacted through magical runic drawings. Without writing, great myths and legends were transmitted in great halls by poets, playing a harp and composing spontaneous, witty, and metrical verse.
08: Legendary Kings and Heroes
The Epic of Beowulf (c. 675-725) and The Saga of Hrolf Kraki (c. 13th century) look back to the 6th century when legendary kings of Denmark and Sweden ruled from great halls and won great victories, albeit without the Viking longships of the 9th and 10th centuries. These figures were role models and inspirations to the sea kings and territorial rulers of the Viking Age....
09: A Revolution in Shipbuilding
Without the advances in shipbuilding that occurred in the 9th and 10th centuries, Viking success in raiding and trading would have been impossible. Viking vessels evolved from the earliest paddleboats to the great cargo and war ships that carried Viking goods and armies farther and faster than anyone else in the Medieval world.
10: Warfare and Society in the Viking Age
Swords, bows and arrows, javelins, spears, and axes made up the Viking arsenal, but their greatest weapon was unit cohesion. Trained since youth, they were expert in winter travel and foraging, the building of fortifications, and coordinated attack in advanced formations like the "shield wall." The Great Army of 865-878 showed that, when massed together by the thousands, they could virtu...
11: Merchants and Commerce in the Viking Age
From 675-840, Western economic and political activity revived, fueled by improved agriculture, growing towns and monasteries, and renewed Mediterranean trade. But it was the need for slaves in the Islamic world that led Vikings to pioneer extensions of this trade, southwest to Islamic Spain and southeast to Constantinople and Baghdad. Cosmopolitan market towns in Scandinavia eventually became sour...
12: Christendom on the Eve of the Viking Age
The Carolingian Empire, which had actually conquered Germanic peoples under Charlemagne, possessed the economic and military strength to challenge the Vikings. But partition in 843 and civil conflicts between the nobles weakened Carolingian defenses, even as Frankish prosperity invited Viking raids. England and Ireland had cultural and economic ties to the Latin West through their vibrant and pros...
13: Viking Raids on the Carolingian Empire
Vikings raided the Carolingian Empire throughout the 9th century, disrupting trade routes and depleting imperial coffers through the extraction of tribute (Danegeld). Local vassals stepped into the power void and claimed fiefs, while veteran Viking companies put down roots in the empire at fortified camps and bases. The axis of trade shifted away from the weakened empire, towards Scandinavia.
14: The Duchy of Normandy
In 911, Frankish king Charles the Simple faced the Viking sea king Hrolf and a massive Viking fleet en route to Paris. With no money to offer as ransom, Charles offered Hrolf the land around the town of Rouen. Hrolf's warriors, and their families and descendants, forged the powerful feudal state of Normandy that would later found two great feudal kingdoms.
15: Viking Assault on England
Vikings had been merchants in England for centuries when the first Viking raid destroyed Lindisfarne in 793. Viking raids climaxed in the Great Army's methodical ravaging of southern England and the Midlands from 865-878. They conquered three English kingdoms, but the fourth, led by Alfred the Great, fortified itself militarily and fiscally, preserving its independence.
16: The Danelaw
Many Danes settled in the northern areas of England conquered by the Great Army. In the 9th and 10thth centuries, Anglo-Danish rule brought prosperity and lasting changes in language, customs, and legal institutions. But in adopting Christianity and becoming a landed class, these Danes also surrendered their Viking identity and, with shocking docility, accepted the rule of the kings of Wessex by 9...
17: Viking Assault on Ireland
In 432-433, St. Patrick brought Roman Christianity to Ireland, but not Roman government. So in the Viking Age Ireland possessed great, learned, clan-supported monasteries surrounded by chieftain-led tribes. Norse Vikings devastated the monasteries, dominated the river systems and coastal ports, and co-opted local chieftains, transforming Ireland into a hub for the slave trade to Muslim Spain.
18: Norse Kings of Dublin and Ireland
In 917, Hiberno-Norse kings reestablished rule over Dublin and its hinterland, and many key ports. With Norse immigration in decline, however, they lacked the numbers to dominate the island. Cooperation, intermarriage, and assimilation marked Norse-Irish relations. Irish king Mael Sechlainn's victory over the Norse at Tara in 980 cemented their secondary position thereafter.
19: The Settlement of Iceland
Iceland filled with settlers between 870-930. Some sought relief from an overcrowded Norway, some sought free land, and others desired freedom from the tyrannical Norwegian king Harald Finehair. On this remote, barely habitable island just below the Arctic Circle, a purely Scandinavian experiment in self-government produced a remarkably independent society of free farmsteads, minimally governed by...
20: Iceland-A Frontier Republic
The rugged terrain of Iceland necessitated egalitarianism. As men left home to hunt, fish, and tend pastures, women ran the households, handled legal settlements, and even acted as delegate chieftains. Law was informal, and justice "face to face," adjudicated by a trusted member of the community. These traditions persisted for centuries, even after timber depletion and civic unrest rende...
21: Skaldic Poetry and Sagas
Icelanders preserved memories of their Scandinavian homeland and transmitted tales of the ancient Germanic gods through recited poems, consistent with an oral culture in which even law was recited publicly from memory. From the 10th century onward, literature became ever more ornate and sophisticated, culminating in the great written works of the 12th-14th centuries: the collections of Norse poetr...
22: Western Voyages to Greenland and Vinland
The daunting climate and the ultimate paucity of marketable trade goods prevented Greenland from becoming a viable settlement, while Vinland settlements foundered due to hostile Algonquins and remoteness from the Scandinavian homeland. The American fascination with these voyages reveals a sentiment the Icelanders would have appreciated, a yearning for connection with an ancient past.
23: Swedes in the Baltic Sea and Russia
By the 8th century, intrepid Swedes had moved into the Russian forest zones, acquiring slaves to trade with Khazar middlemen that controlled the Volga. These Swedes, or Rus, braved rapids and marauding steppe-peoples, adapting to a foreign land and adopting some indigenous customs and institutions. The market towns they established formed the core areas of future Russian states.
24: The Road to Byzantium
The shift in Swedish trading activity from the Volga in the east to the Dneiper in the west was also a shift away from the Islamic world and towards a Byzantine Christian civilization that greatly impressed the Swedes. The Rus became mercenary allies and trading partners with the emperors in Constantinople and imported imperial institutions into an incipient Russian kingdom, beginning the process ...
25: From Varangians into Russians
Prince Vladimir of Kiev's momentous conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 989 was revolutionary. The Rus adopted literacy and the Slavic language, imported Byzantine builders to create masonry churches, shifted patronage from pagan poetry to Christian works, created cavalry and a military elite, and converted a slave-trade economy into an agricultural economy that would feed the great cities now ...
26: Transformation of Scandinavian Society
From 790-1000, a massive influx of silver led to the minting of Scandinavian coins and resulting monetized markets. Newly wealthy individuals, increasingly women, enjoyed their largess through imported luxury goods and personal ornamentation found in ever-more opulent ship burials. Overseas Viking kingdoms in Russia and England provided the model, and silver provided the means, for Christian Scand...
27: St. Anskar and the First Christian Missions
In a Viking-Age Scandinavia well served by the traditional gods of war, sailing, and prosperity, the Carolingian missionary St. Anskar had little success convincing the Vikings that Christianity was a powerful religion of victory. But by training Frankish clergy in the Scandinavian tongue, he put in place the institutions that would aid future Christian kings.
28: Formation of the Kingdom of Denmark
Denmark was forged under threat from the Holy Roman Empire to the south. Responding to Henry the Fowler's 934 invasion, the pagan king Gorm the Old raided the southern frontier, securing Jutland. His successor Harold Bluetooth precluded further invasions by Christianizing Denmark, fortifying the Danevirke, and establishing massive military camps. Harold's son Svein inherited a Danish kingdom with ...
29: Cnut the Great
Cnut the Great (1014-1035), along with his father Svein Forkbeard, reclaimed England for Scandinavia, but viewed himself as a pan-European king in the mold of Charlemagne. Though not remembered fondly by his subjects, his maintenance of a powerful fleet, innovative use of proxy rule, and savvy employment of marriage alliances turned Denmark from a fragile kingdom into a Christian North Sea Empire.
30: Collapse of Cnut's Empire
At Cnut's death in 1035, his sons clashed for control while also fending off Magnus the Good of Norway. In 1066, with Cnut's sons both dead and his nephew Svein Estrithson holding Denmark, Magnus's uncle Harald Hardardi attempted to wrest England from Cnut's distant relative Harold II. Harold repelled Hardardi but fell at Hastings to William the Conqueror, who had just begun to put Normandy on the...
31: Jarls and Sea Kings of Norway
Harald Finehair, a king in Upplönd, imposed his rule over Norway after defeating a coalition of jarls at the naval battle of Hafsfjord c. 875. Although his line ended in 970, another sea king, Olaf Tryggvasson, used his Viking fleet, and Christian institutions, to become king of Norway. Olaf fell fighting a Danish rival, Swein Forkbeard, at the naval battle of Svöld, and Norwegians again...
32: St. Olaf of Norway
Converted in England, Olaf rose from a Viking raider to become a great Christian king of Norway, which he liberated from Danish rule in 1015. His heavy-handed rule led his subjects to expel and then kill him at the Battle of Stikelstad in 1030, but they later repented, and he survives in memory as Scandinavia's first royal saint.
33: Kings of the Swedes and Goths
Sweden, in resources and population, seemed destined for primacy in Scandinavia, but the Yngling kings of Uppsala did not profit from the Viking expansion in the East. In contrast to Norway and Denmark, Sweden lacked powerful sea kings that could forge a territorial state under hereditary Christian monarchs.
34: Christianization and Economic Change
In the 11th century, distinct national churches emerged in the Scandinavian kingdoms. Christianity brought new prosperity and population growth. Cathedrals and monasteries stimulated the rise of market towns. Coulter ploughs, better tools, and the three-field system improved agricultural productivity significantly for the first time since the Iron Age.
35: From Vikings to Crusaders
By 1100, the Viking age had passed. On the eve of the Black Death (1347-1351), all three Scandinavian kingdoms shared similar fiscal and institutional weaknesses. The three kingdoms were united under the treaty of Kalmar, a weak union that dictated the course of Scandinavian history down to the Reformation.
36: The Viking Legacy
The course of Medieval history was fundamentally altered by the Viking Age. The feudal states of Western Europe were born. The kingdoms of England and Scotland arose. Orthodox Kiev, founded by Swedish Rus, gave political organization to the East Slavic peoples. The three Scandinavian kingdoms emerged, as did the Norse settlements in the North Atlantic. The Vikings gave Christian Europe strength, a...