Society and Government Middle Ages

The Age of the Vikings

Attempts at Expansion Reshape Europe

Most people in the US associate the word vikings with the NFL football team. It’s true there aren’t any “real” vikings left. But the team’s namesake has deep roots in history. 

The Middle Ages in Europe were a topsy-turvy time. Power shifted hands constantly, populations grew steadily and intermingled, and the modern world started to take shape. 

The Vikings were very much in the middle of all this change. Their story serves as a powerful reminder of just how dynamic of a time the Middle Ages really were.

Who Were the Vikings?

During the high-point of Viking culture, (800 – 1100 AD), no one really used this name. It’s more of a modern invention. 

Many theories claim the word comes from the Old English word vic. This means “creek, bay, or inlet”.

Since the Vikings were known for being sailors, this theory makes sense. But the true origin of the word is unknown. 

We do know that the Vikings were from Scandinavia, which is where you’ll find the modern countries of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway. They spoke a similar language, known as Old Norse, and practiced a shared religion. This religion is where we get famous ancient gods such as Thor, Loki, and Odin. 

The Vikings made a name for themselves by raiding settlements throughout mainland Europe and establishing settlements. If we look at history from a western European viewpoint, they were invaders. But really they were just looking for a place to call home, just like anyone else. 

The Expansion of the Vikings Throughout Europe and Beyond

The Vikings, or Norse, started making waves in the 8th century when they left Scandinavia in search of fresh land to settle. 

We don’t know exactly why they started doing this. Most historians point to the lack of quality farmland (it gets pretty cold up there if you haven’t heard). Population growth also meant it got crowded and forced people to look for new places to live.  

So, some Norse people loaded up in their ships and sailed away from home. They went in all directions until they found land. Once they got there, they did what was required to make sure they could stay. This usually meant war. 

The 9th century ended up being a pretty big moment for the Vikings trying to establish themselves in continental Europe. 

Vikings Sailing West

Sailing west from Scandinavia, a group of Danish Vikings ran into the British Isles. They raided the coast and even launched a land invasion that was initially quite successful. This led to the establishment of Danelaw, a kingdom in the northwest of England that was entirely under Viking rule. 

This didn’t last very long, however. The loosely connected English kingdoms at the time had united to fight back this threat from the Vikings. 

King Alfred the Great stopped their first advance and limited their settlement to the Danelaw region. His son, Æthelstan, continued the fight and drove the Vikings north, adding Danelaw to his own kingdom. 

This war against the Vikings served as a unifying moment for the people of England. It led directly to the formation of the Kingdom of England. 

This pushed the Vikings to the north, where they continued to raid and settle. They failed to establish a stronghold in mainland Scotland, but they set up a permanent settlement on many of the islands close to Scotland. These settlements lasted for nearly 700 years. 

Other Vikings sailing west landed in the Faroe Islands, the Isle of Mann, and Iceland. Once there, they established permanent settlements based on fishing and trade.

Vikings Sailing South

Other Norse groups sailed South. One such group, known as the Normans, made it to the northern shores of modern-day France sometime in the early 9th century. 

France at the time was much more heavily populated. It was also part of the royal dominion of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor. 

When he died in 814 AD, the territory was defended by the leaders of the Western Frankish Kingdom. This was a poorly organized group of territories led by lords who could not get along. 

They fought back against the Vikings, but to little success. In fact, the Vikings kind of whooped them, making it all the way to Paris and laying siege to the city in 845 AD.

Fortunately for the Franks (i.e the French), they were able to stop the Vikings from sacking Paris. This victory pushed the Vikings back towards the coastline. 

But they could not send them back across the sea. They tried, but the Normans were like “make us.” 

The French failed and in 911 AD the two groups signed the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. This established the Duchy of Normandy and made the Norman leader, Rollo, a nobleman.

This was a good deal for both sides. The Normans got a new home, and the Western Frankish king, Charles III, got peace and a strong ally to the north. 

See, a true win-win. 

The Duchy of Normandy wound up becoming one of the more powerful duchies in all of France. 

During the High Middle Ages (11th -13th centuries), Norman dukes also conquered England and became kings. During the Late Middle Ages (14th to 16th centuries), as the Kingdom of France grew in power, the Duchy of Normandy was often given to members of the royal family. It was frequently used as an honor-only title for the crown prince, the one in line to take over as king.

All in all, the Vikings who chose to sail south from Scandavia wound up hitting the jackpot. Once established, more people came over to further populate the land, mixing Norse and French cultures and helping shape the modern nation of France.

Vikings Sailing to the Rest of the World

France and England were not the only places that had to welcome the Vikings during their time of expansion. They tried to get into central Europe, laying Siege to Hamburg, Germany in 845 AD. They were held back thanks in large part to the strength of the Eastern Frankish Kingdom (which was soon to be the new Holy Roman Empire). 

Not to be deterred, the Vikings kept pushing east and established permanent settlements throughout Western Russia, Belarus, and even as far south as Ukraine.

Viking groups also made it as far south as modern-day Turkey, Iran, and Arabia, though the groups that did reach these lands never established permanently. 

One group, the Rus Vikings, actually tried to attack Constantinople, the capital of the mighty Byzantine Empire in 845 AD. They lost badly, but the fact they tried speaks to their boldness on the battlefield. 

Reaching North America

The Vikings may have also been the first Europeans to step foot on North America. 

In the early 11th century, Erik the Red sailed west of the British Isles. He made it to what is now Greenland and established a permanent settlement there. 

Later in the same century, his son, Leif Eriksson, was blown off course trying to reach the settlement on Greenland. He landed in what is now Newfoundland, Canada. 

If math isn’t your thing, this is nearly 500 years before Christopher Colombus. He often gets all the credit for “discovering the new world.” But the Vikings were there before he was even a thought. 

Leif may have settled in Canada. There are some archaeological remains that could be his, but this remains unproven. Either way, the settlement didn’t last. 

But the fact they made it speaks to the widespread expansion of the Vikings during this time.

A Powerful Force that Defined Europe

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, it was a bit of a free-for-all in the region.

Germanic people (who the Romans called barbarians) moved in after having been fought back for centuries. They established themselves across the continent, mixing with the Latin people who remained. 

Then, once they got settled, the Vikings came in and shook things up, establishing new settlements and totally restructuring the power systems in the region. 

They were simply too strong and powerful for anyone to do anything to stop them. 

Some say they were invading, but how is what the Vikings did different from what the Romans, Greeks, and Persians did before them? We consider these groups to be great powers, yet the Vikings get labeled as raiders and pirates. 

All they were really doing was responding to their situation and fighting for their survival.

A Dynamic Age of Change

The age of the Vikings does teach us one important lesson about the history of the Middle Ages: this was a truly dynamic time. 

We often think of this era as stagnant, as a waiting period between the greatness of the Roman empire and the cultural explosion of the Renaissance. But this is simply not true. During the Middle Ages, cultural diversity was extreme, and the lack of strong centralized governments meant things were changing constantly. 

From this ever-shifting environment, the modern world was born. Borders took shape, languages emerged, and society moved forward. And the Vikings were right in the middle of it all. 

Written by Matthew Jones