The Vikings have had a well-defined public image for centuries, and have even become a staple of comic book illustrations with colorful images of horned helmets, berserkers, longships, Valhalla, the one-eyed god Odin and men dying sword in hand or drinking out of skulls.
The Vikings were pirates who came to plunder and kill, and they spread terror along Europe's coasts. But their posthumous reputation is not entirely fair: they were not just ruthless warriors, but also skilled traders, administrators and craftsmen in metal and wood, producing beautiful jewellery and artefacts that survive to this day. They were also some of Europe's best storytellers and the Norse sagas continue to fascinate modern audiences.
In medieval Norway the basis for agriculture was poor. Vikings were experts in water transportation as their native fjords stretched for great distances into Norway's heartland. Their longships were narrow, light, wooden boats with a shallow-draft hull designed for speed and easy navigation in shallow waters. Light enough to be carried, the longship was also double-ended, allowing it to reverse direction without needing to turn around. This was a major advantage in a sea filled with concealed icebergs and sea ice. Longships had oars along almost the entire length of the boat, and later versions combined rowing power with sailing power. Later versions had a rectangular sail which could replace or accelerate the rowing crew. In good conditions, a longboat under sailing power could reach a speed of 15 knots.
This resulted in voyages of discovery, trade and opportunistic raiding of coastal cities, towns and settlements across Europe. The voyages began in the latter part of the eighth century and stretched from Greenland in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east. To begin with only a few made the voyages, but the fleets grew until there were hundreds of longships sailing to England, Scotland, France and Ireland.
How did such a small and scattered people conquer so much territory? Norwegian Vikings were courageous, cunning and had a fatalistic outlook which made them natural risk takers.
Viking raiding parties seem to have had an amazing ability to shrug off losses, whether in battle or in dangerous sea voyages. In 844 many Vikings were lost to King Ramiro in northern Spain. A few months later, another fleet took Córdoba, only to be chased off by Emir Abd al-Rahman II, with further heavy losses: 500 dead, 30 ships burned. They still came back a few years later to hit the Balearics and even northern Italy. According to the English Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in 876 the Vikings lost as many as 4,000 men and 120 ships in a great storm off the south English coast. There was also much infighting between Danish and Norwegian Viking bands, especially in Ireland, where losses were extremely high in relation to the Viking population. Despite this, their appetite for conquest and exploration remained high.
Viking courage is probably also linked to their dark sense of humour, as expressed in the writing of their sagas. Being able to laugh in the face of death and danger somehow explains their resilience in battle and in pioneering sea voyages to far off lands. One of the distinguishing features of Old Norse poetry, legend and saga is a grim gallows humour. It is usually a bad sign when someone cracks a joke in a Viking saga, and the stories contain more jokes than you might think.
Cities and colonies
The Vikings founded a number of cities and colonies, including Dublin and Normandy. Dublin was held as a major settlement for more than three centuries. Between the years 879 and 920 they colonised Iceland, which in turn became the springboard for the colonisation of Greenland.
By the 1100s the Vikings were weakened by domestic unrest. At the same time, many other European countries were becoming stronger and more difficult targets.
We date the end of the Viking Age from the fall of Harald Hardråde, when he unsuccessfully tried to conquer England in 1066.
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