Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Viking World - Lecture 2: The Viking Expansion

This may have been one of the longest lectures I ever had. It was a lot of information pushed into one and a half hours. She started of apologizing for the lecture and all the information, which made me grab my pen a bit tighter. To my shame, I have to admit I was terribly tired at this point (it was 4 PM) and had a hard time trying to stay present, especially when she was telling stories about the Vikings. It was so easy to close my eyes and dream of, thinking about Vikings on the seas of Europe. But I battled through and here present to you a write-up.

The expansion began around the 8th century and followed the trade routes that had been established since the 6th century. These routes stretched all over the world. An example is a statue if Buddha that was found in Helgö, now in Sweden, and came from India. Although the Vikings are often associated with the beginnings of piracy and raiding, these things happened way before. The only reason the Vikings were so much better at it was the higher agility and speed of their ships. The 8th century saw raiders from Denmark and Norway attack Lindisfarne, Britain in 793 and also Europe and Ireland. These were still 'smash-and-grab' raids, which means the Vikings came in, smashed up your door, took whatever you had and left again. There are a number of sources that describe these raids. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 793, mentions the 'heathens' that attacked Lindisfarne. In 798, the Annals of Ulster described the 'burning of Inis Patraic' by more 'heathens' and in 820 the Royal Frankish Annals described the raids on France. Men as Alquin of York always referred to them as 'heathens' for one particular reason: they were God's punishment. He wrote letters saying the raids were the fault of the people as they had sinned and now God had sent these 'heathens' to punish them. 

The 9th century saw the 'smah-and-grab' raids develop into more. There was now migration and settlement as well. There are questions as to why the Vikings suddenly felt the need to move away. One reason offered is overpopulation, but our lecturer dismissed this one rather quickly, stating that Norway's population now is at least 5 times as big as then and the country still has vast amounts of empty land. Another was a shortage of farm land but back then the climate was better than now and there was a lot of space. Another claim is that they ran out of women due to female infanticide (killing female babies). But as I already wrote in last week's Viking write up, women were rather important to the Vikings and traveled with them, so this one doesn't make sense either. The Vikings migrated all over the world, there are even reports of Norse soldiers served in the guard of the Emperor of Byzantium. There is also prove in England that the migration was rather large. The English language has been deeply influenced by Old Norse, from vocabulary to pronunciation.

During the 9th century, England didn't exist as such. It were loads of kingdoms that had rivalries with each other as well. In 866 it was reported a 'micel here' (great army) came across England from Denmark and it was said to have women and children with it. The kingdom of the West Saxons, modern Wessex, held out the longest under the attacks. King Alfred started the process towards an English nation and talked of the 'Angelcynn'. He believed that in order to rule people you also had to win their hearts and he used the Vikings as 'the other' to create a feeling of unity among the Saxons. Part of this was starting the translation of books into English. Between 880 and 890 he made a Peace Treaty with King Guthrum, dividing the country into two. The land conquered by the Danes was now known as the Danelaw and covered most of the north of England, but this was largely empty land. King Alfred started a campaign to to conquer back the Danelaw, yet not everyone was enthusiastic to be ruled by them. Alfred's grandson, Aethelstan, was the one who eventually kicked out the Vikings for good during the epic Brunaburgh Battle and made the Five Boroughs part of England. There is hardly any literature of this time but there are stone-carvings which show proof of the intermingling of Viking and English culture.


In the 10th century, the Second Viking Age started with renewed attacks. One of these was the Battle of Maldon where the Anglo-Saxons were defeated. This was during the reign of Aethelread, who is often called 'the Unready', although his name actually means 'the Clueless', which isn't much better. He tried to buy of the Vikings, which of course led to them demanding more and more every year. In 1002 on the 13th of November he ordered a massacre of Vikings, which might have been harsh but was acceptable at the time. But then Sweyn Forkbeard from Denmark came in and after him his son Cnut. The latter eventually defeated Aethelread and married his wife, Emma, who became his way to become English. Funny enough, Cnut's first wife was ruling in his stead in Norway. Scotland was also attacked at this time, yet it had the same problems as England. It wasn't a united country and easily fell to the Vikings. Burial sites found in Scotland tell us a lot about this time. Ireland had to suffer from raids in the 8th century but also saw the Vikings settle in the 9th century. But eventually, in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, the Irish defeated the Vikings. 

The influence of the Vikings mysteriously ended in the 11th century. I wonder why but maybe that's what I'll find out next week. So, are you liking the Vikings?

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