Read The Vikings Online

Authors: Robert Ferguson

The Vikings

Table of Contents
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First published in 2009 by Viking Penguin,
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Copyright © Robert Ferguson, 2009
All rights reserved
Map illustrations by Jeff Edwards
Ferguson, Robert, 1948-
The Vikings : a history / Robert Ferguson.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-15142-6
1. Vikings. 2. Civilization, Viking. 3. Europe—History—476-1492. I. Title.
DL65.F467 2009
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In a recommendation from 1806 on the conditions and needs of a planned Danish National Museum the Danish historian Rasmus Nyerup wrote this on the nature of pre-Christian history:
Everything stemming from ancient times and before the introduction of Christianity to these lands can properly be described as infinitely old. With the coming of Christianity we acquired better writing materials than rocks and trees, and faster scribes than the runemasters of old . . . All that happened before, everything from ancient heathen times we see swirling before our eyes as though in a thick fog, in a vast space. We know that it is older than Christianity, but if it be a few years, or a few hundred years, or maybe even a few thousand years, is all a matter of conjecture.
When in 1816 the Danish government went ahead with its plans for a national museum, responsibility for ordering the large collection of finds stored in the loft of Copenhagen’s Trinitatis Church was given to Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, the son of a wealthy city merchant who in his youth had become interested in archaeology. Thomsen decided to try to bring some order to this vague and diffuse idea of a public past. On entering the loft for the first time, he reported, his general impression was of items randomly scattered in ‘dust and disorganized disarray, hidden away in chests and baskets, among bits of material and paper. It was total chaos.’
He began by grouping the articles according to composition and function. They included tools and weapons made of stone; weapons and other items associated with combat made of bronze; articles made of iron; household items; ornamentation; urns containing incinerated remains; and a class of sundry other items. With the exhibits sorted into these three basic groupings of stone, bronze and iron, an exhibition opened to the public in the Trinitatis Church loft in 1819. This was the first time the tripartite division of the past into Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages was used.
Thomsen’s original aim had been merely to solve the practical problem of exhibiting the finds coherently. When he began to study the implications of his own system, however, he realized that it almost certainly described a forward movement in time from an older to a younger period and began to refine it accordingly, introducing sub-divisions within each of the three groups. A full presentation of his ideas appeared in book form in 1836. Translated into English as
A Guide to Northern Antiquities
in 1848, its principles were quickly accepted and adopted throughout Europe. Further sub-divisions in the groupings have been made by each of the Scandinavian countries. In Sweden the Later Iron Age is divided into Wendel and Viking Ages, the former covering the period
.550-800 AD and taking its name from a number of ship burials excavated near Vendel in northern Uppland, the latter beginning with the raids by Heathen Scandinavians on Christian targets in the British Isles in 793. The Danes prefer the term Germanic Iron Age for the earlier period, and in Norway it is known as the Merovingian Period, after the Frankish Merovingian dynasty that was the dominant power in Europe from about 460 to 751. The warrant for the creation of a particular ‘Viking’ Age within the Iron Age was the number of finds from the later part of the period associated with seafaring and returning warriors. So familiar has Thomsen’s tripartite division of the past into a Stone, a Bronze and an Iron Age become, so complete the authority it has acquired, that we easily forget its comparatively recent vintage and attribute to it a degree of reality that it scarcely has a right to. If astronomers can deprive Pluto of its status as a planet then it is possible that future historians will become so frustrated by the constrictions of inherited periodization that the whole system of archaeological time will one day be overhauled, with attendant redefinitions, promotions and demotions.
And in such an event, the Viking Age would probably occasion an unusual amount of headscratching, for it eludes almost every attempt at packaging and labelling. The British start their ‘insular’ Viking Age cleanly with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 and end it as cleanly with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The Irish would close theirs with the Battle of Clontarf in 1016. Harald Hardrada’s failed attempt to invade England in 1066 is significant in Norwegian history, but the date has no special resonance for the Danes or the Swedes. And was the large fleet under Håkon IV that was defeated by the Scots at the battle of Largs in 1263 a Viking fleet, or a Norwegian fleet? Historians of the Baltic island of Gotland would end their Viking Age in about 1020. Wales seems scarcely to have had a Viking Age, though this may reflect only the poverty of the written record.
Some historians take the narrative up to the extinction of the Norse colony on Greenland in about 1500; but were the colonizations of Iceland and Greenland even Viking enterprises at all?
In the 1970s the Uppsala-based British historian Peter Sawyer divided the insular Viking Age into two, with a first period extending from 793 to the fall of the Viking kingdom of York in 954 and a second from the resumption of Viking raiding in about 980 to the conquest of England in 1013 by the Danish King Sven Forkbeard and his son Cnut. As a general survey of the whole field of Viking activity this book does not take the insular perspective. The multiple beginnings and wide choice of endings mean that its parameters are fluid, but based on the unmoving fact that, at the start of the period,
roughly speaking
all the Scandinavian peoples were Heathens; and by the time it ends,
roughly speaking
all the Scandinavian peoples thought of themselves as Christian. Sometimes red and dramatically visible, at other times grey and hard to spot, the long, slow process of religious and cultural change runs like a thread throughout the Viking Age.
One might suppose the etymology of the word would tell us at least how the Vikings viewed themselves. But its origins are obscure and there is little agreement about it. It is not even certain that the word is Scandinavian in origin. It occurs several times in the Old English poem
, usually dated to the end of the seventh century, and in the eighth-century Old English poem
, where the tribe of Reuben are described as ‘sæwicingas’, meaning ‘sea-warriors’, as they cross the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt. But the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
, that great compendium of historical records begun in the time of Alfred the Great, uses the term only four times before 1066, in the native English forms
, in 879, 885, 921 and 982.
The rigidity of the structural rules governing the creation of the Viking Age court poetry, known from its makers or ‘skalds’ as ‘skaldic poetry’, means that those examples of it handed down, usually embedded within sagas written down in the Christian era, are regarded by linguistic scholars as authentic documents from the early years of the Viking Age in both content and language. Surviving examples of skaldic poetry contain some thirty references to ‘vikings’ meaning ‘long-distance sea-warriors’ in contexts which are positive and approving. In the anonymous collection of poems from the Viking Age known as the Edda that forms part of the thirteenth-century manuscript
Codex Regius
, now in the Árni Magnusson Institute in Reykjavik, four references have this sense. A handful of appearances on runestones from Sweden and Denmark seem to confirm the heroic and manly usage, often in some form of the phrasal verb
fara í viking
, ‘to go on a Viking expedition’.
A stone at Hablingbo church in southern Gotland was erected by two of his sons in memory of their father Hailka - ‘who went west with the Vikings’. As a personal name it occurs on a score of Swedish runestones, and also enjoyed some popularity in those parts of England settled by Scandinavians. This might explain why the English language, which at different times has adopted ‘vandal’, ‘barbarian’, ‘thug’ and ‘hooligan’ to denote violent and dangerous people, never made similar use of ‘viking’. But as Christianity began to make serious inroads on Scandinavian culture towards the end of the Viking Age, negative connotations begin to appear. A runic inscription on the Bro stone, some forty kilometres north-west of Stockholm, was raised by his widow in praise of a certain Assur for the diligence with which he had ‘kept watch for Vikings’.

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