Age of the vikings

c 800-1050 CE

The looting of the monastery at Lindisfarne in Northeast England on 8th January 793 by ‘harrowing inroads of heathen men’ has long been regarded as the event which marked the beginning of the Viking Age. For the next 250 years Scandinavian Vikings set sail on frequent expeditions to trade and pillage. Initially focusing their attentions largely on the British Isles, they soon spread further afield to the coasts of France, Spain and even Italy. Others moved eastward to the Baltic Sea and thence into Russia, where they conquered the local Slavic peoples. Some even reached the Caspian Sea, wreaking havoc in central Asia, whilst a number took service in the court of the Byzantine emperors, campaigning throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Another group moved westward, discovering and colonising Iceland and Greenland. Some Vikings even established temporary colonies in the north-eastern seaboard of America, over 400 years before Columbus.

As with other regions of Scandinavia, the Norwegian Vikings came mostly from areas where there was a scarcity of land for internal colonisation, primarily the south and west of the country. During this period previously uninhabited areas of south-east and northern Norway came increasingly under cultivation. The impact of the Vikings was twofold. Firstly, their raids caused political and economic disruption, especially in England and north western France, contributing to the collapse of the Carolingian state. Secondly, Viking colonists who settled in north-western France created an independent duchy of the Northmen, or Normandy, as it became known.

The Normans, descendants of the Vikings who had become assimilated into feudal French society, were to become key players in the military expansion of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, conquering England and southern Italy, playing an important role in the Crusades and almost succeeding in conquering the Byzantine empire.

The Vikings were Christianised in the late 10th and 11th centuries; thereafter their raiding ceased and their society began to merge with the Christian civilisation of Western Europe, adding in the process a fascinating literature of Viking sagas, myths and poetry.