Photo: © Tuffe Photography
Fjord Tours Articles / 3 May 2019

The Fascinating and Violent History of the Vikings

Let’s be honest, most people have quite an unsavoury impression when it comes to the Vikings and most educational resources tend to portray the Scandinavians as fearsome, ruthless, and dangerous.

Photo: © Aurland Photography

But who were the Vikings exactly?

The Vikings were Norse seafarers that dominated trade in Northern Europe between the 8th and 11th centuries. At the same time, these seafarers did in fact raid at any given opportunity and this led to the “Vikingr” name which effectively means raider or pirate in the old Norse language.

However, not all Vikings took to the ocean and raiding was really a part-time occupation in which only a small percentage of Vikings participated. With this in mind, many Vikings were farmers and merchants with legitimate investments in ships, farms and other businesses. Many more were simply lookouts and every Viking was interested in settling down with a family of their own.

And that’s just part of the story….

Photo: Ørjan B Iversen

Why Northern Europe Lived in Fear of the Vikings

It’s true, people in lived in fear of the Vikings in Northern Europe as they would often raid coastal settlements for food and valuables, while taking slaves during the process. What’s more, even monasteries were susceptible to these raids which really highlights the brutality of the Dark Ages.

At the same time, we must also remember that the Dark Age was a brutal time in general. In other words, tribes from all over Europe were also pillaging settlements and enslaving the agrarian lands in the south. In fact, this is precisely how the Chinese empire was established with many iconic warlords fighting over the same land.

As if that’s not enough, the fall of the Roman Empire led to great migrations, while the collapse of agriculture in the north resulted in masses moving to what is now Great Britain. For this reason, warlords were in constant competition and now confined to fighting over much smaller regions.

Although why might you need to know this?

Because this serves as a reminder that the Vikings were ruthless, but this was also a violent period.

IMG 8353.Ørjan B Iversen
Photo: Ørjan B Iversen

The Brutal Nature of the Vikings

Now, that’s not to say the Vikings were no different than these other tribes.

For example, marauding Vikings were truly barbaric and known to plunder their own people just as much as any foreign land. Vikings murdered slaves and prisoners at will and historians say that they did not even regard non-vikings as humans. Every male was also expected to prove themselves on the battlefield and so entire wars were started just so leaders could demonstrate their worth.

The truth is, while some might say that the Vikings were not so bad, this theory is often based on later times when feudal Scandinavia was finally in motion.

But what happened to this powerful tribe and why did they disappear?

Photo: © Aurland Photography

But What Happened to the Vikings?

Well, first of all, they did not “disappear” and descendants of the Vikings live on to this very day.

You see, many changes took place that essentially discouraged the Vikings from continuing these raids and this behavior.

For instance, the Norse society was egalitarian during the Viking age and when this changes toward the end of the Viking age, there were fewer men available to take part in Viking raids. On the other hand, European lands had developed strong armies, structures and capabilities, which was far too efficient for the untrained Vikings to challenge. Finally, many of these settlements were moved inland which made the prospect of raiding or creating an escape route especially difficult.

With this in mind, the Vikings were left with no real option other than to settle down in the settlements that were established during the Viking age in countries such as Norway and Iceland.

Photo: Georg Hansen

Final Thoughts

In case you might be asking yourself, the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England was the last known invasion by the Vikings and this failed attempt took place in the year 1066. In later years, these raids were deemed either dangerous or no longer profitable, and Norse society slowly began to change.

Indeed, many people have quite an unsavoury impression of the Vikings but this was also an age when only the fittest were sure to survive. It also seems fitting that such a powerful force would recede on their own terms, for the Viking age came to an end when they decided to stop raiding and their legacy lives on to this day.

Norway has many sites dedicated to viking history, and we recommend for instance a visit to Gudvangen a fascinating viking village.