During the Middle Ages, the name “Vikings” struck fear into the hearts of whoever heard it. In turn fearsome warriors, raiders, merchants, and settlers, the Norsemen traveled far and wide for hundreds of years. From Scandinavia’s shores, they sailed for the British Isles, northern France, Baghdad, and Russia on one side of the Atlantic, then turned their attention west to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. Many misconceptions remain when mentioning the Vikings, but one thing is for sure: they were born to sail the sea.
First Foray Outside Scandinavia: Raiding the British Isles
Viking raids changed everything in medieval Europe. They transformed the political and economic landscapes of the lands they pillaged or conquered. These raids influenced the creation of trade routes, and those used by the Vikings “promoted the flow of coins, silver, and limited goods.” The foundation of Norse settlements irrevocably changed the political map of medieval Europe. The Viking raids also reinvigorated the desire to create strong local political leadership to fight back against those who had come from the sea to pillage their shores.
The first raids started on the Baltic Sea, where the raiders made their way through present-day Russia and Ukraine. Still, the Viking raids were more infamous in the British Isles, some of the most battered locations during the Viking Age. As early as 750, British records already inform of small raids on these shores. The first substantive raid was the attack on the Irish monastery of Lindisfarne on June 8th, 793. The raiders massacred the monks and pillaged the monastery. The Viking raids had officially begun in the region.
After the massacre at Lindisfarne, the Norse presence in the British Isles continued for many years. The Scandinavians settled in Dublin and established settlements in both Ireland and Wales. While local leadership fought back, the Vikings’ political influence in the British Isles continued for centuries during the Danish invasion in the 9th century and Canute the Great’s control of the English territory during the 11th century.
The Normans in France
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The Viking raids spread to France, known as Francia during this time, and pillaged their way through the kingdom. Following the death of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, no political leader was strong enough to resist the Norse who invaded his former territory.
The Vikings attacked Paris itself multiple times. Reginherus organized a siege of the city in 845, and Rollo did the same in 885-886. Following his Siege of Paris, Rollo continued his raids on the countryside until Charles III gave him the region that would eventually become Normandy in exchange for peace in the city. As promised, while Viking raids continued in Francia, Rollo protected Paris after 911.
Following his acquisition of Normandy, Rollo established a peaceful rule that would influence the reigns of his descendants. Richard I and Richard II were nonviolent rulers who lived long lives and ruled for many years. This peace lasted until William the Conqueror’s time, who would eventually cross over the English Channel and change the political landscape of Britain forever. As the Norse aristocracy reigned over French peasants, other Europeans, from then on, referred to the people of Normandy as Normans.
The Vikings of Kievan Rus’: From Raiders to Traders
Contrary to popular belief, not all Norse people were interested in raiding. Indeed, not all Scandinavians were Vikings either. The term “Viking” can only be associated with those who sailed the seas to raid other lands, and “going Viking” meant going on raiding expeditions. Most Scandinavians were neither sailors nor raiders. Many were farmers, blacksmiths, weavers, and musicians, among other occupations. Those who came to trade were called Norsemen.
The Norsemen, those who had crossed the sea to trade and not pillage, arrived on the eastern rivers to a land that had not yet received its name. Indeed, the name Russia came from the Rus, or the Kievan Rus’, who settled these parts much like the Norsemen who had founded Dublin and settled parts of Ireland and Wales.
Much like all Norse settlers, the Rus’ traded with their neighbors. Halfway between Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire, their new lands were a prime location for commerce. The Norse traded “furs, cloth[e]s, and art objects” in exchange for goods such as Islamic silver or Indian golden Buddhas. Many Scandinavians also became soldiers and mercenaries. They joined the ranks of the Varangian Guard and became the Byzantine emperors’ personal bodyguards.
The Norsemen in Baghdad
The Norsemen who made their way into modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus did not stop there. Whereas some Rus’ went through the Black Sea to the Byzantine Empire, others made their way down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Baghdad. There, they traded furs, enslaved people, “honey, wax[,] and timber” in exchange for “Arabic silver coins and silk, spices, wine, jewelry, glass, and books.” The Scandinavian merchants were instrumental in the medieval Silk Road, which went from Constantinople to Kyiv and all the way to England.
Fascinating information about the Rus’ comes from the writings of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. Al-Muqtadir, the Caliph of Baghdad, sent him on a mission to meet with the King of the Bulgars in 922. He wrote of their features: from their blond hair to their clothing to their weapons. He also wrote of their living accommodations, from their houses to their enslaved workers. And he also wrote of the Rus’ funeral practices. He watched as the Norsemen put a deceased chieftain on a small boat along with his belongings and one of the enslaved women he had owned. Archers then set it on fire.
Ahmad ibn Fadlan probably exaggerated some accounts in his writings. An example would be the Rus’ supposed lack of hygiene. Still, the information he wrote down has been immensely helpful in our understanding of the Norsemen’s lifestyle during the Middle Ages.
The Norsemen Who Settled in Iceland
The Norwegians went west, first to the British Isles and then into the Atlantic. The winds and currents carried the first Norsemen who arrived on Iceland’s shores, Naddodd the Viking in 830 and Gardar the Swede in 860, off their course to the Faroe Islands. They landed in Iceland instead. These explorers didn’t stay long, and only a handful of permanent settlers lived on the island until Flóki Vilgerðarson came in 868. He named the land “Iceland” and returned to his homeland, where his crewmen told of this new empty land’s beauty. The crew member’s reports attracted the attention of many Norwegians.
Harald Finehair ruled over Norway during this time, and his reign might have been “tyrannical” for taxes and land allocation. This Norwegian king reigned with an iron fist and made Iceland even more alluring. Many left Norway and traveled across the sea to settle in Iceland.
Farmers and a few members of the elite emigrated to the island. There, the social hierarchy was less profound than back home in Norway. As soon as the farmers established larger-scaled settlements, they created a new code of law. A brand-new political system called the Althing was born in Iceland, where a prototypical democratic assembly met at Thingvellir to vote for laws.
This political system lasted from the Age of Settlement, from 870 to 930, throughout the Age of the Commonwealth, from 930 to 1200, and until a few distinct familial clans gained political power during the Age of Sturlungs, from 1200 to 1262. Eventually, the King of Norway encouraged the chiefs who came from these clans and established their power and financial wealth to establish Norwegian sovereignty over the island. Norway became sovereign over Iceland from then on. This sovereignty would last from around 1262 to 1944 when Iceland became independent.
From Iceland to Greenland
From Iceland, the Norsemen traveled further west. There, they found Greenland, three-quarters ice rather than land. The first Viking to arrive was Erik the Red, exiled from Iceland for murder. As soon as his exile ended, he returned to Iceland and encouraged others to follow him to settle these lands. The settlers survived Greenland’s icy weather by creating their settlements in “verdant pockets along the south-western coast” where life was hospitable.
The Norsemen of Greenland hunted animals, such as walruses, seals, and caribou, and kept grazing livestock, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. They sold furs and narwhal ivory for luxuries and iron from abroad. While mostly farmers settled these lands, much like in Iceland, they did not establish any form of government like the Althing in Greenland.
Much like Iceland, the territory came under Norwegian rule around 1261. Constant communication between Norway and Greenland lasted until the 15th century, when silence fell between the two. Temperatures turned colder during the Little Ice Age, and Norwegians feared the worst. By the time they managed to send Hans Egede, a missionary, to Greenland’s shores, there were no more Norsemen to be found.
Whereas the Norsemen of Greenland’s lifestyle was so dependent on farming and livestock-keeping, there are signs that with the changing temperatures of the Little Ice Age, many starved and died in their settlements. Others might have emigrated. A combination of factors brought the end of Norse presence in Greenland.
Of course, the Norsemen weren’t the only settlers in Greenland. They shared these lands with the Thule people, the ancestors of the Inuit, and there is archaeological evidence that they traded ivory and hunting goods in exchange for metal. When Hans Egede arrived in Greenland looking for the Norse settlements there, he found the Inuit instead. He wrongfully accused the Inuit of coming in conflict with the Norsemen of Greenland, but as mentioned above, it was a combination of factors, and not war, that brought an end to the Norse settlements in Greenland.
Today, Greenland, called Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic, is under Danish sovereignty.
Scandinavians in North America
After the Norsemen had settled Greenland and Iceland, they continued west, where they reached the shores of North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus declared he had “discovered” these lands. Much like with the inadvertent discoveries of Iceland and Greenland by the Norsemen, when a Norwegian man named Bjarni Herjolfsson found himself lost when trying to find Iceland, he wound up instead in present-day Labrador, Canada. While he didn’t land on these shores, he moved back east to Iceland, where he told his tale.
Leif Eriksson was particularly interested in Bjarni Herjolfsson’s tale of this land. He was the son of Erik the Red, who had first arrived in Greenland, and like his father before him, he set off west. He and his crew set up camp in the lands they explored, which they called Vinland, which was probably parts of the coast of Newfoundland today. They returned to Greenland after winter. Leif Eriksson’s brother Thorvald led an expedition later on, but as it ended in bloodshed when they encountered First Nations people, he and his crew didn’t stay long.
The Norsemen took North American “produce, timber, and furs back to Greenland and Iceland,” but somewhat tense relationships with First Nations people and the long distance between Newfoundland and Greenland made staying difficult. Evidence remains that they tried. Archaeologists unearthed a Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, during the 1960s. Yet, the Norsemen may have only inhabited the settlement for barely a decade before they abandoned it. This was the end of Norse presence in North America.
Still, an interesting fact about the Norsemen’s relations with First Nations people was found in a DNA study made in Iceland in 2010. According to this study, eighty Icelanders from four families were descendants of a First Nations ancestor who had possibly followed the Norsemen from L’Anse aux Meadows back to Iceland. While nothing more is known about these ancestors’ relationship, it is an interesting historical incident that highlights the relations between the Norsemen and the First Nations people, whether tense or not.
To Conclude: Where Did the Vikings Travel?
To conclude, it can be said that the Vikings themselves only traveled from Scandinavia to the British Isles to France and Germany, as the term “Vikings” can only be used, historically speaking, to describe those who pillaged and raided their way through Europe. But Scandinavians, or the Norsemen as some called them, traveled much farther in order to trade their wares and settle new lands. From Northern Europe to the shores of North America, from Baghdad to Reykjavik, the Norsemen impacted the cultures they encountered through their travels in relatively smaller or bigger ways. Even during the Middle Ages, it can be said that the world was connected through travel, long before our modern age of trains and planes.