The following series will deal with the Vikings - not the Minnesota Football Team, but rather the Vikings who lived in Norway between 789 A.D. until 1100 A.D. When I visited Norway this past summer I was made aware of the history of these warriors and the myths that have surrounded them over the decades. The image that we have of the Vikings bears little resemblance to those who roamed Scandinavia during that age.
The following facts were listed in the March 2012 issue of the "Viking" magazine published by the Sons of Norway.
"MYTH: Vikings wore solid metal breastplates and helmets fitted with horns or wings.
FACT: Peasant warriors often wore hardened leather protective gear, Iron helmets with a nose guard or goggles did exist, but they were domed or conical in shape and did not include horns.
MYTH: Vikings were barbaric with no system of law or order.
FACT: In Viking societies, free men assembled in a council called a "ting," (thing) to settle disputes. Vikings were also early innovators of the trial by jury. Some Viking communities chose a young man to study the law for several years to then serve as a legal adviser.
MYTH: The Vikings were one united society.
FACT: The Vikings were unified in some ways under a common law, language and writing format, but they were not a single, unified group. Each chiefdom was overseen by its own chieftain and operated independently.
Off the southern coast of England, in the year 789 A.D., three Viking longships glided to shore. According to British records the Reeve of Dorchester went out to meet the ships. Chaos ensued and the reeve was killed. Four years later, Viking ships docked at the monastery of Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of Northumbria (England). The Norsemen came ashore and, by British accounts, plundered the monastery, snatching sacred objects and killing some of the monks. Thus began the Viking Age.
'Alcuin, a scholar and monk living on Lindisfarne, described the attack and the aggressors in a letter to the king of Northumbria (England): 'Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made.' With accounts like this the Vikings have been labeled as barbaric warriors, pillaging, plundering and defiling secular and sacred locations. They were looked upon as brutal but at the same time admired for their boldness, adventuress and powerful wanderlust. People from Norway could not have carried out their adventures and enterprises without the Nordic clinker built ship which could be sailed and rowed, and enabled them to become a swift attack vessel. Their craftsmanship and high stand or seamanship made it possible to cross the great distance of sea across the North Atlantic to Greenland and finally to America. Their activity resulted many places both in west and east Europe in flourishing trade and urban economy. New marked places and towns came into being in Norway including Tonsber, Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim. The trading towns of the Viking Age show that artisans came to form a larger group in society. The goldsmiths, woodcarvers and armorers developed colorful animal decoration styles. These styles show how the Scandinavian people had a common cultural base.
Despite their reputation as plunderers, few Vikings were career warriors. In fact, the majority of Viking societies were built around everyday activities, such as farming, hunting and commerce. Propelled by their superior sailing skills, the Vikings forged sophisticated trade routs, easily navigating the rivers of central Europe and Russia. Viking goods such as fur, timber, stone, amber, walrus ivory and salt fish were gathered and dispatched from trading centers that dot the coast of Scandinavia. From there, Viking trade splintered outward into England and Ireland, and farther south into Constantinople, where the Vikings traded their wares for silk, silver, spices and fruit. 'The image of Vikings as traders and merchants is less romantic than their image as warriors, invaders and pirates, but it was through trade and commerce that many significant innovations and changes were introduced into Scandinavia during the Viking period,' write the authors of "The Cultural Atlas of the Viking World." 'It was, for example the development of a well-organized system of trade with internal routes centering on points of assembly and shipment that provided the stimulus for early town growth. Before then most people lived in small, predominately agricultural settlements.'"
(Continued next week.)