Top Viking facts
- Holy War There are numerous theories about what started the ‘Viking Age’. Bad weather. Poor soil. Population explosion. Development of sailing technology. Ferguson goes with the theory that Norse violence was a holy war, a hyperviolent response to Charlemagne’s bloody campaign to convert the heathen Saxons to Christianity in the 770s which climaxed in the massacre at Verden in 782. Saxon survivors fled north into pagan Denmark, taking tales of atrocities and it was only a few years later, in 793, that the first, ferocious assault was made on the coast of Britain, at the monastery of Lindisfarne, an attack which inaugurated 250 years of blood-soaked raiding, killing and enslaving. The other theories may be true as well – there may be multiple causes – but only the Holy War theory explains the excessiveness of the violence which is always associated with the Norsemen.
- Slavery Who they didn’t torture and kill, the Vikings enslaved. Slavery was one of the most widespread and lucrative commodities of this era (800-1050) across Europe. Dublin was a major centre of the slave trade. Rouen became a thriving centre of the trade till past the time of William the Conqueror, who was petitioned by clerics to curtail the trade.
- Slav slaves The English word slave ultimately stems from ‘Slav’ because throughout the Viking period so many Slavs were traded as slaves. Russian nationalists do not like this fact. Online etymological dictionary
- The Great Heathen Army From the British perspective, there is a lull between the famous attack on Lindisfarne in 793, followed it’s true by persistent opportunistic raids – but it’s with the first army wintering on Sheppey in 835 that the threat becomes sustained and builds to the arrival, or invasion, of the Great Heathen Army in 865. They don’t leave and go on to establish a ‘kingdom’ across the east and north of England which endures over 100 years.
- Russia was founded by Vikings Debate rages to this day about the origins of the ‘Rus’ who give Russia its name, basically the West taking the evidence at face value that it was founded by the Rus, meaning men who row, who were Vikings from Sweden. Russian nationalists take the ‘anti-Norman’ view that native Slavs were too culturally superior to be conquered by barbarians. The debate is summarised in this Wikipedia article. Ferguson goes with the Western view that Viking raiders/traders, predominantly from Sweden, explored the river systems which drain into the Baltic and realised, with a small amount of portage (carrying the boats), they could cross over into the river systems which flow south to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Rhos or Rus traders were reported by Greeks from Byzantium, by Arabs, in western chronicles and in the earliest Russian annals – they were Heathen, raided with savage violence, were strong and blonde like the other Scandinavians, held ship-based funerals like Vikings, and their most profitable commodity was slaves from the shores of the rivers they navigated which they sold to the Greeks. Kiev became the great trading centre half-way along the route, centuries before Moscow was founded, which is why Kiev and the Ukraine still hold such a place in Russian nationalist ideology.
- Ireland’s towns were founded by Vikings The first attack on England was at Lindisfarne in 793. In 795 Vikings attacked and burned Rathlin island monastery. After a generation of opportunist raiding, just as in England, in the 830s and 840s the Vikings stopped disappearing after a raid and began to winter in Ireland and penetrate further inland. They established coastal settlements at Dublin, Waterford, Wicklow, Cork and Limerick. Dublin became a centre of the Viking slave trade.
- Vikings had tattoos ‘Ibn Rustah also tells us that the Rus were covered to their fingertips in tattoos depicting trees, figures and other designs. This is of a piece with what Alcuin and that other anonymous Anglo-Saxon commentator noted concerning the personal vanity of the Heathens, especially their fashion for “blinded eyes”, which may have been a form of eye shadow. An Arab source leaves no doubt that eye make-up was common among the Rus: “once applied it never fades, and the beauty of both men and women is increased.” Tattooing was banned in 787 by Pope Hadrian because of its associations with Heathendom…’ (page 257) which sheds light on the general widespread of tattoos until very recently.
- Throwing stones the sagas tell ‘of ships that return to shore to pick up fresh supplies of stones, the stone for throwing being the weapon of choice for the average foot-soldier or sailor throughout most of the Viking Age.’ (Page 214)
- Starboard comes from the Norse for ‘steer board’, which was on the right-hand side of the longboat allowing it to be folded up to the side when navigating shallow water, unlike a rudder fixed to the stern.
Top Viking words
- the Old Norse personal pronouns they, them and replaced Old English hie, him and hiera
- many words with an initial sk sound like sky, skill and skin
- everyday words such as anger, husband, wing, thrive, egg, bread and die
- Gil denoting a ravine or steep narrow valley with a stream eg Long Gill
- –by places where the Vikings settled first eg Selby or Whitby, some 600 such places in England. The -by has passed into English as ‘by-law’ meaning the local law of the town or villages
- -thorpe eg secondary settlements on the margins or on poor lands. There are 155 place names ending in -thorpe in Yorkshire.
Top Viking characters
- Ragnar Hairy-Breeches legendary figure whose campaign of violence comes to an end when he is thrown in a snakepit by Aella of Northumbria, which triggers the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in 865
- Ivar the Boneless (d.873?) a son of Ragnar Lodbrok/Hairy-Breeches, Swedish Viking leader who ruled part of modern Sweden and Norway – one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army which invaded East Anglia in 865. Credited with the murder of king Edmund in 869, who quickly became revered as a Christian martyr.
- Halfdan the Black (810-60) of the house of Yngling, king of Vestfold, a portion of Norway
- Harald Finehair (850-932) son of the above, first king of a unified Norway
- Erik Bloodaxe (885-954) the oldest of Harald Finehair’s sons, got his name for killing two of his own brothers, came a refugee to England where he established himself as king of York but was shortly driven out, and assassinated in flight, 954.
- Ganger Rolf (846-931) also known as Rollo, Rollon, Robert, Rodulf, Ruinus, Rosso, Rotlo and Hrolf, Ganger Rolf or Rolf the Walker, conqueror of the area of north-west France which becomes known as Normandy, and so ancestor of the William who conquers England in 1066.
- Erik the Red
- Harald Bluetooth (935-85) king of Denmark and Sweden, converted to Christianity and erected the Jelling stones.
- Sweyn Forkbeard (?-1014) son of Harald Bluetooth, he likely deposed his father who died wretchedly on the run. Sweyn or Sven went on to conquer England, becoming first of the Danish kings of England.
- Authun and the bear
- Bolli Bollason’s Tale
- The Saga of the Confederates
- Egil’s Saga
- King Harald’s Saga
- The Saga of the Jomsvikings
- The Saga of Eirik the Red
- Eyrbyggja Saga 1
- Eyrbyggja Saga 2
- Gisli Surrsson’s Saga
- The Saga of the Greenlanders
- The Saga of Grettir the Strong
- The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue
- The Saga of Hen-Thorir
- The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi
- Laxdaela Saga
- Njal’s Saga
- Njal’s Saga 1
- Njal’s Saga 2
- The Saga of Ref the Sly
- Thidrandi whom the goddesses slew
- Thorstein Staff-Struck
- The Vatnsdaela Saga
- The Vapnfjord Men
- The Saga of the Volsungs
- Vikings: Life and Legend @ the British Museum
- Reading sagas