The Expansion of the Vikings: The History and Legacy of the Vikings’ Conquests through Trading and Raiding

Written by Charles River Editors
Category: · History

*Includes pictures
*Includes medieval accounts
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

Over the centuries, the West has become fascinated by the Vikings, one of the most mysterious and interesting European civilizations. In addition to being perceived as a remarkably unique culture among its European counterparts, what’s known and not known about the Vikings’ accomplishments has added an intriguing aura to the historical narrative. Were they fierce and fearsome warriors? Were they the first Europeans to visit North America? It seems some of the legends are true, and some are just that, legend.

Like many civilizations of past millennia, the Vikings are remembered in popular culture more for the fantastical accounts of their history than for reality. The written records of the history of the Viking period, consisting mostly of Norse sagas, metaphoric poems called skalds and monastic chronicles, were written down well after the events they described and tended to be lurid accounts rife with hyperbole. Furthermore, the most scathing tales of Viking raids are contained in the histories of monastic communities which were targets of Norse rapacity. These chronicles speak of the heathen Viking depredations of monastic treasuries and the ferocious torture and killing of Christian monks. The colorful bloody tales were certainly based on more than grains of truth, but they were also purposefully augmented to inject drama into history. Similarly Norse sagas written down in the post-Viking Age fixed what had hitherto been flexible oral tradition. They were often slanted to legitimize a clan or leader’s authority by emphasizing an ancestor’s bravery and skill in pillaging opponent’s communities.

As a result, the almost ubiquitous depiction of the Vikings as horn-helmeted, brutish, hairy giants who mercilessly marauded among the settlements of Northern Europe is based on an abundance of prejudicial historical writing by those who were on the receiving end of Viking depredations, and much of the popular picture of the Vikings is a result of the romantic imagination of novelists and artists. For example, there is neither historical nor archaeological evidence that the typically red haired, freckled Norsemen entered battle wearing a metal helmet decorated with horns. This headgear was an invention of the Swedish painter and illustrator Johan August Malmström (1829-1901), and his work was so widely disseminated in popular books that the image stuck. Today the imaginary Viking helmet is an almost mandatory costume accessory in productions of Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, which is not about the Vikings at all. It seems the horned helmet evolved from an imaginary reinterpretation of genuine Viking images of a winged helmet that may have been worn by priests in Viking religious ceremonies.

However, the Vikings’ reputation for ferocious seaborne attacks along the coasts of Northern Europe is no exaggeration. It is true that the Norsemen, who traded extensively throughout Europe, often increased the profits obtained from their nautical ventures through plunder, acquiring precious metals and slaves. Of course, the Vikings were not the only ones participating in this kind of income generation – between the 8th and the 11th centuries, European tribes, clans, kingdoms and monastic communities were quite adept at fighting with each other for the purpose of obtaining booty. The Vikings were simply more consistently successful than their contemporaries and thus became suitable symbols for the iniquity of the times.

The Expansion of the Vikings looks at the history of the Vikings’ trading and raiding, and how they became some of the most famous conquerors of the Middle Ages. Along with pictures depicting important people, places, and events, you will learn about the Viking expansion like never before.

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