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The Norse or Northmen, commonly known as Vikings, were settled primarily in Scandanavia and northern Germany. Early in period, these peoples were loosely connected by common heritage and culture, but had no unified leadership. Primarily pagan, they became increasingly Christianized as the medieval ages proceeded.

Although maligned in history as nothing but savage barbarians, the Norse in fact had a flourishing culture, with profound spiritual depth, music, poetry and history.

Norse Warriors

Throughout the medieval period, most Norsemen would have been armed with a sword and short spear, or sometimes an axe or warhammer, and defended by a stout centre boss shield and a byrnie or hauberk of maille, cuir bouilli or scale. Norsemen often used bows and thrown weapons, but were not particularly renowned for their archery skills. The Norseman fought best on foot and hand to hand.

Contrary to the common modern belief, the Viking helm did not have wide flaring horns, but instead was usually a stout conical cap of leather or iron, sometimes called a spangenhelm.

The skill at arms of the Norse became so well known that many Europeans actually hired them as skilled mercenaries. Most famous of these were the Varangian Guard of the Emperors of Constantinople.

Viking Raids

The Norse were known for their seamanship and their wide- ranging travel, as well as their willingness to rape, pillage and burn just about anything. Each fast and sturdy longship could carry twenty to forty armed fighters on raids anywhere near water. Since longships drew less than four feet, this included a surprising distance inland along rivers. Groups of warriors in longships would go viking on raids across vast distances, striking all of northern and western Europe, the British Isles, northern Africa and even into the Mediterranean. Norsemen sailed along riverways deep into the Russian steppe.

A typical Norse raid involved a sea voyage of days or weeks to a foreign coastline, where they would beach the longships and march a short distance inland, then attack a settlement or monastery with little or no warning. After resistance was quickly overcome, the Norse would loot anything valuable and retreat to the longships before reinforcements could arrive. Such a raid devastated Lindisfarne Abbey.

Until the disasterous defeat of a Norse army under Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in 1066 C.E., the Vikings were one of the most feared and hated peoples in Europe. Many of the fortifications raised in the early part of the medieval period were raised, at least partly, as a defense against Norse raids.

The depredations of the Norse were so severe that the clergy even had a prayer which specifically entreated God: From the Fury of the Norsemen, Good Lord deliver us!

Viking Settlements

As the medieval period progressed, many Norsemen began to settle in those lands they formerly raided. The Normans were descended from Norsemen who settled in northern France and intermarried with the locals. Many such settlements were founded in northern England, coastal Scotland and Ireland; the modern city of Dublin started as one such settlement.

The Rus were likely another branch of Norsemen settled who in the steppes of Russia, primarily along the Volga.

The westernmost Norse settlements were to be found in Iceland and Greenland, and Norsemen were probably the first Europeans to reach the New World, founding a single, ill-fated settlement in what they called Vinland.

One of the most notable features of Norse settlement in foreign land was the speed at which they blended with the local culture. Within a few generations of initial settlement, most Norse would have assimilated entirely, merging with the original inhabitants of an area, and very likely fighting off viking raids by their former cousins.

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