The Vikings have a bad press. The Norse raiders who pillaged and burned their way across Britain and Ireland over a thousand years ago are the stuff of legend. Their favourite destinations were monasteries, perhaps because of the relatively rich and easy pickings. But here the Vikings were robbing an educated Christian elite who went on to chronicle the barbarity and depravity of their pagan attackers in great detail - and the legend was made (from the victims point of view).
Viking is a Norse word meaning ‘expedition’, and the word came to specifically mean an expedition to plunder a foreign land. The people we call Vikings were in effect Norse pirates who went abroad to make money by looting valuables and taking captives who would be sold into slavery. But these pirates were a minority of Norse society, which was predominantly agrarian. Then as now you didn’t get rich quick by farming, and piracy was a dangerous occupation full of opportunity.
Norse society had three main classes: Jarls (earls) – the landed gentry who owned large estates and employed many; Karls (freemen) – the peasantry who owned land and livestock or who had a specialised skill and worked for a Jarl; Thralls – slaves who worked for both Karls and Jarls. There was limited social mobility, but with riches from piracy you had opportunity to better yourself.
Norse society also privileged male strength and bravery. The sagas tell of dynasties of Jarls and their great feats of valour in struggles for the dominance of particular lands. These were largely written during the 11th and 12th centuries by writers employed at the courts of the Jarls. They give richly detailed stories of great deeds by great men, but like the monastic chronicles cannot be seen as independent accounts.
Of particular interest are the ‘housecarls’, a troop of bodyguards or private army that was employed by each Jarl. It strikes me that these would be the most likely pirates. They were freemen and had both status and fighting skills; led by ambitious Jarls, these were soldiers of fortune like the conquistadores of later years. The Vikings were thus get-rich-quick types who were prepared to undertake the dangers of expeditions to inhospitable foreign lands for the rewards that would enable them to buy land and status back home.
So were these pagan Vikings any more violent than their Christian contemporaries? Well the standards of the day were pretty brutal, so they do not seem exceptional. For example, the Christian emperor Charlemagne executed four thousand five hundred Saxons after a battle in 782. Perhaps the Vikings primary mistake was to prey upon rather than to exempt the Christian Church from their piracy (thus making an articulate and influential enemy).
The Viking expeditionary raiding parties of the 8th and 9th centuries were very functional for the spread of Norse dominance in territory and trade. Foreign raids were followed up by the establishment of bases, then settlements, from which Norse trade and rule was spread within these territories. By the 10th century the Norse empire spread from Newfoundland to Central Asia, and Norse culture achieved great heights in wood, metal and stone-working. At the same time, the Norse were also converting to Christianity.
After dominating great swathes of Britain and Ireland for over a hundred years, the Vikings were defeated and displaced by local tribes in these islands. But in the 11th century the Norse invaded again from a territory they had established some time before in Northern France. This time the invasion was successful and lasting: we gave these Vikings a different name, we called them the Normans.