The word ‘Viking’ is used by the Vikings themselves and sometimes by their neighbors, though such preferred other terms such as Pagans, or, as the Carolingians called them, the Northmen, as they often came from the North, whether they were Swedish, Dame, or Norwegian. However, we are not sure of what the word meant nor of its etymological origins. Though we do know that by the seventh and eighth centuries, the Vikings were important tradesmen. By the ninth century, the Vikings formed an important lynchpin in what was known as ‘The Northern Arc’, something which stretched from Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Frankia in the West, up through Scandinavia countries, down through modern Russia and Ukraine, and ended in the Byzantine Empire and the House of Islam.
Obviously, the Vikings traded goods along these waterways; archeological evidence has uncovered everything from Islamic coins to Buddhists statues in Scandinavian territories. Despite such impressive archeological finds, however, we know little of the daily life of ninth century Viking territory. We know that they were pagans and that they did not convert to Christianity until about the year 1000 A.D., but beyond this, we know little.
Much of what we do possess comes in the form of Runes. These runes were written figures carved into stone and survive from the first and second centuries, likely originating from the Latin alphabet (though how the Scandinavians came across this alphabet is unknown). Such runes often seem to taunt historians as they hold cryptic information displaying the bare minimum for people to understand—locale identifications, property ownership, and the like were the usual bearings of runes and so they offer scant glimpses into the social processes of Viking culture.
When we speak of epic sagas of the Scandinavian tradition, these stories originated in the 12thand 13th centuries, and they usually refer back to earlier oral traditions. So though harkening back to oral tradition is usually the last refuge of a desperate historian, in this case, specifically the Vinland Saga, written in the 13th century and which includes other sagas such as the ‘Greenlander’ saga and the ‘Saga of Eric the Red’ can tell us something important.
In this case, such sagas tell of how in the year one-thousand, some Vikings traveled West of Greenland and encountered land. They settled on this land, led by Leif Ericson. By the modern period, most historians had agreed that these stories were simply fantastical tales to entertain. Or so they did until in 1961 when archeologists discovered a Viking settlement on Newfoundland. Such a discovery vindicated the saga authors of at least recording some actual fact. As to what Viking interaction with Native American tribes, we know nothing.
Because our evidence of this period of Viking history is sketchy, many theories abound as to why the Vikings turned from tradesmen to raiders in the ninth and tenth century. One theory posits that perhaps Scandinavia had become overpopulated, another suggests that perhaps aristocratic centralization forced divergent royal families to seek their fortune outside of the country proper. Both are possible but are impossible to confirm with the present evidence. A recent theory even suggests that perhaps Viking trading was disrupted in the east due to Islamic civil war and they were subsequently forced to turn to plunder in order to maintain their selves.
What we do know, though, is that Viking attacks against Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Frankia must be seen as part of a larger Viking asporia. As Vikings settled on Newfoundland they also settle on Greenland in addition to attacking Islamic Spain. They even attack Constantinople in 860 after their Mediterranean campaign. Vikings also fanned out into Russia and the Ukraine, settling there in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Vikings began their attacks in the British Isles. Most likely the first raids came in the 780s, though the most famous raid didn’t come until 793 when Vikings attack the Lindstfarm monastery. After this raid, the monks propagandized what had happened to them before additional raids commenced. Ireland experiences its first Viking raid in 795 and other important monasteries, such as Iona, which was sacked no less than four times, suffer similar fates to Lindstfarm. It is not until 799 that the first recorded raid against Carolingian territory emerges, who, again, sack monasteries.
Favorite targets of these raids were the monasteries, obviously, which held wealth and gold and were defended only to the extent that you consider monks capable of defending the valuables. But Vikings were also looking for slaves to take back with them, slaves which were to labor on their farms or sold to Arab slave-traders.
For the Carolingians, however, Viking raids were largely a nuisance between 799 and 830-40s. Viking raiders would, on occasion every few years, sack a coastal monastery, but such incursions were not a threat to the Carolingian Empire as a whole. But, during the 830s and 840s, the Viking raids changed; intensity, frequency, and duration were all amplified significantly.
Once these attacks intensified, though, and the Vikings were raiding annually and reaching deeper into Carolingian territory, stability became threatened; Viking ingenuity discovered that they could sail on the extensive river network and this allowed them much greater access to raiding targets. Their mode of operation would be to sail on a river, disembark, find some horses, and then find a target to raid in-land using those horses; they would then ditch the horses, get back on their boats, and sail away before defenders could be called to launch a counter-assault.
The typical Viking raid followed this premise: during the colder months, Vikings would stay within their home territories and tend to their crops, while in the warmer months they would go off and raid, leaving only behind a few men and the slaves to look after the crops. In the fall, harvest time, they would return to Scandinavia, bring in the crops, and spend the winter drunk in their houses. When spring came, they sobered up, planted crops, and raid again.
Such a pattern was good for the Carolingians since it gave them a time-table of when to expect attacks and peace. Unfortunately, this changes in the 830-40s, where raids occurred every year and would appear in places normally out of Viking reach. Additionally, Vikings begin the practice of ‘Wintering’ in the territories that they reach; this is where they would establish a base camp in the fall so that they would have a more efficient reach when they returned. At first, they would Winter for but a single year, but as the decade progresses, they stay longer and longer, becoming relatively permanent fixtures on the Carolingian scene.
Between 845 and 926, it is not uncommon for Carolingian rulers, normally accustomed to having other pay tribute to them, pay tribute in turn to the Vikings to have them avoid raiding important cities. This bribe was called the Donageld (or, ‘Payment to the Dames’). In Western Frankia alone, for example, Carolingian rulers make no less then eleven substantial payments to the Vikings to bribe them into peace. By this point, large amounts of silver had been evacuated from the Carolingian world to the point where hardly any silver even existed in the Carolingian economy.
How the Vikings were able to extort so much money from the Carolingians boils down to a technological advantage. Scandinavia has a rugged terrain with a jagged coastline. The easiest way to get around, accordingly, was with the waterways; and so, a new kind of longboat was developed. This Viking Longboat gave them a real advantage over their foes by being able to carry anywhere from 60-100 people. Around sixty feet long, it was suitable for ocean voyage while also being able to travel easily up rivers thanks to its low water treading abilities.
Carolingian rulers did try and fight against these invasions. One technique was to build fortified bridges in the hope that they could then kill the Vikings from above. Alas, the Vikings happened to be well versed in dragging their boats over land (something they might have picked up in Russia where important rivers do not connect with one another). So such bridges were simply bypassed.
Viking success against Carolingian territory likely inspired other groups to join in the anti-Carolingian frenzy. Notably, the Arabs resumed their attacks against the Carolingian Empire (though they perhaps were doing so as early as Charlemagne’s rule), attempting to even attack Rome itself, though they could not get past the walls. In addition to the Arabs, a new group called the Magbiars, or the Hungarians, start attacks around the year 900. But because they were desert nomads, they were not as much of a threat as Vikings were as they rarely attacked towns, at least early on.
By the 10th century, though, Viking raids start to wind down. By the 930s, Vikings raids are essentially over on the continent. Why the raids stopped are nearly as mysterious as their beginning. We are not sure why the Vikings stopped attacking the Carolingian Empire. In part, it could be that there was not much left to steal, that a lot of the loot had already been taken. It also could be that they had remarkable success in raiding Anglo-Saxon England to the extent of even settling there and so diverted attention away from the continent. It also might have been that the Carolingians had finally located a solution to the Vikings.
It should be noted that, with the exception of Normandy in Northern France, Viking raids were not aimed at settlements, so they are different from the third and fourth century Germanic migrations which transpired much earlier. Normandy did experience a great deal of Viking settlements, partly due to the Sans River opening up there. But in 911 a Carolingian ruler defeated the Viking ruler of Normandy, who then, in turn, converted to Christianity, and ruled Normandy on behalf of the Carolingians, protecting the territory from other Vikings, something which also might’ve helped in bringing the raids as a whole to an end.