Vikings are usually thought of as purely barbaric and merciless in their acts very much linked with rape, murder, and pillaging; with the occasional sporting of humiliating their fallen and captured enemies. Though these claims are not entirely wrong, to label Vikings as solely ‘barbaric’ undermines the intelligence, culture, and skill of these peoples.
(image from google images)
The Viking age’s start is still contested but the most accepted theory is that the Viking age began with the raids of the 790’s but some argue it was much earlier, starting from the 600’s. The Viking’s presence only grew from then onwards, though the Vikings were only involved in two major battles their presence was felt worldwide. There is recorded evidence of Viking settlements and presence in as far-flung places as the Byzantine Empire, Russia, France and the Islamic Empire.
Originally the Vikings looked for opportunities to raid, trade and settle in places they thought beneficial. The rapid expansion of Viking activities were a clear indication of this, the rapidity of the appearance of the Vikings likely caught their enemies off guard, and, arguably the reason why they were largely successful in their expansion into occupied territories, that is not to say that their skill and equipment in battle was lesser than their enemies, since the military prowess of the Vikings is well documented. Viking seafaring ability was far superior to their enemies and the Viking longboat was feared for its ability to sail shallow waters which further enhanced the raiding ability of the Viking raiders, this, matched with the easy disembarking in which they could just jump out with weapons ready made the Viking raiding or battles swift. Vikings were so skilled in the art of war that during the times in which the would settle and ultimately relaxed their expeditions, they easily found work as mercenaries.
Though the Vikings were a mostly illiterate people before their Christianisation, but this did not mean that they had no literature, as they did, though primitive. The use of Runestones with which names were mostly engraved, names of the fallen. The oldest dated Runestone was placed before the Viking Age which has been dated to, roughly the 4th century nearly 200-300 years before the rise of the Vikings. The Jelling stones are also a type of Runestone and represent the Christianisation of the Pagan followers of Denmark, one of the two Jelling stones has an engraving of Christ. The Christianisation of the Pagan peoples led to a more literate people and led to the increase of writings such as sagas, poems, and history of the Vikings. The Vikings culture was originally Pagan and believers of Norse, like many Pagan religions there were multiple Gods and Deities, Odin the All seeing Father was the most powerful and was king of all the others. The Norse religion had many deities that were of a particular position (Guard, archer, chooser of souls etc.). In the Norse religion, the Gods were also at war, this could arguably be the reason why war and battle are so rooted in their culture. It was believed that achieving victory in battle and gaining renown through valour would please the Gods and in death, they will be taken to the side of the Gods and fight by their side.
(image from google)
Though war and battle were deeply embedded into Viking Culture, they were also skilled tradesman, the Vikings, though hard to picture, were traders aided by the great skills they showed in seafaring Vikings also traded in a variety of different countries, from the Mediterranean to Asia and of course around most of Europe. In many sites that were settled by the Vikings, there is amicable evidence to support this claim. The Vikings also had to have some agricultural skill as they would settle quite rapidly if they chose the land to be worthy of settlement. The settlements like any other would likely be devoutly religious and would erect a temple for their Gods, these factors are many factors left out of the image of a Viking except when the reference was to the Christian Vikings, in which they were usually depicted as noble savages instead of a barbaric race a quality that is likened to their Celtic brethren, also a Pagan people who were eventually converted.
Viking Society was also broken down into a system, with which there were three ranks below the king. The first were the Thralls, these were the peasantry and slaves, this class dealt with the menial tasks of farming, building, and day to day tasks requested of them by their liege. This class was the gutter people, they were looked down upon and treated poorly, no more than useful tools. The population of the Thralls was usually increased in number via the capture of enemies in battle or by reproduction through sex between Thralls, the captured Thralls were also sometimes traded for Silver with other countries, most likely the Arab nations. The second class of people was, the free slaves those that owned land and cattle but would also be in command of Thralls, the Karls would gain their position through fame or financial gain, one could argue that they were not really a class per se but more of a state of being as they still had to do many of the Thrall duties (farming, building etc.). The final class of people was the Jarls, the Jarls were the aristocrats of the Vikings, these were the rich land-owners, military commanders and in charge of the settlements or fiefs they were given. The Jarls would usually have large homesteads, own horses and ships, and a large number of Thralls to deal with the day to day chores of the Jarls home. When a Jarl was killed many of his Thralls were ritually sacrificed and buried beside him so that they could serve him in the afterlife.
There was some social movement from Thralls to Karls but exactly how it was achieved is a little more difficult to understand, but there is some evidence to support some this. There was also some types of unions within Viking society in which the lower ranking peasants could speak above their station, a good example is what was called a ‘thing’ which translates to assembly, in this assembly the Karls or free people presided over the ‘lawspeaker’ and could negotiate, dismiss and accept laws.
It is easy to see that the Vikings were not ‘just’ raiders and barbarians but also civilised and had their own governing systems. Though the truth is that raiding and war were a part of their culture, to condemn Vikings as savages who lust only for war and glory is unfair. The Vikings also had a civilisation, with their own religion and governing systems. Vikings were more than the image they have been given, they were peoples who traded, farmed, and , yes, fought for their own gains and survival but so did every other ‘civilised’ peoples.