What Have the Vikings Ever Done For Us?

Pub History 101

This screed arose out of a slightly drunk online conversation with an acquaintance who made enthusiastic noises at me when I foolishly told her I could tell her enough about the Vikings to give her a solid grounding in any pub conversation without really sweating. (As far as you can make enthusiastic noises or sweat in text, anyway. Let's leave that sort of question for another forum.)
So over the next few days I added a paragraph here and a paragraph there, going solely from memory apart from occasional fact-checking where I wasn't sure, and sent it off. Now, I'd already noticed when teaching that, really, everyone is interested in the Vikings. And when I read this text through a few months later, it seemed to me that although it was probably riddled with errors and terribly unbalanced, it was still not the worst introduction to the subject that I'd read by some way. So I figured, well, let the search engines have at it and maybe it'll be some use to someone. A few links are inserted, but otherwise this is just as it was sent to my friend, with minimal markup (I use a Luddite mailer). A few suggestions for reading and web orientation are provided at the end. Enjoy! (But please don't consider this my usual quality of output! Some of that is linked elsewhere.)

The Vikings: what? who? why? and whither?

So, the Vikings. Famed throughout modern Europe as these hairy dudes with barbaric tortures who brought the rather paltry Christian civilisation of the Dark Ages to its knees, modern-day scholarship has denied them the horned helmet holy to Hägar the Horrible (I'm sorry), the purposeless violence and even recently the blood-eagle (for which reason I shan't mention it and if you don't know what it was supposed to be I'm afraid that's your tough luck. Ask a less responsible lecturer. Harrumph!). So what is there left to the Viking legend? Well, I'm here to give you some idea, under the following headings: (1) who were these Viking guys anyway (almost all guys, yes; sorry)? (2) where did these Viking guys go that we are mindful of them? (3) what did they there? (4) what happened next in the Viking cosmos and (5) the general and total impact of these guys with the helmets and longships and "l33t n00d fighting stylee" (TM). But first, because I am a trained historian and thus we have to do the "but how do we know?" bit first, the sources.

(0) The sources of the Vikings (or "Pick a fjord, any fjord")

The twin problem of the Vikings is that most of what we have written about them was put to parchment by their enemies or their heirs. They seem to have had a decent enough story-telling tradition but the runes that passed for writing in Viking-age Scandinavia were too sacred, too laborious or too rarely-learnt to go to recording narratives. So the actions of Viking armies in England have to be reconstructed from (mostly) the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a complex composite text gathered together in 892 and then farmed out to different places to become the core of several different local records whose prior elements are difficult to source. When the Chronicle heaves a sigh of relief we can generally pick up the story in one of a fairly wide range of contemporary Continental annals kept at various monasteries whose experience of the raiders varied, St-Bertin in modern-day Belgium, St-Vaast in the Netherlands, Fulda on the middle Rhine, Xanten on the German coast, and occasionally the record flashes into more detail with the Old English poem on the Battle of Maldon or the equivalent Frankish work in Latin on the siege of Paris. Most other places they went also have occasional mentions of them too, several Spanish chronicles, some Italian ones which are rather more irate, various Byzantine administrative documents and a thing called the Russian Primary Chronicle which claims in one version, among other things, that the Vikings of Kiev only converted to Orthodox Christianity rather than Islam because the latter would have meant giving up alcohol. Also lots, relatively speaking, of Irish material. Nonetheless, this only gives us episodic detail and not a full-scale narrative at all. We haven't got space here for the political details which would allow us to place such battles and campaigns in the text: there's a reasonable timeline at http://www.reisenett.no/norway/facts/history/viking_age.html if you want one though. Though they think Jarrow is spelled Yarrow which could cause some confusion.

Meanwhile, inside Scandinavia, and taking that term as largely as possible and thus including Iceland and Norse Scotland (because parts of it were, for a while), writing as we know it doesn't really get going until the 12th century with the sagas first being put to writing. Now firstly note that these are heroic narrative and made to sound really splendid in halls (with the exception of the Islendingabok, Icelanders' Book, which is more of a council's roll of honour but no less full of tall tales of ancestors for all that), so that taking anything in them on trust is at best a leap of faith (albeit one that every generation of scholars mostly wants to take, because there's so much stuff we just can't have otherwise). Secondly, that's a good few centuries after the events in question and the stories have been repeated in many many feasts and doubtless worked over and improved each time. Some cultures do indeed have a splendid ability to preserve knowledge through generations but there's no indication that that kind of detail was sacred to the Scandinavians at all, at least until a few generations afterwards when one's standing depended on what one's forefathers could be claimed to have done because you could no longer get away with it yourself. But I ramble. The sagas, in short, are dodgy, albeit lots of rather gory fun.

One thing is wrong with both these sorts of evidence, however, when you're trying to reconstruct a Viking thoughtworld, and also with later saints' lives that tell us of Vikings in the heroes' lifetime and so on, and that is that they're all, if not actually Christian, constructed for dissemination in a Christian-dominated culture. For the people actually meeting the `heathens', which is what the English sources usually call them, the very fact of their paganism made them something that had to be registered in Christian terms, either in mortified horror and exaggeration (especially when you were claiming that your pet saint had protected you or that someone else's hadn't them, factors which endured many centuries), or in theological conviction that this was a punishment for sins, which did get said although it's almost always someone else's sins. Meanwhile for the Icelanders and the pan-Northern literary élite that their saga-writers participated in, the Viking Age was a glorious and tremendous past which was nevertheless a development stage which their people were now beyond. In the same way as Christian monks lovingly but definitively wound the pagan Irish gods into tales in which they died, or otherwise left Ireland, leaving the stage free for the real, immortal, God to take over gracefully (and this is what the Ulster Cycle is; however powerful an archetype the idea of the gods leaving mankind to fend for itself now that it's grown up has become, it's not a pagan one), for the Icelanders the sagas were a huge and fabulous but rather childish mistake. Not that one anyone minded, at least no-one they were willing to tell sagas to, but the bloodier the mess the pagans left in the stories the safer that stuff was put there, while the Christian saga heroes (and there were many, Saint Olaf who unified Norway most of all) became increasingly stern and sanitised, leaving their own rather messy political battling behind them in the development of the storylines.

So in the end we know little and have to guess most. Something can be got from archaeology, but only very rarely can this be motivation or events. It's excellent evidence for lifestyle mind, which counts for a lot. But fixed points in what follows may be few, and this is why.

(1) The Vikings at home

Of course if you're at home you can't be a Viking, but you know what I mean. Or do you? What sort of Scandinavian goes a-Viking? In the late eighth and early ninth centuries the countries we now know as Denmark, Norway and Sweden were differentiated areas, but not in any sense unified ones. The rulers who had some loose control over parts of Denmark, largely because of the amount of support it pleased the Carolingian monarchs of the Franks to supply them with, so as to set up a power structure through which they could then extract tribute, spread Christianity (and thus extract tribute, I mean tithe) and further their renown, are some kind of kings. They controlled not just most of Jutland, right down to Hamburg which was the first bishopric of Denmark and while technically still in Francia is so close as to be unsustainable after the Carolingians lost their grip, and the various islands including the main one whose name I forget on which Copenhagen lies (Aarhus?), but also a fair whack of the southern tip of what is now Sweden and the bottom end of Norway. Exactly what this control means, other than that if they turned up in force they could probably expect tribute rather than retreat, is hard to say. Nonetheless it can be reconstructed from Carolingian annals, from runestones in Sweden, and from a traveller's description of the kingdoms of the Northmen given to King Alfred by a man called Othere, as well as from later sources, that there was some such political definition there.

In Sweden, rather less so. There are several fairly well dug-in peoples, especially on and around Gotland and around Uppsala, which is a huge and important pagan sanctuary. There is however as yet no king of what we would think of as Sweden; the ruler who does call himself that is the one based on Uppsala, which becomes a bishopric eventually and is how come the name has endured. In Norway even less; the country is cut through with fjords and lakes, in geographical terms it's an edge not a unity, and being anything other than local is very difficult. There's more space up in the far north, but the far north is then just as it is now, though you never hear of it, almost exclusively populated by the Saami, a people otherwise known as Lapps, who now have so little to do with the modern `Teutonic' state, by choice--separate school systems, separate tax systems and definitely very little interplay between the university system and their local wiseheads—that it's very hard to recover what such contacts might have been like a thousand years ago. Ohthere clearly traded with these people, but that's a long way from there being a happy cooperative incipient Norway there. Norway below the tundra line and above the Oslofjord, anyway, was c. 900 a landscape of tiny petty lordships and occasional supremacy efforts which collapsed in a generation.

How closely all these people were ethnically related has become the sort of hot potato that now no-one wants to pick up. The Irish sources of the time distinguish Danes from Norse as `dark' and `light', or `fair', `foreigners' but Irish writers tended to attribute colours to people by way of allegiances or other kinds of description (the number of heroic figures called Someone `the Black' or `Dark' (`dub') is quite high) and this may have been nothing at all to do with predominant hair colour or anything as simple as that. Germanist scholars used to see almost all of the various (vigorous, manly, superior!) barbarian peoples that burst upon the (craven, luxurious, weakened!) Roman Empire as coming from Scandinavia and since of course for them ethnicity was forever, presumably to them the Vikings and Goths and Lombards were all one and the same, but modern discussions of ethnicity tend to emphasise that since no-one in the Middle Ages was checking DNA or passports this is something that you can put on or put off with a certain style of dress or ornament and choice of language, and it's taken a long time for archaeologists to grudgingly admit that that means that they can't identify biological extraction from material goods but it is obvious, all the same, that we can't. Skeletal and DNA evidence are fighting a good counter-attack to all this rather fashionable dissolution of blood descent at the moment, but mainly doing so on tiny tiny samples which is itself beginning to look significant. Anyway, I digress. Not many other sources make the Irish distinction. To English writers the invading sailors were almost always `heathens' or `pagans', sometimes Danes even when led by someone we know was Norway-based; to the Frankish sources, and Spanish and Arabic, almost always `Northmen' in some form or other. To the Byzantines, Varangians or Rus. The Franks appear to have known that Rus weren't normal Scandinavians, but that may well be because the Franks were used to Danes and Swedes (and Rus) dressed differently or had a weird accent or similar. It doesn't really matter, but that it doesn't really matter perhaps needs to be stressed. There's all the DNA stuff too of course, which interestingly seems to show that the Norse are something different from the Danes who are basically Germans, but the groups are so big and the margins between `signatures' so messy that they can't usually identify someone's background, just give a good percentage chance that his DNA comes from the place where that pattern is most common. The Cohen gene story started too many expectations. Anyway.

Economically this area was all farmed, but some bits less so than others, the more-or-less marginal Norwegian coast least of all. Here people eked out a living with fish and theft, and the same can be said for the Danes along the coast, and the Swedes in the Baltic of course, rather more so there. There was settlement inland, in all of these places except perhaps Norway, but obviously people there didn't go a-Viking from home. They did join crews and go home afterwards presumably rich men, mind, as many of them left stones saying so, but these areas should be thought of like pioneer America without the Indians (though with, in the East, Balts, and in Denmark, with a slowly-tightening royal government of the sort that can build a ditch across an entire country, and therefore probably turned up to corral people off as forced labour occasionally).

They sailed, of course. Most of Denmark is islands, Sweden's second biggest polity then was an island one, in Norway sailing to the village next door is usually quicker than walking because there's a fjord between you and it. And from about 700 they have some pretty good ships, by medieval standards or even by modern ones. Whole boats have been dug up (and of course we can date wood so we know they were sometimes that early) so we have a pretty good idea of what their hulls were like. For sail arrangements we have to rely on art, which mainly means the Bayeux Tapestry, but all the same a reconstruction of the ship that was dug out of a mound at Gokstad, with a hypothetical sail arrangement, was found to be capable of a sustained 10 knots with a good wind, 17 in a gale, which is pretty good for a sailing ship with only one sail, and to generally ship less water, sail closer to the wind, carry more load and take more punishment from the sea than any modern ship-builders expected. Her name is Gaia and she can be seen here. It's not a quantum leap away from other known medieval ship-building or anything, it's just an almost perfectly-optimised design which sails fast, draws little, carries lots and can be beached safely and even carried if necessary.

But the Viking Age started in 800 or so, not 700. So it's not just that suddenly they developed new raiding tech. There were other reasons why suddenly hairy shipborne hordes descended upon the west. We don't know what they were, but of course suggestions have been made. Towards the ninth century and beyond Europe as a whole and especially its northern portions are going through some slow economic growth. The root causes of this, of which climate change seems to be one but not enough of one, are still debated, but the results, in terms of demographic growth, are reasonably evident. Now when the Anglo-Saxons headed to Britain, it is often said that this was because of worsening conditions in Jutland and so on, and archaeological excavations of flooded coastline sites and so forth have sort of backed this up sometimes. But after the Vikings left Denmark and Norway, they tended to go back, so presumably all hope was not lost there if one had money. What this suggests is that the demographic growth we assume to have happened there as everywhere else, as the resources available will support more, was causing competition and political conflict, and everybody wanted in and therefore some people wanted others out. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is surely partly trying to build up English victories or opposition when it says this sort of thing, but the Viking armies it mentions are often led by plural kings or dukes or both. What these people really were is hard to reconstruct but it makes for a picture of political exiles trying to gather enough capital for a comeback with the aid of a whole slew of local youth for whom there was no prospect of real employment or success beyond a tiny share of Grandad's scratchy little farm on an island somewhere when the grizzled old man finally popped his clogs. Opportunity lay overseas and with success there you could maybe buy the whole farm, or town, or kingdom, depending on who exactly you were and how big your share was. So that's the kind of situation we seem to be looking at.

Now you'd probably like me to say something about what these people believed here, but I can't. The problems with the sagas are at their worst in this question, where all our stories of the old gods and their ridiculous antics may well have been disarmed by indulgent but disarming Christians. I can give you some idea about Norwegian and Swedish paganism merely by forwarding you actual academic work on the subject, but really we know little enough beyond the names of the gods and roughly what area they controlled; everything else is first seen centuries later after the period, in the works of certified story-tellers. Find what you can out there...

(2) Whither Viking?

(a) Europe for a Viking

So, what is this Europe thing upon which these hairy-breeched super-sailors fall? Most of it, from the southern side of the Pyrenees to the Channel and along the south coast of Europe the other way to just beyond Rome, across Italy, back up along the Italian coast and some halfway down the other side of the Adriatic, and a varying distance inland, and then back up through a big chunk of Hungary (such as it as yet isn't) and the Slav lands to the east of what is now Germany, reaching the Baltic coast a little bit beyond modern Schleswig-Holstein and then dipping around southwards because of that Danish political grouping mentioned above--most of this, I say, is under the rule of one man, and his name as we know it is Charlemagne. Even after he dies in 814 this Carolingian Empire persists, at first under his son Louis the Pious and then under three and slowly more kings in different bits. The fragmentation was excellent news for the raiders, as it offered firstly a lack of coordinated defence, and secondly the chance of employment in the various wars between the siblings, cousins and usurpers who came to rule the Empire's various fragments, but I'm getting ahead of myself. This Empire is the template for most of Europe at this point and it's rich, militantly Christian and relatively well-coordinated.

Outside it there is Spain, which is mostly a single Muslim polity bits of which keep splintering off in rebellion and then being bought or brought back under obedience. Up in the North however there are a row of separate or separating little Christian kingdoms slowly advancing south by means of resettlement. This picture is a bit unsubtle and a lot of my work has gone on, er, subtlifying it, but it'll do for now.

There is also Britain, which as the Vikings fall is divided principally into three regions: England, comprised of Wessex, which is shortly to swallow Sussex and Kent, Mercia under King Offa, which is then Top Nation and owns those two southern subkingdoms and several others including most largely Essex and East Anglia, for varying senses of `own'; and Northumbria, everything north of the Humber as far as about Edinburgh and Carlisle, prone to civil war between its northern and southern halves. North of Northumbria there is the British kingdom of Strathclyde and we're-not-quite-sure-what in Cumbria, and north of that is the land of the Picts, which is about as much one kingdom as Mercia is, which is to say that several bits of it probably have their own royal families who unwillingly accept a certain amount of interference for the sake of survival; Orkney, especially, but also Argyll probably. To the south-west of Pictland live the Scots, who are Irish as I'm sure you're aware, and have strong ties with Antrim. There is also of course Ireland, a warring mass of petty kingdoms with a strong folk law tradition held in the hands of a bardic class for whom there actually is evidence, which rather sets them apart from the Welsh ones, but let's not get into that now. Oh yes, and of course to the west of Mercia there is Wales, which is a mass of slightly larger warring groups but in whose entire history only about forty years total has been spent as a unified polity and that mostly in the late-tenth century.

In the North obviously there are the various Scandinavian groupings already discussed, and to the East of the Empire there are various Slavic tribal groupings, and in Hungary and Pannonia (top end of Yugoslavia as was to you and me) there are presumably the remnants of a partway Hunnish tribe called the Avars whose immense Empire Charlemagne shattered some years previously and most of which was then swept up by the Bulgars (guess where they live) and their relatives the Khazars (who somehow become Jewish--we don't know how) and of course the other big polity I haven't mentioned, Rome, to its inhabitants, or to everyone else the Byzantine Empire, which still despite the rise of Islam holds pretty much everything from Bulgaria (and points well beyond) through Greece, parts of the Italian coast and southern half, Sicily, Malta and Turkey as it now is about halfway along. It doesn't sound like so much till you map it. And of course south and east of them, as far out as Iran and Alexandria and as far in as Crete, and along to Morocco and then across the straits to Spain again is the long crescent of Islam, briefly in the early eighth century a single polity but now already at least three and with further splits to come. Thus was the known world composed, at least as far as it matters for this.

So, that's the scene. What did they do? Well, it falls into three parts, two of which are so different that they need new headings. But the first we can deal with here.

(b) reevers

In 787, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, "there came for the first time 3 ships; and then the reeve rode there and wanted to compel them to go to the king's town, because he did not know what they were; and they killed him. Those were the first ships of the Danes which sought out the land of the English race." They may have come to Portland, as other manuscripts state; the unfortunate reeve presumably took them for merchants and wanted them to land where they would have to pay toll as was the law. One can imagine that the Vikings took this badly. But see how great a matter a little fire kindleth, as they say. The next five years of the Chronicle are taken up with civil wars and royal pilgrimages, but it presumably wasn't completely out of nowhere that in 793 a Viking fleet fell on the island and monastery of Lindisfarne and devastated it.

It might as well have been, mind, to judge from the sources. To the Vikings a rich but undefended settlement on an island was surely an easy target, but for the religious of the time, the desecration of the holiest shrine of Northumbria took some explaining. We have a letter from Charlemagne's chief theologian, a York alumnus called Alcuin, expressing his horror and sympathy to the brothers but also asking if they were sure they had been as holy as they should have been, because, well, you know, God must know what he's doing...Two things to take from this, the first being that for the next hundred years so it's going to be a bad time to be in a church near the coast, or indeed near a river since Viking raiders can get a long way upstream and don't mind marching for a bit once they're beached, the main thing being the escape route. They can arrive so fast and leave before forces can be mobilised against them that existing military measures really aren't much use; the sort of scratch force that can be pulled together and catch them before they can leave almost always winds up being too weak to stop them. The Franks are finding this on the other side of the Channel too, where as Charlemagne dies in 814 he is ordering the reactivation of long-disused shore forts and levies to man them, so although there's less indication of it there in the narratives we have the problem was presumably being felt there.

How much damage is being done is harder to say. There is a big debate over how many Vikings there were. An army is defined in one West Saxon law code as anything over 35 men, which would be one or two boats like the Gokstad ship, and the Chronicle is before long talking about fleets of fifty or a hundred. But, argues especially Peter Sawyer, who was actually counting? Could there really have been that many? And did they really want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs? Was this any more than extortion with menaces? Lindisfarne is apparently destroyed in 793. But also again twice more in the next half-decade... And on the Continent the Frisian trading port of Dorestad is `burnt' some five times before finally being handed over to a Danish prince, Rorik, by Louis the Pious's son Lothar to guard it against his peers, at which point it was presumably still worth having... All the same, not many people have gone as far as Sawyer in minimising either the numbers or the violence, especially not the latter. In 851, says the Chronicle, the Vikings first winter in England, and after that the internal politics of the kingdoms kind of disappear in its record in favour of a horrified report of the movements of ever-larger raiding armies.

(3) Soldiers and farmers

The crunch comes in 878 when what the Chronicle calls the Great Army arrives. It is led (I have to tell you this) by two Danish `kings' and a host of lesser ones, and the two's names are Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless. The Vikings really go in for these bynames that must have had really good but lost stories behind them. Ivar and Halfdan had come from the Continent separately but now found themselves in charge of one of the biggest forces ever amassed under a notional Viking flag and they changed the game rather. Wessex had rather fallen apart after a disputed succession some twenty years before. Since then three brother kings had ruled and died and the remaining and youngest brother, ill and never expected to succeed, was a stripling called Alfred. Mercia has disintegrated into rival clans battling for the kingship after the amount of purging of the aristocracy King Offa (of Dyke fame) carried out to keep hold of the kingship for his succession, and the Vikings had already got heavily involved in civil war in Northumbria, where the two contendors briefly allied against the invaders and both got killed, leaving the Danes very briefly in charge of York. It didn't last long but neither did Christian rule. By 878, as Halfdan and Ivar marched south to finish off Alfred, who had so far not lived up to his elder brother Æthelred's staunch but hopeless resistance on the battlefield, not just Northumbria but also East Anglia had had their ruling families ousted and the lands divided between Viking armies, who, the Chronicle tells us, "began to plough and support themselves". They didn't manage to finish off Alfred, of course, although he was more or less driven out for a short while, and by the time he got back at them properly their army was beginning to come to bits. It wandered from side to side of the Channel picking up and shedding contingents and having decreasing amounts of success. By around 892 the by-now leader, one Guthrum, agreed with Alfred to split England between them, become Christian and call it quits. Given that Alfred was only king of part of what he now has before this was quite well done by him, but on the other hand half the country was now under Danish rule and presumably some settlement though there again massive arguments between historians over the numbers rage. Meanwhile on the Continent, though Rorik didn't hold onto Dorestad very well it was only Danes who really ruled it for a while after him, and in 898 King Charles the Simple made a similar pact with a potbellied Viking warlord called Rollo the Ganger (so called because he was too fat to ride a horse and thus had to `gang' afoot) and thus founded what would soon be the Duchy of Normandy. The Vikings were now staying.

That is all the same about the limit of it in the West. Alfred and Charles the Bald (Charles the Simple's grandfather, and Alfred's uncle) both hit on similar ideas about fortress networks, bridging rivers to stop boats getting up them and standing forces, though only Alfred really does the latter, against huge resistance from his people, as unlike Charles he can't afford to just raise enough silver to make them go away. Neither can Charles's eastern brothers and nephews, who therefore like Alfred and his son Edward have to resort to making things sufficiently difficult in battle that the more or less planned-on-the-run Viking assaults become unprofitable. This does leave Edward (not really Alfred, whose Greatness comes mainly from managing to shore up a structure of rule long enough that he is left effectively the only English king in England and coincidentally the one who is keenest on writing down his achievements) with half the country to reconquer but by 924 Alfred's grandson Æthelstan is king not only of all England including Danish York but also of most of Scotland and Wales too so in the long run it couldn't be said to do the Wessex line much harm.

In the meantime Viking forces have fought several battles against both Christian and Muslim forces in Spain, passed through the Straits of Gibraltar many a time and raided Africa, the south coast of France (ironically both its Christian population and the Muslim pirates who have taken over Marseilles--the Vikings don't care) and in one most splendid of several cases the coast of Italy, where the Vikings in question thought they had tricked their way inside Rome and set about sacking it before finding that they were actually in the much smaller town of Luni. Also, and much less evident from our Western sources, dwellers in Sweden have sailed east and terrorised the Baltic shores but also discovered that if you don't mind physically carrying your boat between the Dniepr river and the Caspian Sea (which is not as bad as it could be but still not a lot of fun) you can reach Constantinople, or Byzantium as it is otherwise known. And though they don't raid it, they do a lot of them get mercenary work there, to the extent that the Emperor's bodyguard comes to be made up of these `Varangians', some of whom have probably come the other way through the Mediterranean and some of whom are even actually English. And they also trade like nobody's business as well, because obviously what you plunder is little good to you unless you can sell it. And this is why it's worth carrying that boat, because if you can arrive at points where Byzantine and Arabic merchants will meet you (such as, for example, the new foundation of Kiev, set up by a group of Viking settlers who are before long called the Rus') with things that they can't get, like amber, furs, slaves, or English reliquaries, they will give you coin that you can melt down (or in some cases just keep; coins of Samarkand have been found in Brittany from this period) and put towards your own private warlord plans. So what with Kiev, Normandy, the Danelaw (as the northern half of England comes to be called, due to its different legal practices), and meanwhile about half of northern Scotland, the entirety of the Northern and Western Isles and several brief polities in Ireland (most of all a little place you may just have heard of but which was for a while the most important and richest city in Ireland, place called Dublin, do you know it? The Danes built that. Unfortunately after they'd had it a while the Norse came and took it off them in a battle so exhausting that an Irish contender for High King was then able to take it off them and make it his capital), these hairy guys have left a mark. But they've also more or less come up against stuff that the random politics of their homelands prevent them matching, and dug their way into existing societies and thus become part of them. So there now (c. 920) comes peace for about fifty years, and this has been the First Viking Age.

(4) Once more, this time with kingship

I say peace, and by that obviously I mean war: the kings of Wessex are rolling up England and the various kingdoms at the edge of it are not happy with it, the Carolingian Empire is falling to bits and kings not of the blood royal setting up, and Italy, well, we really haven't space to talk about Italy but peace is not its natural medieval state. And in fact similar things are going on in the Scandinavian world, for here there is much afoot. Norway is developing some nobles with identifiable territories, probably founded with Viking plunder but durable in a way they weren't before. The various Swedish royal houses are coagulating into a single one which is expanding and messing with the Balts. Most of all, Denmark, already the most solid kingdom of them all, is shaping up into a tough cookie, as the new ruling dynasty of Germany are finding as they try to evangelise it from Hamburg with strictly limited success, so limited in fact that they have had to move the cathedral back to Bremen. Okay, the Viking kingdom of York isn't doing so well, with a last defiant flash under a king with the name of Eric Bloodaxe failing in 954 and the link between there and Dublin which effectively controlled the Irish Sea thus breaking. And yes, likewise in Ireland King Brian Boru has made new ground in not only taking land off the Hiberno-Norse but also in amassing most of the Christian Irish kingdoms under his over-rule (thus ensuring that Patrick, patron saint of his kingdom, becomes that of the eventual country which is now closer than ever before). But the Earldom of the Orkneys and the Duchy of the Western Isles, as well as further out this rather more egalitarian (because of being so poor no-one wants to take it over yet) polity on a big volcanic rock we now call Iceland, pile up with all the rest to tell us watchers that the Scandinavians are now building nations. So, historians would argue, is the rest of Europe, as most of what we now recognise as the countries of Europe emerge from the opportunities found in the way the Carolingian Empire comes to bits, but the Scandinavians climb the development curve alarmingly quickly.

Alarmingly? Well, yes, at least for those around them, because the new rulers don't tend to be satisfied with just one country. These being fairly primitive polities, the way the kings of the new countries, Denmark most of all and Norway after its example, hold their rule together is by being able to pay more followers than anyone else, and they do this with plunder but they are also happy to do it with taxes, if they can get someone else to levy them for them. And what that in turn means is that we are now in the Second Viking Age, where the game of King's Table (a Viking game somewhat like an asymmetrical chess) is being waged not for the contents of the average monasteries but for government of much large areas. Raiding begins again in the 980s therefore, on a bigger scale than before because it's now something much more like war between states, and in England it is faced by King Æthelred II, the Unready. Æthelred's byname, unlike many probably contemporary though not one that one would have used to his face, which we know well from the thousands and thousands of his coins which are still being found in Scandinavia, is an Old English pun, in fact, because his name means `Wise Counsel'. Since it was the opinion of at least one of the keepers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, whose lengthy and perjorative account is our main source for Æthelred's reign, that the ability to take wise counsel is what Æthelred principally lacked, the nickname Unræd, `no-counsel', may well have occurred to a good few tenth-century Englishmen looking at their worldly wealth going to the moneyer's to pay for this year's Danegeld.

This is the way it goes, though. Now the forces involved are so large that Alfred's old fortress network can't stop them, although Æthelred expands it anyway. Only pitched battle will make the raiders turn tail, and according to our chronicler even when Æthelred's poorly-chosen subordinates manage to get forces together they either duck battle or just plain lose through poor leadership. They are, it has to be said, up against some serious opposition by the 990s, in the form of King Swegn of Denmark, who is also ruler of most of Norway and is generally probably the most militarily powerful man in Western Europe, saving only, well, Æthelred really but that doesn't seem to help the English much. Of course, from a royal point of view it probably makes better sense to avoid battle, pay the Danes off and keep the country's economy in production rather than take men away from the fields and get them killed, but it does seem hard to deny that the English forces are being sent to give battle and just not managing to do so successfully, and there are many other indexes of misgovernment, as well as apparently desperate measures such as the St Brice's Day Massacre in which every `Dane' in England is supposed to be killed. This probably mainly means traders, but does show that Æthelred wasn't as open to long-term solutions as perhaps he should have been. A lack of Alfred's and Edward's tactical ingenuity may be to blame too, as the English are up against people like a Norse Earl called Thorkjell the Tall who comes up (in 1015) with the bright idea of blackmailing London by threatening to pull down the London Bridge (the one before the one before the one that got shipped off to America; this one was probably about three hundred years old too mind) from the river. London doesn't collectively believe him, but somewhat to everyone's surprise his forces do manage to pull down one span simply by tying a load of boats to its pillars and rowing their absolute hardest. But they have two nautical and forested countries' navies to play with and an awful lot of low-prospect soldiery, because that demographic growth has continued, and England has mainly used it to get rich.

The Continent didn't get half so much of this new wave, because in the West there was Normandy, now a strong polity and by and large friendly with the new Vikings in a way that kept the coast safe, and because in the East the Saxons and Slavs were both dangerous opponents who fought in fast-moving ways that the Danes found more of a match. Also there was opposition from the Swedes there. But mostly it's that England was rich and under-defended, again but more so, so it got the brunt of Swegn's ambitions, and these paid off in 1013 when an exhausted England more or less surrendered its northern half (still quite heavily Scandinavian of course) to Swegn and the ageing, ill and ineffective Æthelred fled to Normandy, whereupon his two sons took charge and refused to let him back in. In actual fact the English people weren't ready for this, and neither it would seem was Swegn who died very shortly afterwards, whereupon the English collectively (and that's a bundle of debate) sent to Æthelred saying, according to the Chronicle, "that no lord was dearer to them than their natural king, if he would but promise to govern them better than he had before." Æthelred was crowned anew and his sons rather abashedly sent to fight the Danes still milling in the north.

These Danes had several leaders, because Swegn's sons were mainly left behind him in Denmark where they took over and fought among themselves, and in England not all the army was willing to side behind his youngest son, who was a teenager by the name of Cnut. Cnut continues his father's attacks for a while but his reduced forces are more easily met by a newly vigorous English resistance mainly fuelled by Æthelred's eldest son Edmund, whom what may have again been contemporaries bynamed Ironside. In 1014 Cnut gave up and went home to beat up on his brothers, but in England Æthelred wasn't to last very much longer, and he was in his final illness when Cnut returned in 1015 as King of Denmark, his beatings having been successful and peace having been briefly made with Norway.

Edmund does what he can but now Cnut is in a better shape, and Æthelred is still the man the kingdom mainly wants to obey and he is dying in London. When he finally dies in 1015, Edmund is unable to force Cnut out and hold down England too and they soon after agree to once again divide the country along the Danelaw line. And then soon after, in 1016 Edmund dies and Cnut is fast enough and persuasive enough to manage to do what his father couldn't, and not only succeed but hold England, and soon after also Norway with successful campaigns in Sweden too. This may be at least partly because he forthwith marries Æthelred's widow Emma, who is Norman, so a cunning alliance all round, although he doesn't exactly break up with his previous partner, who is confusingly often also called Emma. Cnut, in fact, who is famous only for the story about the waves, which was originally a humility topos not at all out of character for this king who wrote long letters to his subjects when abroad to tell them what he was doing for the English (he went to Rome once and sent two of these letters, which are charmingly thrilled by how seriously all the European rulers take him), is despite his humility Emperor of most of Northern Europe and the undisputed lord of the North Sea and Western Baltic. He rules till 1037 and then two of his sons rule (one by each Emma) uncomfortably separately and together till 1042, when another son of Emma the Norman succeeds, but this one by old Æthelred the Unready. This ageing exile's name is Edward, known as the Confessor, and he has to deal with a mostly Anglo-Danish aristocracy who mistrust him and his Norman connections, as most graphically shown when the eldest son of their greatest man succeeds Edward in competition with William Duke of Normandy (or William the Bastard, as he was known at the time) as Harold II in 1066. So the Vikings win, really, especially as the Normans are Viking enough that the Bayeux Tapestry shows you they still go to war in longships.

(5) What did the Vikings ever do for us?

A brief summary will do here really. For the next two hundred years the northern half of England is politically different, and you'll still find many more Norse place-names up there than elsewhere. They gave us Dublin, Derby, Nottingham and several other cities now famous for other things. They gave the Western Isles a language (Norn) that died out only in the eighteenth century. They founded Normandy and thus took over England twice, as well as all the other things the Normans did. They settled Iceland and thus gave us (some would say) parliamentary democracy. Of course Iceland was settled before but by Irish monks who don't really count, so anyway. Greenland and America did kind of have people on already as well but unlike some the Vikings didn't exterminate them so whether that counts or not is a difficult question. They gave a new name to the Byzantine Emperor's bodyguard for hundreds of years, they opened up what is now Russia to the Western world. There, and also in Ireland and indeed England, their unbalancing and wrecking of existing balances of political structure was a crucial stage in the establishment of the modern nation, usually by someone driving out the Vikings with a newly-united native population behind him (into which the previously-Vikings then merged). They brought various civilising ideas home to Scandinavia (states, taxes, coinage, Christianity) but exported the only European state pagan religion and at least one Marvel superhero. But they did not wear horned helmets. You can't have everything, at least not if you're going to cross the Atlantic in a forty-foot boat that survives storms so well mainly because it bends easily. Plan accordingly...

Links and Further Reading

There are lots of links in this version of the article which weren't in the original text: I don't wholly endorse all their contents, but they are all illustrations of points of view and useful as such, at least at time of checking.
Aside from the online texts linked thus, people at institutions with suitable subscriptions can get at the Annals of St-Bertin and the Annals of Fulda in translation online.
The Corpus of Electronic Texts of Celtic material is worth mentioning twice.
The Internet Medieval Sourcebook has a lot of primary material on its 10th-Century Collapse page.
And there are some suggestions for further reading here!