According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history of early medieval England, the year 793 brought with it terrifying omens, lightning, high winds, flying dragons, famine, “and a little after that, in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of the heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne with plunder and slaughter.” By 820, the Irish Annals of Ulster record similar occurrences: “The sea spewed forth floods of foreigners over Erin, so that no haven, no landing-place, no stronghold, no fort, no castle might be found, but it was submerged by waves of Vikings and pirates.” In the ninth and tenth centuries, Scandinavian raiders repeatedly visited the Christian countries of Europe, at first to plunder and later to settle. These were Vikings in the Old Norse sense of the term, where viking designates the enterprise of going abroad on raids, and a vikingr is a pirate so engaged. In modern usage, the term Viking is generally applied to medieval Scandinavian culture as it flourished between the 790s and roughly 1000. Although Christian annalists normally portray the Vikings as uncivilized and unprincipled men, the evidence of their achievements proves their sophistication, and the record of their violent activities shows them hardly rougher than their contemporaries.
The success of the Vikings depended on their skills as seamen and the excellence of their wooden ships. The seagoing craft recovered from a ninth-century burial at Gokstad in Norway demonstrates the ingenuity and the effectiveness of Viking ship design: fast, light, maneuverable, and flexible, it could be simply beached and quickly launched, rowed by oarsmen or sailed in any wind. In 1893, an exact replica of the ship was sailed from Norway to Newfoundland in just 28 days. Scandinavian sagas record voyages of similar length. In the ninth century, Norwegian adventurers sailed to settle in Iceland and Ireland, Danish arrivals claimed territory in France and Britain, and Swedish Vikings established themselves in the river valleys of Russia. In the late tenth century, the Icelander Eirik the Red founded a colony on Greenland that flourished for over four centuries, and around 1003, Eirik’s son Leif the Lucky sailed to a land called Vinland further to the west, which may mark the first European voyage to the Americas.
Population growth and dwindling resources in Scandinavia may have sent the Vikings to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In the early Viking period, periodic raids on the rich monasteries of Ireland and England seem to have contented them, but later they seized land, proclaimed their own rule, and exacted heavy tribute, the so-called Danegeld, as payment in exchange for safety from attack. They also conducted brisk trade in timber, amber, furs, and slaves with Byzantine and Arab merchants in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and with the Scandinavian colonies throughout Europe. Evidence confirms the range and impact of the Vikings’ enterprise. Runic characters inscribed by Viking visitors have been found throughout the Mediterranean, and Viking hoards in Scandinavia contain coins and precious objects from Byzantium and Baghdad. A Viking raid of the late tenth century furnished material for the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon, and the gruesome rituals surrounding the funeral of a Viking chieftain in Russia were described by Ibn Fadlan, an Arab diplomat who witnessed them around 922.
The sophistication and delicacy of Viking art (1982.323.1) presents a striking contrast with the stereotype of the rude and restless barbarian. Viking craftsmen excelled in woodwork and metalwork, adorning brooches (1991.308), weapons, implements, and ship timbers with abstracted animal forms and elaborate patterns of interlace (47.100.25ab). Runic texts and complementary scenes were inscribed on stones and rock faces. The Viking love of riddling phrases and schemes of rhyme yielded a rich poetic tradition, and tales of mythic events and heroic deeds as well as historical episodes were celebrated in Old Norse epic sagas. Earl Rognvald of the Orkneys demonstrates the refinement of his Viking heritage in this twelfth-century verse: “There are nine skills known to me–/ At tables I play ably; / Rarely I run out of runes; / Reading, smith-craft, both come ready; / I can skim the ground on skis, / Wield a bow, do well in rowing; / To both arts I can bend my mind: Poet’s lay and harper’s playing.”
Sorabella, Jean. “The Vikings (780–1100).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vikg/hd_vikg.htm (October 2002)
Fitzhugh, William W., and Elisabeth I. Ward, eds. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Exhibition catalogue. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
Glubok, Shirley. The Art of the Vikings. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
Graham-Campbell, James, and Dafydd Kidd. The Vikings. Exhibition catalogue. London: British Museum, 1980.
La Fay, Howard. The Vikings. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1972.
Sawyer, Peter, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.