Vikings in the Middle Ages

Middle Ages Vikings usually meant Norse explorers, merchants, warriors or pirates.  Vikings were known to trade, explore, raid and settle across Europe, Asia and islands in the North Atlantic from the late 900s AD to the mid-1200s AD.  Vikings are often misrepresented or misremembered as larger than life figures, or killing machines that terrorized their opponents.  Many myths about Vikings in the Middle Ages also exist.

The Viking Age

In Scandinavian history, the period from the late eighth century until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is known as the Viking Age.  Vikings in the Middle Ages used the Baltic and Norwegian Seas for sea routes to the south.  In terms of geography, the Viking Age was not only assigned to Scandinavia, but to North Germanic lands as well.

Vikings settled new lands in the north, south, and east.  This resulted in the founding of independent settlements in places such as Shetland, Iceland, and Greenland.  They also formed a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland circa 1000AD.  The Vikings were the first to discover these lands and been able to make settlements.  All previous explorers had been blown off course in pursuit of these areas or only seen them at a distance. 

Eventually, Vikings abandoned the settlement at Greenland.  This was most likely due to climate change.  Important trading posts for Vikings in the Middle Ages included Jorvik, Staraya, Novgorod, Kiev, and Birka.

Vikings in the Middle Ages are also said to have explored the Middle East.  Evidence suggests that Vikings specifically explored Baghdad, which was the center of the Islamic empire.  However, the Vikings were not as successful with settling or establishing any sort of power in the Middle East.  This was due to the more centralized power of the Islamic empire.

Many Norwegian Vikings expanded and settled through Eastern Europe.  This is most likely because these territories were similar in language to what the Norwegians were used to.  It was not until after the Viking Age that separate nation states began to form distinctive identities with separate kingdoms.  This is most likely because of the Christianization of Europe that occurred after the Viking Age.

The Viking Expansion

During the Viking expansion, Vikings sailed throughout the North Atlantic Ocean.  They said south to North Africa and then they sailed east to Russia, Constantinople and the Middle East.  The Vikings existed as plunderers, colonists, barterers, and mercenaries.  Some Vikings in the Middle Ages, most notably those under Leif Eriksson, were able to reach North America and settled in Canada for a short time.

Some scholars say that the reasoning behind the Viking expansion was that Vikings wanted to avenge the forced Christianity over pagans.  Many believe that it is not coincidental that the Viking expansion occurred during the reign of Charlemagne, who used any force necessary to Christianize Europe during his reign.

Others believe that the Viking expansion occurred as a result of Norse and Scandinavian population overgrowth or the need for expansion agriculturally.  It was seemingly sensible for a coastal population with a superior navy to expand abroad.  It probably seemed easier to the Vikings to conduct overseas raids that to attempt to create new farm land from the forests that surrounded them, as the soil found within would not be useful.  However, the theory of population rise or the need for agricultural expansion cannot be proven definitively.

Another possible explanation for the Viking expansion is that the Vikings took advantage of a moment of weakness in the territories surrounding them.  One example of this is that in the 830s the Danish Vikings decided to take advantage of some known internal divisions within Charlemagne’s empire. 

These divisions had resulted in a schism in the Empire.  England was one of the most susceptible to attacks as it had suffered from internal divisions and many of its towns were in close proximity to the ocean or other bodies of water. Also, there was a lack of counter-attack Western European lands which allowed the Viking ships to strike their opponents with ease.

One last possible reason for the Viking Expansion was that the profitability of trade routes was declining during the time.  Trade on the Mediterranean Sea was at its lowest level historically during the Viking Expansion.  Middle Ages Vikings opened new trade routes in Frankish and Arabic lands, thus profiting from international trade by expanding beyond their traditional boundaries.

The end of the Viking Age

Middle Ages Viking travelled all over the world, from Europe to North America to the Middle East.  The Viking age affected the Scandinavian homelands of the Vikings as well.  Scandinavia underwent many cultural changes during the Viking Age and afterwards.

In the late 1000s AD, the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish kingdoms had formed.  Towns had now begun to take shape as separate economical markets and ecclesiastical centers.  These markets were based on the models of German and English towns.

Scandinavian kingdoms began to be assimilated into the rest of Christian Europe, which influenced the ideals of the Scandinavian rulers.  It also changed the relations with Scandinavians to their neighbors, and altered the ways of Scandinavians who were able to travel overseas.  One example of this is the outlawing of slaves. 

One of Vikings’ in the Middle Ages primary profit sources was the taking of slaves.  The medieval Church was against Christians owning other Christians as slaves, and, as such, slave ownership decreased throughout Northern Europe.  People continued to take slaves into the 11th century, however.  Slavery was eventually outlawed, and serfdom was put in its place.

Norwegian Kings continued to raid and assert themselves over Ireland and northern Britain into the 1100s AD.  However, Scandinavian military actions were now redirected towards new targets.  In 1107, Sigurd I of Norway said with an abundance of Norwegian crusaders towards the eastern Mediterranean Sea.  They sailed to fight for the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Danes and Swedes had a heavy presence in the Baltic Crusades.

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