The Vikings Place in European History

The Viking’s Place in European History


The Viking raids were not migration of whole peoples. Although they have been described as such, and even vaguely associated with the great European migrations of the fifth century, the Viking raids were not movements of people under pressure. During the entire period between 800 and 1100 there was no external pressure: this element was not present in the expeditions from Denmark to England and Normandy, from Normandy, from Norway to Scotland and Ireland, from Sweden to Russia. The political pressure which sent Norwegians to Iceland was purely local and partial. In short, the causes of the Viking raids were entirely different from those which accounted for the movements in fifth-century Europe, and there is no connexion between these two historical phenomena.

In is one thing for Scandinavia to call the period between 800 and 1100 a period or epoch of history, but how are these words justified in the perspective of European history? Scandinavia is a small part of the continent: have the Viking raids and feats of colonization an importance which can entitle them to be regarded as an epoch in Europe’s history?

In western Europe the Vikings did exert some lasting influence. As in still earlier periods, England was invaded from the continent on several occasions between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1100: by Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Normans; and these invasions produced the racial amalgam of which the English people were created. Two of the five invasions occurred in the time of the Vikings; the fourth was a directly Scandinavian one, the fifth was indirectly so, and both were of substantial dimensions. This influence upon England is indeed a matter of European significance. In the east, the results of the Viking impact upon Russia cannot be regarded as so vital or permanent, because the proportion of the Viking newcomers to the native inhabitants was far less than in the west. Yet the Swedish infiltration was a not unimportant episode in the history of Russia. Upon central Europe, evidently, there was no Viking impact, mainly for mercantile reasons. The Viking continental trade-routes lay to the east, over Russia’s immense plains and along her wide rivers, directly to the Byzantine and Arab markets; there were no impassable Alps to face, no powerful empires to cross. In the history of central Europe the phrase ‘Viking Age’ has no meaning. Southern Europe was not affected by the Vikings either. Although the small south Italian Norman kingdoms achieved some importance after Viking times during the Crusades, their relationship with the Vikings is a remote one. Although Byzantines and Arabs encountered the presence and influence of the Vikings, it cannot be maintained that the Volga trade of the Rus or the Norse bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor are historically important enough to justify the term ‘Viking period’ in the history of those two great empires. As an epoch in European history, therefore, the term ‘Viking Age’ can only be taken in a limited sense. On balance, the term means more to Scandinavians than to other Europeans.

What did the Vikings give to Europe? What did they get from Europe? To begin with they dealt out the dona Danaorum: destruction, rape, plunder, and murder; and later they expended their energy and blood on colonization. Otherwise, the Vikings could teach Europe nothing. On the other hand they derived much from Europe, although it took a long time for them to use what they had taken. It took them 300 years – strange to say – to learn to build in stone and brick instead of wood and clay. It took 300 years, too, for the new religion to penetrate all three Scandinavian countries. But when at last these material and spiritual cultural changes were complete, there began in Denmark, in the twelfth century, a remarkable period of church building during which the new technique and the new faith worked together. And Christianity revealed the same power in Norway and Sweden. When at last the Viking Age faded into history, the Vikings had received from Europe more than they had given; and the North that they left after them, animated by these European influences, had not been weakened, but changed, by being led into a new cultural life.