Vikings: sea-raiders and traders

In AD 793, a daring raid across the North Sea on the monastery of Lindisfarne by Norse pirates heralded the start of the Viking period. Over the next two centuries swift sailing ships enabled the Vikings to extend their attacks to the undefended, coastal and riverine ports, towns and monasteries of western Europe and beyond. The name Viking came to mean sea-raider, though today it is applied to all the pagan peoples of Scandinavia who spoke dialects of Old Norse. These peoples shared a similar material culture from the late eighth to the eleventh century and comprised the Danes, Norwegians, Swedes and the inhabitants of Gotland. At first they lived in a number of small kingdoms. But, as the more aggressive Viking rulers sought to increase their wealth and power with the support of warrior elites, the smaller kingdoms were absorbed by their more powerful neighbours.

To some extent, the destruction caused by the Vikings was exaggerated by churchmen who wished to portray the Vikings as the judgment of God on a people who had neglected their obligations to the Church. Archaeological discoveries, however, tell a different story. The Vikings were mainly farmers, fishers, hunters and skilled craftsmen, restricted by natural resources: mountains, forests and heathland. Many Vikings, therefore, turned to trade with the countries of Europe, Russia and the Orient, when the season was favourable. Hides, furs, walrus ivory, amber and slaves were exchanged for silver and gold and luxury goods including wine, fine textiles, pottery and glassware. In Scandinavia itself market and manufacturing settlements such as Ribe, Hedeby, Birka and Kaupang grew into centres of international trade. Viking longships are preserved in the ship museums in Oslo (from Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune) and Roskilde.

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