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For nearly 300 years, from the end of the eighth century AD until around 1100, the Vikings set out from Scandinavia on raids and voyages of discovery and colonization across the northern world. Their pagan gods were regarded with horror by the Christian countries of Europe, but the archaeology of their settlements and burials and the literature of their sagas reveal a complex and fascinating culture.
Viking society was hierarchical and ruled by kings or chiefs, who owned large farmsteads. It was divided into the free, who could carry arms and speak at local assemblies, and the thralls, or slaves, who had no rights, although some were able to gain their freedom. The free were divided into the noble class of jarls (earls) and, beneath them, the farmers, whose status depended on how long their families had owned their farms.
The sagas, mostly composed in Iceland in the thirteenth century, give the impression of a violent society as rival families resorted to blood feuds to settle disputes or avenge murder. The violence of the age is reflected in the quantity of weapons found in male graves. However, Viking raids were often seasonal affairs, after which the bands of warriors would disperse to return to their farms. Trade and plunder brought increasing prosperity to the region and skilled craftsmen patronized by the élite produced objects of great artistic merit.