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Northmen (Vikings)

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The Scandinavians who, in the ninth and tenth centuries, first ravaged the coasts of Western Europe and its islands and then turned from raiding into settlers. This article will be confined to the history of their exodus.

Tacitus refers to the "Suiones" (Germ., xliv, xlv) living beyond the Baltic as rich in arms and ships and men. But, except for the chance appearance of a small Viking fleet in the Meuse early in the sixth century, nothing more is heard of the Scandinavians until the end of the eighth century, when the forerunners of the exodus appeared as raiders off the English and Scottish coasts.

In their broad outlines the political divisions of Scandinavia were much as they are at the present day, except that the Swedes were confined to a narrower territory. The Finns occupied the northern part of modern Sweden, and the Danes the southern extremity and the eastern shores of the Cattegat, while the Norwegians stretched down the coast of the Skager-Rack, cutting off the Swedes from the western sea. The inhabitants of these kingdoms bore a general resemblance to the Teutonic peoples, with whom they were connected in race and language.

In their social condition and religion they were not unlike the Angles and Saxons of the sixth century. Though we cannot account satisfactorily for the exodus, we may say that it was due generally to the increase of the population, to the breaking down of the old tribal system, and the efforts of the kings, especially Harold Fairhair, to consolidate their power, and finally to the love of adventure and the discovery that the lands and cities of Western Christendom lay at their mercy.

The Northmen invaded the West in three main streams:

  • the most southerly started from South Norway and Denmark and, passing along the German coast, visited both sides of the Channel, rounded the Breton promontory, and reached the mouths of the Loire and the Garonne. It had an offshoot to the west of England and Ireland and in some cases it was prolonged to the coasts of Spain and Portugal (where Northmen came into contact with Saracen ) and even into the Mediterranean and to Italy.
  • The midmost stream crossed from the same region directly to the east and north of England, while
  • the northern stream flowed from Norway westward to the Orkneys and other islands, and, dividing there, moved on towards Iceland or southwards to Ireland and the Irish Sea.

The work of destruction which the first stream of Northmen wrought on the continent is told in words of despair in what is left of the Frankish Chronicles, for the pagan and greedy invaders seem to have singled out the monasteries for attack and must have destroyed most of the records of their own devastation. A Danish fleet appeared off Frisia in 810, and ten years later another reached the mouth of the Loire, but the systematic and persevering assault did not begin until about 835. From that date till the early years of the following century the Viking ships were almost annual visitors to the coasts and river valleys of Germany and Gaul.

About 850 they began to establish island strongholds near the mouths of the rivers, where they could winter and store their booty, and to which they could retire on the rare occasions when the Frankish or English kings were able to check their raids. Such were Walcheren at the mouth of the Scheldt, Sheppey at that of the Thames, Oissel in the lower Seine, and Noirmoutier near the Loire.

For over seventy years Gaul seemed to lie almost at the mercy of the Danes. Their ravages spread backwards from the coasts and river valleys; they penetrated even to Auvergne. There was little resistance whether from king or count. Robert the Strong did, indeed, succeed in defending Paris and so laid the foundations of what was afterward the House of Capet, but he was killed in 866. In the end the success of the Danes brought this period of destruction to a close; the raiders turned into colonists, and in 911 Charles the Simple, by granting Normandy to Rollo, was able to establish a barrier against further invasion.

Meanwhile, England had been assailed not only from the Channel and the southwest, but also by Viking ships crossing the North Sea. The Danes for a time had been even more successful than in Gaul, for Northern and Eastern districts fell together into their hands and the fate of Wessex seemed to have been decided by a succession of Danish victories in 871. Alfred, however, succeeded in recovering the upper hand, the country was partitioned between Dane and West Saxon, and for a time further raids were stopped by the formation of a fleet and the defeat of Hastings in 893.

To Ireland, too, the Northmen came from two directions, from south and north. It was one of the first countries of the West to suffer, for at the beginning of the ninth century it was the weakest. The Vikings arrived even before 800, and as early as 807 their ships visited the west coast. They were, however, defeated near Killarney in 812 and the full fury of the attack did not fall on the country until 820. Twenty years later there appear to have been three Norse "kingdoms" in Ireland, those of Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick, with an overking, but the Irish won a series of victories, while war broke out between the Danes coming by the Channel and the Norwegians descending from the north. For the next century and a half the Danish wars continued. Neither party gained a distinct advantage and both the face of the country and the national character suffered. Finally in 1014, on Good Friday , at Clontarf, on the shores of Dublin Bay, the Danes suffered a great defeat from Brian Boru. Henceforth they ceased to be an aggressive force in Ireland, though they kept their position in a number of the coast towns.

During the earlier attacks on Ireland, the Scottish Islands and especially the Orkneys had become a permanent centre of Norse power and the home of those who had been driven out by Harold Fairhair. They even returned to help the king's enemies; to such an extent that about 855 Harold followed up victory in Norway by taking possession of the Orkneys. The result was that the independent spirits amongst the Vikings pushed on to the Faroes and Iceland, which had been already explored, and established there one of the most remarkable homes of Norse civilization. About a hundred years later the Icelanders founded a colony on the strip of coast between the glaciers and the sea, which, to attract settlers, they called Greenland, and soon after occurred the temporary settlement in Vinland on the mainland of North America.

But the prows of the Viking ships were not always turned towards the West. They also followed the Norwegian coast past the North Cape and established trade relations with "Biarmaland" on the shores of the White Sea. The Baltic, however, provided an easier route to the east and in the ninth and tenth centuries it was a Swedish Lake. By the middle of the ninth century a half-mythical Ruric reigned over a Norse or "Varangian" Kingdom at Novgorod and, in 880, one of his successors, Oleg, moved his capital to Kiev, and ruled from the Baltic to the Black Sea. He imposed on Constantinople itself in 907 the humiliation which had befallen so many of the cities of the West, and "Micklegarth" had to pay Danegeld to the Norse sovereign of a Russian army. The Varangian ships are even said to have sailed down the Volga and across the remote waters of the Caspian.

There is, however, a second stage of Norse enterprise as remarkable, though for different reasons, as the first. The Norman conquests of Southern Italy and of England and in part the Crusades, in which the Normans took so large a share, prove what the astonishing vitality of the Northmen could do when they had received Christianity and Frankish civilization from the people they had plundered.

It is impossible to account for the irresistible activity of the Northmen. It is a mystery of what might be called "racial personality ". Their forces were rarely numerous, their ships small and open, suited to the protected waters of their own coasts, most unsuitable for ocean navigation, and there was no guiding power at home. Their success was due to the indomitable courage of each unit, to a tradition of discipline which made their compact "armies" superior in fighting qualities and activity to the mixed and ill organized forces which Frankish and English kings usually brought against them. Often they are said to have won a battle by a pretended flight, a dangerous manoeuvre except with well-disciplined troops. Until Alfred collected a fleet for the protection of his coast they had the undisputed command of the sea.

They were fortunate in the time of their attack. Their serious attacks did not begin till the empire of Charlemagne was weakened from within, and the Teutonic principle of division among heirs was overcoming the Roman principle of unity. When the period of reconstitution began, the spirit of discipline, which had given the Northmen success in war, made them one of the great organizing forces of the early Middle Ages.

Everywhere these "Romans of the Middle Ages " appear as organizers. They took the various material provided for them in Gaul, England, Russia, Southern Italy, and breathed into it life and activity. But races which assimilate are not enduring, and by the end of the twelfth century the Northmen had finished their work in Europe and been absorbed into the population which they had conquered and governed.

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