The Northmen

The Norhtmen played a strong role in bringing about the end of the Roman Empire. Read and find out more about their history.

Blue eyed blonde Teutonic peoples played a strong role in bringing about the end of the Roman Empire. Not so those who lived in the northern parts of Europe, Scandinavia and Denmark. They had almost no contact with the Roman world or the rest of Europe until the eighth century. These were known by different names such as Northmen, Norsemen, and the Danes and later as the Vikings. (Vikings - inhabitants of the viks - bays and fjords)

These northern warriors were known for their ferocity and anger. When attacking their foes they inflicted terrible harm through fire, stoning, and the use of wild hounds. Some have also referred to these Vikings as brave and noble. Between the years of 750 to 950 AD they were notorious for raiding coastal communities throughout Europe.

The Norsemen were not a politically united people. There were different tribes, each with its own leader. Although they did not, and would not, have a king or central government, they all followed certain agreed upon rules. They shared many common customs and religion and many unwritten laws. These oral laws covered important subjects like how to divide the spoils of war and conquest, and punishments for crimes.

Originally hunters and farmers, the harshness of the geography and climate made these occupations especially difficult. They often turned to raiding the communities of northern Germany and nearby countries and settlements, which could be raided overland from Denmark. The Viking Age began in the eighth century and lasted for about 200 years.

With the geography of their land, the thick forest, poor soil, mountains and difficulty of overland travel the Norsemen turned to the sea. The ocean provided plenty of food and the fjords on the long coastline gave excellent protected harbors. The Norsemen developed boats that were capable of handling the stormy North Atlantic and became superb sailors and navigators. But even with the fishing, they were having great difficulty feeding their rapidly expanding population. Beginning at the end of the eighth century, the Vikings began to raid and plunder the coastal lands from the Baltic to the British Isles.

The Vikings raided in small groups of boats, sometimes in fleets of hundreds of ships. These were sturdy, long open boats with square sails, driven by men with oars. The boats were narrow enough to navigate rivers and light enough to portage across land when necessary. Each vessel carried 40 to 60 sailor-soldiers; each covered in mail and equipped with a lance, a sword, a dagger and a battle-axe. Their shields were lined up along the sides of the ships as they sailed.

The first recorded Viking attacks took place in Britain where the small coastal communities were totally unprepared for the onslaught. The Norsemen would slaughter any inhabitants that got in their way, load their ships with the plunder and sail away quickly. They raided towns and even monasteries in England and Ireland, carting off everything of value. They arrived silently, unexpectedly, and terrorized the coasts of the British Isles.

In the ninth century, the Vikings steered their ships towards Southern Europe. Charlemagne succeeded in arresting the advance of these Northmen by using his fleets to patrol the coastline. He succeeded in driving the Vikings out of Frisia (now Holland) and back into Denmark. After Charlemagne's death, the Vikings resumed their raids on Europe.

Six hundred Viking boats attacked Hamburg and set in on fire. They attacked Paris and many other French cities. The Vikings caused terror throughout Europe and were now attacking inland with setting up bases. They burned, massacred and plundered everywhere that they went. They eventually sailed into the Mediterranean as far as Genoa, Italy. By 878, they were even threatening to take control of the entire island of England, only a loose collection of small kingdoms. In 1017, Britain became part of the Scandinavian Empire.

The Vikings attempted to add Ireland to its domain but were defeated by Malachy, an Irish king. Nevertheless, the Norsemen established permanent settlements along the eastern and southern shores. In 911, Charles III of France signed a treaty with Rollo, a Danish leader, and gave the northern territory of Normandy to the Danes. The Northmen integrated with the peoples they conquered and accepted the Christian faith. Through assimilation they forgot many of their customs and habits; even Rollo was baptized in 912.

Harald Fairhair subdued the tribes of Norway in 890 and made himself king. Harald Blue-tooth united Denmark under his leadership in 950 and Eirik ruled Sweden. Many of the old chiefs and clan leaders could not accept the rule of a king and left Scandinavia to settle in islands like the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, Ireland and England. From there they attempted to attack and defeat Harald but to no avail. The counter attack was so violent against these rebels that the most defiant and determined left and settled in Iceland.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Vikings were raiding and looting across modern day Russia. They advanced as far as the Black Sea and plundered and pillaged churches and monasteries. They even attacked Constantinople and exacted a large cash bribe in order to leave it. Kiev and Moscow were part of the Swedish Empire and constant infighting between the small kingdoms in Russia made their task easy.

Eirik the Red founded a colony in Greenland, after being deported from Iceland for murder. From Greenland, his son Leif discovered Labrador and Newfoundland and sailed down the New England coast in 1003. He called the new land Vinland and subsequent voyagers settled there. It is thought that the Vikings abandoned Vinland in the twelfth century.

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