The Vikings and the Viking Era
The era known as the Viking age lasted for more than 300 years, from the late 8th century to the late 11th century. The history of the Vikings is closely linked to their role as masters of the sea. They were feared as fierce and ruthless pirates. However this does not complete the story of the Vikings. They were also poets, lawmakers and great artists. Their superior ships explored unknown seas and they settled new lands.
Even if the Vikings were known abroad as ruthless pirates, at home they lived in an well-ordered society, based on laws and democracy. Viking society was divided into three classes: the elite with great economic power, free-holding farmers with the right to bear arms and attend the Ting, and slaves who had no rights. The Ting, or the general assembly, was responsible for maintaining law and order, and is by many considered to be one of the first true democratic organs in history. Learned men quoted the laws, and then lawsuits were heard. In simple cases everyone present, often hundreds of people, judged, and in important cases 12 chosen men judged. This is considered the beginning of the modern jury system.
The women held a strong position in Viking society and were responsible for the farm when their men were abroad. The symbol of the powerful housewife was her keys, hung from her gown. If her husband took the keys from his wife, she could divorce him instantly, and keep their shared property. No women were forced into marriages, unlike most other cultures at that time.
The Viking age produced rich, diversified art forms and crafts. A good blacksmith and a good poet would be equally acknowledged in Viking society. Crafts were most often produced by local craftsmen, but specialized masters also traveled to markets all over Northern Europe. A craftsman was often buried with his tools; they were important symbols of his status in death as well as in life. Viking craft was widely recognized as fine art all over the known world in the Viking age. The Viking craftsmen, carvers, painters and poets were responsible for most of our current knowledge about the Vikings.
It is well-known that the Vikings were great explorers and voyagers. However, one tends to overlook the extent of their voyages. From the countries today known as Scandinavia, the Vikings traveled south to England, Ireland, France and Spain, and settled there. Names of cities and the nature of the people are obvious signs of the significant role they played in these societies for almost three centuries. They also traveled to the Arabian world in northern Africa: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. In fact, more than two million Arabian coins have been recovered in Viking burials all over Scandinavia, proving the extent of their exploring and trading. The Vikings traveled east to Russia and settled several places there, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. The name "Russia" actually originates from the Swedish (Rus = Vikings).
Explorers often traveled to the Middle East trading silk, spices and jewelry with travelers from the Orient. The most common way of reaching these areas was through the big rivers of Europe, saving them weeks of effort sailing around the entire continent and through Gibraltar. They would sometimes pull their ships over dry land between the rivers. The Vikings also braved the open sea and sailed west to explore Iceland and Greenland. Historians have also proved that the Vikings were the first European settlers on the American continent.
The Oseberg longship, from a Norwegian burial mound, dates from the 9th century. The elaborate burial was probably for a Norwegian queen. The ship is on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. On the right, one of three sledges that are part of the Oseberg burial site. In the winter, it was often easiest for the Vikings to travel overland, and sleighs like this were pulled by horses. Read more about the treasures of the Oseberg burial site.
The Viking explorers covered most of the known world during the Viking age. Viking settlers founded many large cities. Today, we find that Viking descendants all over Europe are proud of their heritage from these fierce and fearsome yet very culturally developed people from the North.