Who Were The Vikings?

This article is about the Vikings in the strict sense, that is warriors, explorers and traders. For a general overview of Scandinavia from the Viking Age, see Viking Age.

The Vikings (Old Norse: Vikingr, plural Vikingar) are explorers, traders, raiders but also Scandinavian pirates during a period from the eighth to the eleventh century 3, commonly called "Viking Age". By extension, the term is used in French to designate the Scandinavian civilization of the Late Iron Age, that is to say from the late second century at the age of Roman iron (in) 4. They are often called Normans , that is to say etymologically "men of the North", in the old bibliography.

Unlike the other Germanic peoples of more southern Europe, they remained pagan until the first half of the tenth century. This is one of the reasons why a negative image of their action, reduced to acts of piracy and looting, characterized by the violence of their raids and their pagan barbarism, emerges from European texts from the beginning of the Middle Ages. However, the more contemporary documentation made it possible to qualify the subject and it insists on the positive aspect of their action in certain cases, because they were also great seamen, explorers, merchants and warriors who reached the Atlantic coasts of Europe, the Mediterranean, the East, and even America ( Vinland ), while at the same time establishing trading posts and colonies, such as those on the Faroe Islands, Orkney Islands, Iceland, Greenland, etc. They established new and original in Normandy States and Russia 5. Their assimilation in the colonized countries proceeds from a deliberate political choice which led to their acculturation in a few decades. The Viking Age ended with the affirmation in Scandinavia of centralizing monarchical powers and their conversion to Christianity.

"We call Viking ( Víkingr , Old Norse) a long-time businessman, remarkably equipped for this activity, that the situation has led to turn into looter or warrior, where it was possible, when it was practicable, but who will always remain somebody applied to afla ser fjár ("to acquire riches"). "

In the broad sense, the term Viking refers to all Scandinavians of the period characterized by the Viking phenomenon.

The Viking word is attested in French in the nineteenth century and means, in the modern sense a "warrior, explorer native Scandinavia." 6 Its exact etymology is not assured.

It is mentioned for the first time in old Icelandic in the form of víking (feminine word) in the expression fara í víkingu "to leave in rapine, in marauding, in piracy". From this word derives the masculine form víkingr (-s, -ar) which means "person who practices piracy", thus "pirate" 7 .

The word víking appears late in Old Norse, which suggests that it is a loan to another language, certainly to Old English, where the word wìcing , which means "pirate", is attested from the VIII century (and old Frisian in the form Wi (t) sing). Indeed, the earliest known uses come from Anglo-Saxon texts of the eighth century, with the mention of various compounds as uuicingsceadan, uuicingseadae or saewicingas, all trained on -wīcing-. Their theme is maritime activities, including piracy.

A widespread but erroneous etymology, in fact a derivative of the Norse Vík "cove, cove, inland arm between two islands" 7 , also having the original meaning of "place where the earth yields" (derived from the verb vikja "to yield" ), from where, by extension, the meaning of "bay", that is to say "cleared place of the coast which makes it possible to dock" 8 (see toponyms like Reykjavik in Iceland or the beaches of Plainvic and Vicq in Cotentin, etc.).

More recent etymological research, based on existing work, has emphasized the existence of the Vika nautical measurement ("distance traveled at sea by two teams rowing alternately"), whose radical vik- would be found in víking , but also in the old English wìcing , the old Frisian wītsing and would all go back to a Western Proto-Germanic * wīkingō ("change of rower") and * wīkingaR deriving from the first and meaning "man rowing alternately", which is conceived at the time when the ships circulating in the North Seas were rowing boats, such as that of Nydam. Subsequently, specific meanings would have developed in the languages in which they were perpetuated: maritime expedition, warrior-sailor, pirate 9 .

The Frankish chronicles written in Latin more frequently use the terms Nor [t] manni "Normans" 10 , pirata "pirates" 11 , Dani "Danes" or Pagani "pagans" to designate the Vikings. Until recently and still today, some sources use the term Normand as a synonym for Viking, but this job creates confusion with the Norman inhabitants of the current Normandy and who really enter the history with the conquest of England in 1066. The term Norman is itself a borrowing from Frankish * nortman 12 or Old Norse nordmaðr 13 , which both mean "man of the North".

In Irish, the texts speak more simply of "foreigners" ( gall ). The toponym Donegal would refer to the Danish Vikings, that is to say the "black foreigners" and that of Fingal to the Norwegian Vikings, that is to say the "white strangers". But this distinction between Black Vikings and White Vikings borrowed from Lucien Musset would be the consequence of a bad translation, especially since this distinction has no reason to be, the proportion of the light-haired type being almost similar. in Denmark and Norway. Donegal therefore probably does not have this meaning, but that of "strong foreigners" of a year gall , "black" being dub . In the same way, Finegal does not come from finn gall or fionn gall ("blond strangers"), but rather from fine gall ("tribe of strangers").

In the East, they are called Rus or Varangues . Among the Arabs, the Madjus : bab el Madju designating "the door of the pagans" (Strait of Gibraltar) 14 .

According to Pierre Bauduin (2004), the connotation of the term [Which one?] Would be rather positive in the runic and negative inscriptions in the skaldic poems.

Several Icelandic texts, including the saga of Greenlanders and that of Erik the Red, tell of the Viking discovery of lands beyond Greenland. Around 986, a Greenlandic navigator Bjarni Herjolfsson, baffled by a storm, sees unknown lands and forests. Twenty years later, Leif, son of Erik the Red, undertakes an expedition to verify the story of Bjarni. After several days of sailing, he discovers new territories: a country of mountains and glaciers that he calls Helluland ("country of flat stones"), then a coast dominated by a forest hinterland, which he calls Markland ( "Country of the trees"), finally, a pleasant land where explorers fish for salmon and gather bunches of grapes, Vinland ("country of the vine") 15 . From the nineteenth century, scholars speculate that these browsers have actually followed the shores of America. The Vikings would have set foot on the New Continent about five hundred years before Columbus.

Since sagas are generally regarded as unreliable literary sources (as many of the contradictions between the saga of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red show), researchers are trying to find the material proof that will confirm the hypothesis. In 1898, a rune stone was discovered in Kensington, United States but to this day, its authenticity is not yet assured. In 1930, a typical Viking warrior equipment was found in Beardmore, Ontario, but the discovery turned to a hoax. The Vikings' hypothesis as America's first discoverers is gaining momentum in the 1960s when a couple of Norwegian archaeologists, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, reveal remains of Viking dwellings on the island of Newfoundland. The Anse aux Meadows site consists of eight buildings distributed in three complexes. In particular, there is a carpentry workshop, a blacksmith shop, an oven and a stove. The dating of the collected craft objects sticks with the date of Leif's expedition. L'Anse aux Meadows became famous worldwide and has established itself as proof that scientists lacked 16.

The Vikings have traveled all European seas and beyond. They ascended the rivers and rivers of Western Europe and Russia. This expansion would not have been possible without the quality of the ships they were building.

"Anyone who saw the Oseberg ship will never see the Normans in the ninth century as vile barbaric and insensitive" wrote a 17 [Which?] Historian after visiting the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Even if it remains imperfect, the knowledge of Scandinavian boats has progressed thanks to the archaeological discoveries of boats. The Oseberg ship excavated in 1904 is one of the best preserved specimens which can be compared to him it Gokstad 18 and those of Skuldelev 19. The iconography, in the foreground the tapestry of Bayeux, bring other information.

There is no Scandinavian model boat. Its architecture varied according to the destination (cabotage trade, long course, war or pageantry) and evolved over time. However, there are some common points. The bow and stern are raised; their hull is built with clapboard. Since the eighth century, they are powered by wind through a rectangular woolen veil. This ship goes very well wind 20. This does not prevent boats from being equipped with oars as well. Warships, like Gokstad's, are called langskip or snekka 21 . The term longship is wrong barbarism created in the nineteenth century, inspired by the modern Swedish word "drake" (dragon) - and not "dreki" in Norse - which a double "k" was added to accentuate the exotic appearance. The Vikings did not so designate their boat.

Archaeologists recognize the excellent architecture of Scandinavian boats. They are surprised by the flexibility of the hull. The frames are attached to the plating - and not to the keel - by wicker ties, leather laces or, for late models, by pegs 22 . As a result, the ship can face the high seas writhing to the waves. In addition to flexibility, Viking boats are known for their lightness. The hull is a few centimeters thick. As a result, the draft is weak, giving the impression that the boat slips on the waves. The speed could exceed 10 knots (approximately 18 km / h).

The Viking Ship Museum of Roskilde in Denmark presents 4 important boats and the use of each 23 :

  • Warships:
    • Snekke (Small long boat)
    • Skeid (Big long boat - for the high seas)

The Vikings did not use compass or magnetic compass but the "sun stone" is mentioned in a passage of a saga of King Olav Haraldsson 24 II. This "sunstone" could actually be an Iceland spar, transparent calcite crystal relatively common in Scandinavia and has the property of depolarize sunlight, filtering it differently scoring 25. This stone allowed the captain to use it as a navigational instrument even on cloudy days. This stone was allegedly used in conjunction with a solar compass, the remains of which were discovered in 1948 26 , 27 .

They did not have cards. At night, they could use the polar star to keep a course and day, rely on the height of the sun to estimate their latitude. It is especially the observation of the sea, landmarks and marine animals that allowed them to find their way on the open sea. The greater number of puffins announced the proximity of the Faroe Islands. The sudden change in temperature of the water, as a consequence of entering a polar current; the color change of the ocean from blue to green; the multiplication of icebergs, indicated that Greenland was close 28 . Viking navigators were also aware of the currents that easily carried boats from one sector to another or the migratory journey of whales. The Hausbók, including an Icelandic manuscript tells Navigation Norway to Greenland, provides many details of this kind 29.

This knowledge of the sea and more generally of navigation allowed the Vikings to explore distant regions. To the west, they are the first Europeans to land in Greenland. From there, they discovered America. To the east, Swedes have used the network of Russian lakes and rivers to reach Central Asia and its caravan routes from the Far East.

The Vikings seem to have known the shape of our globe; but the expression orbis terrarum in Latin or Heimskringla in Old Norse [unclear] can mean a flat and round disk-shaped Earth. There remains a document dating from the twelfth century attests: the Elucidarium 30. This knowledge allowed them to venture far into the sea without fear of "falling into the abyss" as the idea of a flat world might suggest. The Greek navigator Pytheas made around 340-325 BC. J. - C. a voyage in the seas of the north of Europe and it would have described Scandinavia notably the island of Thulé located on the Arctic circle which could be Iceland or Norway. However Pytheas is considered by the great Greco-Roman geographer Strabo as a writer who describes countries he has never visited. The Greek scientists at that time had discovered and measured the spherical shape of the globe, its exchanges with the Scandinavians may have allowed the Vikings, later to learn it, unless they have imagined it by them- same. [ref. necessary]

The helmet was worn only by the richest men, "jarls", kings, etc. He is wearing glasses and has a nasal forehead for the nose. The horned helmet was never worn in combat by the Vikings, this imagery is appeared in the nineteenth century. The common warriors had at best a simple leather cap, or nothing at all 31 [ref. insufficient] .

The shield was heavy and difficult to handle. Mostly in wood the shield lets us think that it was especially used to protect themselves from projectiles, arrows or stones. The shield has a round shape with a variable diameter between 75 and 90 cm. The wearer's hand is protected by a steel umbo. It can be 3 to 5 mm thick, and about 15 cm in diameter. The edge could be left bare or protected by leather 32 [ref. insufficient] .

Contemporary written sources come mainly from foreign observers (Arab, Byzantine, Western). In the West, this is, most of the time, the testimony of the victims of the Viking raids, including clerics. Their writings are therefore very partial.

With the exception of runic inscriptions, medieval Scandinavian written sources are generally not older than the twelfth century and therefore post-Viking period. These texts, including sagas that combine historical facts and invented facts [ref. desired] , are therefore treated with great circumspection by historians. The legal collections of which we are aware are also much more recent than the period under consideration.

Archeology is therefore the main source of information on this period. If it brings great results in Scandinavia and in the British Isles, and especially in Greenland where the remains have hardly been reworked by human activities since the end of the Middle Ages, the results are disappointing in France. The excavations first concerned the most monumental places, mainly the big cities and the tombs of great people. Since the 1970s, the attention of archaeologists is focused on rural housing and places to 33.

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