Between the 8th and late 11th century, the Vikings ventured from their Scandinavian homelands and began their assault on the memory of Europe. The name Viking is thought to derive from vikingr (pirate). Indeed, we use the term ‘Viking’ with little discrimination and it is now a term with great historical and pseudo-historical baggage. Traditionally, the Vikings have been portrayed as raiders and pillages, causing destruction and leaving swiftly. In 793, the monks on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, were devastated by Viking arrivals from the sea. The monks’ misfortune is the first clearly dated event in the saga of the Vikings. However, Lucien Musset has also called it the last and most dramatic exodus in the long story of migration after the Goths and Vandals. Eventually, the Vikings migrated and settled in the islands of the north Atlantic, Britain, Normandy, Sicily and the heart of Russia. A more positive, nuanced view of the Vikings is becoming visible: that they became part of and influenced the cultures that they infiltrated, often for the better.
Many reasons for migration have been cited; Vikings as exiles from political upheaval, the consolidation of the Vestfold dynasty in Norway under Harald Harfagr 880s-890s, political infighting in England and Frankia that facilitated Viking activity, climate change, overpopulation, and technological change which together enabled Viking expansion. However, more simplistically, the Scandinavian world was already expanding eastward and westward by the late 8th century, evidenced by the establishment of the Svea trading colony at Staraja Ladoga in northern Russia. This expansion of trade generated an increase in piracy; furs were an important export and these trade routes saw a measurable rise in business. Trading centres were huge areas of wealth and resources including livestock, metalwork, human capital, which were all important commodities to be stolen. Booming trade was generated in tandem with the piracy dependent on that trade. In essence, there was nothing special about the violence the Vikings are associated with.
However, what makes the Vikings special to England in particular, is the transformative effect they had in nation-building. Although they tended to pick out liminal spaces on the edge of other kingships, their settlement created hybrid cultures. Creating links through marriage, trade and political alliances with indigenous communities, the cross-cultural activity generated a perpetual motion of settlement. Consequently, the identity of the ‘Vikings’ is difficult to pin down. Olaf Guthfrithsson was a member of the Norse-Gael Uí Ímair dynasty, king of Dublin from 934 to 941 and briefly king of York in 927 but was expelled the same year by king Æthelstan of England. Olaf partook in aggressive ‘Viking’ activities such as raiding, but was also a great king who had his own poet at court, fostered children, and married Irish princesses. The Scandanavianisation of English place names by the local people and scribes can be shown to be common by the 12th century and is evidence of significant colonisation. For instance, -thorpe, -thwaite, -by, and -kirk.
Crucially, there was a rapid recovery from Viking attack and those areas that suffered most in the 9th century appeared most prosperous in the 10th including Dublin and York in the British Isles, and Normandy in France. The Normans were the most successful Vikings of them all. In 911, the Frankish king Charles the Simple, in an effort to reduce raids and destruction, offered a large amount of land in northern France to a band of Vikings ledby Rollo in return for obedience to the Frankish crown. Gradually, the local term for “Norsemen” contracted to “Norman”. The Normans traded with kingdoms and empires across the globe, provided soldiers to act as a Papal guard and not long after the conquest of England in 1066, turned their attention to Italy and Sicily, and were a driving force behind the Crusades.
In short, Viking migrants brought England cultural and political coherence; their Norman descendants brought England a heritage we still call our own today including a love of hunting and wine; buildings built for war as well as God, such as the Tower of London and the Cathedrals at Durham and Ely; the French language, including names such as William, Richard and Robert replacing Ethelred and Godwin; the Domesday tradition, and above all a language of power and courtly culture. However heavily we subscribe to the archaic image of the Vikings as barbarian raiders, it is beyond doubt that the Viking migration is fundamental to our national story.