5a Pirates from the North

The Vikings visited fire, destruction – and trade – on a bemused and terrified 8th C Europe. Who were they, where did they come from, where did they go and and why?

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The Lives of Vikings

The Vikings were resourceful and hardened by a life on the fringes of Europe; but with access to vital raw materials – wood, hemp, skins, fishing; bog iron for nails, rivets. Up to the 8th Century, they lived their lives by farming – livestock to the high pastures in Summer, growing Rye, Oats, Barley, Hemp at the homestead; back to the homestead  in Autumn and winter. Into this cycle they would fit trading up the coasts, maybe to irregular beach markets.

In the 9th century the explosion of the Viking invasions began. One French chronicler described the seemingly unending stream:

The number of shops grows: the endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase. Everywhere the Christians are victims of massacres, burnings, plunderings: the Vikings conquer all in their path, and no one resists them.

The Viking matched their raiding with their lives, as described by a 12th century Saga:

In the Spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself. Then when the job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and Ireland on what he called his ‘spring trip’ then back home just after midsummer where he stayed til the corn fields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After which he would go off raiding again, and never come back til the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his autumn trip.

Why did they go?

The arguments are many, various and unresolved. Here are a few theories – select one, or many!

  • They were pagans – without the proper moral code of the Christians (according to contemporaries!)
  • Their homelands were over populated so they left for new lands or food (but there’s no evidence – and the Danes and Swedes at least had much unexploited hinterland)
  • They had been held back by the seafaring Frisians – then Charlemagne crushed the Frisians
  • The Danish leaders restrained them (Godfred and Horik) until 865 – and then the split of the Holy Roam Empire in 840 and death of Horik (856) opened the floodgates
  • They saw wealth and shiny things through trading with the Empire – and wanted them for themselves
  • They had a fantastic boat – and the sail allowed them to expand beyond their coasts

What was so special about their boats? 

The Viking boats were strong, and able to withstand the open seas. They were shallow draughted – so could easily be beached and easily travel up rivers. They were oared, and therefore fast and flexible; then in the 8th century they acquired a sail, so could travel much further. When they acquired a keel to add strength and control and a rudder (‘Steering board – Starboard) the Vikings were released.


Where did they go? 

Here’s my decidedly rubbish map. Hopefully you can understand it!



7 thoughts on “5a Pirates from the North

  1. I Love the history of of the Anglo-Saxons, especially during the Viking age, so I really enjoy your podcast. You tend to be more reasonable when it comes to your use of sources and the sympathy you give to the written records, which is why I began to listen to you rather than “The British History Podcast.” There are few things I distrust more than modern skepticism towards historical figures and sources, for such dubiousness almost always favors modern sentiments and biases. So we wind up criticizing their biases as if they are obviously flawed and had no care for accuracy, and yet, at the same time ignore our own biases, which, in my opinion, tend to be more extreme and stupid. That being said, you made a comment in this episode, as you have in past episodes about Augustine that simply show how misinformed you are about the actual history and theological arguments. Why do you, or anyone else for that matter, feel as though you need to make known your own thoughts and feelings about things you don’t understand? It does not improve the quality of your show at all. It only makes me wonder how much else you are wrong about. So now, because the cultural pressure that one must be dubious about everything historical, especially when it is related to the church, I am now forced to be dubious when it comes to modern historians.

    1. Hi, and thanks for the comment. I am always willing to learn! So feel free to point out where you think my comment need either correction or are debatable. It’s certainly a complicated subject.

    2. Mr. Haroldson,

      I disagree with virtually everything you say after the first 8 words. Real historical knowledge is far more interesting, complex, and usually uncertain, always open to new evidence,than twice-told tales to comfort and entertain, shedding false light on non-issues. I prefer to learn rather than simply nod to a familiar tale. “Next thing you know, someone will be spouting a bunch of modern guff about Richard III not being a hunched-back malignant dwarf Robin Hood not being an real Saxon patriot resisting the a Norman sheriff’s oppression for the benefit of oppressed True Saxon freemen, the Scots not being descended directly from the hero Aeneas. Imagine”

    3. Right. I think modern biases are a problem because the people with the biases do not seem to understand that they have biases.

  2. Mr. Haroldson, please accept my sincere apology for my somewhat shirty reaction to your post. The sarcasm was uncalled for, and you are entitled to your opinions. Regarding the role of skepticism, modern or antique, in evaluating sources, I imagine you are familiar with the vital and ordained role of “Advocatus Diaboli” in canonization proceedings?

  3. Hello Mr. Crowther,
    I am one of professor Salazar’s students. I have been listening to your audiotapes over the course of 2 months. I can truly say that this has helped me grasp the ideas of that time period since you give a thorough explanation of what is occurring and where exactly it is taking place. Overall, this information is important to me since it will enable me to write about the Viking Invasion in England.

    1. Hi Joao and I am so pleased! Thank you very much for taking the trouble to let me know, and do pass my regards to Ricardo!

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