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The Vikings were people who lived in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages. They originally settled the Scandinavian lands that are today the countries of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The Vikings played a major role in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, especially during the Viking Age which was from 800 CE to 1066 CE.
The word Viking actually means "to raid" in Old Norse. The Vikings would board their long ships and head across the waters to raid villages on the northern coast of Europe, including islands such as Great Britain and Scotland. They first showed up in England to raid villages in 787 CE. The Vikings were known to attack defenseless monasteries when they raided. This got them a bad reputation as barbarians, but to the Vikings, monasteries were wealthy and undefended easy targets.
The Viking Age and Expansion into Europe
Eventually the Vikings began to settle in lands outside of Scandinavia. In the 9th century they settled portions of Great Britain, Scotland, Germany, and Iceland. In the 10th century they moved into northeastern Europe including Russia. They also settled along the coast of northern France, where they established Normandy, which means "northmen".
Viking expansion during the Middle Ages - Click to see larger view
By the start of the 11th century the Vikings were at the peak of their expansion. One Viking, Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, actually made it to North America. He started a brief settlement in present day Canada. This was many hundreds of years before Columbus.
Defeat in Great Britain and the End of the Viking Age
In 1066, the Vikings, led by King Harald Hardrada of Norway were defeated by the English and King Harold Godwinson. The loss of this battle is sometimes used to symbolize the end of the Viking Age. At this point the Vikings stopped expanding their territory and raiding became less frequent.
A major reason for the end of the Viking age was the coming of Christianity. With Scandinavia being converted to Christianity and becoming part of Christian Europe, the Vikings became more and more a part of mainland Europe. The identity and boundaries of the three countries Sweden, Denmark, and Norway began to form as well.
Perhaps the Vikings were most famous for their ships. The Vikings made longships for exploration and raiding. Longships were long, narrow boats designed for speed. They were generally propelled using oars, but later had a sail to help out in windy conditions. Longships had a shallow draft, meaning they could float in shallow water, making them good for landing on beaches.
The Vikings also made cargo ships called knarr for trading. The knarr was wider and deeper than the longship so it could carry more cargo.
At the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark you can see five recovered Viking ships. You can also see how the Vikings built their ships. The Vikings used a ship building method called clinker building. They used long planks of wood that overlapped along the edges.
Fun Facts about Vikings
- Although Vikings are often depicted as wearing horned helmets, it is doubtful that they actually wore them into battle.
- The Viking is the mascot for the National Football League team in Minnesota.
- Some Vikings used huge 2-handed axes in battle. They could easily cut through a metal helmet or shield.
- Dublin, Ireland was founded by Viking raiders.
- Some Byzantine Emperors used Vikings for their personal guards.
- The world's oldest parliament was established by the Vikings in Iceland.
Take a ten question quiz at the Vikings questions page.
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