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History of the Vikings

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  • 0:05 The Vikings
  • 0:48 The Longship
  • 2:40 Impact of Raids
  • 4:39 The Viking Age
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the history of the Vikings. We examine the Viking longships and their role in raids. Then we explore the impact these raids had on European history. Next we look at some of the other things the Vikings did besides raiding.

The Vikings: A Misunderstood People

When we think of Vikings, we tend to think of bearded, axe-wielding barbarians raping and pillaging their way along the coast of Northern Europe. It is hard to imagine that these savage people might have had any lasting impact on Western Civilization besides, perhaps, the terror of their memory. And indeed, that terror alone would change the course of history in profound ways. Yet in at least one respect, the Vikings were ahead of their time. They were the first world explorers and had colonized the New World nearly 500 years before Columbus first set sail.

The Viking Longship

Yet history does not remember the Vikings for their exploration but for their barbarity. This is not surprising, as most of our accounts of the Vikings come from the victims of their raids. And indeed, Viking raids were a quick and brutal affair. The Vikings did not come to conquer, they came to steal everything of value and leave.

We can learn a lot about how these raids went by looking at the heart of Viking culture: the longship. As the name implies, the Viking longship was a long ship with banks of oars on either side and sometimes a sail. Viking longships were capacious, able to hold a large company of warriors and whatever booty they might acquire. Viking longships had a shallow draft, allowing them to pull right up to the coast or even up a river for an amphibious assault. Viking longships were symmetrical, allowing them to reverse direction without turning around. This feature probably evolved from the need to navigate around icebergs in the frozen water of the North; however, it proved equally useful for making a quick getaway after a raid.

The Viking longships were maneuverable and could hold many troops and the spoils of war.
Viking Longship Picture

So, imagine waking up one morning to see Viking longships approaching. You immediately know you're doomed. You could send for help to your neighbors, but there's no way they will arrive in time since the Vikings can just pull their longships ashore. And because the Vikings are here to raid, not to conquer, they're not going to sit around and wait for an army to come fight them. Even if a neighbor came to your aid, the Vikings would just row their symmetrical boats back out to sea and go raid your neighbor's undefended land. In short, if you get raided by Vikings, you're on your own.

The Impact of Viking Raids

For these reasons, Viking became a word of terror for the people of Northern Europe, and many historians tend to treat Vikings as mere disruptions to civilization. Yet it was in this disruptive role that the Vikings had, perhaps, their most profound impact on Western civilization. The Vikings essentially turned the tide in Europe from centralized imperialism to decentralized feudalism. Viking raids began stepping up around the end of the 8th century, just as Charlemagne was trying to unite Europe into the Carolingian Empire.

This centralized empire was not suitable to deal with the amphibious raids of the Vikings. Try as he might, Charlemagne could not possibly hope to defend thousands of miles of coastline from Viking invasions. Moreover, since the shallow Viking longships could travel upriver, not even the inland empire was safe, as the Vikings proved quite clearly a century later by laying siege to Paris in 885. Charlemagne's empire was so short-lived because it could not provide the most basic services an empire is supposed to provide its subjects: peace and protection. As Charlemagne's empire fell apart, Europeans needed to find a new way to protect themselves against these Viking raiders, something local and small enough to be responsive but powerful enough to protect the people and their property.

Charlemagne had too many coastlines and riverfronts to protect against the Viking raids.
Charlemagne Viking Raids Map

This marks the birth of feudalism, a system in which local lords tax their people to support small armies and build fortifications. Though feudalism would eventually be used against the common people, giving it the negative connotation it has even today, at its inception feudalism actually was meant to protect the people from invading Vikings.

The Viking Age

Though the Vikings clearly earned their reputation as vicious warriors, it is worth noting that the Vikings were more than just raiders; they were also traders. Starting from Scandinavia, the Vikings had established numerous trading colonies across Northern Europe.

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