Vikings: From Lawbreakers to Lawmakers

Vikings: From Lawbreakers to Lawmakers
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  • 0:01 Who Were The Vikings?
  • 0:55 Lawbreakers
  • 2:25 If You Can't Beat…
  • 4:20 Lawmakers
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Portrayed as little better than pirates, the Vikings were actually an important influence on the development of Europe as we know it. From establishing cities from Ireland to Russia and conquering England many times, the Vikings changed Europe forever.

Who Were the Vikings?

The appearance of sleek longships on the horizon was enough to throw many coastal communities from Scotland to France in complete terror. For others, it meant profits. But who were the Vikings? Where did they go? And what is with those horned helmets?

The Vikings originated in a region called Scandinavia, which is today Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. This area is cold, with limited opportunities for farming, yet incredible fishing grounds are just off the coast. As a result, the Vikings learned to handle boats early in their history and soon used this knowledge to expand their influence. The Vikings sailed further and further from their homelands. In fact, the word 'Viking' comes from the word 'Vikinggr,' (Viking-gar) which means 'to go adventuring' in Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.


Think about what you may know about a Viking battle. A huge number of ships approaches, dislodging hundreds of smelly men with horned helmets onto terrified and unsuspecting helpless people, while the Vikings stole all the valuables. Unfortunately, as interesting of an image as that is, it is completely wrong! For starters, Vikings rarely sailed with more than a few ships, called 'longships', each carrying only 20-30 warriors. Also, as you might expect, staying in such a small space with a bunch of smelly, sweaty people meant that the Vikings took care to wash off as often as they could. As for the horned helmets, those just fell off too easily. After all, a helmet only did a Viking any good, no matter how fierce it looked, if it was on his head and not rolling on the ground.

But everything else about that mental image was correct. The Vikings almost always attacked from water; it was the only way to move quickly without horses. Also, the Vikings were not there to conquer new lands but instead to gain wealth. Towns with rich churches were prime targets, as there would be plenty of gold and silver to go around. Remember, Scandinavia was poor, so for many Vikings, an expedition to raid the English coast was more of a way to save money for the future than it was anything else.

If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them

However, not everywhere was as weakly defended as England and Ireland, but that did not dissuade the Vikings from finding a way to make money. Many Vikings soon turned to trade to earn their wealth fairly, relying on their abilities to sail quickly, and the fact since everyone was afraid of the Vikings, no one would try to steal their goods or cheat them out of their fair share. Soon, the Vikings had built a substantial trading empire, stretching from Scandinavia to the Middle East. They sailed up rivers and would ultimately establish many small towns that would soon grow into some of the greatest cities in Europe, such as Kiev and Dublin.

Soon, the Vikings saw the potential of owning not just the ships but also the territory. Once again, England would be the subject of these new Viking conquests, as it was still weak and disorganized. Viking invasions would put an end to that, as most of modern England was soon under Viking rule, known as 'Danelaw'. Yet, not every Viking who wanted land could find it in England. Instead, many started to put their abilities as sailors to a new test, sailing west into uncharted waters.

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