Originally the word ‘Viking’ was used as a verb rather than a noun. To go raiding was to go viking, and you were going viking as you travelled far from home to search for riches. The word has now come to represent several peoples that struck out to raid the shores of, not only the kingdoms of Britain, but of Frankia (France) and many other parts of what is now modern Europe and even as far as Russia. These people were primarily from the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
These Norsemen, as they were known, began raiding as a means to survive as their populations expanded. The lands they came from were rocky and sandy and offered little in the way of good farm land. Any fertile land that was to be found was jealously controlled by Jarls (owners of lands and men, ‘Earls’ in English) and self proclaimed kings. They therefore took what they needed from others, from lands with richer soil and less warlike tendencies.
They sailed ready for war in their long ships and often encountered it, but as the years went by and the raiding parties grew larger, the focus shifted to settlement and a more peaceful life rather than a lightning raid and a return to icy shores. Britain was one of the places marked as a good place to settle. By the middle of the ninth century, the men of the north decided they didn’t want to just pillage, they wanted to stay. They came in their thousands and by the year 878 they had all but conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Many years of struggle followed, but away from the fighting, mainly in the north of the country, warriors brought their families over the sea to establish a peaceful farming existence.
Despite their fearsome reputation, it is beneficial to remember that they were just men and like most others they craved a good life for themselves and their families. They did not constantly seek out war, but rather saw it as a means to a comfortable retirement on lush green shores.
When Vikings stopped raiding they often became part of the very country they had assaulted. They put down roots, bringing, not only their families, but their culture and language to the places they settled and within a few generations the Scandinavian raiders became as much a part of their adopted country as those that had come before them.
One example of the effect they had on the lands they settled is found in the origin of Russia’s name. The root word is Rus, meaning ‘those who row’, it was given to the people that raided and eventually settled the lands at the eastern edge of Europe, a group of raiders from the region which is now Sweden. As generations passed the land of the Rus eventually became known as Russia.
The Vikings started as a people from the rocky lands of Scandinavia, but they became people of the world.