The historical phenomenon that began on 8 June 793 with the sack of Lindisfarne abbey in Northumberland and ended around 1050 left a lasting trace in the memory of the frightened West. The Viking myth of the barbarian brute, standing in horned helmet at the prow of his drakkar, is still vivid today. And yet its causes are known: the Scandinavian pirates attacked rich and defenceless places, abbeys, collegiate churches, cathedrals and so on because they were not numerous enough to form true armies or fleets capable of confronting an enemy face to face. Their chosen victims, the clerics, were also the only ones capable of writing, particularly of writing down the chronicles or annals that are our usual starting-point for grasping the phenomenon. It is they who made the Viking an instrument of Satan or the arm of God come to chastise the West for its sins. Later on, the Viking became the model of the cavalier (18th c.), then of the Nietzschean Uebermensch.
What was a Viking? He was a highly-skilled merchant, who had carried on this activity for a long time and whom favourable circumstances led to turn himself into a looter, but who would always remain diligent to afla sér fjár (acquire wealth) by any means at his disposal. Favourable circumstances: for this we must turn to the theories of H. Pirenne. In the West, the indispensable East-West exchanges were cut off in the 7th c. by the Arabs. Since Europe could not do without these exchanges, the axis moved to the Baltic – North Sea – Atlantic complex where there existed at least two tribes of very great navigators capable of taking up the baton: the Frisians and the Scandinavians. We know today that the etymology of the word víkingr makes him a navigator who goes from vicus to vicus to trade there, while the etymology of his equivalent when trading in the East rather than the West, the Varangian (vaeringr), comes from vara, merchandise. And we know very well, since archaeology helps us, the great routes followed and long since marked out by the Viking from vicus to vicus, of counters, kaupangr in his language.
Broadly, four routes are known, each of which could admit interesting variants. That of the interior of the Baltic, where he collected that fossil resin more precious than gold, amber. That of the north, which started from southern Norway and ended, after coasting – the Vikings’ normal means of navigation –, beyond Nordkapp and across the White Sea, at what is now Murmansk or Arkhangelsk: it was there that he took on skins and furs, one of his preferred luxury merchandises. To the west, there were at least three routes. Directly west, to England, the Celtic territories (North Atlantic islands, Scotland, Ireland), then from 874 to Iceland, then Greenland and probably North America. Or else, more southerly, following the coasts of what would be Holland, Belgium, France, Spain, through the straits of Gibraltar, southern France, Italy, as far as Constantinople. Or he could go directly south from the mouth of the Rhine and, reviving the deeds of his ancestors from the age of the great migrations, end up in northern Italy. Finally the eastern route, which was a sort of Swedish speciality and admitted two variants: via the far end of the Gulf of Finland, the mouth of the Neva and the whole complex of Russian rivers and lakes as far as the north of the Black Sea (Berezanyi), then to Constantinople; or else, further east, via the north of the Caspian Sea – and this itinerary crossed the two great caravan trails coming from the Far East – and then, after crossing it, Bokhara, Samarkand, Tashkent or Baghdad, all places where archaeologists have found traces of Scandinavians, and finally Constantinople. It would be tedious to enumerate all the counters that the Scandinavians frequented along all these itineraries.
On the other hand, what archaeology makes it possible to establish is the outfit of the Scandinavian “ merchant”: his tools, his balance for weighing silver, cut up or otherwise, his “wallet” with compartments adapted to the various types of money that would be current on his itinerary, his weights and measures, etc. Of course, there would never have been a Viking without his boat. The whole world has been able to admire this construction with its continuous keel, its hull made of clinker-built planks and maintained on the inside by frames, its great mast planted in a shoe shaped like a fish, its rudder fixed by a flexible fastening to starboard of the stern: an elastic vehicle that did not directly confront the billows but sought to wed them. As such, capable of moving by oar or by sail, with a negligible draught that allowed it to navigate more or less everywhere, rapid, light, good for transporting precious merchandise in small quantities, but not heavy cargoes, with its crew averaging forty men, it was the fruit of a very long evolution. It transported amber, skins and furs, vadmal, precious woods and especially slaves, the primary “merchandise” of the Vikings who carried them off en route (this was called strandhögg and is reminiscent of modern commando operations) and sought to resell them either at Constantinople or at Hedeby (ancient Haithabu) in Denmark. The Viking returned home with silk, scarlet, glasswork, fine weapons, pottery and other manufactured objects. He rarely operated alone for various reasons, primarily financial: he practised association (félag, “ guild”).
That his primary aim was to enrich himself by all possible means, including predation or mercenary service, is apparent from even a cursory examination of the periodization of the phenomenon, which is quite easily divided into four periods. In the first (c.800–c.850), we see a departure, a sort of gradual discovery of the possibilities on offer. Then, from c.850 to c.900, the phenomenon was put in place, became conscious of its aims and was organised: these were the great raids that terrorized the West especially by reason of the tactics adopted, which exploited surprise. From 900, because the West organised itself to face them, the Scandinavians renounced their undertakings and sought to settle, to establish themselves under more clement skies, to “colonize”: this would be so as to settle in empty territories ( Iceland, Greenland, Faeroes) or, after having found a modus vivendi, in places that accepted them (the English Danelaw because the local rulers were tired of paying those ransoms called danegelds whose scale was increasing, French Normandy, Southern Ireland) or again because the local populations asked them to provide them with “cadres”: this was the case of the principalities of Novgorod-Hólmgardr and Kiev-Koenugardr that gave Rus’ its status as a State and even its name. It was not until the end of the period, between 980 and 1050, that we see Danish rulers (Sveinn Forkbeard and Cnút the Great) attempting, in order to fulfil a dream of hegemony over the Scandinavia– Great Britain complex, veritable military expeditions rapidly destined for failure.
Around 1050, the Viking phenomenon was slowly emptied of its substance. The primary cause for this was the christianization of the North (which took place everywhere around the year 1000) and which, by forbidding slavery, deprived these merchants of their principal “merchandise”. Then, the Scandinavian states themselves were organised on the model of more southerly countries and no longer tolerated the initiatives of petty chiefs. Finally, the Arab hold on the Mediterranean relaxed. The Viking was slowly dispossessed. But it remains to say that he would not have been possible without the culture and civilization that gave birth to him and which we can still admire in its technical, literary and artistic achievements. Nothing is more false than to consider “ barbarians” these men who were able to impose the practices of their small number on the whole West, and that for two centuries and a half.