Viking were Norse people principally from southern Scandinavia (in present-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden), who from the late 8th to late 11th centuries, assaulted and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of Europe, and traveled westwards to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. The term is also usually prolonged in modern English and other vernaculars to include the inhabitants of Norse home communities during what has become known as the Viking Age, 793–1066 AD.
The Viking Age
The period from the most initial recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age of Scandinavian history. Vikings used the Norwegian Sea and Baltic Sea for sea routes to the south. The Normans were descended from Vikings who were given feudal overlordship of areas in northern France—the Duchy of Normandy—in the 10th century. In that respect, descendants of the Vikings continued to influence in northern Europe. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, had Danish ancestors. Two Vikings even soared to the throne of England, with Sweyn Forkbeard claiming the English throne in 1013–1014 and his son Cnut the Great becoming king of England 1016–1035.
Geographically, a Viking Age may be attributed to not only Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), but also territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, including Scandinavian York, the official centre of the remains of the Kingdom of Northumbria, parts of Mercia, and East Anglia. Viking navigators opened the road to new lands to the north, west and east, following the foundation of independent settlements in the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands; Iceland; Greenland; and L’Anse aux Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000. The Greenland settlement was established around 980, during the Medieval Warm Period, and its demise by the mid-15th century may have been partly due to climate change. The Viking Rurik dynasty took control of regions in Slavic and Finno-Ugric-dominated areas of Eastern Europe; they attached Kiev in 882 to assist as the capital of the Kievan Rus’.
As early as 839, when Swedish emissaries are first known to have visited Byzantium, Scandinavians served as soldiers in the army of the Byzantine Empire. In the late 10th century, a new unit of the imperial bodyguard formed. Traditionally containing large numbers of Scandinavians, it was known as the Varangian Guard. The word Varangian may have originated in Old Norse, but in Slavic and Greek it could refer either to Scandinavians or Franks. In these years, Swedish men left to enlist in the Byzantine Varangian Guard in such numbers that a medieval Swedish law, Västgötalagen, from Västergötland declared no one could inherit while staying in “Greece”—the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire—to stop the emigration, especially as two other European courts simultaneously also recruited Scandinavians: Kievan Rus’ c. 980–1060 and London 1018–1066 (the Þingalið).
There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic Empire. The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant, and slaves. Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod, and Kiev.
Scandinavian Norsemen traversed Europe by its seas and rivers for trade, raids, colonization, and conquest. In this period, voyaging from their homelands in Denmark, Norway and Sweden the Norsemen settled in the present-day Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norse Greenland, Newfoundland, the Netherlands, Germany, Normandy, Italy, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Estonia, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, as well as initiating the process of strengthening that resulted in the creation of the present day Scandinavian countries.
In the Viking Age, the present day nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark did not survive, but were largely homogeneous and similar in culture and language, although somewhat distinct geographically. The names of Scandinavian kings are reliably known for only the later part of the Viking Age. After the end of the Viking Age the separate kingdoms gradually earned distinct uniqueness as nations, which went hand-in-hand with their Christianisation. Thus the end of the Viking Age for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.