AD 793 were the Vikings really that bad

I’ve always thought about the Vikings in the traditional way - bloodthirsty marauders. Then quite by happenstance I’ve run across three articles that states this was not the case. Wikipedia even says…

*”Viking travellers and colonists were seen at many points in history as brutal raiders. Many historical documents suggest that their invasion of other countries was retaliation in response to the encroachment upon tribal lands by Christian missionaries, and perhaps by the Saxon Wars prosecuted by Charlemagne and his kin to the south, or were motivated by overpopulation, trade inequities, and the lack of viable farmland in their homeland.

Information about the Viking Age is drawn largely from what was written about the Vikings by their enemies, and primary sources of archaeology, supplemented with secondary sources such as the Icelandic Sagas.”*

What’s the real scoop? Also if someone could recommend a reputable book on the subject I’d appreciate it.

You’ll be interested in the times (on and off during 875-954) when the Vikings captured and ruled the city of York.
Here’s a link to an excellent exhibition in the city.

P.S. I think New York is named after the Duke of York, who took his title from the city.

Jorvik is highly recommended. The Vikings were part of a vast trading network that stretched from Iceland to China, including Russia, Byzantium and India. The Varangian Guard in Byzantium, fiercely loyal warriors who guarded the Emperor himself, were ultimately derived from Viking stock, it appears.

Vikings were as much traders and colonials as they were raiders, if not more so. The modern conception of Vikings, like the modern conception of the Middle Ages, is pretty much a Victorian-era invention.

Vikings (or, at least, free vikings) were colourfully-clad, well-groomed, cosmopolitan and artistic. Yes, they could be brutal (eg practising human sacrifice well into the 10th C at least) but so were many of their contemporaries.

Not sure I’d characterise it that way. For the first few hundred years, they literally were Vikings and Anglo-Saxons who travelled to Byzantium to serve, and often retired back home if they survived service (as evidenced by the runestones they raised, or that were raised in their memory).

I don’t think it’s really contradictory (although I’m not sure exactly how the Saxon wars would make a bunch of Vikings pillage cities and given that they were themselves famous traders, I’m not sure what kind of “trade inequities” they were victim of, either).

And a lot of Varangians were Kievan Rus’, Vikings who had settled in Kiev for a while, and seem to have been mixed up with the local Slavs in various ways. Just like the Vikings in York were mixed up with the local Saxons and Celts.

Recent genetic studies seem to indicate that both the Saxons and the Vikings only added a small amount of genetic heritage to the local population round York; the Celtic population was not completely displaced or exterminated in either case.

History is undoubtedly always complex, but I don’t think you can dismiss Viking depredations as entirely the misconceptions of Victorians. For all the good they may have done elsewhere, the Vikings were indeed deadly raiders and plunderers at other times.They ransacked the monastery at Glendalough, which was in essence a virtul city at the time, not just a collection of single guys with a lot of loot:

Viking raids were so frequent that a line was added to the standard Litany – “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord, deliver us”

We are talking quite a period of time. Some came to plunder, rape and pillage, others eventually came to settle and farm. Or the two went hand in hand, as often happens in colonial expansions - I doubt if the British wives taken to populate Iceland all went willingly.

yes, indeed, but the OP asks “AD 793 were the Vikings really that bad?” and the answer, as my post makes clear, was indisputably “yes”. Later, the Vikings may have been all cute and cuddly, but it’s hard to think of the guy looting your sacristy, burning your crops, and carrying citizens off for ransom or slavery that way.
Later in life Genghis Khan may have been a religiously tolerant philosopher, pitting theologians of different religions against each other in arguments, but that doesn’t change the fact that he came to power massacring entire populations.

Personally I’ll take the older, fatter Genghis over the young thin Elvis, and the later Vikings over the younger, punkier ones. But it’s a package deal.

One of the complaints in England about the Norse were their UN-filthy habits:

“[T]the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.”

The old word for “Saturday” was “laugardagr” which means “bath day”.

They traveled to N. America, to Spain, to Sicily, to Byzantium, to Persia. No other group knew could reliably travel such distances.

Literacy was quite common. They left graffiti on statues in Athens and at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. And of course on runestones all over. They even enscribed words on everyday objects like combs.

Combing was so important that combs are one of the most common old Norse finds.

But remember:

A Christian army attacks another country: that’s war.
A non-Christian army attacks another country: that’s barbarianism.

Yes. If we’re talking about the 8th century, it isn’t like there was a UN Charter and a UNSC to determine which wars were just and which were not. Conquering was a pretty normal way of doing business.

Scandinavians attacked the British Isles even in prehistoric times. How far back can we go and still apply the term ‘Viking’ correctly?

Does the story of Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte help reveal Vikings’ character? In this Treaty, Charles the Simple of France gave Rollo (Hrolf) the Viking the Duchy of Normandy (and allegedly Charles’ daughter Gisela), in return for Rollo’s pledge to …

(Both New York and its future capital Albany were named after the same man, the future King James II of England, who held both York and Albany as Duchies. IIRC, I learned this at SDMB from Little Nemo. James’ mother also had a U.S. colony named after her (Maryland); James’ father two (Carolinas)!)

The etymology of ‘viking’ is confused and much-debated, but there is some evidence that the word ‘Viking’ refers to the act of sea raiding, and a ‘Vikingr’ was a person who embarked on a sea raiding adventure. Therefore, there is a bit of selection bias at work. As OP noticed, the information comes to us through the accounts of their victims. The question essentially asks: “Are people who engage in piracy really that bad?” Yes, sea-raiders and pirates really are that bad, but not every member of the population was engaged in piracy.

If we limit ourselves to only discussing the Northmen who actually engaged in raiding, they were unequivocally nasty people. You have to have balls to get in a tiny boat, sail the North Atlantic, find some Christians, and plunder the $#!* out of them. For the people engaged in this practice, bloodshed, slavery, theft, and extortion were the order of the day. And keep in mind, these people were brutal even by the standards of eighth-century Europe, which was… Um… Not a nice place.


Not all Northmen were raiders. As in any other society, the portion of people who actually go out and fight must be supported by a population of farmers, tailors, shipwrights, and smiths (aka 'normal people). We know with great certainty that the Scandinavians were enthusiastic merchants and colonizers who often intermarried with native populations. Scandinavian colonists founded settlements all over Europe and assimilated with the local culture or created hybridized cultures (such as the Normans, who were Gallic Scandinavians).

Setting aside the question of raiding and the accounts of their victims, we must overcome two indisputable facts about Scandinavia: (1) The region was poor in resources such as iron, and (B) it was cold as $#!*. This suggests to me that the “average” (eg non-pirate) Northman probably had a lot in common with the average peasant anywhere else in Europe. That is to say: they spent most of their lives engaged in subsistence farming, sitting around being bored out of their minds as they tried to survive long, dark winters without succumbing to famine. They probably spent most of their time praying for short winters and full bellies.

The social organization of the jarls tells us a bit about how their patronage systems worked. The chieftain ‘jarl,’ was also referred to by the kenning ‘ring-giver.’ Wealthy men were expected to share their wealth with their people, and in exchange the people provided him with their food, services, and loyalty. The easiest way to get rich in those days was to raid some Christians. Therefore, it’s my conclusion that the pirate ‘Vikings’ were probably the metaphorical “1%” of the Scandinavian world, in that they engaged in the fighting and the raiding and brought back their plunder to buy food and services from the (again, metaphorical) 99% who spent their lives farming and fishing and doing other non-violent things.

History is always written by the victors, and it is a complex subject but one cannot ignore the brutality of Charlemagne which actually pre-dated the invasions as an example, Sigfried’s brother was murdered in the “The Massacre of Verdun”.

Charlemagne ordered the prisoners be baptized in the Elbe and the priests recited their benedictions while Frankish soldiers held the victims underwater until they drowned, all 4500 of them.

The church had spent decades violently converting pagans and so when there was a change in climate in the north and a starving people looked south for riches is is no wonder that they targeted the churches which had wealth, were softer targets and were also party to many acts of violence against these people.

I think it is a stretch to say that the above mentioned mass murder in 782, along with more than a decade of previous actions had nothing to do with the following years attacks on the church 10 years later.

It was a brutal era, all around.

A characteristic pattern in history is when a group comes into possession of a revolutionary weapons system, they exploit it by going on a rampage against their neighbors. What good is an advantage you don’t exploit?

This happened with the chariot and composite bow: chariot conquerors immediately overran all the areas suitable for chariot campaigning. This happened with the steppe peoples (from Huns to Mongols and Turks) when they perfected horse archery. This happened with the Romans when they got their Legions organized. Europe with gunpowder.

When the Scandinavians perfected the longship, they had a vessel that could go on the open ocean (because it had a keel, among other things) but had shallow draft allowing it to land on beaches and sail up rivers. With both sails and oars these ships were highly flexible – able to use the wind when it was going in the right direction but able to act if it was not. This gave them unprecedented mobility over the hapless herds of footsoldiers who made up the typical medieval levy. The Vikings could go where the weak points were, and if they found the defenders had shifted their troops to cover, the Vikings could leave and hit a new area faster than the defenders could react.

Individual Vikings involved in these raids were no doubt cruel – the very process must have hardened and traumatized them. But a very normal human reaction to developing a military advantage is to employ it against those who lack it. In this the Vikings were much like many other peoples.

Wasn’t the long-ship usable in these trade routes long before this? And while I don’t disagree with your point, a mini-ice age causing starvation, and the fact that Frankish Empire and Charlemagne were to the south in the land route forced their hand.

Charlemagne was known as the “butcher of the Saxons” (Sachsenschlächter) so it is not exactly like this behavior was out of thin air once the mini-ice age started and the Norse started starving. Charlemagne made a point of chopping of 1000’s of heads in a single day when there was any form of uprising on the land route.

Viking is not a people. Viking is a job description.

The Norse, indeed, were often traders, etc.

However, when the Norse went a-viking they got pretty brutal.

A good number of them were Anglo-Saxon Housecarles, who left England after Harold II died.

Slavery had come up several times in this thread. Who were the Vikings selling slaves to?