Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Vikings Part 2: Different Strokes for Different Folks

It's much too late to be starting this post, but I have too much information in my head. I need to write it out.
I've been continuing my journey with the vikings. I've been learning new things as well as being reminded of other segments of history that I have studied before, such as St. Patrick's role in Ireland or the way the Danes shaped England. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We need to start with some raids.

Viking raids began at the very end of the 8th century. They started drifted across the sea to Western Europe, which was then Gaul and the empire of the Frankish kings and so on. What pushed the vikings to travel such distances to raid and pillage and destroy and steal? I discussed in my last post how they wanted to venerate their ancestors by proving themselves in battle. That had something to do with it. But really the vikings were just clever bullies. They saw weaknesses and they decided to strike and take whatever they wanted. The slave trade was huge at this time, so these Norsemen would either take prisoners to trade or hostages to sell for ransom, along with precious religious items and all kinds of booty.

Eventually Charlemagne took the throne as king of the franks and later the Holy Roman Empire. He did a decent job of keeping the vikings at bay, but they still raided. Across the sea, down the rivers, through the towns, through the monasteries, into the churches. As soon as he died, his sons started fighting each other over who would get what territory. And the vikings, being the smart handsome bullies that they were, saw a weakness and went for it. Charlemagne was organized so it slowed the raids. But as soon as they saw disorganization, they went for the jugular. A whole new generation of brutal Scandinavians tore through Western Europe, reeking havoc.

The empire was too big to protect. The descendants of Charlemagne had to eventually break it up into smaller kingdoms, what became the feudal system as we know. The vikings indirectly invented, or at least set the stage for, the feudal system within autonomous kingdoms that were so well known through the Middle Ages. The raids continued, however, until finally a large chunk of what is now France was handed over to the Norwegians. You see, many of these raiders had been at sea and to battle many times over the last 15-20 years. They had acquired so much wealth and so many wives and slaves, they were ready to settle down. They were given Normandy, land of the North men. This slice of wonderful land became the guidebook for how to build your kingdoms in the Middle Ages. All kinds of kings and emperors could not get the dukes of Normandy to obey their rule. The vikings were left to do their own thing right next door.

The vikings got tired of Western Europe (and some, as we see, just decided to settle down), so they moved across the sea to the west and found England sitting all by its lonesome self. And man they tore that shit up! Raid after raid came through the island, causing mayhem to the highest degree. England was in even more chaos than Western Europe. A non-unified state, England consisted of four major territories with chieftains and clans battle each other for one reason or another. Again, perfect conditions for a viking invasion.

The Danes moved in on England pretty harshly. They took two of the four territories and were ready to take the most important at the time, which was Wessex. Alfred the Great was the military genius who finally beat the vikings and pushed them back to a certain line. Alfred said that the Danes could stay as long as they stopped bothering them and if they were baptized as Christians. The Danish vikings said, okay, but you have to let us keep our own customs and you have to pay us a lot of money. So the English paid the vikings to leave them alone. But something very interesting happened in England which did not happen anywhere else. Following the collapse of Rome and the subsequent viking raids, most places in Western Europe were falling apart at the seams and becoming less and less entangled with any sort of state or patriotism or country. England, however, banded together against the vikings, and by the end of the Viking Age, had unified the country under one king. Crazy!

Likewise, the vikings did rather odd things in England, too. Whereas in Western Europe, they tromped along and took what they wanted, or in the case of the Norse, were given a big chunk of land where they had their own little Norwegian community, in England, they settled in with the Celts and the Anglos and the Saxons. They adopted some pieces of their lifestyle, such as Christianity, but kept others like their love for Scandinavian legends and poetry.

Ireland, too, was hit hard by the vikings. But Ireland itself was an anomaly in this whole scenario. The reason for this is because although it was in the path of trade routes with Roman merchants, it was never a part of the Roman world. It sat on the fringes of society, picking up an interesting sect of Christianity and copying down books. Monasteries were the main learning and cultural centers in Ireland. Everything revolved around them. So of course, that's where the vikings liked to hit. The Irish were not exactly worse off than the Anglo-Saxons in England. They didn't have the organizational problems the way England had. Ireland was still a fragmented society of warrior clans. This impressed the vikings, who still had superior weapons for naval battle, but stayed out of the hinterland where the Irish were master ambush warriors.

The viking take on Ireland is yet again different from their previous two victims. Here, they practically conquer the majority of the island. But they don't do anything about it. Someone claims the throne, but no huge Scandinavian kingdom is set up like it could have been. The Irish pushed back and forced the vikings out of Dublin. The vikings hit back and so on and so forth.

Very strange, this life in Ireland. One of the biggest reasons the vikings like Ireland was because of its booming slave trade. Vikings would take Irish, Scots, Pict's, and many other European neighbors and sell them to the thriving Muslim empire to the south east. Slaves were the most sought after commodity during this time. And while later the Christian sea-kings thought it unwise to capture fellow Christians like themselves, most of the time the slaves were regular white skinned neighbors. Although, they were particularly fond of Eastern Europeans who eventually became named after their occupation: the Slavs.

What is bizarre to me is how inconsistently the vikings directly and indirectly changed the landscape of the world. The Danes pretty much completed the English language, but the Germanic languages of Western Europe hardly had any use for Scandinavian words. They settled in Europe and in Normandy, but left other places ruined and broken. Sometimes they took to Christianity, sometimes they didn't.
I have a few more episodes to go, but you can see why I needed to stay up late and get this pounded out.
See you in Valhalla.

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