The name Vikings is generic and refers to all of those Scandinavians--Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish--who terrorized the coasts of Europe between 800 and 1050. Their society bore a marked resemblance to that of the early Germanic tribes. Scandinavia was a world of small farmers and fishermen who lived in widely scattered communities connected primarily by the sea. The heart of such communities was their market and their Thing, the assembly of free men that met, usually on market days, to discuss matters of public concern. These gatherings also ratified the selection of kings, who were in the beginning little more than regional warlords. Drawn mostly from the ranks of a hereditary aristocracy, these chieftains relied upon personal loyalties, the fellowship of the chief's great hall where warriors drank and celebrated, and the distribution of loot to organize war parties of free farmers and craftsmen. The leisure for such pursuits was provided by a large population of slaves, or thralls. Even the smallest farms might have at least three, and the need to replenish their numbers was an important incentive for the raids. In the summers while the men raided, the women managed the farms, the slaves, and the continued production of craft goods and services. Following the pattern of other maritime communities before and since, Scandinavian women tended to be far more independent and economically active than their inland sisters.
Warfare and raiding was endemic in the region long before the dawn of the Viking age, as was an extensive trading network that helps to explain the cultural similarities of the Scandinavian peoples. Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians spoke related languages, shared the system of formal writing known as runes, and enjoyed a common tradition of oral literature that was finally committed to writing in the thirteenth century. Its characteristic form was the saga, a mixture of historical fact and legend that reached its highest development in Iceland. Scandinavian religion was polytheistic and bore a close resemblance to that of other Germanic peoples.
Viking burial customs reveal much about Scandinavian art and technology. Dead chiefs were sometimes surrounded by their possessions and buried in their boats, a practice that left behind rich hordes of artifacts including exquisite carvings and jewelry.
The boats were an extraordinary technical achievement. The typical Viking longship was about sixty-five feet in length, open-decked, and double ended. It could be propelled by oars at speeds up to ten knots or by a single square sail and was strongly built of overlapping planks that carried the structural load of the hull. Such vessels could cross oceans. Because their draft was rarely more than three feet they could also be beached without damage or rowed far into the interior on the shallowest of rivers. With a crew of forty to sixty men and no decks for shelter they cannot have been comfortable, but they provided the ultimate in operational flexibility.
Their range was enormous. In 844 Vikings raided the Atlantic ports of Spain. In the following year they sacked Paris, and in 859-860 they reached Italy, penetrating the Val d'Arno almost to the outskirts of Florence. Fortunately for the Italians they did not return. In the north the Vikings soon learned how to extend their range by traveling on stolen horses when their ships reached the limits of navigation. Nothing seemed beyond their reach. . .
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