“Viking” innovations

The image of the vikings painted by medieval chroniclers is of brutal thugs. The word basically means "pirates." For a start, it is important to note that "viking" was not a nationality or even a philosophy, but a job, and almost always a temporary one. Young men went a-viking to get the wealth to obtain a wife and buy a farm either back home or in some other place, which might include a far-flung settlement like the Faroes, Ireland, the Danelaw, Normandy, or even Vinland or Sicily. And of course for fun and fame. Most of them retired and settled down, and the Icelandic sagas mock wandering berserks who prey on their own people. A comparable phenomenon on a smaller scale was the knights errant of the later Middle Ages - younger sons of aristocrats who could not inherit and caused considerable trouble riding around stealing and killing, however noble the phenomenon may have sounded in romances (Gies 142-44).

It is telling that one of the complaints from the era of Norse settlement in England is that the "Danes" bathed too often and thus had a dangerous attraction to the ladies. The Norsemen used saunas and knew that personal hygiene tended to keep one healthy.

The knowledge of geography and of where plunder was to be found came from extensive trade. That trade involved getting along with people, as we see in the eventual decisions to convert. It also must have involved skill with languages (which was also demonstrated by those who joined the Varangian Guard in Constantinople). To facilitate trade, the Scandinavians founded several cities, such as Hedeby, Dublin, and Kiev, that became great centers of prosperity and innovation.

They also made considerable advances, too rarely noted, in some areas of science. In navigation and astronomy, they were far above those they raided. They conducted surprise raids from the sea: this entailed finding the correct latitude on their own coast and sailing across to the other coast. Sailing along the coast, as others without their ability to steer by the stars had to do, would have lost the element of surprise. Their ships also had steering rudders and anchors beyond anything anyone else had. The longships themselves were very advanced, "sailing canoes" with low sides to make rowing possible (up onto a beach, or on a river) but with a draft of only 2-3 feet (opening both the beach and the river to raiding, and making portage possible) (Hasloch Kirby 184). The evolution of these ships can be seen in the picture-stones: one impetus for the Viking Age was that the ships were ready.

The Icelandic democracy and the systems of law and governance in all the Scandinavian lands were an early source of freedom and justice and an important counterweight to the dead hand of Roman tradition based on very different political circumstances, and to the increasing assertion of control by the Church and by ambitious kings. To some extent this was a common Germanic heritage; the Norse in England thought the Anglo-Saxons relied over-much on fines rather than execution and outlawry - both had both kinds of strategy in their legal arsenals - and the English witan had more influence on the king than any continental Scandinavian ruler's court had on him. But the rights promised by King John in Magna Carta are unthinkable under Roman law, and the Icelandic Thing is the oldest continuously operating parliament in the world and for centuries kept a population of vengeance-loving chieftains from exterminating each other.


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