European Middle Ages
The Norse

   The last great waves of European migrations began in the eighth century and picked up dramatically in the ninth and tenth centuries. This time it was a group of relatively sedentary Germanic tribes in the northernmost reaches of Europe, the Norsemen. These were really not one ethnic group, but an entire spectrum of peoples speaking many different languages. For all that, the principal Norsemen that raided and emigrated out of Northern Europe were Norwegians and Danish. Again, however, these are not single ethnic groups—the Danes, for instance, were an entire set of different peoples.

   While the Norse themselves were a fairly diverse set of tribes and clans speaking a variety of languages, they nevertheless had much in common. The languages they spoke were all of the same family of languages. Their social, tribal, and political structures were more or less similar and they shared common religious beliefs.

   It is a mistake, however, to consider the Norse as a single ethnic group or a single people. As with all tribal peoples, ethnicity was fairly fluid and existed on several levels. Ethnic identity was largely derived from individual clans, but a larger ethnic identity was also layered on top of this clan identity. This larger ethnic identity was both political and linguistic and the Norse Germanic tribes would distinguish themselves from each other sometimes based on larger political organziations and sometimes based on the language they spoke.

   As the Norse migrated out of their homelands, ethnic identity became even more confused. The Norse emigrants often quickly adopted the language, culture, and even religion of the areas they settled. The clan structure that characterized their life and world view was often given up in only a single generation and they quickly adopted and modified existing social structures in the areas they found themselves in. It was only the Norse settlers of Iceland that held on to traditional ways of life and organizing society. The Icelanders, however, had settled an area where there was no existing culture in place. Even though the Norse rapidly assimilated to the areas they emigrated to, they still retained a separate identity. The Norse in England and France, though assimilated in many, saw themselves as distinct populations.

   The most amazing thing about the Norse emigrations was the ephemerality of the Norse settlements and kingdoms. Although the Norse conquered and settled areas in northern England, northern France, Russia, Ireland, Scotland, the Orkneys, Iceland, Greenland, and even settled as far as North America in the west and Byzantium in the east, only Iceland and Normandy in the north of France became permanent, lasting polities under the Norse settlers. Even there, however, the Norse who settled Normandy quickly incorporated themselves into the institutions, language, and cultural practices of France. The great Viking kingdoms and polities in England, the Orkneys, and Ireland, very quickly faded from history.

   We know of the religion and world view of the pre-Christian Norse mainly from Icelandic literature which set down many of the details of Norse stories of their gods. The Icelandic sources, however, were written by Christians some two centuries after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. There are a number of narrative poems, called eddas, which tell tales of Norse gods: Vôluspá , Hávamál, Hymiskvitha , Alvíssmál , and many others. These narratives would be collected in a larger prose work, the Edda written by Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) and called the Snorra Edda in Icelandic.

   From this literature, we learn that the Norse were, like all pre-Christian Germans, polytheistic. At the head of their pantheon was a sky-god, Odin, who was primarily marked by his shrewdness. Heroic deeds among the gods were performed by a thunder and fertility god, Thor, who was the principle subject of Icelandic heroic poetry—called skaldic poetry. The pantheon of gods was far from settled; the society of gods was primarily clan-based and wracked by internal violence and feuding.


Iceland   The Norse who emigrated were remarkably plastic in terms of adopting other cultures and languages. The raiding parties that came and went retained their language, religion, and social organization, but the Norse emigrants rapidly assimilated to the local populations.

   This was not the case, however, with the Norse who settled Iceland for that forbiddingly distant island was uninhabitated. The Norse who had the temerity to sail west beyond the coast of England found an island warmed by vulcanism and the Gulf Stream that was ripe for the picking. The coasts of Iceland with their spectacular fjords made ideal agricultural and pastoral land, so emigrants very quickly settled these areas. (The interior of Iceland, however, is much hospitable because of active vulcanism).

   So the Norse who settled Iceland retained almost perfectly the language and culture of the original emigrants. It was among Icelanders that Norse religion held on the longest—the Icelanders were not converted to Christianity until 1000 when the Norwegian king, Olafr Tryggvason, sent missionaries to Iceland and held several Icelanders hostage in order to force conversions. The social structure continued to be a loose confederation of clan groups; law and social organization was based on clan protection and the law of the blood-feud.

   In spite of their loose social structure, Icelanders did attempt to form a centralized government. Every year, the leaders of clans would meet at the Thing or "Assembly." Here the separate clans would primarily deal with conflicts among members of the clan and exact reparations in order to prevent blood-feuds. In spite of this, however, the picture that Icelandic history gives us is one of fairly regular, low-level warfare between individuals and clans.

   The Norse in Iceland were not isolated from the rest of Europe—of all the Norse, they continued the maritime expeditions and skills honed by their ancestors. Expeditions to Norway and other northern European regions were a constant fact of Icelandic life—the most common reason was to fetch wood since no trees grew on Iceland.

   The Icelanders, however, did not stop emigrating once they had settled Iceland. From Iceland, the Norse then settled Greenland to the west in the 1100's. As they did in Iceland, the Norse settled only the coastal regions—the interior of Greenland is completely covered over in sheets of ice. Unlike Iceland, however, they found Greenland already settled by Inuits. How much cultural contact took place and what its nature was is hard to say—Icelandic history is not particularly rich concerning the lives of the Greenlanders. From archaeological evidence, however, it seems that the Norse had little to do with the Inuit outside of a few conflicts.

   The Greenland settlements only held on until the middle of the fifteenth century—from about the end of the thirteenth century, the Norse population declines precipitously. We don't really know why, but we know that Norse graves (the Inuit did not bury their dead) grow shallower and shallower as the decades go by. The Icelanders had settled Greenland during the warmest climactic period on earth since the last Ice Age. Around the fourteenth century, world climate began to cool until it hit an all-time low in the sixteenth century in the "miniature Ice Age." As the world cooled, the permafrost in Greenland inched up towards the surface—hence the increasingly shallow graves. Since the Norse relied not on hunting but on agriculture and since they had little cultural contact with the Inuit, who had mastered a livelihood based entirely on hunting, the Greenlanders slowly starved to death.

   Greenland was not the farthest point of Norse migration. From Greenland, the Norse continued west. To the west, Leifr Eriksson discovered a territory he called Vinland, or Vine Land. Almost all scholars believe that Vinland was on the coast of Newfoundland in Canada making Leifr Eriksson the first non-American we know of to set foot on the American continent. He built houses and then left Vinland for Greenland. The next year, an expedition led by Thorfinnr Karsefni set out to establish a permanent settlement of sixty men and five women. They could not find the houses that Leifr had built but tried to settle the area anyway. The Vinland settlement, however, did not succeed—we don't know why. The Norse presence in Vinland (possibly America) lasted less than a generation.

   The Icelanders in many ways represent some of the greatest cultural achievements of the European Middle Ages. While they retained much of their original culture, thus making them the least "European" of European cultures during the long period when cultural diversity was subsumed under a European culture, and although their social structure remained without any formalized structure, they produced some of the greatest cultural works of the human mind. Their greatest accomplishments were in literature. The Icelanders themselves would have considered their oral poetry, called Skaldic poetry after the professional poets, Skalds, who recited the poems, it was in prose that Icelanders excelled. The prose histories of Iceland and Icelandic families, called sagas, are the greatest works of European literature until the Renaissance. Some sagas tell large-scale histories of the settlement of Iceland or Greenland, but the great genius of the saga-tellers was their focus on individuals and on the relentlessly human aspect of Norse life. In sagas such as Laxdaelasaga , Njal's Saga , the larger history of Iceland fades into the dramas of individual passions, heroism, and revenge, a world of human passions and gestures. These sagas are perhaps our best glimpse of the Norse world view. Unlike the European world view, it was relentlessly focussed on the human side of historical events, how history and violence are germinated in the human mind and in human emotions. The world of the sagas is an unpredictable and arbitrary world where social order is only maintained on the thinnest of threads. Europe would not see their equal again until William Shakespeare sat down and put pen to paper.


England   England, however, lay right in the path of the Norse emigrants, whether they were headed south to France or the Mediterranean or west to Iceland and beyond. England was the first to suffer under Norse raiding parties in the 800's. These raiding parties would harass coastal villages or sail up rivers and harass inland villages. The raiding parties were only interested in tribute—if a town paid tribute, the Norse left it alone. If they didn't, the Norse attacked the village and carried away whatever wealth they could find. These initial raiders were primarily Danish; when they returned, however, they returned to to settle.

   Under the Anglo-Saxons, England was relatively unified and the Anglo-Saxons kings often put up effective resistance. For all that, however, the second wave of Norse invasions were invasions proper. The Norse were looking for territory both to control and to emigrate to. Their raiding parties were so effective that they controlled a large part of eastern England called the Danelaw. After Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon kings only gradually re-established control over the Danelaw—by this time, the Danish that had settled the area had more or less assimilated into the surrounding culture. For all that, however, the greatest king of Anglo-Saxon England was a Norwegian, Canute. He had conquered much of northern England and incorporated it into a larger Danish empire.

   The Norse interest in England eventually spelled the end of Anglo-Saxon and, eventually, Anglo-Saxon culture. When the Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), died without an heir, the Anglo-Saxon earls elected Harold Godwinson as king. The Norwegian king, however, asserted his own claim to the throne and invaded England. Harold defeated him, but his engagement with the Norse occurred at the same time the William, the Duke of Normandy and himself a descendant of Norse invaders, also invaded England. Exhausted from the Norwegian battle and a forced march to meet William and his Normans, Harold lost the throne in the Battle of Hasting in 1066. England, which had been raided by the Norse, ruled by the Danish in the regions called the Danelaw, ruled again in the north by the Danish king Canute, finally fell completely into the hands of the Norse, or at least their descendants, the Normans.


Ireland   The Norse excursions into northern Celtic countries such as Ireland and Scotland were not as dramatic as the Norse settlement of northern France and northern England. Still, the Norse successfully conquered and settled areas such as the Orkney Islands north of Scotland and the Isle of Manx.

   There were no cultures, however, that both lost as much and gained as much from the Norse raids and emigrations as the Irish. Before the Norse arrived, the Irish were primarily a cattle-raising people whose culture and civilization was concentrated in the interior. There was no appreciable amount of commerce or trade within Ireland or between Ireland and other areas of Europe. After the Norse, the Irish concentrated on the coastal areas and developed a rich system of trade. This dramatic change in Irish economy and culture was bought at a very high price. For the Irish had developed a rich monastic culture, rich, I mean, in material terms. This material richness caught the interest of Norse raiders who systematically laid waste to some of the greatest Irish monasteries. Almost all of the great literary and artistic products of early Ireland were lost.

   The first to arrive were the Norwegians who attacked various islands and some of the headlands; in the 800's, however, the Norwegians began to attack the western coast of Ireland. In the mid-800's and all through the 900's, the Norse actively began to build fortified towns along the eastern coast of Ireland. In 841, they built the fortified town of Dublin (which the Irish called Ath Cliath, or, "the hurdle ford"), and would later establish fortifications at Cork, Waterford, and Wicklow, some of the central towns of later Irish history. Of these towns, however, Dublin was the center of all the Norse activity and served as their central base for raids all around Ireland and the Irish Sea.

   The Irish at this time did not concentrate their population along the coast but lived inland—the Irish also did not live in large and fortified towns. The introduction of both fortifications and something resembling urban life was originally introduced by the Norse.

   Eventually, however, the Norse would come in conflict with the Danish and the area around Dublin became part of the Danish kingdom that had been established in northern England. The Irish, however, lived in individual tribal groups that were not united—it wasn't until 1014 that Munster Irish under the leadership of Brian Bóruma defeated the Danish at Clontarf and finally expelled the Norse for good.

   The Norwegians and the Danish, however, had largely stripped Irish culture of its greatest cultural artifacts. The only histories that were written of the Norse in Ireland were written by the Irish—these historians were far from sympathetic to the invaders! Ireland, however, gained a fundamental shift in its cultural and economic practices. The Irish inherited from the Danes and Norwegians fortified coastal towns and a new economy based on trade and commerce with other Europeans. They also gave to the Irish more sophisticated skills in ship-building and travel.


Russia   Not much is known about the Norse who settled to the east in Russia. The raiding parties were highly successful to the east and, as was the pattern everywhere, the Norse soon followed with emigration. Again, they assimilated rapidly, but not without a fairly long period of cultural isolation from native Slavic groups. The only real portrait we have of earliest Norse society comes from one of these Slavic settlements in an account by a Byzantine visitor. Eventually, the Norse who settled Russia made it as far as the Byzantine Empire where they were hired as soldiers.


France   The most significant migration of the Norse spelled the end of the Frankish kingdom, for as the Norse began to raid and migrate into France, the Franks were also beset by Magyars from the east and Muslims from the Mediterranean. This combination of pressures spelled the end of the great Frankish kingdom which had reached such heights under Charlemagne.

   The Norse invaders particularly devestated the northern area of France along the English Channel. They were no so much interested in the coast as they were sailing up French rivers and exacting tribute from inland areas. Most of the Norse invasions of France were raiding and tribute expeditions, but the Norse were also interested in emigration.

   In 911, under the leadership of Rollo, a large Norse raiding party sailed up the Seine to Paris and wrested from the Frankish king the province of Rouen along the English Channel. Theoretically, the king made Rollo a vassal, but in reality Rollo ruled his territory as an independent kingdom. Thus began the history of Normandy and the Normans (the "North men"). The duchy of Normandy became in effect an independent kingdom ruled by the Norse duke; its power would eventually eclipse that of the Frankish kingdom itself.

   The Norse who settled Normandy quickly adopted French culture, religion, and language, speaking the vulgar language derived from Latin rather than the Germanic language of the original Franks or of their own native Norse language. They did, however, retain many of their original cultural and political practices and would bring to fruition the uniquely medieval organization of society: the feudal system.

Richard Hooker

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-31-97