Top 10 Things to Know About the Vikings

A Brief Guide to the Ancient Viking Culture

While pop culture movies and television shows like the recent History Channel series purport to give you an up-close view of what the Vikings were like, archaeological and historical research shows they were far more interested in farming than raiding. But raiding, oh yes, there was raiding! That was definitely one of the top ten things to know about the Vikings....


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Who Were the Vikings?

Viking Ship with Dragon Prow, 14th Century (Detail)
Viking Ship with Dragon Prow, 14th Century. Detail from a painting in a Danish church. Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

The Vikings were farmers, traders, fishermen, herders, explorers, and, it must be said, pirates and raiders of Europe and North America between the 8th and 11th centuries AD. Viking invasions into the northern hemisphere between North America and Russia impacted the cultures, art, politics and people of those regions. Also known as the Norse or Normans, the Vikings evolved over a period of 250 years, turning from wild raiders to peaceful farmers settling into their new surroundings and blending into the landscape.

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12th Century Bayeux Tapestry Illustrating the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (Replica)
12th Century Bayeux Tapestry Illustrating the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (Replica). Lidove Noviny / Tomas Hajek Isifa / Getty Images

Scholars trace the beginnings of the Viking age to AD 793, when a group of Norsemen first inflicted a raid on England's Lindisfarne monastery; and it lasted until 1066, when King Harald Hardrada was killed, ending the Norman Conquest. During that brief 250 year period, they created Viking strongholds throughout Europe and into Russia, Greenland, and eventually the North American continent.

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Head of a Viking Warrior, ca. 9th-11th Century
Head of a Viking Warrior, ca. 9th-11th Century, From the National Historical Museum, Stockholm. Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

At its height, Viking society was divided into three economic classes of people: the aristocracy (called jarl or earl), the farmers (karl) and the slaves (thrall). Farmers could become the aristocracy, if they gained enough land; mostly, however, slaves were treated as currency.

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Cod Drying on a Rack Near Lofoten, Norway
Cod Drying on a Rack Near Lofoten, Norway. Andrea Raviglione

The Vikings were fabulous traders, who established trading ports throughout their vast empire, using a trading weight system that conformed to the Islamic system of weights designed to trade with the vast Abbasid dynasties. The Vikings had a direct hand in the movement of glass, walrus ivory, pottery and arctic cod through the northern half of Europe.

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Reconstructed Viking Longhouse, Stöng, Iceland
Reconstructed Viking Longhouse, Stöng, Iceland. Thomas Ormston

When the Vikings finally settled into the day to day life of farming, they lived on regularly spaced farmsteads surrounded by agricultural fields and pastures, raising a variety of livestock and growing grains using techniques brought from their homelands called shieling and landnám. But like many newcomers, they were somewhat arrogant, and weren't especially interested in what the locals recommended, and as a result, bad things happened in Greenland.

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Full Moon Over the Jakobshavn Glacier, Greenland
A full moon is seen over icebergs that broke off from the Jakobshavn Glacier on July 23, 2013 in Ilulissat, Greenland. Joe Raedle / Getty Images News / Gerry Images

Unfortunately, the agriculture techniques in the Viking homeland did not always translate smoothly into new environments. That, say scholars, combined with an inability to learn from the local Inuit people (the Vikings called them Skraeling) and a sharp decrease in local temperature creating climate change, put an awful end to their experiment on Greenland.

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Locals Dressed as Viking Warriors Participate in Up Helly Aa, January 2014
Locals dressed as Vikings pose in the streets of Lerwick on January 28, 2014, in the traditional festival of fire is known as 'Up Helly Aa'. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty News Images / Getty News

Yes, absolutely the Vikings raided, especially in the first fifty years of the Viking age, between about 793-850 AD. Raids were a common feature of Norse societies even in their homelands, and in fact the name Viking is from Vikr, or "one who raids" in Old Norse. Much of their booty today is found in hoards of silver, discovered throughout the European landscape.

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Gunnhild Gormsdóttir Incites Her Sons in Erik the Red's Saga
Gunnhild Gormsdóttir Incites Her Sons in Erik Bloodaxe's Saga. Woodcut in Snorre Sturlassons Heimskringla (1235) Image uploaded by Christian Krogh

The Vikings memorialized their battles and explorations and rulers, in a series of manuscripts written between the 10th and 13th centuries AD. Long thought to be literary fabrications, the Viking or Vinland sagas have been found to include some version of the truth, albeit somewhat glorified.

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Reconstructed Viking Settlement l'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada
Reconstructed Viking Settlement l'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. grampymoose

One of the stories in the Viking Sagas that few scholars really believed until the 1960s was that the Viking skalawag Leif Erikson reached the coast of North America. But then, Helge and Anne Ingstad discovered L'anse aux Meadows (or Jellyfish Cove) in Newfoundland...

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But, Not in Wisconsin

Edward Larsson's rune cipher resembling that found on the Kensington Runestone
Edward Larsson's rune cipher resembling that found on the Kensington Runestone. Maksim

Despite persistent rumors over the centuries since European colonists arrived in the American middle west, there are no scholars that I know of who believe that Norsemen ever reached Wisconsin or Minnesota. However, part of that rumor was inflamed by a famous prank carried out on archaeologists back in 1928...

  • Prank at Spencer Lake Mound