15 August 2012

Warriors: Viking Warriors

By Michelle Styles

In 793 the Vikings exploded on the European stage with their raid on Lindisfarne. The precise cause of the raid is lost in the mists of history,  but something happened to make the Nordic people suddenly decide to export war to other countries. One recent theory is that the belligerent Christianity of the Franks under Charlemagne led to an increase in warlike behaviour from various pagan tribes. Other theories have to do with the increased mobility through technological innovation, in particular the Viking long ship. The word Viking means one who goes out on piratical raids and can be used as a verb — to go Viking. Scholars are divided on the origins of the word. Vik in old Norse means bay or inlet. So it is possible that a Viking was originally used to mean a man from a bay or a man with a ship from a bay. It also could be a reference to the Viken,  a part of southern Norway, pre-unification of Norway in the 10th century. There is some evidence that the Lindisfarne raid did originate from that area.  In general during this period, the Vikings are referred to as Northmen or Norsemen and eventually the Viking who settled in France became the Normans.  The Viking age ends in 1066 when the last large Viking invasion force is defeated at Stamfordham, shortly before the battle of Hastings.

Were Vikings warriors as fierce some as they are often portrayed in various chronicles? It was a war like age. The Vikings at the beginning of the period were pagan and certainly Christian chroniclers had no reason to  praise the pagans . It is clear from surviving Viking mythology that the society prized warlike behaviour, and dying gloriously in battle. Unlike most other cultures, Viking mythology predicts the Doom of the gods and the destruction of the known world as the gods fight the giants and various other  creatures for supremacy.  In the final battle, Odin’s warriors (those particularly brave warriors who died on the battlefield) will fight. In the meantime, they reside in Valhalla, fighting every day to keep their skills honed and then at night they feast in the great hall.
There is no pure warrior caste in Viking society. In the early part of the Viking period, there was no central government and the region was divided into a series of tribes or countries which shared a common language and religion. However at the start of the Viking period, you do have various countries such as Viken being expansionist and seeking to subject other tribes.  It is a rare king who dies in his bed.  It is clear from the surviving sagas and myths that there was a code of conduct and a concept of honour and shame. Vikings appear to have fought on foot, using horses for transport only.  They used spears, swords,  axes as well as bows and arrows. The shields tend to be round and they wore helms. There is no direct evidence that they wore helmets with horns for fighting. It is thought that the horned helmet is a Victorian invention and misinterpretation of some of the sagas.
Overwhelmingly the warriors were male. There are a few references to female warriors. However,  it is impossible to say if women did fight as the sagas were written down  in post Christianity Iceland.  No grave of a Viking  woman has been yet discovered with weaponry.
 Because of the violent nature of this tribal society, every man had to be prepared to fight and defend his home. The Vikings also were heavily dependant on trade. Scandinavian land can be difficult to farm successfully but it also provided other wealth such as fur, timber, iron and soapstone. The Vikings in the East did follow the trade routes down to Byzantium and because they did not know what they would encounter, they did have to be prepared to fight. Their skill at fighting did not go unnoticed and the Byzantium emperor enlisted various Vikings as his body guard. This guard became known as the Varangian  guard. Var was the god of solemn vows in Norse mythology. Serving in this guard provided disposed Viking warriors the opportunity to acquire wealth and men. Harald Finehair used his time in the Varangian guard to great effect and was able to launch his bid for supremacy of Norway because of his experience.
Many of the Viking ideals about the proper behaviour of a warrior are incorporated into the code of chivalry as the Norman knights are direct descendants of these earlier warriors.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances in a wide range of time periods. Her next Viking set romance will be published in the second half of 2013. Her most current release is a Regency set romance His Unsuitable Viscountess. You can read more about Michelle and her books on www.michellestyles.co.uk