A Brief History of the Vikings

Develop your reading skills. Read the following brief history of the vikings and do the comprehension questions.

Who were the Vikings?

Vikings Heading for Land

The Vikings are commonly depicted as invaders, predators, and barbarians. Who were they? Where did they come from? What's the truth about their raids? One thing is sure, the history of the Vikings is not characterized only by raiding and plundering. The Vikings developed a complex and often sophisticated Scandinavian culture. In addition to their well-known raids, they were traders, artists, poets, skilled craftsmen, and sailors.

Who are the Vikings and what's their origin?

The Vikings originated from Scandinavia - Danemark, Norway, and Sweden. These lands were mainly rural. The only sources of living were agriculture and fishing. The Viking society was divided into three socio-economic classes, namely, the Thralls, Karls and Jarls. The Thralls were the lowest ranking class and were slaves. Slaves comprised as much as a quarter of the population. The Karls, however, were free peasants. They owned farms, land, and cattle and engaged in daily chores like plowing the fields, milking the cattle, building houses and wagons, but used thralls to make ends meet. Other names for Karls were 'bonde' or simply free men. The Jarls were the aristocracy of the Viking society. They were wealthy and owned large estates with huge longhouses, horses and many thralls. The thralls did most of the daily chores, while the Jarls did administration, politics, hunting, sports, visited other Jarls or were abroad on expeditions. When a Jarl died and was buried, his household thralls were sometimes sacrificially killed and buried next to him, as many excavations have revealed.

Where does the word Viking come from?

Historians disagree about the origin of the word Viking. One theory is that the word possibly comes from the word vik, which in the Old Norse language the Vikings spoke means ‘bay’ or ‘inlet’. What is certain is that people at that time did not call them Vikings. They were called instead Danes, heathens, or Norsemen.

The Viking religion

The Vikings were pagans. They believed in a polytheistic religion, entailing a belief in various gods and goddesses. This religion was transmitted through oral culture rather than through codified texts. It focused heavily on ritual practice, with kings and chiefs playing a central role in carrying out public acts of sacrifice. The most popular Vikings gods were Odin, Thor, and Týr. Known as the All-Father, Odin was the god of wisdom, poetry, death, divination, and magic. Thor is the god of thunder and lightning in Norse mythology, associated with strength, storms, hallowing, and fertility. He is the son of Odin and is described as being fierce-eyed, with red hair and a full beard, and he is quick to anger and has an enormous appetite. Týr is considered the god of war. He is considered the most courageous of all the Gods. According to the Norse Mythology, Týr sacrifices his arm to the monstrous wolf Fenrir, who bites off his limb while the gods bind the animal.

Raids and settlements

From the late 8th to late 11th centuries, the Vikings raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of Europe, and explored westwards to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. Facilitated by advanced sailing and navigational skills, Viking activities at times also extended into the Mediterranean littoral, North Africa, and the Middle East. The longship that they designed helped them to explore, expand their activities, and settle in diverse areas of north-western Europe, Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia, the North Atlantic islands and as far as the north-eastern coast of North America. This period of expansion witnessed the wider dissemination of Norse culture, while simultaneously introducing strong foreign cultural influences into Scandinavia itself, with profound developmental implications in both directions.

Settlement in Britain

From around 860AD onwards, The Vikings raided, settled and prospered in Britain. The earliest recorded planned Viking raid, on 6 January 793, targeted the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the north-east coast of Northumbria. The raiders killed the resident monks or threw them into the sea to drown or carried them away as slaves – along with some of the church treasures.In 875, after enduring eight decades of repeated Viking raids, the monks fled Lindisfarne, carrying the relics of Saint Cuthbert with them.

In the years that followed, the Vikings left no region of Britain safe. They attacked and besieged other villages, monasteries and even cities in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and England. Only one kingdom, namely Wessex, led by King Alfred the Great, resisted successfully the Vikings raids. Because of this fierce resistance the Norsemen left Wessex and settled to the north, in an area called Danelaw. There the Vikings established York as a leading mercantile city and many of them started farming and trading. There followed the Treaty of Wedmore in 878 and the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in 886. These treaties formalized the boundaries of the English kingdoms and the Viking Danelaw territory, with provisions for peaceful relations between the English and the Vikings. Despite these treaties, conflicts continued on and off. However, Alfred and his successors eventually drove back the Viking frontier and retook York.

Culture and impact on the English language

Writing in Latin letters was introduced to Scandinavia with Christianity, so there are few native documentary sources from Scandinavia before the late 11th and early 12th centuries. The Scandinavians did write inscriptions in runes, but these are usually very short and formulaic. Most contemporary documentary sources consist of texts written in Christian and Islamic communities outside Scandinavia, often by authors who had been negatively affected by Viking activity. After the consolidation of the church and the assimilation of Scandinavia and its colonies into the mainstream of medieval Christian culture in the 11th and 12th centuries, native written sources begin to appear, in Latin and Old Norse. For example, many traditions connected with the Viking Age were written down for the first time in the Icelandic sagas. A literal interpretation of these medieval prose narratives about the Vikings and the Scandinavian past is doubtful, but many specific elements remain worthy of consideration, such as the great quantity of poetry of the 10th and 11th centuries, the exposed family trees, the self images, the ethical values, all included in these literary writings.

Old East Norse and Old English were still somewhat mutually comprehensible. The contact between Old East Norse and Old English caused the incorporation of many Norse words into the English language, including the words law, sky and window, and the third person pronouns they, them and their. Many Old Norse words still survive in the dialects of Northern England. The English names for days of the week originate mainly from Vikings gods. For Example, Tuesday comes from Tiw or Týr, Wednesday comes from Woden  or Odin, Thursday comes from Thor and so on.

Source: Wikipedia


  1. The vikings came from Danemark.
    a. True
    b. False
  2. They were Christians when they attacked England.
    a. True.
    b. False.
  3. They were not sucessful in invading all Britain.
    a. True
    b. False

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