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Sunday, May 22nd, 2005, 03:42 AM
Rurik and the Vikings

(Richard Stevenson)

Viking success in the pre-mediaeval period can be attributed to four factors. Firstly, the Vikings had established long distance trade routes, the profits from which were used to finance the vast armies and navies raised by the Scandinavian kings during this period. Secondly, the Vikings maintained naval superiority. Thirdly, their barbaric appearance and methods of attack encouraged the peasant-folk of Europe to believe, at least at first, that they were being attacked by demons - which the peasants believed they could not, and subsequently did not, fight. And, lastly, advanced battle tactics and techniques helped the Vikings overwhelm their enemies. The decline of the Vikings after their rapid ascent to power, was brought about by an unfavourable change in weather patterns, by the conversion of Viking occupied areas, and Scandinavia itself, to Christianity, and by the gradual assimilation of the Vikings into 'Western' culture.

The Vikings came from rich lands which had, up until the first Viking attacks around the Eighth Century AD, been self sufficient in food. These conditions and Viking breeding habits had created a huge abundance of young men, excellent for filling armies. It was traditional for a Viking to leave his land and wealth to one son and to send the rest of his sons off to seek their fortunes by raiding the wealthy lands to the south and west where they could build colonies to grow food for the ever increasing population at home, and also where they could establish trading posts, since, as well as being great warriors, the Vikings were great traders. It was thus that the Vikings set out to conquer Europe around the end of the first millennium AD.

Throughout history, the country that has controlled the seas and oceans has become a major super power. The Portuguese built their empire from their position as the leading sea-faring nation in Europe in the Fifteenth Century. The Spanish, too, built their empire from control of the seas ... and discovered America. The British Empire became the largest in the world - through naval superiority. The Vikings, too, came to dominate most of Europe and parts of America, because they controlled the seas. Except for pirates, who were largely outlawed Vikings anyway, the Norsemen had almost complete control of the seas of northern Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. Since none of the northern European countries of England, Ireland, Scotland, France, or Germany had been threatened from the north seas before, their naval defences were poor. Thus, the Vikings were able to sail out of the oceans at high speeds right up the rivers, before any warning could be given and complete their raids with lightning speed. The Vikings had an ancient history of sea-faring, dating back to pre-historic times. They had developed the art of sea-faring to powerful levels, were not afraid to take to the sea during storms, and had good methods of navigation, using the altitude of the sun to calculate their latitude. Some Viking raids were conducted over land, especially later, when Viking forts and colonies had been established, and particularly in Russia. But, apart from Russia, such colonies and forts could not have been established without first gaining control of the seas.

It was not just control of the seas that led to Viking domination in northern Europe. The Vikings also used to advantage, their hideous appearance. When they first arrived on the shores of England, Ireland and Normandy, the locals thought that they were demons in league with the devil and were too scared to fight, offering them gifts to be left alone. The barbarous methods of attack used by the Vikings backed up the belief that these warriors were supernatural beings. The Vikings would rape the women and slit the throats of all the children, women, and priests. They were even known to gather entire townships together in their cathedrals and burn them. They had a particular hatred for monasteries, and would raid and burn every ecclesiastical building they came across, making sure they killed the monks and nuns. It is thought that the attacks on monasteries and cathedrals were revenge for the Catholic Church's denunciation of the Viking Gods such as Thor. Nevertheless, the brutality of killing unarmed monks and nuns, as well as their other barbarous tactics scared the local folk into believing, at least at first, that these men were receiving help from the devil whom no ordinary man could fight. Thus, resistance was probably weaker than it might have been, allowing the Vikings to gain control of large parts of northern Europe and Russia. The Vikings had other advantageous tactics. For example, they always attacked by surprise, and quickly. Due to the speed of their ships, the Vikings could attack before any warning could be given. They regularly attacked on wet stormy nights when everybody was inside, and visibility was low. They had little regard for the promises they made. For example, they accepted gifts and peace treaties, then rebuilt their armies and attacked again when the enemy let down their guard. These were such highly developed battle tactics, that the Germans, one thousand years later, used these same tactics in their blitzkrieg attacks during World War II. Scandinavia had been a battle ground for many centuries and the art of battle had developed there, more than anywhere else in Europe. It is thought even, that the knights of mediaeval Europe learned their art from the Vikings. The rise of the power and wealth of the Vikings can thus be attributed, amongst other reasons, to battle skills that were far more developed than those employed by other Europeans.

The Viking conquests were funded not only by plunder from previous expeditions, but also from trade. Just as naval superiority has always been a key ingredient in the establishment of a global power, so too has trade. The far reaching Islamic empires of the mediaeval times were built on trade, as were the Dutch, British, French, and American Empires. The Vikings had a vast trading pattern, they traded with such far away places as Tashkent in central Asia, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Byzantium, Russia, France, Germany, Poland, Britain, Iceland, Greenland, and America. The revenues from this trade would have contributed greatly to the financing of the voyages of conquest.

Thus the Vikings were able to spread out across the known world. They established trading posts at Novograd and Kiev in modern day Russia, and in fact, the modern day Russian state owes, at least in part, its establishment to the Swedish Vikings. As well, the Vikings gained control in all of England, in Normandy, parts of Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Iceland, and Greenland. Viking settlements have also been discovered in Newfoundland in North America, and less certain evidence has been found in Massachusetts, Florida, and even Brazil. Attacks were made on Spain and northern Africa, and attempts were made to capture Rome and Byzantium. The colonies of Greenland and America were eventually abandoned as the strength of the Vikings declined. The colony in Newfoundland was attacked by Eskimos and, since the settlers were too far from Greenland to receive speedy assistance, and being out-numbered, the colony was abandoned, and the colonists returned to Greenland. The Vikings had spread out too far. The Greenland colony fell fate to changing weather patterns. Europe, and indeed all of the north Atlantic suffered from a mini ice age between about 1350 AD and 1800 AD. The colder weather meant that Greenland was no longer inhabitable and the colony there died out. It is probable too, that this colder weather played some part in the decline of the power of the Scandinavian countries themselves. Colder weather implies that less food could be produced, hence a smaller population, and less young men to fill the Viking armies. Thus, it can be argued that to at least some small extent, the change in weather patterns was responsible for the decline of the Vikings.

In England, the Vikings not so much declined, as blended in with the rest of the population and became one with them. A Viking called Knud the Great launched in 1014 AD the conquest of all of England. Knud failed to take London and the Saxon King of England agreed to divide the kingdom in two, down the Thames. About a month later the Saxon king died and Knud was proclaimed King of all England. Knud semed to abandon his piratic Viking ways once he was proclaimed king. He converted himself to Christianity and was responsible for bringing Christianity to Denmark. He gave help to the poor, built churches and cathedrals, and married a cultured French princess. The conquering of England seemed to civilise the Vikings and convert them to western ways, rather than the opposite. Thus, the Vikings did not decline, as such, in England, but assimilated themselves into the English culture and became English. Similarly, in France, the Viking Rolion came to power in Normandy through war and plundering. Once king, he began to treat the churches and monasteries with respect and helped the peasants restore the fertility of their land, and in this manner he gained the respect and support of the original inhabitants of Normandy. Eventually he, too, was converted to Christianity and agreed to become a French prince and his kingdom became a province of France. He married a daughter of the King and had his whole army converted to Christianity. So like Knud and his men in England, Rollon and his Viking army also became assimilated into western religion and culture.

In Kiev it was the same story again. The Swedish Viking Rurik, as early as the Tenth Century AD, influenced by the wealth and luxury of the Byzantine Empire, adopted Christianity.<44> His offspring rejected Christianity, however, and it was not until the end of the millennium, that the rulers of Kiev and Novograd again adopted Christianity.

Throughout this period the Norse men in Russia had been marrying Slavs. Archaeological evidence in the burial sites of the Kieven rulers has found that they were always buried in an underground room with gold and other such luxuries including the woman whom they loved (still alive). in each case that woman was Slavic, not Norse. Thus, by the end of the millennium, the rulers of Kiev and Novograd had become partly Slavic in their heritage. Just as the Viking rulers of England and Normandy had become assimilated into Western culture and adopted Roman Catholicism, so to the Eastern Viking rulers became assimilated into Slavic culture and adopted Orthodox Christianity, building churches and Cathedrals throughout the lands.

The Christianisation of Scandinavia brought an end to Viking raids from their homelands. Iceland was converted to Christianity in the year 1000, Greenland in 1001 AD, the conversion of Norway seems to have begun in around 1015 AD though heathen activities persisted there for centuries to come. Knud of England had Denmark converted to Christianity in 1014 AD, not long after conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, The gradual conversion of the Vikings to Christianity coincides with their gradual decline as a global power. Presumably the conservative Christian teachings of community and harmony (one can hardly include 'peace' in Mediaeval Christian teachings) civilise the barbaric Norsemen and encouraged them to adopt a more peaceful life style.

Even had this not been the case, the coming of the second millennium saw a strengthening of English and Continental European fortresses. The English built a navy to patrol their coasts and everywhere huge castles were built together with armies of knights in armour. This strengthening of defences must have been a deterrent at least, to prospective Viking raiders. Paradoxically though, the increase in European defences can be, attributed to the Viking influence itself.

Thus, the once successful Vikings vanished from the world scene. They had adopted much of the culture they had conquered. They were probably content with the trade they had established, and their new religion. The colder weather eventually made changes to their robust life style. At the height of their power, the Vikings maintained huge armies, a successful navy, and had used advanced battle techniques to force their will upon the other Europeans. Yet by the end of the Eleventh Century the Vikings were no longer an historical force.