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  • The Vikings arose in the chaos after the fall of the Roman Empire

The strong Viking warriors did not come out of nowhere, but were the result of centuries of fighting that characterized Western Europe, writes archaeologist Jeanette Varberg in the book "Viking". Read an excerpt here

The Vikings emerged from the Roman Empire

The following book excerpts are from pages 24 to 27 in "Viking - Robbery, Fire and Sword".

The Vikings' attack on the kingdoms of Europe lies in more or less literary darkness until the attack in 793 on the monastery of Lindisfarne, where they suddenly appear in the overviews of world history. The Vikings themselves had no written tradition, but their opponents did. The frightened monks wrote in the cool monastery rooms about the attacks of the Nordic warriors, and it is through their preserved works that we know of many of the Viking attacks.

Until the sources' spotlight began to illuminate individual events, our knowledge of the concrete power relations in Viking Scandinavia is limited. But what we can see is that on the edge of a Roman Empire, whose power crackled and disintegrated in Western Europe, the southern Scandinavian territory began, ie. roughly the area we know today as Denmark and perhaps Scania, to gather around one strong royal power during the 400s.

Royal power and monarchy must therefore be understood around the year 500 in the way that the people of the Iron Age had a leader, a king, who through his royal bloodline and military power led his people and defended or expanded the borders of his territory. King is a Protogerman word that is at least 2000 years old. It comes from kuningaz, which in turn can be traced back to the word kunja, better known today in the Irish version, clan. Thus, according to linguists, the leader - the king - is the personification of the people or the clan.

Basically, we know three Proto-Germanic words for leaders, all of which seem to go back to the Early Iron Age (500 B.C.-1 A.D.). They are all derived from words that have denoted a large group of people - a genus, a tribe, a people. The second word is druhtinaz, which is derived from the word druhti, meaning household or warriors. We know this today from the Danish word drot, from which the word dronning (in Swedish drottning) is derived. The third word, þeudanaz, is derived from the word þeudo, meaning people. The word is translated to king in Gothic, which is also a Germanic language where it is called þiudans. In the Gothic Bible from the 300s, the Greek word for king or emperor, basileus, is translated into the Gothic word for king þiudans. But it was the word king that became the most prevalent among Europe's Germanic - speaking peoples.

The Nordic version konungr is a derivation of the Germanic word meaning "one who belongs to a noble family". The earliest kings have thus been clan leaders, a personification of the people and a leader of a warrior. Thus, king is also a word that can be used about the first leaders of the Scandinavian peoples, but without royal power being equal to state power in the modern sense. The more recent historical significance of the king as head of state belongs to the late Middle Ages. In other words, the king's power and special position changed throughout the Viking Age, and the word must therefore be perceived as a dynamic term that has its roots in the Iron Age and changes character by virtue of the development of royal power throughout history. An Iron Age kingdom should therefore not be understood as a state, with a tax system and established laws and rules, but as a relatively large and flexible land that the king dominated and controlled militarily. Later, among other things, the Danes in southern Scandinavia developed something that could resemble a tax system that was imposed on other neighboring areas, which they conquered or dominated militarily. But about that later.

Unlike other similar religions, Christianity had a strong missionary drive, which was practical for the Christian kings of the time. Religion even demanded that the rulers conquer and convert the people who had a different faith

Jeanette Varberg

In the archaeological material from the Iron Age, a relatively strong royal power is also seen a little further north in the area between Stockholm and Uppsala around the 5th century, and regional kings were in power along the long Norwegian coast, where the deep words ended in the North Sea, and the agricultural land was the best. New excavations show that the extensive military expansion from Scandinavia gradually began in the Baltic Sea region in the latter half of the eighth century. Archaeological finds and new scientific methods are thus contributing to us having a greater and greater insight into the centuries that preceded the first described attacks from Scandinavia. It is thus possible to draw a much more detailed picture of the social and historical background of the Vikings.

The strong Viking warriors from the Nordic countries did not come out of nowhere, but were a result of the centuries of fighting that characterized Western Europe. Initially due to the Roman conquests and pressure to the north in Germany, which created local migrations and conflicts. Later because of the opposite; Roman retreat and loss of power, which brought about severe upheavals for Europe's many peoples. The migration period was a milestone in European history. From the years 376 to 568, Germanic peoples migrated from north to south - and from east to west - and through struggle, negotiations and complicated marriage policies, many of the kingdoms arose that would later form medieval Europe and thus also lay the groundwork for the Viking Age wars (the Middle Ages in Europe is reckoned from the beginning of the migration period in the 400s until the Reformation in the 16th century.

At the same time, Christianity with the Roman Church established itself as the most powerful religion in Western Europe - even though the Germanic Odin cult gained ground during the turbulent times of the migration period in the 5th century. Unlike other similar religions, Christianity had a strong missionary drive, which was practical for the Christian kings of the time. Religion even demanded that the rulers conquer and convert the people who had a different faith. Thus there was a double incentive behind the church and conquest policy of the new Christian kingdoms; it was about both power in this life and eternal salvation in the next.

In this Europe, Scandinavia and the Slavic tribes of Eastern Europe became the last to manage to hold on to an ancient faith. A faith that had its roots in the sacred places of nature, in an unwritten or at best a magical scriptural tradition, where the war elite and the king had control over runes, gods and humans. How great tales were remembered and retold in verse for centuries rather than being written down. That the fleeting legends were written down on parchment and enshrined in our collective historical memory is due to Christian scribes. The Old English poem about Beowulf, which was first written down around the ninth century, gives us a unique insight into the kingdoms of Scandinavia in the 5th and 6th centuries, and the Germanic heroic poem Vølsungesagnet is about the Burgundians' defeat of Roman-Hun forces in the Battle of Worms i 436.

They are both a picture of great intrigue among the ruling families of the migration period, but the poems also help to paint a picture of the chaos that prevailed when the Romans withdrew from conquered land and left its fate to the Germanic peoples and Huns. It was the Franks who eventually created the strongest empire, and with their adoption of Christianity, they thus led Europe on a fixed course as a Christian continent already begun by the Romans. The Franks' policy of power was crucial to the backlash that came from the Scandinavian Vikings.

The pagan war kings reacted strongly when the Christian Franks in the early Viking age, led by their king Charlemagne, carried out a brutal forced Christianization just south of Scandinavia and directly challenged the kings of Scandinavia. What was to become the seed for Scandinavia to enter into character as a naval power, and the Viking Age in earnest began, was initially expressed in repeated attacks on unprotected monasteries and counter-attacks against the Frankish king and later emperor. In many ways, the old Germanic war ideals thus survived the longest in Scandinavia. Here Odin was still the king god, and the savagery on the battlefield was seen as the supreme spiritual state - rather than an afterlife and a dream of Paradise. For all intents and purposes, the Scandinavians wanted to avoid becoming a Christian province in the Frankish Empire - and this is in the light of which the beginning of the Viking Age must be seen. The Viking attacks did not come out of the blue. They were part of a long conflict between Northern Europe and Western Europe, which has its roots in the upheavals of the migration period and power struggles between war kings, each with their own faith.

The article continues below the picture.

Odin from Lejre

In the centuries between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Viking conquests, a new Europe was born out of a chaos of wandering and warring peoples, changing alliances between new royal families, the establishment of mighty, fleeting Germanic kingdoms and the advancing power of Christianity. Whole peoples were divided, exterminated, and forgotten, while others succeeded in founding great dynasties. So the societies that the Vikings attacked were by no means peaceful themselves, and on the battlefields of Europe far more victims fell for the warfare of the Franks than for the Vikings.

So to understand the power-political structure of Europe at the beginning of the Viking Age, and the chaos that lay ahead, I begin the first part of the book by rewinding the time back to the 300s and taking a look at the borders of the Roman Empire in late antiquity. For this is where it all began.


Thank you so much for reading along.
We look forward to more exciting reading in this new book.

Year and peace

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