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Vikings: A people on the waves

Updated Tuesday, 18th December 2007

The sea was key to the Vikings - understand their relationship with sea, and you'll understand these Scandanavians.

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Timewatch: So, now, when we talk about the Vikings and this Viking Empire, who were these peoples that we’re talking about?

Louise Henriksen: Scandinavians. They were Scandinavians, and I think, actually, the Scandinavians didn’t use the term as much as foreigners did. I think because the word ‘Viking’ had a bit of a negative sound to it, sort of like a pirate, I think it was mostly the foreigners, the Frankish Empire, the Irish, the English, who used the term ‘Vikings’ about the Scandinavians. Well, in the Scandinavian borders, I think, they use terms like Danes and Norwegians instead. But there were people living in Scandinavia sailing out to plunder, conquer and go to war.

Timewatch: So, at this time, was Scandinavia, was there one nation?

Louise Henriksen: No, actually, that’s one of the most interesting things about the Viking Age. It's a period of only 350 years, but it's a period where the society changed a lot. In the beginning of the Viking Age, when we go from what we call Iron Age to Viking Age, the entire Scandinavia’s without kings. It's chieftains, and the chiefs are fighting each other to get power over land. That’s also where the first plunderings abroad began. Simply, Viking chiefs who wanted to gain power, maybe they lost some in their own territory back home, so they sail out to gain more power in another area. So that’s sort of individual plunderings. At one point, in Denmark, we actually had two men calling themselves king. But it was because the term ‘king’ meant something else back then.

Today, we know a king is someone that’s been born for the title and he comes from a long family of royals. Back then, the word ‘king’ often just meant the most powerful man, and he could have taken that power. So, at one point, we had a king on Jutland and a king on Zeeland fighting each other. But the closer to the 11th Century we got, Denmark, at least, got more centralised, and one ruler was accepted, and that was Guthrum the Old. And you see at that point a lot of construction sites. You see bridges, canals, big military fortresses being built. And the King wasn’t able to do that unless he had the support of the entire people because he needed a lot of workers to do it. He needed materials.

So around late 800, beginning of 900 and then to the Viking Age, the King is one person and he’s supported by the entire area. But, before that time, what we today know is Denmark was just called the Land of the Danes and there was plenty ruling. In the middle of the 900s, we get the work Denmark introduced for the first time. So that’s written on a runic stone and we say that that is our baptism, the Danish baptism, and that’s also where the first king is accepted in Denmark.

Timewatch: So, this group of peoples in Scandinavia, tell me how important the sea and ships were to them?

Louise Henriksen: I think before that time, the sea has been seen as something that kept people apart. It was like big borders that you couldn’t cross. But, in the middle of the Iron Age, the boat construction started to develop. Before that time they had canoes, but they started putting strikes on those and making them high on the side and you see the boat turning into a ship. You see the development of the mast, the rig and the sail. And suddenly the water, the seas became something that connected Scandinavia to the rest of the world.

So where they’ve just been able to sail up and down the coast or row, they were suddenly able to cross sea for long distances, going across the North Atlantic, go across the North Sea to the Anglo Saxon areas, and that opened up a lot of doors for Scandinavia. Some historians say that Scandinavia’s never been as powerful as they were in the Viking Age because they were able to create an enormous fleet, both of trading ships and war ships.

So, suddenly, they had opened their society to other people but other societies were open to them, and they were able to get things like chillies and garlic from the Arabic areas, wine. They were able to steal gold in the Frankish Empire or plunder the land, conquer land in Britain. And that made the home society really wealthy.

Timewatch: So how big was their empire?

Louise Henriksen: It's difficult to say because we don’t know where their borders were back then. And, at the same time, Scandinavia, as we know it today, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, was less divided back then. Today, we talk about Norwegian, Swedish and Danish Vikings but, in the Viking Age, there was a lot of moving back and forth, and at some points in the Viking Age, parts of Norway was Danish, and at some points of the Viking Age, some parts of Denmark was Norwegian. But, I think, when Denmark was the biggest was when Sweyn Double-beard had conquered England. He had the entire south eastern parts of England, the area that you today know as Danelaw, and at the same time, Vikings were ruling in Normandy, greater parts of the Frankish Empire, and Norway.

Timewatch: You mentioned that there were different types of ships. Can you tell me a bit more about that? What were some of the different forms of ships?

Louise Henriksen: The two main ships are a trading ship and a warship. You can see the difference in them from late Viking Age. The trading ship is a wide ship with a deep draft, a ship created to go across open sea for a long distance. It's divided into bigger rooms, where the middle part is big enough to hold a lot of cargo, and then the smaller rooms are in the front and the back for the crew members. The warship, on the contrary, is long and narrow. It doesn’t have a deep draft. It's created so it can sail into shallow areas, be draft up on land, or draft across land, and it has benches inside for all the rowers. A trading ship only has two or three oar ports in the front ship and they are used as a helping hand for the rudder, as for manoeuvring the ship. A warship has all ports all along the top strike so it can be rowed when the wind is not good enough to sail. And that’s the main difference.

But the variation in size, the narrow warship and the wide trading ship hasn’t always been. Some of the first ships found were found in late 1800 in Tønsberg in Norway, and there they found two ships where one had all ports all along the top strike, but it was the same size as what we today know as a typical trading ship from the Viking Age. But they were early Viking ships. They were from around 800. The ships that were found in Roskilde, where the reconstruction of one of them is late Viking ships - they’re from 11th Century. So, you can see the difference, you can see the development in the construction where the Vikings found out that building their warships long and narrow, they would gain speed and they would gain room for warriors onboard. So you see a development from a wide warship to a long and narrow ship that can sail faster.

Timewatch: I mean one of the things that’s interesting is of course you’re not doing it all in one go, you’re stopping off on the way. Is that similar to how the Vikings would have made the journey?

Louise Henriksen: I think so, yes. Because of the shape of the warship, the narrow construction, it's not a ship that can cope with being on open sea for weeks like the big trading ship. I expect that the warships sailed close to the coastlines when they could, and they would only cross open sea when they had the perfect wind. So they would need weeks to stay, to lie in harbour, waiting for the right wind, and they would make stops on their way.

If you read some of the Norwegian laws, written down in the Middle Ages but based on Viking traditions and the maritime culture of the Viking Age, you’ll see that the cook, the chef onboard on a Viking ship was actually, when sailing close to the coastline, supposed to go to land three times a day. Two times to make a hot meal and one time to get fresh water onboard. And that, in itself, says that they sailed quite close to the coast when they could and only crossed open sea on the shortest distances and with the perfect wind, and then they would lie in harbour, maybe sometimes even for weeks, waiting for that wind.

In Scandinavia, we have a word called leding which is the word for fleet, but it's also a word you can use as an order. A king can call to leding and then all of his warriors, all of his ships need to be ready, they need to be packed and organised. The warriors are travelling from all over Denmark to come to the area where the fleet is gathered, and then they stay there, waiting, until the time is right to go. But when the king called for leding, people come, the ships are made ready and then they sail when the wind is there.

So it's the same as we’re doing today. It seems like we’re living here but we can pack our bags in an hour and then leave if necessary.

Timewatch: And, as you mentioned, you’re going to be using a lot of resources so the Viking reputation for pillage but they had no option, I guess?

Louise Henriksen: No. We just talked about it yesterday because it seems like we've just spread over the entire harbour now, 62 people, and we imagine how the Vikings did that back then. I mean, coming into a small harbour like this, with just one Viking ship, seems big nowadays in 2007, and 62 people takes up a lot of space. Imagine that being 20 ships. Vikings, who are already up for the challenge of plundering and conquering, I mean the men onboard needed their wages. Some of them were professional warriors and some of them were promised a salary for going. That salary was probably giving them permission to plunder and steal for themselves when being out.

But we have found things that let’s us know that they did have some sort of way to spend their free time. We found a few game boards carved into the bottom of the deck planks. Chess, called Nefatavl or what we today know as Tic-Tac-Toe. They were carved into the bottom of the ship so they could take up the plank and then they could play chess or Tic-Tac-Toe. But I imagine that he was more interesting to go plunder and rape. And, as I said, that was, we should think of that as a way to pay off the warriors on the journey.





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