The Vikings originally occupied Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as we know them today, but they didn’t exactly stay put. In fact, the term “viking” comes from the Old Norse term vikingr, a concrete noun that may be translated as “sea warrior”1 and an abstract noun that means “the act of going raiding overseas“. Given that their homelands were surrounded by oceans, it should come as no surprise that they developed some of the fastest ships in the world.
So how did they build these magnificent ships, and what prompted them to travel so extensively in the first place? These links will give you a glimpse into the rise of the Vikings.
Sophisticated Seafaring Technology
The longships that the Vikings employed in warfare and on raids were more advanced than any other seagoing vessels of the period. A boat capable of holding a crew of one hundred sailors could sit comfortably in three feet of water; smaller vessels might sit in as little as eight inches of water, making areas along shallow rivers and estuaries vulnerable to attack. They also developed knarrs, cargo ships that were similar to longships but much deeper and wider.
So how did the Vikings build their ships? Based on archaelogical finds and an understanding of the technology of the time, modern shipbuilders have been able to figure out how to construct Viking vessels using the tools of the age.
This ten-minute video documents the construction of a modern Viking longship, the Dragon Harald Fairhair (commonly known by its Norwegian name, Draken Harald Hårfagre) which crossed the Atlantic Ocean earlier this year to tour the Great Lakes and Eastern seaboard. Naturally, I went to see it when it came to Toronto and it was absolutely spectacular.
Although Viking ships all had oars, it was sailing technology that enabled long-distance sea travel, and the Vikings made their sails from wool. A lot of wool. It’s estimated that the sail required for a thirty-metre vessel would have taken two skilled weavers more than two years to make. (And you thought your job was boring and repetitive.)
In less than three hundred years, Viking raiders had travelled to most of Europe, parts of the Middle East, and Northern Africa, and established quite the reputation for themselves along the way. But the Vikings also settled in parts of Russia and Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, and they got there by sailing along rivers and across oceans. Now, thanks to The Skaldic Project, The Old Norse World, and Altnordische Kosmographie by Rudolf Simek, we can take a look back at the vast world that the Vikings knew.
Why the Vikings?
The first recorded Viking raid took place on June 8, A.D. 793 at the Lindisfarne monastery in Northern England. However, the people we call the Vikings didn’t suddenly appear one day; rather, their way of life and trading activities grew alongside the development of their shipbuilding technology. In 2008 and 2010, two burial sites were found on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, each containing a longship, bodies, and weapons. The ships and their contents are of Scandinavian origin, and the finds could push back the official start of the Viking Age by as much as a century.
The Saaremaa find (see The First Vikings, above) has forced researchers to reconsider not only when the Viking Age began but also why. Neil Price of Uppsala University in Sweden thinks that they may have needed slave labour to maintain the sails for the growing fleets of Viking ships (see No Wool, No Vikings, above) or to satisfy the sexual needs of poorer men who may have had trouble finding wives locally.
Another factor that may have contributed to the rise of the Vikings was good old-fashioned honest commerce. There is evidence of trading between the residents of Norway and Denmark, and speedy, efficient trade may have driven the Scandinavians to develop their seafaring technology.
A Taste of Life on the Sea
This video of the Draken crew training for their sailing adventures was taken in 2013 and shows what it’s like to sail a Viking longship through the rolling ocean waves. Although modern technology supported them every step of the way, the crew faced many of the same miseries, hardships, and dangers that medieval sailors encountered.
For more links on the Vikings, see also:
- Downham, Clare. ” Viking Ethnicities: A Historiographic Overview,” History Compass 10/1 (2012): 1–12, 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2011.00820.x ↩