Viking Expansion

During the Viking Age, Scandinavians set out for many areas of the known world and settled previously “unknown” areas too! The expansion took many forms: raids, trade, and colonization. The raids affected most of western and southern Europe in areas such as England, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, and even North Africa. The trade touched the same areas. The longest trade routes went from eastern Sweden across the Baltic Sea and through Russia to the Black Sea, as far as the Caspian Sea. Swedes set up trading posts in Novgorod and Kiev in Russia. The name Russia comes from Rus, a word probably derived from the Finnish name for Sweden, Ruotsi.

Colonization had the most enduring effects. Norwegians and Danes established themselves in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the Shetland Islands. The Faeroe Islands, which had been uninhabited except for Irish monk hermits, were settled by Vikings around 825. The most extensive colonization, beginning around 870, was the peopling of Iceland by Norwegians and Norse people from Scotland and Ireland. Once in Iceland, people became aware of the existence of Greenland, and around 985, a small group of Icelanders set up a colony on Greenland’s west coast, which lasted for more than 450 years. From there the step to North America was short, and for a limited time around the year 1000, the Greenland Norse had a foothold, in the legendary Vinland.

Innumerable sources of information exist on the Norse expansion. Some are direct eye witness reports. You will look at excerpts from the Icelandic sagas, which describe how trade and raids affected them. You will also see vivid testimonies by the English and Irish hurt by the raids. You will read descriptions by the Icelanders of how and why Iceland and Greenland were settled. To give you a more coherent context we will introduce you to a selection of writings by modern historians.

There are sources other than direct texts. Place names form important clues to the inhabitants of a region. In Scotland and parts of England, most of the place names become Norse after the 9th century, and Norse place names occur throughout Normandy in France. By comparing the place of manufacture for artifacts to the area where they have been found, archaeologists can map ancient transportation routes and long-distance movements. When Swedish Viking Age women’s jewellery is found in Polish and Russian graves, it suggests a whole contingent of Swedes lived there. Small Buddha figures at settlements in Sweden and the presence of silk fragments in Swedish and Norwegian graves show that there was some form of contacts between Scandinavia and the Middle and Far East. This section introduces different forms of Norse expansion: their raids, trade, emigration and colonization.