The Americas, the Middle East, even Africa? In the amateur archeology community, there’s a lot of talk about how far the Vikings conquered. But what’s the truth?
First, let’s start with where they started from. We usually associate Vikings with Scandinavia or Iceland, but the entire web that is their journeys and even their beginnings is a bit more tangled than that.
Denmark, Sweden, Norway
What would inspire the Vikings to leave their homelands? Surprisingly, it wasn’t just the joy of conquest and a bloodlust. Historians point to a number of reasons why the Vikings could have wanted to head out and seek greener pastures, but none of them are the definitive one.
It could have been a retaliation against Charlemagne, who forced Scandanavian pagans he encountered to convert to Christianity, upon pain of death. Afterall, their first conquests were Christian monastaries in England and Ireland, not other, great warrior cultures. They also could have been strapped for arable land, thanks to the cold of Scandanavia, but there no signs of the Vikings exceeding their agriculture, no signs of famine. The Vikings maintained a pretty steady population and a pretty steady food income throughout their rule.
So what did it? Well, most historians think it was in search of trade. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Northern Europe lost most of its trading contact with the Arab world and beyond. Trade was at its lowest point during the time the Vikings took to the sea– and it could’ve been that they were looking to fulfill that vacancy.
How do we know all of this?
Archeologists look at a wide variety of factors to decide whether or not a culture traveled somewhere, or if their artifacts were merely traded and brought there by resident cultures.
We also have records from the Vikings’ enemies. Many feared these warriors and wrote of their fears, of the battles they encountered with them, and their raiding. They are often portrayed as blood-thirsty barbarians and animals, but as we know now, that is seldom the case. The Roman Catholic monks of England even had their own prayer: A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine, “Free us from the fury of the Northmen, Lord
And finally, we can look to the Vikings’ own writing, in the form of the Icelandic Sagas.
The putting together of all of these cultural records takes a lot of work, so we’ve distilled it as briefly as possible below.
So, where did they go?
There’s evidence of Vikings throughout the length of Europe. From Ireland to Russia, they raided, conquered, and settled throughout their hundreds of years. Their grip extended south to Southern Italy and the Iberian Peninsula, in Galacia, where they fought as mercenaries under William de Hauteville by conquering Sicily. The Vikings were so good at conquering, they didn’t even keep it to themselves!
They harassed and destroyed cities belonging to the Franks and Slavic tribes as early as the 800s, and were even at war with Charlemagne for thirty years. They lost that war, by the way, and were forced to convert to Christianity.
In the East, they extended to what is now modern-day Turkey and Russia, settling along the Caspian Sea and other main waterways of the Byzantine Empire.
In the North, of course, they permanently settled Iceland in 874 AD, founding the famous city of Reykjavik. And the taking of Greenland happened in 985 by Erik the Red. However, due to the extreme cold and attacks by the Inuit (called Skraelings by the Vikings themselves), the colony failed in the 1400s.
Centuries before Christopher Columbus, Leif Erikson made it to Newfoundland, Canada, in what is now the town of L’Anse aux Meadows. Erickson’s father, Erik the Red, is the warrior who brought the Vikings to Greenland. This expansion could not have been the only excursion into North America, as artifacts have been discovered elsewhere. But it’s the only one that archeologists are certain of.
And Leif wasn’t even the first to get to America! The first known Norseman to get to America was Bjarni Herjolfsson, who was blown off course on his way to Greenland from Iceland. Bjarni inspired more expeditions, including Leif’s where Vikings went to scope out timber– a very valuable resource for Greenland settlers, where plant life is scarce.
The Vikings didn’t get very deep into Africa, just skimming the top of North Africa, near the Mediterranean. This would be similar to the Roman trade routes in the area. In turn, within the centuries following the Viking Era, North Africans pirates would rule this area.
The Middle East
There was a Viking presence in the Middle East from the 800s onwards. They first started out in Byzantium, modern-day Istanbul.
For their part, the Vikings often took slaves (called Thralls) during their raids, which they traded to Arab merchants while in the Middle East.
While Vikings were shown to have spices and silks from China, they never got that far, according to what we currently know. These items were traded, rather than brought. That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a Norseman to have made it to the Far East, but there isn’t one recorded that we know of.