Regardless of the fact that all Scandinavians who lived in the period known as the "Viking Age" are considered Vikings nowadays, the real truth is that these people were divided into groups that still differed from each other. For example, various sources state that the Scandinavians already developed certain forms of identity depending on their geographical origin back in the 8th century. Accordingly, the three largest groups that stood out originated from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Now the question arises - what was the difference between them?
Before we try to answer this question, let's see why the Vikings are seen as one nation.
Well, the fact is that most of the records of the Vikings came from religious scholars. At the time these writings were created, the Christian and Islamic religions were dominant, and they preached about their monotheistic religions. Since the Scandinavians of the Viking Age were known as enemies of the church and the ones who did not believe in God, they were often viewed as one nation (pagans) who needed to be converted to Christianity. Even after abandoning their powerful old Norse belief system and converting to Christianity (around the 10th century), the Nordic people retained many of their pagan beliefs until the late medieval period.
What further reinforced the view that the Scandinavian Vikings were a homogeneous group was the specific, common culture that connected the Vikings from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. However, as these are three major regional identities, differences still had to exist. It is also certain that these differences gradually grew over the three centuries-long periods of the Viking Age.
What Separates the Danish and Norwegian Vikings?
The Norwegians directed their conquests to Iceland, Greenland, Ireland and Britain but historical records of their conquests are very scarce. They can only be found in rare documents from that period. Therefore, very little is known about their early political structures today.
The saga of the Ingling dynasty that ruled in Norway talks about how the Norwegian monarchy came into being. However, this saga does not provide any insight into what the structure of their society looked like, nor what impact they had on the people of neighboring countries. All we know today is that the Norwegian Vikings were the first to march on Ireland and Western France, but for some reason, their influence on European countries was incomparably lesser than that of the Danes.
One of the most prominent examples of the weak influence of the Norwegians is the invasion of Britain (late 9th century). Although this territory belonged to the Norwegians for years, there were almost no signs that the land was properly colonized when the Bretons took it over.
What Separates the Danish and Swedish Vikings?
As for the Swedish Vikings, not much is known about them today. It is known that they expanded their territory to the east, but records of their exploits can be found in a very small number of texts. During Viking rule, the Swedes were known as Rus, and it was believed that the goal of their expansion was exclusively trading.
Accordingly, the Rus established important trade routes with the Middle East countries, avoiding conflicts with them. However, at the end of the 9th century, something happened that raised suspicions that the Rus were just ordinary traders. Although not all the details are known, it is written in the Rus primary chronicle that the Slavs handed over power to the Rus due to unspecified circumstances.
Historians believe that this event is actually a consequence of many years of terror that the Rus enforced over the Slavs. After these events, the Rus became part of the ruling class in the East and quickly accepted the Slavic culture and thus ceased to be true Vikings.
Old Norse Heroes - Danes Vikings
Most of the knowledge about the Scandinavian people from the Viking period comes from sources written by Danish chroniclers (Dudo, Sako Grammaticus, Rimbert, etc.). It's understandable that they mostly focused on Danes to draw their conclusions. Thus, it becomes clear why we know much more about the conquests of the Danish Vikings than about the exploits of the Vikings who lived in Sweden and Norway.
The Danish Vikings were considered the most powerful military force among the Northerners. Also, when it comes to political and social power, the Danes had a unity that other Vikings did not have. Proof that this was indeed the case is the Frankish annals in which it's recorded that the Danes had their envoy at the court of Charlemagne when the Saxon leaders sought an explanation for the massacre at Verdun (782). Well, although it is not written in the annals what the outcome of that meeting was, it's clear that the Danes were largely involved in the politics of the region.
Thus, although the territorial conquests of the Vikings did not include only the Danes, they attacked more prominent enemies. Therefore there is more evidence about their exploits, and their influence and power were considered far greater than the power of the Norwegian and Swedish Vikings. Even in the Nordic sagas, the Danish Vikings appear to a greater extent than the Swedes and Norwegians.
Were the Danes the Only Real Vikings?
Given that information on the Norwegian and Swedish Vikings' early political and cultural structure is very scarce, the distinction between them and the Danish Vikings is still not fully clarified. All knowledge about them is reduced to a very small number of preserved records. From an archaeological point of view, men and women living in these regions in the north had a common culture that was very specific (similar, if not completely the same) and set them apart from other neighboring nations. While it is not possible to say that the Danes were the only true Vikings, the fact is that most of what we know today about the Vikings comes from what we know about the Danes.
Who Was Called a Dane Back in the Day?
Although the term "Dane" literally means a person from Denmark, during the Viking Age, the word "Dane" was synonymous with Vikings who went on conquests in England. Contrary to the aforementioned facts that the most prominent conquests belonged to the Danish Vikings, the Dane did not include only Vikings from the territory of Denmark. The Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings went on a united expedition to England, and all of them were called Danes.
Migration of Danes to England
Between the 9th and 10th centuries, a large group of Viking men and women (about 35,000) migrated over the sea from Denmark to England. What made the Danish people decide to take such a step, to leave their homeland and move to a completely new country?
The answer to this question is very simple. The Danes saw England as a chance for a better life. Initially, Viking raids in England involved minor incursions. However, as early as the 9th century, the Scandinavian Vikings united to form a large army known as the Great Heathen Army which started large-scale raids. United in their attacks, the Vikings soon realized that the British Isles were worth far more than the material wealth they often could plunder in their raids and take back to their lands.
As the climate in England was much milder than their Scandinavian homelands, and the land more fertile, it becomes clear why the Vikings, along with their wives and families (mostly Danish Vikings), left their homeland and replaced it with a new land they hoped they'll be able to call home soon enough.
Very quickly, the areas in the north and east of England were under Danish control, and in the 11th century, the Danish king took full control of the islands of Great Britain. At the same time, however, it was the end of the unstoppable wave of Viking raids all over England. What actually happened?
The English were have feared the Vikings for too long, and in 1002 king of England issued an order that all Danes who migrated to England be killed. The number of Danes killed is unknown, but undoubtedly it was a great number. This event is another proof that the Danes were a great political force and that their rise to power was a problem for the countries they migrated to.
How Long Did the Viking Age Last?
The Viking Age, which began in the late 8th century, ended in the mid-11th century. The event considered to be the end of the Viking Age is the Battle of Stamford Bridge which took place on September 25, 1066. In this battle, King Harold Godwinson of England defeated the almost invincible Norse conquerors led by Viking king Harald Hardrada.
Many factors influenced the weakening of Viking power. One of them was certainly that the Viking kings increasingly aspired to be feudal lords rather than warriors as their Viking ancestors were. Their attempts to create independent warrior groups that would be completely under their control made the demise of the Vikings more certain.
At the same time, the power of the Mongols in Eurasia strengthened, which further weakened the dominance of the Vikings. The Mongols developed strong military forces and continued to move west, closing the Viking river trade routes. The Vikings could no longer effectively oppose such a trained and strong army. The usual Viking sea conquests became more and more dangerous for the Vikings, and so, Scandinavian society began to change.
Also, the influence of the Christian church grew stronger, and in that period, almost all kingdoms in Scandinavia were Christian. A small part of what could still be considered as a Viking culture merged with the culture of surrounding European countries. Ad just like that, the three-century-long reign of the Vikings was over.
Who Was Ragnar Lodbrok (the Most Famous Viking)?
During the Viking era, many Norse heroes stood out and are still mentioned today when we talk about the Vikings. The most prominent among them was certainly Ragnar Lodbrok. His name is mentioned in many different written documents, including The Story of Ragnar Lodbrok, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ragnar's Song of Death (Krákumál), and many others. During his reign, Ragnar won many battles. The most famous among them was the attack on Paris in 845.
The year of his death is stated to be 865. The year when he set out to attack England with only two ships. This attack ended with him being captured by the Anglo-Saxon King Ælla of Northumbria and thrown into a pit with venomous snakes. According to legend, at the time of his death, Ragnar was singing his song about death (Krákumál), wanting to show his pride that he would soon enter Valhalla as a brave warrior.
Whenever we think we know enough about the Vikings, it turns out that something is missing to make our understanding of these magnificent people complete. We can never be sure how much of the information about them is real and how much is a myth.
But what we know for sure is that the Viking Age had a huge impact on medieval history and culture, both of the Scandinavian countries and of Great Britain, Ireland, and other countries in the Western Europe.
Until our next meeting,