Saturday, November 2, 2013

Medieval Europe Part 2: Of Kings and Killers Pt. 2-- Here Come the Norsemen!

My other blogs are:

Of Kings and Killers Pt. 2
Here Come the Norsemen!
Medieval Europe Part 2
WHO ARE THE NORSEMEN? : VIKINGS! Virtually everyone knows about the Vikings in some way or another (hairy, violent barbarians), but how many people realize that they only existed for a short people of time? Quite literally only centuries were they around as actual Norsemen, but after having traveled so much and for so far, many of them settled in areas of Europe and in the Picts whether the people there liked them or not. Who was going to tell them to leave anyway? (No one, that's who!) The Norsemen, which simply means "Men from the north," or "northmen" was simply a terms used to describe the ambiguous albeit general origins of the people groups using the old Norse language and lifestyle. Few cultures lived in such a manner as these men from the north, and few people could have existed for only a few short centuries yet stay as widely known as them! But why?
PERSONALITY OF THE VIKINGS: The Norsemen were brutal, violent, and sturdy men of the coldest areas of northern Europe like Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, parts of Scandinavia, and other places as well. They knew the cold well, and because of the climate and harsh living conditions they endured every day, they naturally became hardy people. They were as Pagan as any human could be, living and dying in the names of various battle gods, so to speak. Their violence is hardly stylized either by today's media, in fact the media we see about them hardly captures the true essence of their warrior nature. I would probably sum them up by saying that they were as violent as men could be without being considered madmen or insane, however, their beliefs were rather unique and few people groups could boast a religion and culture as unique and rich as the Vikings. Their beliefs in the old war gods like Odin and Thor did not help them to fit into European society since they emulated their gods. Children learned to kill at very young ages, the men drank more alcohol than fish drink water (haha, fish don't drink water), and how could any pagan culture be complete without its people screwing like mice? Battle, booze, and sex was the way of the Vikings, but they became most famous simply for being relentless raiders during a critical flux of power from the east to the west. No historian could have ever anticipated Europe taking the power reigns of the world, and in fact a common sentiment by historians is that it was far more likely for quite literally any culture in the east to conquer the world, but no, it was Europe!
And it should be considered an act of providence that they all decided to start raiding Europe when they did because Charlemagne was just crowned emperor of the West in A.D. 800 and would have probably attempted to make a dash for the east if the Vikings did not invade. Suffice it to say that these men from the north gave Charlemagne and his successors more than they could handle, and inadvertently slowed the mighty empire from its fast expansion across the rest of Europe. The problem was that they simply lived as they wanted to and not even Charlemagne and his mighty cavalry could stop them. They were surprisingly fast in their long ships and extremely deadly with their gigantic swords and axes. These men were huge to boot! Most people probably know too that the Norsemen in general were of large stock, hairy, and wild natured. They lived like wild men in forests but were far from stupid...very far, actually, although they lived very modest, simple lives (you know- kill, drink, screw).

A PERSPECTIVE ON THE TIME FRAME: It was around the A.D. 750s that the Norsemen began leaving their homes for some wild raiding, but the terror didn't truly begin in its fullest until slightly before A.D. 800, but the Viking terrorism lasted until early 11th Century A.D. The reason why the dates are somewhat unspecific is simply because they did not all leave at once and neither were they one cultural identity, but rather were a vast collection of clans living in proximity to each other and shared similar customs and gods, but were far from a single identity. Most of the clans even battled other clans over disputes, leadership, and territory. Furthermore, the sightings and records of Norsemen raids began quite slowly and didn't pick up the pace until A.D. 800 approached. By early 9th Century, coastal raids and towns being burnt to the ground were commonplace and even expected by both the military and commoners, and A.D. 1000 marked a slowdown in the raiding. Instead of raids though, historical records showed internal conflict rising dramatically between the Europeans of the area and the Vikings, as more and more of these barbaric clans simply plopping their butts down and settling where ever it suited them and whether anyone liked it or not! There were plenty of records describing burly, hairy pagans settling into areas all over Europe, often stirring up trouble. In general they were criticized and ridiculed as "uncivilized pagans," but regardless of what was said, they certainly made their presence known when they settled.
Ironically, the Vikings came at a very good time, because Charlemagne was probably one of the most evil men to ever walk the earth, and his crowning as emperor and undisputed ruler of the west fell into the "Oh snap!" category of life problems. Thankfully though, the Norsemen generally caused a wild ruckus where ever they wen. These clans of the north made Charlemagne's military seem virtually useless since it was land based, meanwhile the Vikings used their long ships to pillage and raid in quick attacks-- nothing like raiding monasteries, villages, and some good ol' wholesale slaughter women and children! This historical conflict is somewhat similar to the war between Athens and Sparta in the Great Peloponnesian War, which could be described as "The Elephant vs. The Whale," where both titanic beasts are kings in their natural elements, yet weak anywhere else. A Viking was simply unstoppable because of their long ships, and the cavalry of Charlemagne's military was unsurpassed on land. However, because the military was on the defensive, they had to try to stop the Norsemen anyway, which led to some humiliating defeats as the army desperately attempted to keep up with the invading men from the north every time they landed on the shore. But the price for losing in battle against these crazed warriors was worse than simply losing, since every time the military lost a battle the Vikings stole the weapons and armor used by Charlemagne's army, and with the impressive smithing skills of these men from the north, all the armor and weapons were replicated and outfitted on the Vikings! Insult to injury is a good phrase to use in this instance, and for at least 200 years were an unstoppable force that simply became more impressive as time went on, and where every loss by Charlemagne and his successors simply strengthened these implacable invaders.

Viking long ships consisted of dozens of rowers and plenty of men to get off to raid and hop back in! Up in the north, the need to row was primary over sails since the northern winds tended to be unpredictable and the rivers would twist and wind dangerously. They had small hulls for shallow riverbeds and one sail for when the winds were just right.
CONSIGNMENT TO THE INEVITABLE: Unable to deal with these scattered seafaring clans of men from the north, Charlemagne dispersed his armies all over Europe and allowed for the creation of fiefdoms- basically miniature kingdoms, and allowed his men to be hired out as mercenaries to protect Europe in bands against them. This worked out fairly well for a desperate solution, but it took its toll on the new empire as it eventually began stretching so thin that the fiefdoms themselves had the chance to become surprisingly powerful, some even growing so large that they became the center of later medieval European cities. Much of these medieval structures have all but disintegrated, but there are a few of the very largest ones left, such as Germany's Heidelberger Schloss, but are still more or less ancient ruins virtually beyond repair.

In the end, the wild men from the north all spread across Europe and modern U.K. regions like Ireland, England and Scotland, most of whom were nomadic hunter/warrior clans that settled in certain areas. The Danes are a prime example of how the Vikings eventually came to settle all across the medieval countryside, since they themselves settled in Eastern England around A.D. 865, but only after nearly 60 years of raiding the local monasteries near places like York all the way up to what could be considered Scotland just prior to the people becoming the Scottish folk we know them as today. The Danes pretty much just plopped down in a large area between the English and the Scots, stirred up a wild ruckus of fighting and conflict with their Pagan barbarity, but eventually became integrated into the kingdom when the king promised land to them so long as they were Christianized and stop fighting all the locals.
CONCLUSION: That's pretty much how all the Norsemen settled and became integrated into their new homes across the west over the course of 200+ years of what could probably be described as terrorism. Some settled sooner than others while some went back to the north, but they all caused the veritable stretching and dissolution of the empire as it had once been, so the Norsemen who did settle outside of their homes were able to do so without the military coming after them on their own revenge spree. 200 years is a long time to wear out a local army, and by the time they were bored of pillaging and slaughtering, everyone around them were simply thankful it was over and let bygones be bygones.
I hope you liked this brief essay on the legendary Vikings! Turns out there's a lot more to them than simple drunkards and brutes! They were seafaring drunkards and brutes!

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