What is the legacy of the Vikings?
After the defeat of Harald Hardrada of Norway at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, the Viking Age was no more. During their two-hundred-year period of expansion, the Vikings left an indelible impression on the world. Although their enemies shaped their reputation for centuries to come, the true legacy of the Vikings goes far beyond battle-axes and pillaging. Our modern world would look unrecognisable if the Vikings hadn’t ventured forth from their Scandinavian homes, fundamentally altering the course of medieval history in the process.
Their invasions into Anglo-Saxon England greatly upset the balance of power between the rivalling English kingdoms. Their conquering of all but one of these kingdoms started a chain of events that would eventually lead to a unified England centuries later. Further down the line, the British Empire would play a significant role in shaping our modern world, none of which would have happened without the Vikings.
The three Scandinavian kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway all emerged because of the Viking Age. After the Vikings converted to Christianity thousands fought during the First Crusade, providing the military strength for Christian Europe. The Rus’ people who traded and raided on river routes between the Baltic and Black Seas during the 8th-11th centuries, originated from Scandinavia. The Rus’ are said to have given Russia and Belarus their names as well as playing a significant role in shaping today’s Eastern Europe.
The Vikings spread far and wide during their period of exploration but it wasn’t all about conquering new land. They were great traders and set up routes that would connect people from all over. The traders went as far west as Newfoundland and as far east as Baghdad. Their trade routes helped rebuild the European economy after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Through their explorations, they landed on the shores of North America some 500 years before Christopher Columbus. They discovered and settled both Greenland and Iceland and established settlements wherever they went - the capital of the Republic of Ireland, Dublin, was founded by the Vikings in the mid 9th century.
All across England, millions of people live in towns that were settled by the Vikings. Any place that ends in –by, Derby or Grimsby for example, comes from Old Norse meaning a ‘farmstead or ‘village’. Similarly, those ending in –thorpe mean ‘a new village’, those ending in –thwaite ‘a meadow’, and those ending in –dale ‘a valley’.
It wasn’t all raiding, raping and pillaging, more often those Vikings who chose to settle, rather than return home, integrated themselves with the local people. They learnt the language, inter-married and converted from Paganism. Their assimilation into the societies they encountered forever changed the makeup of the local cultures. Today, many of the words we use have Viking origins. Hundreds of Norse words have been adopted into the English language covering a range of subjects. From words of warlike 'knife', 'gun', 'anger', 'berserk' and 'slaughter' to words of joy like 'happy', 'hug', 'dream' and 'glitter'. The Vikings gave us everyday words like 'give', 'window', 'leg', 'cake' and 'egg', as well as societal words such as 'law', 'husband' and 'loan'.
We owe a number of the days of the week to the Vikings. Tuesday comes from the Old Norse word Týr, the Norse god of War; Wednesday comes from ‘Woden’ a variation of Odin, the supreme deity of Norse mythology; Thursday comes from Old Norse meaning ‘Thor’s Day’, named after the Norse god of Thunder, whilst Friday derives from ‘Frigg’, the Norse goddess and wife of Odin.
When the Vikings settled in Iceland they established the world’s longest-running parliament known as the Althing. This is a claim that is also shared by the Isle of Man when the Vikings created the Tynwald at a similar time. These systems of democratic law gave everyone a voice and laid the framework of ownership. They allowed disputes to be settled civilly by way of a fine, a concept still very much in use in today's world. Laws would be voted on whilst trials were brought before the gathering with punishments discussed and agreed upon. It was almost like our current system; disputes and laws were all agreed upon democratically and legally. They had their barbaric tendencies, but the Vikings were far from an uncivilised people.
When it comes to material inventions, the Vikings also left a mark. Although they are not credited as being the creators of the world’s first skis, with older artefacts having been found in both Russia and China, the Vikings are credited with providing us with the word ski (from the Old Norse skio) and for laying the foundations of modern western-style skiing. They skied for both fun and transportation purposes and loved it so much they even had deities who skied.
The comb is another invention often attributed to the Vikings. Whilst it had been around long before the Vikings, their version of the bristled comb would provide the model of the ones we see today. They loved their combs so much, many have been found at Viking sites including graves. They clearly cared more about their appearance and personal hygiene than previous depictions would have us believe.
Perhaps their most famous invention was the Viking longship. The Vikings were one of the greatest shipbuilding people in history and their longships were technologically ahead of their time. Faster, lighter and more streamlined, the state-of-the-art ships could travel further than any other in the world. They were also more flexible and manoeuvrable and far more seaworthy than any previous vessel thanks to the invention of the keel. The Viking keel provided the longship with stability and enabled a mast to be secured to the ship. The unparalleled invention allowed the Vikings to cross-oceans and carry weeks of supplies on-board. The Vikings could also travel up rivers thanks to the shallow design of the longship hull, enabling them the opportunity to attack unsuspecting people.
Along with their engineering and carpentry skills, the Vikings were phenomenal navigators and are often credited as being the first people in the Western world to invent a practical magnetic compass. Although the Chinese had already invented it much earlier, trade had yet to bring a working magnetic compass from the East to the West. And so, for centuries the Vikings enjoyed a monopoly over the West when it came to navigational prowess.
Although they had no empire, the geopolitical, cultural and religious impact the Vikings had on our world is clear to see. Their legacy is still being felt over a thousand years later.
For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.