During the Early Middle Ages, a dramatic series of explorations, armed migrations, and new trade networks radiated from Scandinavia to forever change the world. The people responsible left marks in language, culture, geography, politics, and law that we still feel today. Broadly, we know them as Vikings, their word for a seaborne adventurer, raider, trader, and opportunist.
The Vikings and their times have been the subject of enthusiastic study for several centuries. The terms ‘Viking’ and ‘Viking Age’ have been used throughout hundreds of thousands of pages of scholarly examination. These terms are widely used and accepted throughout the academic community (though their limitations are recognized) and not simply the currency of lay enthusiasts or pop culture.
However, there has recently been a small but vocal backlash against these terms and their theoretical underpinnings. Some popular articles and internet commentary push back against the authenticity of the word, ‘Viking.' Increasingly, one hears gross overstatements and incorrect assertions, like “Vikings is a modern word,” and that it did not appear until the 19th century. Some have even opined that there is little connection between the 8th-century ad hoc raids (such as Lindisfarne) with the empire-building of Cnut the Great or Harald Hardrada almost 300 years later. One recent article published in a mainstream popular history magazine went so far as to claim that Vikings never existed.
We will disprove all of these false statements below.
While controversy and debate are essential to historical studies (or any other worthy inquiry), our intention today is to examine these objections and reaffirm why the traditional scholarly consensus is the most accurate understanding of what happened. We will also explain why Vikings are best called by that name.
‘Viking’ was a word used in Old Norse. It is NOT a modern Invention.
‘Viking’ in Old Norse (the language the Vikings spoke) was spelled víkingr. The 'r' on the end is essentially a grammatical feature of Old Norse for denoting a type of noun. It is often dropped in modern English spelling/transliteration. For example, people may write the name of the god Freyr (Old Norse) as Frey (modern English) or King Sygtryggr as King Sihtric, etc. In Old Norse, víkingr was the spelling at that time for a Viking ...someone who was a seaborne raider/adventurer.
Noun or Verb?
Víkingr and other word forms, such as víkingum or víkingar (plurals), appear as nouns describing Scandinavian seaborne raiders in the sagas, Eddic poetry, and runestones. These are material or cultural artifacts from the time of the Vikings or shortly after that.
Just a few examples of such Viking Age runestone inscriptions include:
"Tóki, Tóki the Viking, raised the stone in memory of Gunnarr, Grímr's son. May God help his soul!" (Sm 10 runestone)
There are many other examples besides these, but here we see literally carved in stone the term "Viking" used as a noun denoting people. From the context, it does not seem that "Viking" referred to everybody but to some type of traveling warrior.
The word ‘Viking’ (again, as a noun applying to an actual person or people) also appears numerous times in the Old Norse sagas, poetry, and histories. These were works passed down orally from the time of the Vikings, written down in the language of the Vikings by their descendants in Iceland, centuries before this word (as the critics say) was “invented in the 19th century.” The word appears in both positive and negative connotations. Here are just a few examples:
From Njal’s Saga:
From the Saga of Hervor and Heidrick:
From Helgakviða Hundingsbana II (The Second Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer) within the Poetic Edda:
The word Viking was also used as a Verb in Old Norse
Víking could also be a verb in Old Norse. This verb meant the act of seaborne raiding or adventuring. So, a víkingr would víking, or in other words, a seaborne raider would raid by sea. In some historical fiction books, this is rendered “to go viking.” An example of this verb usage (here with a conjugated ending) can be seen in the Eddic poem, Brynhild’s Ride to Hell (Helreith Brynhildar) in verse 3. "Bregðu eigi mér, brúðr ór steini / þótt ek værak í víkingu” (As Jackson [2015, p.289] translates, “Don’t scold me bride from the stones / even if I once went on Viking raids”).
Another example from Egil’s Saga:
There is no evidence to suggest that the verb was more prevalent than the noun or adjective. However, it is fair to say that Vikings used the terms víkingr and víking differently than we use these terms. Let us now look to see why that is.
What Vikings Called Themselves, and What Other People Called Them
At the dawn of the Viking Age, the Nordic peoples of Scandinavia shared a common language, culture, and faith (though with significant regional variations). However, they did not share a strong sense of common identity, as evidenced by their constant wars, raiding, and competition (even within the geographical boundaries of their homeland). They were divided into numerous tribes (such as the Jutes, the Zealanders, the Svear, the Geats, and many more).
So, while Vikings used the term víkingr for a seaborne adventurer, early medieval Scandinavian peoples had no overarching name for themselves. They did not think that way. Instead, they identified themselves by family, clan, and tribal loyalties.
Some critics have attacked the name 'Viking' because it is too broad, suggesting instead we "treat each of these groups on their own merit." However, as the Viking Age progressed, Viking bands were made of more than one of these groups. Therefore, referring to individual raids as the work of distinct tribes becomes as inaccurate as it is impossible.
Vikings might not have had a common term for themselves, but their enemies had many. The English and the French tended to call them all Danes. However, archaeology is abundantly clear that the "Great Heathen Army," the "Army of the Seine," and these other large forces were not just Danes but mixed companies from locations wherever Vikings roamed.
English monks, writing in Latin, also adopted the word, Wiccinga/Wiccingi (the Old English form of ‘Viking' in Latinized singular and plural forms). This capitalization in the manuscripts strongly suggests the Vikings were known by that name and that it is not just a generic descriptor.
One of the few known named Viking groups from the period, the Jomsvikings (Vikings of [the Fortress/Brotherhood of] Joms), also had chosen the name for themselves.
There were other names in other places. In Ireland, the Vikings were called "the Foreigners." In the east (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria, and the Mediterranean), Vikings were called Varangians ("sworn companions") and Rus. To the Moors of Spain and the Arabs around the Caspian Sea, they were called Majūs.
The Modern Broadening of the Name “Viking”
In the late 18th to early 20th century, the western world started to branch out from its obsession with Greece and Rome and take a fresh look at its medieval past. At this time, historians and writers began the wholesale application of the term 'Vikings.' Yes, the term used to mean a seaborne adventurer. Still, their longships and profound ethos led to this unprecedented time of exploration, trade, conquest, communication, and influence. Therefore, referring to this outward momentum of the Scandinavian adventurers of this time by the term they called themselves under such conditions made sense.
We know from archaeology and the written record that these adventurers were not just ‘raiders’ on longships. Instead, they were also traders and settlers, composed of entire families of pioneers and armed migratory communities. In this way, men, women, children, and the elderly within these groups were all ‘Vikings’ by extension. To say that only the fighters in these groups were Vikings would be like saying that only infantrymen are in the military.
This flow of people did not only move in one direction, though. The raiding, trading, and exploration of Vikings brought a great deal of wealth, organization, and ideas back into Scandinavia. Thus one can think of the cultural change accelerating at this time as a product of Viking activity. Therefore, to call this blossoming within Scandinavia ‘Viking’ does not seem unreasonable, especially in lack of any more deserving term for it.
Why ‘Viking’ is the Best Available Term
Not everyone is happy, though. A movement insists that calling Vikings "Vikings" is inappropriate because only seaborne raiders were Vikings and only when they were raiding. Detractors point out that most people living in Scandinavia in the 8th to 11th century were farmers and shepherds and probably never went anywhere. Thus, they attack the term 'Vikings' as imprecise and misapplied.
Unfortunately, they can only offer alternatives that are also imprecise and misapplied.
The terms ‘Norse’ and ‘Nordic’ are useful when describing the Vikings as an ethnicity or discussing their culture, but these terms are imprecise in terms of time (that is, we could be speaking of the Norse of the year 1000 or the year 1). Also, the term ‘Norse’ has traditionally been used primarily for Norway or western Scandinavia. Indeed, the term “Norsemen” taken narrowly as “Norwegians” excludes Danes, Swedes, and even women. "Northmen," too, is vague and could apply to any men north of Christendom. In many ways, we are at the same disadvantage in labeling these people as their contemporaries were.
People use the term ‘Viking’ to mean (as the Oxford dictionary puts it), “any of the Scandinavian seafaring pirates and traders who raided and settled in many parts of northwestern Europe in the 8th–11th centuries.” What sense would it make to say “any of the Scandinavian seafaring pirates and traders who raided and settled in many parts of northwestern Europe in the 8th–11th centuries” every time you mentioned Vikings?
'Viking' as we use it today is a helpful term because it simultaneously refers to 1) a person, 2) their range of activities, and 3) the time frame. We have to pile on many more words to replace this one term. The word 'Viking' is also a word the Vikings would have recognized and used for each other, albeit more narrowly than we do today.
Even if one insists on only using the word ‘Viking’ the way it was used in the 9th century (a restriction not applied to any other word, by the way), it still works. For these people, the rhythm of life was to tend their farms and plant their crops in the spring, then go raiding and trading (that is, “go viking") in the summer to increase their wealth and status, and then return to their farms for harvest. While some larger armies after 830 deviated from this model, it was still normative throughout the Viking Age to be both a farmer and a warrior.
Thus, many, many Scandinavian males in the Viking Age had indeed been víkingr, and this was a vital part of their identity. Archeology also maintains that women and families played a role in these efforts, especially in the Viking diaspora. So, (again), it is not unreasonable that the term ‘Viking’ could be applied to them, too.
Some argue that "only a tiny percentage of Scandinavians in that day had been Vikings," sometimes making the analogy to a small sports team representing a large high school. However, it is clear not only from the stories the Vikings told but from the many eye-witness accounts from all over medieval Europe that many Scandinavians had been on Viking expeditions at one time or another. Chroniclers in Ireland, Britain, France, and elsewhere frequently describe being overrun and outnumbered, with Vikings being everywhere one could see. As the Viking Age progressed, the size of the forces grew exponentially, and the overwintering of armies turned into permanent settlements. The reciprocal changes in Scandinavia and Viking-settled territories were on a truly transformative scale. All this change and upheaval were not the work of small teams but were the massive efforts of many (both on the scenes and behind the scenes).
Was the Viking Age ‘Real’?
Historical studies aim not merely to identify facts but to the significance of what happened and why. The Viking Age lasted about ten generations. Those first generations saw the boundaries and magnitude of Viking activity expand exponentially. The middle generations saw increased political/military organization and the development of hybrid identities (such as Hiberno-Norse, Norman, and Rus). This growth and change led to the birth of several Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian countries, the transferring of faith, and the inclusion of Scandinavia with mainland Europe from those last generations through the present day. (View a Timeline of the Viking Age here).
While it has cynically been said that “History is just one damn thing after another,” to fail to see the cause and effect relationship between the events in the early generations of the Viking Age to the later generations seems unreasonably obtuse. This is a story, and it is an interesting one.
Similarly, to fail to recognize the continuity between the early generations and the latter just because they have changed faiths or hybridized cultures is to take an extremely narrow view. A Viking (or Norseman, Dane, or whatever you like) is not exclusively defined as Pagan, or a freebooter, or 100% Scandinavian. It was an ethos, culture, and lifestyle. Some of the most famous Vikings were of mixed faith or parentage. Vikings also went back and forth between fighting for kings or raiding for themselves, so political organization was not the acid test for Vikings.
Granted, in time, the Normans, Rus, and Kings of Dublin, Norway, or Sweden were distinct from their Viking ancestors, but that is why historians place the end dates on the Viking Age when they do (1000, 1014, 1050, 1066, or later, depending on who you ask).
Today, an American man or woman might spend their early twenties in the Marine Corps. Even this relatively small percentage of their life makes them a Marine forever. They will always carry the pride, identity, and skills, and you will always see the marks of those experiences in how they dress, talk, and carry themselves. It would have been the same for the Vikings. In the sagas, people are referred to as "a great Viking," even when they settled to farm in Iceland. Vikings applied the term to themselves with pride, just as some of their enemies applied it and similar terms with apprehension. For us, Vikings is the most concise and descriptive term for this diverse and fascinating people.
- Rodgers, D. G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. Kindle Direct Press, United States.
- Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
- The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
- The Saga of King Heidreck the Wise. Tolkien, C. (translator). Thomas Nelson and Son LTD. London. 1960.
- Two Sagas of Mythical Heroes: Hervor and Heidrek and Hrólf Kraki and His Champions. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Publishing. Indianapolis. 2021.
- The Poetic Edda (Old Norse edition). Voluspa.Org. https://www.voluspa.org/poeticedda.htm
- The Russian Primary Chronicle by Nestor the Chronicler (1113). The Internet Archive.
- Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North. (Translated by Lunde, P. & Stone, C.). Penguin. London. 2012.
- Crawford, J. The Word “Viking” (Quick Takes). March 9, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoEaxlLCSjg&t=17s
- The Settlement of Iceland: Ari Frodi (Landnámabók). (Translated by T. Ellwood) 1898. https://ia801406.us.archive.org/29/items/booksettlementi00ellwgoog/booksettlementi00ellwgoog.pdf
- Njal’s Saga. The Icelandic Saga Database. https://sagadb.org/brennu-njals_saga.is
- Egil’s Saga. The Icelandic Saga Database. https://sagadb.org/brennu-njals_saga.is