Thursday, 20 March 2014

the vikings

Parker examines the shift from piratical raids to full-blown invasions and settlement in Britain, France and Ireland up until 950. In fact, settling in all these areas did not prove that difficult. The Anglo-Saxons had grown complacent and lacked sea defences; England still comprised five different kingdoms; and the inhabitants soon took to appeasing the Viking warlords rather than confronting them. Were it not for the resolve of King Alfred of Wessex and his successors, the Vikings might well have made a lasting conquest of the whole of England.
As for France, there was no unifying figure capable of driving the Vikings back home. After the death of Emperor Charlemagne in 814, the country was plunged into fierce dynastic wars. For the Vikings this was a boon and, come the tenth century, a certain Rollo established his kingdom of Normandy, the 'land of the northern folk'. .... In Ireland, too the failure of the natives to unite in the face of a common enemy allowed the Vikings to dominate and establish major ports along the country's east coast, from where, among other things, slaves could be exported across the Viking world.
During this same period, Scandinavia was also undergoing significant changes. Warlords were becoming kings, with the result that realms developed with boundaries not too dissimilar from those that pertain today. Christian missions were also gaining much greater ground and, by the 11th century, Norway and Denmark resembled the rest of western Europe in their political and religious structures.
perhaps the most colourful story is that of the Viking voyages from the Baltic to Byzantium and further afield to trade in the Arab silver markets, which created an economic boom in Scandinavia. But once the silver supply dried up in the 970s, there was an economic crash that obliged embattled Scandinavian rulers to look elsewhere for income - towards England, where descendants of Viking settlers had become peaceful Christian farmers. This time there would be no petty piracy, just full-scale invasion, leading ultimately to King Cnut's creation in the 11th century of an Anglo-Scandinavian empire. King Ethelred's famously foolish policy of paying the invaders vast sums of money to go away simply guaranteed that they kept coming back for more.
- two extracts from a review by Martin Arnold of The Northmen's Fury, a book on Viking history by Philip Parker in March's Literary Review