Book 2, Chapter 2, 597 AD to 827 AD – Invasion of the Northmen – Continued
The countries whence these Northmen came were among the most bleak and sterile, but albeit unfriendly to cultivation, they nurtured a hardy and vigorous race, who, scorning danger and having no dread of death, were ready to follow any adventurous chieftain, who would lead them forth to plunder, returning home laden with spoil, only to sally forth again when it was exhausted. The acquisition of property by violence was their object, the sea their road to it, the sword their instrument, and all the settled habitations which they could reach, master, or surprise, were exposed to their attacks. Their legendary history, as sung by the Scalds or bards, for the encouragement and incitement of the younger warriors, was composed almost exclusively of wild, fierce tales of piracy and murder.
The weapons used by them resembled those used by the Saxons, but in addition they had a double bladed axe, and were expert with the bow. In the selection of sites for fortification and in surrounding them with means of defence, they showed much skill. The ships which conveyed them over were mostly small and of light draught, enabling them to ascend rivers and creeks, and even admitting of transportation overland from one river or arm of the sea to another. Their character was universally regarded as false, cruel, and vindicative. They are continually stigmatised in the old chroni6les as “truce breakers,” and they well deserved the name. “Heathens” was another appellation given to them, and they certainly showed their hatred of Christianity in a most sanguinary manner, but Hume suggests, with much reason, that the cruelties inflicted by Charlemagne upon the pagans in Germany and on the Rhine, may have led to the subsequent reprisals. He had obliged them to make a seeming compliance with the Christian religion under pain of death, and in years long after the Normans who invaded and settled in France, inflicted signal revenge for this upon the imbecile successors of Charlemagne.
The Northmen, who ravaged England, also took especial delight in attacking monasteries and churches, chiefly, no doubt, for the treasures which they contained, but partly also to take vengeance upon the Saxons whom they regarded as recreants from the faith of their common ancestors.
One title borne by these piratical rovers was “Vikings,” or sea-kings. They were a race of beings whom Europe beheld with horror. With-out a yard of territorial property, without any towns, or visible nation, with no wealth but their ships, no force but their crews, and no hope but from their swords, the sea-kings swarmed on the boisterous ocean, and plundered in every district they could approach. Never to sleep under a smoky roof, nor to indulge in a cheerful cup over a hearth, were the boasts of these watery sovereigns, who not only flourished on the plunder of the sea and its shores, but who sometimes amassed so much booty, and enlisted so many followers, as to be able to assault provinces for permanent conquest.
The sea kings had the name of honour, but they were only a portion of those pirates or Vikings, who in the ninth century were covering the ocean. Not only the children of the kings, but every man of importance, equipped ships, and roamed the seas to acquire property by force. At the age of twelve, the sons of the great were in action under military tutors. Piracy was not only the most honourable occupation, and the best harvest of wealth, it was not only consecrated to public emulation by the illustrious who pursued it, but no one was esteemed noble, no one was respected, who did not return in the winter to his home with ships laden with booty. The spoil consisted of every necessary of life, clothes, and domestic utensils, cattle, which they killed and prepared on the shores they ravaged, slaves, and other property. It is not surprising that, while this spirit prevailed, every country abounded in deserts.
One branch of the Vikings is said to have cultivated paroxysms of brutal insanity, and they who experienced them were revered. These were the berserkir, whom many authors describe. These men, when a conflict impended, or a great undertaking was to be commenced, abandoned all rationality upon system, they studied to resemble wolves or mad dogs, they bit their shields, they howled like savage beasts, they threw off covering, they excited themselves to a strength which has been compared to that of bears, and then rushed to every crime and horror which the most frantic enthusiasm could perpetrate This fury was an artifice of battle, like the Indian war-whoop Its object was to intimidate the enemy. It is attested that the unnatural excitation was, as might be expected, always followed by a complete debility.
Such were the people with whom the Anglo Saxons had to deal, and the records of several reigns between Egbert and Alfred, are wholly occupied in some of the old histories with statements of the depredations committed by these Northmen, and of the bloody conflicts to which they led. According to these ancient writers, the destruction of life, on both sides, must have been immense, but as fast as one horde of invaders were exterminated, others arrived to take their places, with a thirst for plunder which seemed to be insatiable, and in numbers which threatened to be inexhaustible.
Chapter 2, Ethelbert of Kent
Chapter 2, Kings Alfred and Ethelbald
Chapter 2, King Egbert
Chapter 2, Invasion of the Northmen
Sketch of Their History and Character
Categories: Book 2