What's in a Name: Vikings
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Today we use the term 'Viking' for anyone from the Scandinavian communities of Denmark, Norway and Sweden during the late 8th- to late 11th-centuries. In Britain, therefore, the 'Viking Age' is commonly understood as the period from the earliest recorded raid in AD 793  until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. To call all of these people 'Vikings', however, is actually a bit of a mistake as the name does not really describe the distinct tribes, groups or communities of the Early Mediæval Period.
The Old Norse feminine word víking may originally have been a sea journey characterised by the swopping of rowers. In the days before sail, a long-distance sea journey would require the rowers to take turns at the oars to avoid exhausting their strength. It seems, therefore, that viking relates to a tired rower moving aside when relieved by the rested rower on the thwart. Thus a víkingr (the masculine form of the word) began to mean a participant on a sea journey characterised by the shifting of rowers. So, to be a Viking was to be one of the seafarers who raided and traded from their Scandinavian homelands across wide areas of northern and central Europe, as well as European Russia.
Those people living in southern and central Scandinavia who spoke Old Norse - a northern German language - are often also called 'Norseman'. It echoes terms meaning 'man from the North' or 'Northman' applied to Norse-speakers by the peoples they encountered during the Early Mediæval Period. The Franks , for example, normally called them Northmen or Danes, while for the English they were generally known as Danes or heathen, but not Vikings. The Old Frankish word Nortmann ('Northman') was Latinised as Normannus and was widely used in Latin texts. The Latin word Normannus then entered Old French as Normands from which came the name of the Normans and of Normandy, an area settled by Norsemen in the 10th-century AD.
Yet all is not so clear cut. Among the Swedish runestones mentioning expeditions overseas, almost half tell of raids and travels to western Europe, and according to the Icelandic sagas, many Norsemen went to eastern Europe where they encountered the Slavs, the Arabs and the Byzantines. These latter peoples called the Norsemen the Rus' or Rhōs (Ῥῶς). It is thought the term probably derived from various uses of rōþs-, that is 'related to rowing', or from the area of Roslagen in east-central Sweden, where most of the Northmen who visited the Slavic lands originated. Archaeologists and historians today believe that these Scandinavian settlements in the Slavic lands formed the names of the countries of Russia and Belarus.
The Rus' initially appeared in Serkland in the 9th-century, travelling as merchants along the Volga trade route, selling furs, honey, and slaves, as well as luxury goods such as amber, Frankish swords, and walrus ivory. These goods were mostly exchanged for Arabian silver coins, called dirhams. Hoards of silver coins minted in Baghdad in the 9th-century have been found in Sweden, particularly in Gotland.
The Slavs and the Byzantines also called them 'Varangians' (Old Norse: Væringjar meaning 'sworn men'). As early as AD 839, Swedish emissaries are known to have first visited Byzantium. In the late 10th-century, a new unit of the imperial bodyguard was formed. Traditionally containing large numbers of Scandinavians, it was known as the Varangian Guard. The word Varangian may have originated in Old Norse, but in Slavic and Greek it could refer either to Scandinavians or Franks.
So, to be a Viking is to be a seafarer, Norse, a Northman, a Dane, Rus' or even a Norman. Whatever term we use, the Viking Age had a lasting impact on Britain. These raiders, traders and settlers left a wide-ranging legacy from the Norse words populating the English language to place names defining the countryside. In only 250 years, they set their mark on the law and language of many countries and made many European communities .
For more information about the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period, then the website of the re-enactment group, Regia Anglorum, is highly recommended. The group's Regiapædia is a comprehensive suppository of useful information on Anglo-Saxon and Viking life.
1. In England, the beginning of the Viking Age is dated to June 8th, 793 when Vikings destroyed the abbey on Lindisfarne, a centre of learning on an island off the northeast coast of England in Northumberland.
2. The Franks were a group of Germanic peoples whose name was first mentioned in 3rd-century Roman sources, and associated with tribes between the Lower Rhine and the Ems River, on the edge of the Roman Empire. Later the term was associated with Romanized Germanic dynasties within the collapsing Western Roman Empire, who eventually commanded the whole region between the rivers Loire and Rhein. They imposed power over many other post-Roman kingdoms and Germanic peoples. 3. Regiopædia, Vikings!, (accessed April 27th, 2020).