The popular image of the Vikings is of bloodthirsty warriors, and many of them definitely were. However, although a proportion of the men known as the Vikings were trained warriors, many, if not most, were ordinary farmers and fishermen. It was mainly the prospect of easy pickings abroad which persuaded them to rove the coasts of Europe and Britain. But there were two other motives which prompted the men of the north to leave their homes and risk death at sea or on land.
Firstly, there was undoubtedly a strong spirit of adventure among young men, in particular about what lay beyond their shores. This accounts for the initiation of long trading routes both to the east and to the west. It has been shown that Vikings settled on Greenland, though what became of them is unknown, and that either by design or perforce by being driven off course, the Norsemen discovered “Vineland the Good” – America. Traditionally, it has been considered that it was Norwegians Vikings who made these hazardous journeys to the west.
It was mainly Swedish Vikings who first ventured east, though as my book relates, Norwegians did too. While the main danger for seafarers sailing west was the sea itself, the outstanding peril for those going east was the savage and inhospitable nature of the inhabitants of the eastern lands.
Despite the extraordinarily hazardous nature of the routes to the east, many men were prepared to take the risk of traversing the land and the rivers there. And this was because of the second and by far the most important form of motivation – trade. The Vikings were great traders and from the ninth century onwards they opened up routes to eastern European towns and villages where goods which were plentiful in Scandinavia such as furs, amber and iron ware could be traded for cargoes of items which commanded a high price in the north. Initially, the main commodity of interest to the Vikings was silver, but as the supply of this precious metal from the east began to dwindle, other things such as wines, spices, jewellery and textiles were in the ships heading north.
These northern traders were not like peaceful shop keepers, they had to be accomplished and brave fighters for the routes they travelled made them vulnerable to attack. There is no doubt that a great number of the traders never returned home and indeed there are records on rune stones in Sweden recording the disappearance of many travellers. But for those who accomplished a trading voyage, the profits could be very high.
However, some traders did not return home for another reason – they settled in the east, many in the country we today call Russia. This name comes from the term Rus which is derived from a Finnish name applied to the Swedes who first travelled there. Some of the Rus built trading bases along the northern waterways on the trading route and married Slavonic women.
The northern part of the journey was the in safest area for travellers, for the land was under the control of Novgorod, a city possibly founded by a Rus called Rurik, (although the Rus name for the city was Holmgård). He was a chieftain who was invited by the warring tribes in the area, to bring his warriors to restore order in the country. He created the Rurik dynasty which ruled Russia until the seventeenth century.
The trading route eventually extended from Sweden all the way to Constantinople. Travellers first crossed the Baltic, then sailed along the Gulf of Finland past what is now St Petersberg and into Lake Ladoga. They then followed the Lovat River south until ultimately it was no longer navigable. At his point the Vikings had to drag their ships out of the water and traverse them over land by rolling them on logs until they reached a waterway where they could relaunch and eventually follow the River Dneiper south to the Black Sea. This route took them through Kiev after which they were at the mercy of a particularly hostile tribe called the Pechenegs. These fighters were expert horsemen and archers. They used a special small bow made of composite wood which gave it more strength than a normal weapon. These tribesmen learnt that the best places to ambush the traders was when they were dragging their ships overland and thus they often lay in wait near a series of rapids south of Kiev. At this point the Vikings had to pull their boats around the rapids.
If a trading party reached the Black Sea safely, they then sailed across it and eventually reached Constantinople. The Viking name for the city was Miklagård. This was the wealthiest city in the world and the traders’ goods were in great demand. Having
traded their goods for wares from the orient, the Norsemen then had to navigate their way home facing the same dangers which they had experienced on their way south.
Not all of the traders went home. The tall brave travellers from the north were sought after as fighters by war lords in the east, in particular by the emperor of Turkey. The Norsemen who stayed to serve in the Byzantine army were known as Varangians. They were very well rewarded for their services and often received a generous portion of booty won in conflict. Thus some of them became extremely wealthy. The most valiant of the Varangians formed the personal bodyguard of the emperor and as such had very high status in the country.