The Viking Age: 793-1066 AD
The Vikings landed in Greenland and parts of Canada 500 years prior to Columbus. They dominated trade and exploration from 793 AD until 1066 AD. This time period was known as the Viking Age. The main reason for Viking success was their ships and navigational skills. The Viking Ships were able to cross the North Atlantic and were also capable of navigated the shallowest waters like rivers of Europe.
During the Viking Age overpopulation became a leading reason to search for new lands and the migration to them. The first stage of these migrations was to England and the European mainland. Then in the mid 9th century Vikings turned their attention to uninhabited islands reported further west - first the Faeroe Islands, then Iceland, and later Greenland. On these virgin lands the Vikings had a dramatic impact on the environment by cutting down forests, hunting unsuspecting wildlife, and introducing new animals and plants. This process was known as landnám, literally “land-taking.”
The Vikings homeland was Scandinavian. Scandinavian consisted of three major countries Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Each country extended their power into Europe, and effected three different areas giving them the largest trade network of the time. The Danish Vikings extended to the Eastern coast of England, and the western coast of Europe. They made raids that extended to Spain, the Mediterranean, and Northern Africa. In England they formed the towns of Dublin and York. The Swedish Vikings began to explore, trade, and raid Eastern Europe and Russia. They had economic influence in the Black Sea, the Caspian, and Eastern Mediterranean. In Russia the Swedish Vikings became so powerful they founded a dynasty that ruled Kiev. Then there were the Vikings who explored the North Atlantic and expanded westward to Iceland and Greenland. These were Vikings from Norway. Famous Vikings like Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson were from Norwegian decent. We also get some of the most famous Viking accounts and epic stories from the Icelandic Norwegians in the Vinland Sagas.
Vikings influenced many changes in Europe, but the most important change occurred because of Europe's influence on Scandinavia. They went from a polytheistic society to a monotheistic society with in three centuries of the introduction of Christianity. Conversion from the old ways occurred as Scandinavians in the Viking age traveled and traded more with Western Europeans and the British Isles. Christianity had already taken a hold in Europe by the time the Vikings began trade and political relations. Little by little the Old Norse religion was replaced with Christianity, small changes would occur time from time, but finally at the start of the eleventh century Christianity dominated the old Scandinavian ways.
Iceland is estimated to have been discovered in the year 870 A.D. by a Norwegian king named Ingolf Arnarson. He lived where the capital is now, and gave it the name Reykjavík. In 930, the Icelandic parliament in ancient times, Althing was founded. The Althing is the oldest known parliament in the world. It met periodically at a site known as the Thingvellor. The people of Iceland were mainly farmers, sheep herders, and fishermen. They usually gained more wealth once arriving from Norway.
The most famous Icelander, and Viking explorer was Erik the Red. He was born in Iceland of Norwegian decent. He was a humble man, a farmer/hunter/fisherman like most of the Icelandic population. He was well liked by many, but like everyone he had enemies. Erik after he felt he was cheated took law into his own hands and murdered a man for the injustice he had caused him. For his crime he was put to trial by the Althing. He was found guilty and as his punishment he was exiled from Iceland for three years. Erik then gathered a crew of men and set off to sea in the summer of 982.
His plan was to find and explore lands he had heard of west of Iceland. He ventured west and eventually ran into land at the latitude of 65 degrees north. He took full advantage of his exile. In his three years he explored every fjord and bay on the southwest coast of this vast unknown country. Upon return to Iceland he named the new found land Greenland. He became a salesman for Greenland just as Columbus was 500 years later for the Caribbean. In Iceland he told everyone of the lush growth, vast amounts of land, natural resources, and prime fisheries. Another advantage for settlement of Greenland was that the region Erik explored was uninhabited. He attempted to entice others to come with him and settle Greenland with the promise of becoming wealthier.
In 986 Erik had successfully recruited eight hundred new settlers in twenty-five ships to start the emigration to Greenland. Of the twenty-five ships fourteen of them completed the journey. These settlers formed the two largest populations of Greenland, the Western and Eastern Settlements. Waves of other Icelanders and Scandinavians would come and continue to create population growth in Greenland. The people of Greenland kept close contact with Iceland and Norway, the Norwegian king laying claim to both. The societies were different, yet there was still need for trade between the three to continue economic growth and the spread of changes to Norse culture. In 1000 AD Leif Eriksson was was sent to Greenland by the king of Norway to convert it to Christianity. Around A.D. 1450, the Norse society that had existed on the edge of the European world for almost 500 years mysteriously came to an end.
In the same year 1000 AD Leif is credited with the discovery and naming of three countries, Helluland, Markland and Vinland. Helluland was a rocky and barren land, probably Baffin Island and northern Labrador. Markland was a low forested coast, almost certainly today's southern Labrador. Vinland was a land of good grazing and timber, which Leif named after the grapes he found. He and his crew spent the winter there and then returned home to Greenland with a cargo of grapes and timber.
There are descriptions of Vinland in the Vinland Sagas are vague and have led to many conflicting ideas of where the country was actually located. Scholars have placed Vinland at many locations between Quebec and Florida, and even in the Great Lakes or the Mississippi Valley. Many such claims supported by mistaken "evidence" in the form of archaeological discoveries, stone structures, or stones bearing messages in the Norse runic alphabet. The sagas do make it clear that the Norse abandoned their attempts to found a colony in Vinland because they were afraid of attacks by indigenous people.
Evidence of an actually settlement in Vinland was still denounced by scholars until 1960, when undeniable proof of Vikings in North America was discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Newfoundland is now considered to be part of the area known to the Vikings as Vinland. Several Norse Viking pieces and clear Icelandic- style house foundations gave proof positive that Vikings had indeed landed, and briefly settled, in North America 500 years before Columbus.
The Vinland Map parchment dates to approximately 1434 A.D. It is the first representation of North America, and its establishes the history of European knowledge of the lands bordering the Western Atlantic. The only problem with the Vinland Map is that it is largely considered to be a fraud. Many professionals feel it was a production to better prove the existence of Vikings in North America before Columbus.
The Atlantic became the grounds for the change in society, religion, and technology during the Viking Age. The Vikings’ preceded the Spanish, French, and English in exploration thanks to brave men like Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson, and the greed of the Scandinavian kings. The Vikings were truly the earliest explorers of the Atlantic World.