My brother has been recommending I watch the Vikings TV show for quite some time. Apparently there’s lots of raiding, fighting and wenching going on. I resisted that call but did get my fair share of Viking type behaviour from Skyrim and then later in the Skellige islands in The Witcher 3. There’s something about the windswept coastal villages, thatched huts, and dour manner that appeal to me as a Northman.
Now that the Time Life history of the world reaches the Vikings with volume seven I was getting very curious. Frankly, I’d grown a little tired of reading about headhunters flaying each other in Peruvian mountains or Persians beheading entire cities over bizarre sectarian differences. Far better to just strap an axe to your back, jump in a longboat, and then go raiding and pillaging. It’s the original Euro-Jaunting.
There were many surprises to me about the Vikings, seeing as I’d only ever conceived of them as ale-swilling village-raiding heathens. Here are some:
- The Baltic region gives entry to both the Dnieper and Volga rivers, which both flow right down into the Black Sea via Kiev and Moscow respectively. The Vikings used these as major trading routes, bullying the slav villages along the river banks into paying tribute.
- It was the Vikings who first built up Kiev from a pissant village into a major settlement. On their trading visits to Arabs, they’d shanghai lots of local slavs to sell into Arab slavery, hence the root of the word ‘slave’
- The Vikings didn’t much distinguish between trading and raiding so from 860AD they had a century-long series of cracks at besieging Constantinople, still by far the biggest and most impressive city of the era. Though it gave the Byzantines conniptions, the Vikings never succeeded.
- They introduced the jury trial system to Britain.
They were dirty pagans, of course, but it was interesting to read about Norse legends and the use of runes. Round about 800AD the Vikings first got to adventuring in the East and the slavs called them the Rus, which is likely the source of the original name Russia . They also took the easterly fork of the Volga to ride by camel all the way to Baghdad .
In the West things were stranger still because after repeated Viking attacks on the Frankish settlement of Paris, a peace agreement was reached by which the Vikings were conceded territory north of Paris which over time became Normandy and the Vikings became Normans. Thus in 1066 when Harold of England fought Harold Hadrada at Stamford Bridge and then raced to Hastings to fight William The Conqueror, it was really a Viking invasion at both ends.
It’s all a bit too much for me. I’d always assumed they were just drunken roughnecks who sailed across the North Sea, smashed some shit up on England’s eastern seaboard, then sailed home to drink ale and butt heads. How wrong I was.
These Time Life books always have four sections, intended to cover the whole of the globe within the timespan of the volume. So section two is more on the Byzantines who by now had completely split from Rome to form a rival Christian empire (and thus create the Orthodox patriarchs in opposition to the Catholic popes), had fallen under a weak king then risen again under a strong king. Mostly they were content to extract crushing taxes from their subjects and then plot against each other without end. Section three has the Japanese getting their shit together to create the unified Heian dynasty which produced lots of poetry, calligraphy, court drama, and then finally fell apart to plunge the country into centuries of war between rival fiefdoms.
Most surprising of all in this book is the fourth and final section on North America. It concerns the settled agrarian peoples around the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from 1000BC through to it’s zenith in the 11th century until it’s sudden decline and collapse. Note these were not the
Indians Redskins Native Americans who we are currently told were the original people of the US. I’d never even heard of the Mississippians and Ohians.
That’s what’s fascinating about reading all these history books. It’s not just how much I’ve forgotten from my school days but how much of it was never on the syllabus to begin with.
If you are fascinated by wild uncouth men setting sail for Kiev and Moscow to oppress the locals and steal their women, you’ll very much like my memoir series Balls Deep, A Deplorable Cad, and Adventure Sex
 A bit weird seeing as what we now call Russians are actually Moscovites and Slavs.
 Then a major city and key point on the Silk Road trade with China and India.