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Seafaring raiders and settlers, Norsemen are a hardy, adventurous people, masters of sailing and shipbuilding, and ready to seize what they can from a world in turmoil.

During a period beginning with the pillaging of Lindisfarne monastery in 793 CE until the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, thousands of men led by ever more powerful leaders left Scandinavia to launch attacks from the sea against neighboring kingdoms.

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The term “Viking” is often used freely to describe the peoples that formerly inhabited areas of Scandinavia. But in the Norse tradition the word víking does not refer to a people but to an activity, describing those who set sail in search of riches, whether by trade or through piracy. Chroniclers of the period spoke of “Northmen,” “Danes,” and “pagans” while those in the East were called “Varangians” or “Rus’.” They set off on expeditions driven largely by economic needs (raids, trade outposts, etc.) and in barely two centuries spread their influence throughout most of Europe thanks to their exceptional knowledge of seafaring and the absence of any organized resistance. They conquered part of England and set up outposts in Ireland, traveled across the Baltic Sea, traversed the Mediterranean, and sailed past Morocco. They crossed Russia, formed ties in the Middle East, and colonized Iceland and Greenland until their thirst for exploration led them all the way to North America. Although historical sources generally focus on their pillaging, what characterized these Norsemen was above all their pragmatism: they adapted their behavior to suit the circumstances and could deftly switch from skilled tradesman to skillful seafarer or fierce warrior.

Did you know?

The horned helmet that for many years was associated with Norse warriors in popular culture is in fact an invention of the 19th century. The head of costume design for the opera Der Ring des Nibelungen by Wagner is credited with dressing certain performers with this flight of fancy in 1875. But no such object has ever been found in relation to the Vikings.