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Did Vikings Influence Political Development Of Western Europe History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

From approximately the year 800A.D, Scandinavians discovered that they could acquire great wealth by plundering and threatening the rich communities of Western Europe. This area was exposed to attacks by these invaders, called Vikings, who travelled across the North Sea through the Centuries 800-1100A.D, in a period known as the ‘Age of the Vikings’. Areas of invasion include the British Isles and Francia, where internal divisions within Charlemagne and England’s empires were well known. Due to the proximity of many towns to the sea, the Vikings found this part of Europe easy to access given their impressive naval prowess. This was not only a period of destruction for the overrun countries in Western Europe, but international trade and towns flourished once the Vikings were assimilated, “Western European written sources indicate that the Vikings first sought easy money, and then trading bases and land to dominate and inhabit.” [1] In England, raiding monasteries and churches for their wealth, gradually led to larger-scale politically motivated assaults. By the end of the 9th century the Vikings controlled large settlements under the Danelaw in England and were a significant political influence across Europe. Viking activity across the period paved the way for new kingdoms in England, Ireland and France. Evidence of their language, literature and culture shows their profound effect on these countries and in many respects confirms their influence. On the other hand, when considering the internal divisions within the Carolingian Empire for example, and the threat from other invaders, among other factors which shaped the political development of Western Europe, it is clear that the Viking expedition’s influence cannot be isolated from other causes of changes,’ [2] and should be assessed relative to particular events.

The political development of England was greatly influenced by the Vikings. England was divided into independent kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. They were often at war with each other and did not unify until 927. The Vikings started to significantly alter the country’s political development by taking up winter quarters in East Anglia before moving into Northumbria – taking over York and then making agreements with the Northumbrians. This pattern of movement continued into East Anglia and Wessex. In 878, King Alfred was victorious over the Vikings at Edington and although able to establish terms for peace, Viking activity continued to have an effect on England for generations to come. The northern and eastern counties were given to the Vikings, called the ‘Danelaw’, consisting of important Viking towns. Excavations in Lincoln and in York, the capital of the territory, for instance, have demonstrated that important urban structures came into being during the period. [3] The era of the Danelaw became significant regarding the shaping of a particular language and culture, as well as laws: when the English Kings eventually gained power over the Viking lands, the people were allowed to decide their own laws, and these were influenced by Scandinavian customs. The administrative Ridings of Yorkshire divided the county into East, North and West, and existed until 1974. Yorkshire people conscious of their heritage have pressed for the restoration of the ancient Viking Ridings as they undoubtedly arose from the Old Norse word for a ‘third’ – ‘thrithjungr’, during the Danelaw period. [4] The extent of source material, archaeological finds and linguistic evidence from many parts of England, outlines the major involvement the Vikings had in England and all those sources are a legacy left by the Viking’s political influence during the ninth and tenth centuries.

The political influence of the Vikings in France is difficult to gauge. It is the view of historians that the Carolingian Empire would have fallen apart and the power of Carolingian Kings would have waned without the involvement of the Vikings. [5] The Vikings may not have had control over all areas of Francia; Eastern Francia continued until 911 to preserve its Carolingian political structure, however, its influence on the shaping of the general political development is evident. Western Francia was split into political entities – the count of Flanders was able to become a great political power by capitalising on the effects of the Viking destruction in his entity. The Vikings therefore seem to have had a direct effect on political issues in Francia, “The two ancestors of the dynasty that was to replace the Carolingians in France, the Capetians.” Robert and his son Odo, were known after the wars against the Vikings, this goes some way to show that the Vikings impact on the political development of France was great even if they were not always victorious in their aims of conquering territory. Their influence is undeniable in the political creation of Normandy: The Viking leader Rollo was able to exploit the weaknesses of the Franks and King Charles the Simple in particular. After his defeat in 911, Rollo was given Rouen and the surrounding region and was able to establish himself as the Duchy of Normandy. As part of the treaty of Saint Clair-sur-Epte, King Charles made Rollo convert to Christianity, and Rollo guaranteed to guard Francia against other Viking raids. The area of Normandy was from that moment, under control of the chieftain Rollo and his descendants and many Scandinavians settled here, eventually becoming assimilated and taking on the Frankish language. ‘No ruler after Rollo had a Scandinavian name. Until 1106 they were called William, Richard or Robert, which became Rollo’s Frankish name.’ [6] Despite the Scandinavian cultural and linguistic influence diminishing over time, the Vikings nonetheless had a decisive influence on the political development of Normandy in the tenth century as the region remains as Normandy today. Adding to the Viking’s influence, William, the eventual conqueror of England, was a descendant of the Normans, perpetuating the effects of what the Vikings had begun.

The Vikings had a significant foothold on the whole of Ireland by the third phase of raids in the 840s. They continued to arrive from Scandinavia and the previously settled England and Francia. Although only small regions were taken over, the Vikings were fully integrated into Irish life by the mid-ninth century and the bases they established along the coast became important towns, and in the case of Dublin, Ireland’s capital city. Norse-Irish alliances became common and peaceful social relations continued to rise. The Vikings who settled were tremendously useful for their military skills – helpful in Irish wars, even fighting off other Vikings. They brought a wealth of trading knowledge; due to their contacts with family and colleagues over vast parts of Europe. The economy of Ireland was strengthened by Viking trading activity and undoubtedly led to Dublin being a flourishing trading centre, and the founding of other major towns. “There can be no question that it was the Norsemen who really made Dublin the capital city of Ireland.” [7] The culture of active commerce was in such a progressive state due to the Vikings that the Irish Kings began to involve themselves in affairs of the towns. [8] In the case of their activity in Ireland, the negative image of invading Vikings can be questioned. The Vikings were portrayed as barbaric and cruel by people at the time. ‘This must have been due to contemporary reactions to their pagan religion.’ [9] So, while hostility understandably existed, their negative image was exaggerated mainly due to their obvious dissimilarities with the Christianised countries they invaded. By the time the ‘golden years’ of the expeditions were reaching their ebb, the majority of Vikings had embraced the religion and were assimilated and accepted in most the regions of Western Europe they had settled in.

Other events and trends contributed to the political direction of Western Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries: The religion of Christianity can be seen as another influence in the shaping of a more stable political structure as the Church persuaded political leaders to improve their administrations. The final cultural shape of Europe is considered to originate from the Viking era of the ninth and tenth centuries; whether in light of the eventual merits of their plundering, or the threats posed to the stability of the existing power structures of European Kingdoms. However, the Vikings were not alone in waves of attackers to fall on Europe during this period. The Magyar threat in Germany led to the instalment of the first of a new line of kings who went on to become the most powerful European monarchs since Charlemagne. [10] Similarities can be drawn with the strong national reaction in England to the Viking’s control of the Danelaw territory – subsequently leading to the creation of a united British kingdom. The evidence of another group of invaders appears to lessen the influence of the Vikings, however it was the Vikings specifically who accelerated the trend towards a new socio-political process. In France, as Charlemagne’s successors could not cope with the Viking threat, the crumbling of the known central power and the strengthening of the landed nobility’s position created new feudal societal patterns. The Carolingian’s political structure was failing under the strain of the Viking raids, and a re-formulation of political power took place. Individual provinces and regions had to be guarded from future attacks so Kings would allocate dukes land, who in turn handed out responsibilities to their subordinates through the chains of society. By the tenth century a nobility had distinctly emerged out of these localities – ruled hereditarily from that period on, a situation unquestionably owing to the largely to the events of the Viking age.

The influence the Vikings had in the political development of Western Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries was widespread. As the raids became more ambitious, leaders of the Norse people built up power structures in the west, ‘as conquerors of English kingdoms, or in strongholds around the Irish coast, while others were granted land, by Frankish rulers.’ [11] Remains of the Viking’s influence on the political map of Europe can be found in the place-names of regions they settled in during this time as well as in the languages. The Vikings also had a decisive contribution to the formulation of common law – ‘a direct outgrowth of Viking ideas about community obligations and sworn investigations, both vital steps in building a civil society.’ [12] Parliamentary government in Europe can perhaps be traced back to these Nordic ideals. There is vast evidence of territorial changes during the Viking age which can be attributed to the Scandinavians themselves. The expeditions lead to the colonisation of Iceland and Greenland extended Europe further west, while their destructive nature as raiders was arguably outweighed by the positive contribution they made to trade and to the composition of Europe they made as conquerors. The Viking’s undeniably left their mark on Western Europe. An array of sources chronicling their activity at the time of the Viking Age gives historians sufficient evidence to confirm that they had a major influence on the political development of Western Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries.


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