Norsemen, or Northmen, a name given to Scandinavians of ancient and medieval times, especially the late eighth through mid-eleventh century. Norsemen called Vikings were feared raiders who plundered much of Europe. (The origin of the term Viking is unclear. It is believed to come from the Old Norse vik, meaning a fjord-type inlet, or vig, meaning battle.) The Norsemen were also traders and colonists, and were the first Europeans to visit North America.

A typical Viking village.A typical Viking village.

Vikings began raiding and plundering the coasts of England, Ireland, and western Europe in the late eighth century when the population in Scandinavia had grown so much that the area's resources could no longer support it. They attacked unprotected cities and towns, taking what they could carry and destroying what was left.

During the mid-ninth century, the Norsemen began military expeditions to conquer and colonize foreign lands and, in some cases, to open trade routes. By the early eleventh century, Norsemen had colonized parts of Europe and North America, and had established trade routes extending to the Byzantine Empire.

Raids and Expansion
In the West

The first Norse raid was against an English monastery in 793. In the mid-ninth century, Norsemen, predominantly. Norwegians and Danes, began colonizing the Orkney and Hebrides Islands, the east coast of Ireland, and the west coast of Scotland and England. In 994 the Danes began an invasion of England. In 1016 Knut, the heir to the Danish throne, became king of England. [Knut II.]

Meanwhile, Norsemen raided northwestern France and plundered much of the rest of the country. They also went on raiding expeditions to Spain and North Africa. In 911 Charles the Simple, the Frankish king, obtained some relief from the raids by creating the duchy of Normandy for the Norsemen. They gradually converted to Christianity and adopted local customs and the French language.

In the late ninth century, Norsemen began sailing across the Atlantic. They colonized Iceland in 874, and expanded to Greenland in the 980's. In about 1000 they became the first Europeans to discover North America, landing in a territory they called Vinland (Newfoundland). A settlement was made but soon abandoned.

In the East

Varangians, Norsemen that are believed to have been predominantly Swedish, expanded to the east. In the eighth century, they sailed across the Baltic Sea and established a state called Rusland in territory that is now part of Russia. (It is believed that the name Russia is derived from Rusland.) By the end of the ninth century, they had established a trading center at Novgorod and had made Kiev the capital of Rusland.

During the ninth and tenth centuries, the Varangians sailed down the Dnieper River and across the Black Sea, and down the Volga River and across the Caspian Sea, establishing trade routes to the Byzantine Empire. They acquired silk, silver, and gold in return for timber, furs, and slaves.

End of the Viking Age

By the middle of the eleventh century, Norse expansion had ended. Colonization in Greenland declined. The Irish expelled the Norsemen in 1014. In 1042 the Saxons regained the English throne. The formation of professional armies in Europe made raiding more dangerous and less profitable.

Norsemen frequently intermarried with the local population and adopted the languages and customs of the people that they conquered. Thus, little evidence of Norse influence in cultures outside of Scandinavia and Iceland remains.