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History Blog

Viking Expansion 750-1050
By Chris Culpin
09 Jun
For me, by far the best bit about writing a new book is the doing the research. Usually this means up-dating myself on fairly familiar topics, but in the case of the Vikings I had only some very basic general knowledge, heavily influenced by having once done the Jorvik tour.  As I began to read, the opportunity of bringing some of the amazing things I was finding out to the attention of GCSE level students became an ever more enticing prospect.

It was the Viking ships which grabbed me first and provided an excuse to visit the Roskilde Boat Museum outside Copenhagen. Sometime in the 11th century Roskilde, then the capital of Denmark, was under attack from Norway. The Danes sank five ships at the mouth of the narrow inlet leading to the harbour, blocking it.  For 900 years their hulls lay in the mud until extraordinary maritime archaeology brought them to the surface, restored them and displayed them in the Museum.

One of them was a classic Viking longship: 30 metres long, less than 4 metres wide, with a crew of 70; dendrochronology revealed that it was built near Dublin in 1042. Of the others, one was a large sea-going cargo ship, one was a smaller warship for coastal use only, one was a smaller cargo vessel for trading in the Baltic and another was probably a fishing boat. Clearly these people were expert shipbuilders, using simple hand tools to make ships which were not only highly effective for a range of purposes, but objects of great beauty.

Expect to see large full colour images of these in the book. The extent of their voyages meant that the book has lots of maps too, covering the entire north Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic as well as the Volga and the Dnieper, the Black Sea and the Caspian.

So the Vikings were both raiders and traders. More of these apparently contrasting Viking roles gradually opened up. There is a story of an Orkney Viking, who started the year by ploughing his fields, then went ‘viking’, or  raiding, over the summer while his wife looked after the farm. So Vikings were raiders and farmers. And as I went on, settlers and navigators, slaves and kings. Women were not only farmers and home-builders, but also seers and healers.

Next to the Roskilde Ship Museum are large workshops where replica Viking ships are made using only Viking-age tools. Why bother? Because the Vikings were virtually non-literate, leaving almost no writing to tell us about themselves. There are runestones, whose strange entwining inscriptions we can sometimes squeeze for scraps of information such as where they went, or the status of women or slaves. There is runic graffiti on a lintel at Maes Howe, a Neolithic monument on Orkney, and on a balustrade of Aghia Sofia, in Istanbul. Then there are the Icelandic Sagas, mainly written two or three centuries after the Viking Age, by people who were Christians, not pagans.

Replicas and reconstructions therefore have an important part to play in helping us understand the Vikings. The replica Roskilde longship turned out to be capable of 10, even 12 knots, could float in only a metre of water and rode the waves well, but drenched its crew in cold salt spray. Those who sailed her gained new respect for their tough predecessors.

Our main source, however, is archaeology and the book is rich in images of finds from all over the Viking world: a ship burial from the Hebrides, glass and amber beads from Russia, hog-back tombs from Yorkshire, a game-board from Dublin and Arab coins – dirhams – found in Scandinavia. “Viking Expansion” is therefore a very different kind of book from any other in the range of options for the OCR B course. I hope you and your students enjoy using it to find out more about these extraordinary people.

Chris Culpin

Viking Expansion c750–c1050 is available now as an eInspection Copy and the printed textbook publishes 7th July 2017.

Hodder Education have set up a support group for teachers of this topic to share resources and learn from each other. Please e mail jim.belben@hodder.co.uk if you would like to be part of this group.
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