The Vikings originated from what is now modern Scandinavia and were primarily farmers and traders. It is thought that they invaded Europe in large numbers because of overcrowding in their homelands. Improvements in boat design allowed them to travel further afield.
What's in a name?
The word 'Viking' has several possible origins. The Old Norse word 'vik', for example, means a bay or inlet. 'Vik' may also come from the Old English word 'wic', which derives from the Latin 'vicus', meaning a camp or trading settlement.
Light, fast and able to ride out storms, Viking longships were the peak of early medieval boat design, equally at home on the open sea as on rivers. Powered by a large sail or by banks of oars such vessels carried up to 200 warriors on long-distance raids or explorations.
A longship's shallow draught enabled it to be sailed close inshore or up rivers, deep inland. This allowed the Vikings to raid any part of Northern Europe, seizing goods and slaves. Contemporary chronicles reflect the terror such hit and run attacks inspired.
Trade was as important as warfare to the Vikings and their merchants travelled as far as the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic World, Persia and India. Their main trade routes included the rivers Dnieper and Volga in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Viking raids in England were so successful they were able to colonise much of the north and east of the country as well as western Scottish islands and parts of Ireland. In 911, the King of France gave a Viking leader, Rollo, and his followers a large area of land - it became known as Normandy.
The first explorers
Longships enabled the Vikings to reach and settle Iceland and Greenland and explore the long, dangerous rivers of Russia. Archaeological evidence suggests that after AD1000 the Vikings even reached North America.
The Vikings were particularly feared because they were not Christians. They honoured a number of pagan gods led by Odin, lord of the Slain, Thor, god of Thunder, and Frey, the fertility god. By the 11th century, however, most Vikings had converted to Christianity.