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Guts & Glory: The Vikings
By Ben Thompson
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From battle-axe-wielding tribes plundering the greatest cities of Europe to powerful kings and queens ruling their dominions with iron fists, the Vikings were some of the most feared and fearless figures in European history. Find the bravest heroes, the most menacing villains, and unbelievably awesome facts and myths inside this action-packed overview that will amaze kids with tales of a people so incredible…it’s hard to believe they were real.
History buff and popular blogger Ben Thompson’s lively storytelling style brings the Vikings back to life in this second book in the exhilarating Guts & Glory series!
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Guts & Glory: World War II
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THE COMING OF THE NORSEMEN
And they came to the Church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea.
—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
JUNE 8, AD 793. THE ISLAND OF LINDISFARNE. A peaceful little place just off the northeast coast of England, bright with green pastures and surrounded on all sides by the rolling waves of the North Sea. At the Monastery of Saint Cuthbert, a few dozen Catholic monks dutifully tended to their chores or offered prayers in the breathtaking chapel.
Then from the east appeared an unusual sight. At the very edge of vision were two strange-looking ships approaching from a direction from which ships didn't typically approach. Quietly, quickly, these small, fast-moving vessels made their way toward the island, each powered by a single red-and-white sail and sixty oars.
By the time the citizens could make out the black, ornately carved dragon heads glaring menacingly from the prows and see the glistening muscles of the heavily armored men rowing toward them, it was already too late.
The terrifying sea-raiders struck so fast that many of the monks didn't have time to hide their valuables. With blood-curdling battle cries, a swarm of humongous bearded warriors tore through the island, slaughtering and burning and throwing people out windows as monks and pilgrims ran for their lives. Those who weren't killed were captured, bound in ropes, and dragged back to the ships as captives, never to be heard from again.
The ravagers made straight for the chapel, completely unaware of its religious importance. They took gold crosses, silver cups and candlesticks, and ivory chests. They tore jeweled covers from Bibles, pried gems from walls, ripped priceless silk tapestries, and torched buildings.
They departed just as quickly as they'd arrived, leaving behind a smoldering wake of burning cinders and charred rubble. None of the ruined survivors knew anything about where the mysterious men had come from, what they wanted, or where they were headed. Those monks unlucky enough to witness the anarchy believed it was a scourge sent by God to punish humanity for its sins.
For the next three hundred years, these fearsome raiders would plague the lands of Europe. They'd be known by many different titles—the Norse, the Ashmen, the Northmen, and the Danes—but one name in particular has stood throughout time:
Sometimes it's not possible to know every word and every happening, for most things happen long before they're told about.
—The Saga of Hrolf the Walker
FROM ESPN HIGHLIGHTS OF MINNESOTA Vikings running backs trampling linebackers to How to Train Your Dragon movie marathons, we can feel the influence of the Vikings in almost every aspect of our daily lives. Sometimes those influences are so blatant that they smack you upside the head like Thor smiting Loki on the poster for an upcoming summer blockbuster. Other Viking hand-me-downs, like the Tooth Fairy or the song "London Bridge Is Falling Down," are a little less obvious. Viking culture and Norse mythology can be found front and center in everything from Led Zeppelin albums to Final Fantasy video games; from Dungeons & Dragons sessions to NASA space probes; from The Lord of the Rings to popular cruise lines; and across all manner of television, movies, video games, comics, and books. They're everywhere you look, all portrayed at maximum volume and with varying degrees of historical accuracy. I mean, the Minnesota Vikings football team kicks off its pregame festivities by having a big bearded guy in a horned helmet charge onto the football field on a motorcycle screaming "Vikiiiiiiiiiiings!" while waving an enormous American flag.
But how many people outside Norway can even name one single Viking warrior? Who exactly were these guys, anyway?
Well, to be honest, it's not easy writing a history book about a bunch of mostly illiterate, bloodthirsty marauders who carved their stories into rocks more than a thousand years ago and credited their victories to blessings from hammer-swinging lightning gods. It's enough to make sane people crazy and historians even crazier.
Most of what we know about Vikings is brought to us by a cranky old thirteenth-century Icelandic lawyer/politician named Snorri Sturluson, who was pretty much the exact opposite of every Viking stereotype. Snorri was a brilliant legal mind and a devoted reader who constantly plotted and schemed to seize power in the government. He lost almost every battle he ever fought, fled the country twice, came back, and was eventually stabbed to death by three Vikings while cowering in his wine cellar. But even though this guy wasn't swinging axes and eating meat off the bone, he's probably the most important man in the study of Norse history because he's one of the only Norsemen who had the good sense to write everything down. And despite writing his material some three hundred years after the height of the Viking Age, he's also the best thing we have going for us these days as far as Viking history is concerned. Sure, some of the Christian monks who lived through the raids wrote things down, but it's hard to write something nice or useful about a group of guys who just burned your house to the ground and tried to kill you with an axe.
Some Viking sagas (old stories about Viking adventures) were passed down through the years as songs and poems, but things tend to get lost when you're playing a four-hundred-year-long game of telephone. Even though a lot of the sagas match up with legit sources from other parts of the world, there's also the occasional weird story where a hero makes pants out of sharks and has a ghost bear help him fight elves and fairies. This kind of thing seems less historically accurate.
Despite these problems, it's important to learn about these guys because they changed the entire course of human history in just a couple hundred years. Viking raiders would found Russia, become noblemen in France, sit as kings of England, and serve as bodyguards to mighty emperors. They'd build permanent settlements in France, Ireland, Iceland, and Holland and lay the foundations for cities such as Dublin, York, and Reykjavík. They'd be the first Europeans to discover North America, trade goods along the Silk Road with China, and fight alongside Christian knights during the Crusades. And they'd do it all in the most awe-inspiring way imaginable—with gigantic bloodstained axes and cool boats that were shaped like dragons.
So we read the rocks with the stories carved into them. And we try to divine the truth from their songs and poems, to break out the facts from the legends. And we enjoy the ride along the way.
THE VIKING WARRIOR
The tactics, equipment, and ferocious might that terrorized the world for over two centuries
Odin could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could no more cut than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were as strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.
—Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga Saga
FROM IRELAND TO RUSSIA, PARIS TO Constantinople, and everywhere in between, there was no more terrifying sight than a war band of gigantic Viking marauders clambering over the sides of their longships, crashing down into the ankle-deep surf, and charging forward with their armor shining in the sunlight, their axes and swords raised fearsomely above their heads. Although known by nearly a dozen different names—Northmen, Ashmen, Norsemen, Rus, Danes, Varangians, the Norse, and others—the people we now know as Vikings stood for hundreds of years as a symbol of ruin and destruction throughout the period of European history known as the Dark Ages. They were an unstoppable force that struck paralyzing fear into the hearts of all, from the lowliest peasants to the most heavily armored knights.
Vikings typically weren't professional warriors and raiders. Ravaging thatched-roof cottages with torches and steel was just something they did as a fun hobby and a way to make some extra cash in the summer. Family men, brothers, fathers, and sons, the Vikings came from all walks of life across Scandinavia—the regions of present-day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They embarked on their raiding expeditions for a variety of reasons ranging from glory, adventure, and wealth to the basic boring necessity of putting food on their tables during the long, cold Arctic winters. The only requirement was that each warrior had to provide his own gear.
In the early days of the Viking Age, the Northmen weren't organized into kingdoms and countries the way we think of them today. Their lands were really just a mishmash of minor dominions, each ruled by a guy known as a jarl. The jarls were responsible for recruiting their own men from their lands and putting together their own raiding parties; they did whatever they felt like without having to report to anyone in particular.
A jarl (sometimes they called themselves kings) would have a small bodyguard of professional warriors known as a hird. A jarl's hird would be made up of hersir, minor nobles who served him. The hersir would have all the best gear, get the most plunder, and join the jarl on raids and adventures. Below the hersir were freemen—landowners, farmers, and craftsmen. The freemen could join on as Vikings if they wanted, but they were required to serve in the jarl's levies, meaning that if the jarl was attacked by a rival gang of Viking warriors (something that happened more frequently than you might think), the freemen had to grab their spears and shields and defend their homes. At the bottom of the pecking order were the thralls—the slaves. Thralls had no rights and could be killed or sacrificed at their master's command, but if they had a good master, there was a chance he'd eventually let them buy or win their freedom. In a pinch, a thrall could be given a weapon and allowed to fight, but most Vikings didn't trust them enough to let that happen.
Although Viking gear varied wildly depending on how much the warrior was willing to spend on it, the typical Norseman's primary weapon was a spear. He would carry two—a light javelin for throwing and a heavy spear for stabbing. The javelin had a barbed tip so it would stick into enemy shields, rendering them useless, and it was made of lightweight steel that would bend when it hit something, which prevented the enemy from throwing the warrior's javelin back at him. The heavy spear was made of ash wood, stood six to eight feet tall, and could be wielded in one hand, leaving the other hand free to hold a shield.
There were also two types of axes—the short axe, which was the perfect size for hiding behind the shield, and the much-feared Danish long axe: a six-foot-long, two-handed battle-axe with a single twelve-inch blade. It could cut through armor, horses, and men alike with one swing, shredding shields and splitting helmets like a chain saw through warm butter. The only downside to this weapon was that a warrior couldn't carry a shield with it, but the axe made up for it with sheer firepower. On more than one occasion, the Norse sagas refer to Vikings cutting through two and even three enemies with a single swing of the weapon.
Swords were an extraordinarily expensive item carried only by the richest Vikings, and were by far the most treasured weapon in the Viking arsenal. Given cool names like Gold-Hilt, Leg-Biter, and Long-and-Sharp, these doubleedged straight blades were forged of iron, and their hilts were decorated in gold and silver and souped up with protective runes, healing stones, or bone fragments from animals or long-dead heroes. The legendary sword Skofnung, carried by King Hrolf Kraki, was said to be imbued with the spirits of twelve great heroes and would allegedly "sing" when it made contact with the enemy. (I picture this "song" sounding a lot like a guy yelling because he'd just been hit with a sword.)
A long, single-bladed knife called a sax rounded out the Viking arsenal, and it could be used for everything from shanking peasants to eating dinner. Some Vikings also carried bows, but even though all Norsemen could shoot well enough to hunt, they considered arrows a "coward's weapon" and far preferred to throw spears and rocks at their enemies or kill them face-to-face the old-fashioned way. (It's worth mentioning, however, that the Norse did have great respect for the Finns, who could ski downhill and accurately shoot arrows at the same time. Let's face it—that's cool.)
To defend themselves from their enemies, the Vikings wore armor fashioned from leather, bone, quilted fabric, or animal hide, and a helmet typically of the same material. Hersir warriors could sometimes afford imposing chain mail shirts that weighed in at about twenty-six pounds, as well as those cool-looking metal helmets with the eye and nose protection. But no matter how hard TV might try to convince you, real Viking helmets didn't have horns on them. That touch was actually added by German opera costumers in the nineteenth century and is totally not legit. You seriously can't pick up a book about the Vikings without reading in the first twenty pages that there were no horned helmets. (Oh, sweet, it only took me fourteen.)
Finally, Vikings carried a brightly painted round shield made of wood, with a sturdy metal disk in the center to protect their hands. The shields were light and easy to carry and could be worn like a backpack by putting your arms through the leather strips on the back. But they wouldn't survive more than a few battles before needing to be replaced.
One group of guys who needed to replace their shields more often than everyone else was the terrifying berserkir, a group we know in English as the berserkers. Taking their name from the Norse word for "bear shirts," berserkers were a small, elite group of vicious, unruly warriors who went into battle completely naked except for a he-man-style loincloth and the pelt of either a wolf or a bear worn over their shoulders like a superhero's cape. These terrifying fighters howled and growled like animals and got so pumped up before battles that they would bite big chunks out of their shields before they attacked. Part of a mysterious cult dedicated to the god Odin, berserkers would prepare for battle the night before, sitting around a campfire drinking mysterious mushroom-based concoctions and working themselves up into a Super Mario rabid battle frenzy. Believing themselves to be possessed by Odin and the spirits of the animals whose pelts they wore, by the time battle began the next day, the berserkers would be frothing at the mouth like madmen, utterly freaking out anyone who saw them. They would always be the first to charge into battle, with such ferocity that today the phrase "going berserk" comes from these guys. They were almost completely immune to physical pain of any kind, and occasionally they could be found in intense hand-to-hand combat with trees, rocks, and other inanimate objects hours after the actual battle had ended.
Well, that's something, but most semi-sane Vikings didn't actually want to encounter the enemy on the field of battle. These guys much preferred smash-and-grab plundering and raiding to out-and-out combat. There was a much smaller chance of being impaled when you were fighting disorganized peasants with pitchforks and rakes than when you were facing heavily armored royal cavalry who were packing lances and shields. When big-time, organized military battles did break out, the Vikings weren't just a horde of undisciplined wild men—they locked themselves into battle formation using a tactic known as the shield wall. A fairly common strategy in medieval times, the shield wall was basically a big line of guys who would interlock their shields, run at the enemy, and then stab with their spears to break the enemy's formation. Once the enemy line was broken, a second line of Viking axemen and swordmen would rush into the gap and start swinging for the fences. In large-scale battles, the Vikings lost about as many as they won—which is probably why they tried to avoid them.
Women did accompany the Vikings on their raids, but despite a few stories of hardcore warrior women known as shield-maidens raiding and fighting on the high seas, they mostly served as cooks, nurses, and healers. In addition to treating all the weird diseases that were pervasive throughout the Middle Ages (like leprosy, tuberculosis, and malaria), women would patch up wounds, treat infections, repair broken gear, and diagnose everything from blood poisoning to tetanus. They would reset broken bones, amputate limbs when necessary, cut out arrowheads, and cauterize and sew up badly bleeding injuries, first salting the wound to numb it, then sealing it by touching it with a red-hot poker, and finally stitching it up with thread. Sometimes a woman would be both cook and surgeon. A typical after-battle feast was a gross-tasting soup made up of little more than onions and garlic. The next morning, the women would smell the stomachs of men who had been stabbed in the torso—if they could smell the garlic, it meant the man's stomach had been cut open, and nothing could be done to save him. He'd simply be left behind to die.
But that's the life of a Viking warrior for you. For many, all that awaited was a cruel, unceremonious, painful death alone in a hostile foreign land. But for those who made it through the dangers of Viking life, the promise of untold wealth and glory awaited. Poets were ready to sing the battle deeds of brave warriors and come up with epic nicknames for them to be remembered by. Gold and silver were sitting there for the taking from the wealthiest lands in Europe, and massive fame and fortune awaited all those who sought glory over long life.
THE WORLD IN AD 800
- Praise for Guts & Glory: The American Civil War:
- On Sale
- Jun 7, 2016
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers