The Vikings affected the whole of Europe during much of the Middle Ages, based in Scandinavia but extending their reach into England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, Eastern Europe, and even into North America and the Arab world. The Vikings are often overlooked in our classrooms, or dismissed as thugs. In fact, they had a rich culture and, though they were certainly warlike, they influenced our history and culture in important ways.
The Viking homelands were in Norway and Sweden. They farmed, and they built wonderful boats for fishing. As they began to trade with other nations, they realized that there was great wealth in other lands, and they began to go “viking” — raiding. They would sail up in their ships, grab as much loot as possible, kill anyone who stood in their way, and go home.
Vikings raided Paris and Constantinople, the great cities of their day, and by the 9th century, cities would pay them to stay away, saving them the trouble of fighting or looting. Toward the end of the 9th century they settled Iceland, and around 1000 a.d. they came to N0rth America. Vikings settled in Greenland successfully. Leif Ericson tried to establish a colony in Vinland, which was in Newfoundland and may have had outposts in New England, but in the Native Americans the Vikings had found a people as warlike as themselves. The colony at Vinland did not survive, but it left archaeological information that adds to our understanding of the Vikings and of the history of North America.
Atlhistory has a timeline of what might have happened had the Vikings been successful in Vinland. Have students read this and compare it with your classroom timeline. Then have them create a story or news report from the present day, imagining that the alternate history was correct.
In the 11th century, as other Medieval civilizations became stronger, the Vikings lost their ascendancy as raiders. The Viking homelands had become Christian, Vikings were trading with other nations, and the Viking strongholds had become too widespread for centralized government by kings. By 1100, the Vikings were becoming Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes.
Learn more about the Vikings and their place in history with the books and online resources here, and then scroll down to see two of our favorite lesson plans about Vikings.
- The Vikings: Sea Raiders, Land Raiders includes the building of a longboat model.
- Vikings Mini Unit in seven parts
- Viking It and Liking It goes with the Time Warp Trio book of the same title, and examines Vikings as explorers.
- A collection of PowerPoints on the Vikings from Mr. Donn
- Viking information from the BBC
- The Jorvik Center has a lot of archaeological data.
- Odin’s Challenge, an online game on Viking history
- Viking Games you can make and play
- Weather Gods: Thor vs. Zeus
Books on Vikings:
- D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Mythology, a beautiful retelling of many myths from Viking folklore.
- The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow is a classic, though not an easy read.
- You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Viking Explorer! looks at the most bone-chilling — and cool — details of Viking life.
- Asterix and the Vikings Asterix the Gaul is a popular comic strip character in France who has turned up in an American movie with Vikings. Fun!
- Sir Cumference and the Viking’s Map More from the wonderful series of math adventures.
- Viking (DK Eyewitness Books) with lots of information and pictures.
Vikings worked hard and played hard. They spent much of their time farming and fishing, but they also had occasions for dressing up. There were parties and long evenings together in the longhouse playing games like chess, wrestling, or listening to stories. Men wore tunics of wool and linen over pants and shirts with leather belts and leather shoes. Women wore long dresses with tunics and shawls over them. Both men and women wore jewelry, both practical items to hold clothing together and decorative pieces. Both had woven patterned bands decorating their clothing, and both wore cloaks with fur and feathers for warmth.
Both men and women wore their hair long, often holding it in place with a band around their foreheads. Men wore beards, which they sometimes braided. Men also braided their hair, and women often put their hair up on their heads.
Archaeologists have found many examples of Viking jewelry. Typically made from metal, the jewelry generally shows elaborate designs of intricate knotwork or detailed animal forms. See examples at the Heilbrunn Timeline and the Viking Ship Museum. Have students research the styles and design their own pieces of Viking style jewelry. Have students draw the designs on paper and then form their designs from clay.
Then have students dress paper cutout people in Viking style for the class timeline.
Vikings and climate
Vikings were extremely influential from about 790 to 1100. Some historians believe that this was an unusually warm period, allowing the Norsemen to expand their sphere of influence because of the rich natural resources and the lessened need to struggle for survival in harsh climates.
Have students explore this theory, using information about the Viking’s way of life and about the climate in the areas where they lived and traveled. For example, the Viking’s yearly round included planting crops in spring and harvesting in the autumn, while summer provided leisure for raiding and winter was time for hunting. Longer summers and more plentiful fish and game might have offered Vikings greater scope for raiding. Large beech groves gave them plenty of material for shipbuilding. When the climate changed again and became colder, the Vikings had to go back to a more austere way of life that didn’t offer such plentiful resources.
Students can write journals as Viking men, women, or children reflecting on how the changes in the climate have affected their lives. Your students have probably experienced similar changes in their own lives.