Vikings were warriors from Scandinavia who in the years between 800 and 1050 raided and colonized the coasts and islands of Europe. Even though they are mostly known as people of terror and destruction, they also made settlements and traded peacefully. The Viking Age is the name of the latter part of the early Iron Age in Scandinavia.
The Germanic word-stem vik or wik has to do with markets, and was the usual suffix to mean "market town" in the same way that burg means "fortified place." Sandwich and Harwich in England still show this termination, and the recently excavated Frankish port town of Quentovic shows the same ending. The viking propensity for trade is easily seen in market ports such as Hedeby; close to the border with the Franks it was effectively a crossroads between the cultures, until its eventual destruction by the Norwegians in an internecine dispute in c. 1050.
The first reports on raids dates back to 793 when the monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast of England was pillaged by foreign seafarers. For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering. Vikings conquered most of Ireland and large parts of England, they travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast. Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.
The Danish sailed south, to Friesland, France and the southern parts of England. In the years 1013-1016, Canute the Great succeeded to the English throne. The Swedes sailed to east into Russia, where Rurik founded the first Russian state, and on the rivers south to the Black Sea, Constantinople and Byzantine Empire. The Norwegians travelled to the north west and west, to the Faroes, Shetlands, Orkneys, Ireland and the northern parts of England. Except in Britain and Ireland, Norwegians mostly found uninhabited land and made settlements. In about the year 1000 A.D, North America was discovered by Leif Ericsson from Greenland who called it Vinland. A small settlement was placed on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, near L'Anse Aux Meadows, but previous inhabitants and a cold climate brought it to an end within a few years. The archaeological remains are now a UN World Heritage Site.
Besides allowing the Vikings to travel far distances, their longships gave them tactical advantages in battles. They could perform very efficient hit-and-run attacks, in which they attacked fast and unexpectedly and left quickly before a counteroffensive could be launched. Longships could also sail in shallow water, allowing the Vikings to get far inland along rivers.
A reason for the raids is believed by some to be overpopulation caused by the technological advancements such as iron usage, although other causes could well be pressure caused by the Frankish expansion to the south. For the people living along the coast, it seems natural to seek new land by sea. Another reason is that in that period several European countries (particularly England, Wales and Ireland) were in internal disarray and easy prey; the Franks, however, had well defended coasts and heavily fortified ports and harbours. Pure thirst for adventure may also have been a factor.
After decades of plundering, resistance in other parts of Europe became more effective and Christianity was introduced which lead to milder tendencies. In addition the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark and Sweden came to existence and it is to believe that their kings wanted more peaceful circumstances.
In Russia, the Vikings were known as Varangians (Väringar), and the Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors was known as the Varangian Guard. Other names include Danes, Northmen, Norsemen and Normans.