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The Norsemen (or Norse people) were a North Germanic ethnolinguistic group of the Early Middle Ages, during which they spoke the Old Norse language. [1] [2] [3] [4] The language belongs to the North Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages and is the predecessor of the modern Germanic languages of Scandinavia. [4] During the late eighth century, Scandinavians embarked on a large-scale expansion in all directions, giving rise to the Viking Age. In English-language scholarship since the 19th century, Norse seafaring traders, settlers and warriors have commonly been referred to as Vikings. Historians of Anglo-Saxon England distinguish between Norse Vikings (Norsemen) from Norway who mainly invaded and occupied the islands north and north-west of Britain, Ireland and western Britain, and Danish Vikings, who principally invaded and occupied eastern Britain. [lower-alpha 1]


The identity of Norsemen derived into their modern descendants, [5] the Danes, Icelanders, [lower-alpha 2] Faroe Islanders, [lower-alpha 2] Norwegians, and Swedes, [6] who are now generally referred to as 'Scandinavians' rather than Norsemen. [7]

History of the terms Norseman and Northman

The word Norseman first appears in English during the early 19th century: the earliest attestation given in the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is from Walter Scott's 1817 Harold the Dauntless . The word was coined using the adjective norse, which was borrowed into English from Dutch during the 16th century with the sense 'Norwegian', and which by Scott's time had acquired the sense "of or relating to Scandinavia or its language, esp[ecially] in ancient or medieval times". [8] As with modern use of the word viking, therefore, the word norseman has no particular basis in medieval usage. [9]

The term Norseman does echo terms meaning 'Northman', applied to Norse-speakers by the peoples they encountered during the Middle Ages. [10] The Old Frankish word Nortmann ("Northman") was Latinised as Normannus and was widely used in Latin texts. The Latin word Normannus then entered Old French as Normands. From this word came the name of the Normans and of Normandy, which was settled by Norsemen in the tenth century. [11] [12]

The same word entered Hispanic languages and local varieties of Latin with forms beginning not only in n-, but in l-, such as lordomanni (apparently reflecting nasal dissimilation in local Romance languages). [13] This form may in turn have been borrowed into Arabic: the prominent early Arabic source al-Mas‘ūdī identified the 844 raiders on Seville not only as Rūs but also al-lawdh’āna. [14]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in Old English, distinguishes between the pagan Norwegian Norsemen (Norðmannum) of Dublin and the Christian Danes (Dæne) of the Danelaw. In 942, it records the victory of King Edmund I over the Norse kings of York: "The Danes were previously subjected by force under the Norsemen, for a long time in bonds of captivity to the heathens". [15] [16] [17]

Other names

Norse clothes. Viking clothes.jpg
Norse clothes.

In modern scholarship, Vikings is a common term for attacking Norsemen, especially in connection with raids and monastic plundering by Norsemen in the British Isles, but it was not used in this sense at the time. In Old Norse and Old English, the word simply meant 'pirate'. [18] [19] [20]

The Norse were also known as Ascomanni, ashmen, by the Germans, Lochlanach (Norse) by the Gaels and Dene (Danes) by the Anglo-Saxons. [21]

The Gaelic terms Finn-Gall (Norwegian Viking or Norwegian), Dubh-Gall (Danish Viking or Danish) and Gall Goidel (foreign Gaelic) were used for the people of Norse descent in Ireland and Scotland, who assimilated into the Gaelic culture. [22] Dubliners called them Ostmen, or East-people, and the name Oxmanstown (an area in central Dublin; the name is still current) comes from one of their settlements; they were also known as Lochlannaigh, or Lake-people.

The Slavs, the Arabs and the Byzantines knew them as the Rus' or Rhōs (Ῥῶς), probably derived from various uses of rōþs-, i.e. "related to rowing", or from the area of Roslagen in east-central Sweden, where most of the Northmen who visited the Eastern Slavic lands originated. [23]

Archaeologists and historians of today believe that these Scandinavian settlements in the East Slavic lands formed the names of the countries of Russia and Belarus.

The Slavs and the Byzantines also called them Varangians (Old Norse : Væringjar, meaning "sworn men"), and the Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors were known as the Varangian Guard. [24]

Modern Scandinavian usage

In the Old Norse language, the term norrœnir menn (northern people) was used correspondingly to the modern English name Norsemen, referring to Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Faroe Islanders, Icelanders, and others.

Modern Scandinavian languages have a common word for Norsemen: the word nordbo (Swedish : nordborna, Danish : nordboerne, Norwegian : nordboerne, or nordbuane in the definite plural) is used for both ancient and modern people living in the Nordic countries and speaking one of the North Germanic languages.

In modern Scandinavian languages, the term Northman (Norwegian: Nordmann; [25] Swedish: Norrman; [26] Danish: Nordmand [27] ), although originally a term for people of the entire Nordic region, is now often used to refer to people of Norwegian nationality.


Exploration and expansion routes of Norsemen WikingerKarte.jpg
Exploration and expansion routes of Norsemen

The British conception of the Vikings' origins was inaccurate. Those who plundered Britain lived in what is today Denmark, Scania, the western coast of Sweden and Norway (up to almost the 70th parallel) and along the Swedish Baltic coast up to around the 60th latitude and Lake Mälaren. They also came from the island of Gotland, Sweden. The border between the Norsemen and more southerly Germanic tribes, the Danevirke, today is located about 50 kilometres (31 mi) south of the Danish–German border. The southernmost living Vikings lived no further north than Newcastle upon Tyne, and travelled to Britain more from the east than from the north.

The northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula (with the exception of the Norwegian coast) was almost unpopulated by the Norse, because this ecology was inhabited by the Sami, the native people of northern Sweden and large areas of Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in today's Russia.[ citation needed ]

The Norse Scandinavians established polities and settlements in what are now Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales), Ireland, Iceland, Russia, Belarus, France, Sicily, Belgium, Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Greenland, Canada, [28] and the Faroe Islands.

See also


  1. For example: "Most of the earliest Viking settlers in Ireland were Norsemen, but c.850 a large Danish Host arrived" (Peter Hunter Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed., 2003, pp. 66-67); "In 875 Danes and Norsemen were competing" for control of Scotland (Peter Sawyer, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, 1997, p. 90); Frank Stenton distinguishes between the 'Danish kingdom of York' and the 'Norse kingdom of York', and refers in the mid-tenth century to "the antagonism between Danes and Norsemen, which is often ignored by modern writers, but underlies the whole history in this period".(Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed., 1971, pp. 359, 765); Barbara Yorke comments that the Chronicle tends to use the term "Danish" for all Scandinavian forces, but the attackers on Portland in the late eighth century seem to have been "predominantly Norse adventurers, but some way from there normal raiding grounds in Britain" (Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, 1995. p. 108); in 793: "The hit-and-run raid on Lindisfarne was probably the work of Norse rather than Danish warriors, straying from their accustomed haunts in the Faroes and Orkney down the North Sea coast of Britain in search of easy loot" (N. J. Higham, The Kingdom of Northumberland AD 350-1100, 1993, p. 173).
  2. 1 2 Out of convenience, "Scandinavians" is commonly used as a synonym for "North Germanic peoples" even though Icelanders and Faroe Islanders do not inhabit Scandinavia today. The term is, therefore, given a cultural rather than geographical sense.

Related Research Articles

Scandinavia Subregion of Northern Europe

Scandinavia is a subregion in Northern Europe, with strong historical, cultural, and linguistic ties.

Viking Age Period of European history (793–1066)

The Viking Age was the period during the Middle Ages when Norsemen known as Vikings undertook large-scale raiding, colonizing, conquest, and trading throughout Europe, and reached North America. It followed the Migration Period and the Germanic Iron Age. The Viking Age applies not only to their homeland of Scandinavia, but to any place significantly settled by Scandinavians during the period. The Scandinavians of the Viking Age are often referred to as Vikings as well as Norsemen, although few of them were Vikings in the technical sense.

Vikings Norse explorers, raiders, merchants, and pirates

Vikings is the modern name given to seafaring Norse pirates from southern Scandinavia who from the late 8th to the late 11th centuries raided, pirated, traded and settled throughout parts of Europe. They also voyaged as far as the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and North America. In some of the countries they raided and settled in, this period is popularly known as the Viking Age, and the term "Viking" also commonly includes the inhabitants of the Norse homelands as a collective whole. The Vikings had a profound impact on the Early medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Estonia, and Kievan Rus'.

Danelaw Historical name given to part of England ruled by the Danes

The Danelaw was the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons. The Danelaw contrasts with the West Saxon law and the Mercian law. The term is first recorded in the early 11th century as Dena lage. The areas that constituted the Danelaw lie in northern and eastern England, long occupied by Danes and other Norsemen.

North Germanic languages Branch of Germanic languages spoken predominantly in the Nordic countries

The North Germanic languages make up one of the three branches of the Germanic languages—a sub-family of the Indo-European languages—along with the West Germanic languages and the extinct East Germanic languages. The language group is also referred to as the "Nordic languages", a direct translation of the most common term used among Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish scholars and laypeople.

Swedes (Germanic tribe) North Germanic tribe, one of the three tribes that founded Sweden

The Swedes (probably from the PIE reflexive pronominal root *s e, "one's own [tribesmen/kinsmen]"; Old English: Swēon) were a North Germanic tribe who inhabited Svealand in central Sweden and one of the progenitor groups of modern Swedes, along with Geats and Gutes. They had their tribal centre in Gamla Uppsala.

Thing (assembly) Type of governing assembly

A thing was a governing assembly in early Germanic society, made up of the free people of the community presided over by lawspeakers. The word appears in Old Norse, Old English, and modern Icelandic as þing, in Middle English, Old Saxon, Old Dutch, and Old Frisian as thing, in German as Ding, in Dutch and Afrikaans as ding, and in modern Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Faroese, Gutnish, and Norn as ting, all from a reconstructed Proto-Germanic neuter *þingą; the word is the same as the more common English word thing, both having at their core the basic meaning of "an assemblage, a coming together of parts"—in the one case, an "assembly" or "meeting", in the other, an "entity", "object", or "thing". The meeting-place of a thing was called a "thingstead" or "thingstow".

Housecarl Medieval Northern European social rank

A housecarl was a non-servile manservant or household bodyguard in medieval Northern Europe.

The Danes were a North Germanic tribe inhabiting southern Scandinavia, including the area now comprising Denmark proper, and the Scanian provinces of modern-day southern Sweden, during the Nordic Iron Age and the Viking Age. They founded what became the Kingdom of Denmark. The name of their realm is believed to mean "Danish March", viz. "the march of the Danes", in Old Norse, referring to their southern border zone between the Eider and Schlei rivers, known as the Danevirke.

Old Norse religion Historical religious tradition

Old Norse Religion, also known as Norse Paganism, is the most common name for a branch of Germanic religion which developed during the Proto-Norse period, when the North Germanic peoples separated into a distinct branch of the Germanic peoples. It was replaced by Christianity and forgotten during the Christianization of Scandinavia. Scholars reconstruct aspects of North Germanic Religion by historical linguistics, archaeology, toponymy, and records left by North Germanic peoples, such as runic inscriptions in the Younger Futhark, a distinctly North Germanic extension of the runic alphabet. Numerous Old Norse works dated to the 13th century record Norse mythology, a component of North Germanic religion.

Thrall Slaves in Viking society

A thrall was a slave or serf in Scandinavian lands during the Viking Age. The corresponding term in Old English was þēow. The status of slave contrasts with that of the freeman and the nobleman. The Middle Latin rendition of the term in early Germanic law is servus.

Viking revival

The Viking revival was a movement reflecting new interest in, and appreciation for Viking medieval history and culture. Interest was reawakened in the late 18th and 19th centuries, often with added heroic overtones typical of that Romantic era. The revival began earlier with historical discoveries and early modern publications dealing with Old Norse culture. The first printed edition of the 13th century Gesta Danorum or the Legend of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus, came out in 1514 just as book printing began become more practical and printing trade was quickly spreading. In 1555, the Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, or "History of the northern peoples", by Olaus Magnus was produced. The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the famous Edda, notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665. The Edda consisted of two 13th century Medieval Icelandic literary works on Norse mythology, written down in the 13th century, but certainly from older oral sources: they are the Prose Edda, and an older collection of poems without an original title now known as the Poetic Edda. The books are the main sources of medieval skaldic tradition of poetry and storytelling in Iceland and Norse mythology.

The Younger Futhark, also called Scandinavian runes, is a runic alphabet and a reduced form of the Elder Futhark, with only 16 characters, in use from about the 9th century, after a "transitional period" during the 7th and 8th centuries. The reduction, somewhat paradoxically, happened at the same time as phonetic changes that led to a greater number of different phonemes in the spoken language, when Proto-Norse evolved into Old Norse. Thus, the language included distinct sounds and minimal pairs that were written the same.

Faroe Islanders North Germanic ethnic group and nation

Faroese people or Faroe Islanders are a North Germanic ethnic group and nation native to the Faroe Islands. The Faroese are of mixed Norse and Gaelic origins. About 21,000 Faroese live in neighbouring countries, particularly in Denmark, Iceland and Norway. Most Faroese are citizens of the Kingdom of Denmark, in which the Faroe Islands are a constituent nation. The Faroese language is one of the North Germanic languages and is closely related to Icelandic and to western Norwegian varieties.

Norse–Gaels Ethnic group of mixed Celtic and Norse heritage

The Norse–Gaels were a people of mixed Gaelic and Norse ancestry and culture. They emerged in the Viking Age, when Vikings who settled in Ireland and in Scotland adopted Gaelic culture and intermarried with Gaels. The Norse–Gaels dominated much of the Irish Sea and Scottish Sea regions from the 9th to 12th centuries. They founded the Kingdom of the Isles, the Kingdom of Dublin, the Lordship of Galloway, and a Norse-Gaelic family briefly ruled the Kingdom of York. The most powerful Norse–Gaelic dynasty were the Uí Ímair or House of Ivar.

Medieval Scandinavian law, also called North Germanic law, was a subset of Germanic law practiced by North Germanic peoples. It was originally memorized by lawspeakers, but after the end of the Viking Age they were committed to writing, mostly by Christian monks after the Christianization of Scandinavia. Initially they were geographically limited to minor jurisdictions (lögsögur), and the Bjarkey laws concerned various merchant towns, but later there were laws that applied to entire Scandinavian kingdoms. Each jurisdiction was governed by an assembly of free men, called a þing.

Gabriel Turville-Petre English philologist

Edward Oswald Gabriel Turville-Petre was an English philologist who specialized in Old Norse studies.

A Norseman is a member of the group of people as a whole who speak one of the North Germanic languages as their native language; in a more restricted sense it can mean a Norwegian (Nordmann), or a medieval Scandinavian or Viking.

Viking activity in the British Isles Aspect of Norsemen expansion

Viking activity in the British Isles occurred during the Early Middle Ages, the 8th to the 11th centuries, when Norsemen from Scandinavia travelled to Great Britain and Ireland to settle, trade or raid. Those who came to the British Isles have been generally referred to as Vikings, but some scholars debate whether the term Viking represented all Norse settlers or just those who raided.

North Germanic peoples

North Germanic peoples, commonly called Scandinavians, Nordic peoples and in a medieval context Norsemen, are a Germanic ethnolinguistic group of the Nordic countries. They are identified by their cultural similarities, common ancestry and common use of the Proto-Norse language from around 200 AD, a language that around 800 AD became the Old Norse language, which in turn later became the North Germanic languages of today.


  1. Fee, Christopher R. (2011). Mythology in the Middle Ages: Heroic Tales of Monsters, Magic, and Might: Heroic Tales of Monsters, Magic, and Might. ABC-CLIO. p. 3. ISBN   978-0313027253. "Viking" is a term used to describe a certain class of marauding Scandinavian warrior from the 8th through the 11th century. However, when discussing the entire culture of the Northern Germanic peoples of the early Middle Ages, and especially in terms of the languages and literatures of these peoples, it would be more accurate to use the term "Norse." Therefore during the Middle Ages and beyond, it therefore might be useful to speak of "German" peoples in middle Europe and of "Norse" peoples in Scandinavia and the North Atlantic.
  2. McTurk, Rory (2008). A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. John Wiley & Sons. p. 7. ISBN   978-1405137386. Old Norse' defines the culture of Norway and Iceland during the Middle Ages. It is a somewhat illogical concept as it is largely synonymous with 'Norse'... The term 'Norse' is often used as a translation of norroenn. As such it applies to all the Germanic peoples of Scandinavia and their colonies in the British Isles and the North Atlantic.
  3. DeAngelo, Jeremy (2010). "The North and the Depiction of the "Finnar" in the Icelandic Sagas". Scandinavian Studies. 82 (3): 257–286. JSTOR   25769033. The term "Norse" will be used as a catchall term for all North Germanic peoples in the sagas...
  4. 1 2 Leeming, David A. (2014). The Handy Mythology Answer Book. Visible Ink Press. p. 143. ISBN   978-1578595211. "Who were the Norse people? The term Norse is commonly applied to pre-Christian Northern Germanic peoples living in Scandinavia during the so-called Viking Age. Old Norse gradually developed into the North Germanic languages, including Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
  5. Kristinsson, Axel (2010). Expansions: Competition and Conquest in Europe Since the Bronze Age. ReykjavíkurAkademían. ISBN   978-9979992219. The same can be said of Viking Age Scandinavians who did not have a common ethnonym but expressed their common identity through the geographical and linguistic terms... There is absolutely no doubt about a common Northern identity during the Viking Age and afterwards... it even survives today.
  6. Kennedy, Arthur Garfield (1963). "The Indo-European Language Family" . In Lee, Donald Woodward (ed.). English Language Reader: Introductory Essays and Exercises. Dodd, Mead. [T]he pages of history have been filled with accounts of various Germanic peoples that made excursions in search of better homes; the Goths went into the Danube valley and thence into Italy and southern France ; and thence into Italy and southern France; the Franks seized what was later called France; the Vandals went down into Spain, and via Africa they "vandalized" Rome; the Angles, part of the Saxons, and the Jutes moved over into England; and the Burgundians and the Lombards worked south into France and Italy. Probably very early during these centuries of migration the three outstanding groups of the Germanic peoples—the North Germanic people of Scandinavia, the East Germanic branch, comprising the Goths chiefly, and the West Germanic group, comprising the remaining Germanic tribes—developed their notable group traits. Then, while the East Germanic tribes (that is, the Goths) passed gradually out of the pages of history and disappeared completely, the North Germanic, or Scandinavian, or Norse, peoples, as they are variously called, became a distinctive people, more and more unlike the West Germanic folk who inhabited Germany itself and, ultimately, Holland, and Belgium and England. While that great migration of nations which the Germans have named the Volkerwanderung was going on, the Scandinavian division of the Germanic peoples had kept their habitation well to the north of the others and had been splitting up into the four subdivisions now known as the Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Icelanders. Long after the West Germanic and East Germanic peoples had made history farther south in Europe, the North Germanic tribes of Scandinavia began a series of expeditions which, during the eighth and ninth centuries, in the so-called Viking Age especially, led them to settle Iceland, to overrun England and even annex it to Denmark temporarily, and, most important of all, to settle in northern France and merge with the French to such an extent that Northmen became Normans, and later these Normans became the conquerors of England.
  7. Davies, Norman (1999). The Isles: A History . Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0198030737. Ottar belonged to a group of peoples who were beginning to have a huge impact on European history. They are now called 'Scandinavians', though historically they were called 'Northmen'.
  8. "Norseman, n.", "Norse, n. and adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018,, Accessed 10 September 2018.
  9. "Viking, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, [ dead link ]. Accessed 10 September 2018.
  10. "Northman, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, Accessed 10 September 2018.
  11. Michael Lerche Nielsen, Review of Rune Palm, Vikingarnas språk, 750–1100, Historisk Tidskrift 126.3 (2006) 584–86 (pdf pp. 10–11) (in Swedish)
  12. Louis John Paetow, A Guide to the Study of Medieval History for Students, Teachers, and Libraries, Berkeley: University of California, 1917, OCLC   185267056, p. 150, citing Léopold Delisle, Littérature latine et histoire du moyen âge, Paris: Leroux, 1890, OCLC   490034651, p. 17.
  13. Ann Christys, Vikings in the South (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 15–17.
  14. Ann Christys, Vikings in the South (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 23–24.
  15. Williams, Ann (2004). "Edmund I (920/21–946)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/8501. ISBN   978-0-19-861412-8.(subscription or UK public library membership required)
  16. Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. (1979). "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". English Historical Documents, Volume 1, c. 500-1042 (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge. p. 221. ISBN   978-0-415-14366-0.
  17. Bately, Janet, ed. (1986). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A Collaborative Edition, 3, MS A. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer. p. 73. ISBN   978-0-85991-103-0.
  18. "Viking, n.". Oxford English Dictionary . Oxford University Press. 2018. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  19. Cleasby, Richard; Vigfusson, Gudbrand (1957). "víkingr". An Icelandic–English Dictionary (2nd edition by William A. Craigie ed.). Oxford University Press.
  20. Bosworth, Joseph; Northcote Toller, T. (1898). "wícing". An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
  21. Richards, Julian D. (2005). Vikings : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN   978-0191517396 . Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  22. Baldour, John Alexander; Mackenzie, William Mackay (1910). The Book of Arran. Arran society of Glasgow. p.  11.
  23. Thunberg, Carl L. (2011). Särkland och dess källmaterial. Göteborgs universitet. CLTS. pp. 20-22. ISBN   978-91-981859-3-5.
  24. Sverrir Jakobsson, The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). ISBN   978-3-030-53797-5 [ pages needed ]
  27. "Nordmand — den Danske Ordbog".
  28. Linden, Eugene (December 2004). "The Vikings: A Memorable Visit to America". Smithsonian Magazine. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015.