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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 8th century, Norsemen 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. The identity of Norsemen derived into their modern descendants, [5] the Danes, Icelanders, [a] Faroe Islanders, [a] 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]

Other names

Norsemen depicted invading England. Illuminated illustration from the 12th century Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund (Pierpont Morgan Library) Wikinger.jpg
Norsemen depicted invading England. Illuminated illustration from the 12th century Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund (Pierpont Morgan Library)

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'. [15] [16] [17]

The Norse were also known as Ascomanni, ashmen, by the Germans, Lochlanach (Norse) by the Gaels and Dene (Danes) by the Anglo-Saxons. [18]

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. [19] 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 Slavic lands originated. Archaeologists and historians of today believe that these Scandinavian settlements in the 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.

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 Scandinavian Germanic languages.


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, [20] and the Faroe Islands.

See also


a 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

Danish language North Germanic language

Danish is a North Germanic language spoken by about six million people, principally in Denmark, Greenland and in the region of Southern Schleswig in northern Germany, where it has minority language status. Also, minor Danish-speaking communities are found in Norway, Sweden, Spain, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. Due to immigration and language shift in urban areas, about 15–20% of the population of Greenland speak Danish as their first language.

Norse is demonym for Norsemen, a medieval North Germanic ethnolinguistic group ancestral to modern Scandinavians, defined as speakers of Old Norse language from about the 9th to the 13th centuries.

Scandinavia Region in Northern Europe

Scandinavia is a subregion in Northern Europe, with strong historical, cultural, and linguistic ties. The term Scandinavia in local usage covers the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The majority national languages of these three belong to the Scandinavian dialect continuum, and are mutually intelligible North Germanic languages.

Scandinavian Peninsula peninsula in Northern Europe, which covers Norway, Sweden and most of northern Finland

The Scandinavian Peninsula is a peninsula of Eurasia located in Northern Europe, which roughly comprises the mainland of Sweden, the mainland of Norway, and the northwestern area of Finland.

Viking Age Period of European history from the 8th to the 11th century dealing with the Scandinavian expansion

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, warriors, merchants, and pirates

Vikings were the Norse people from southern Scandinavia who from the late 8th to late 11th centuries raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of Europe, and explored westwards to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. In modern English and other vernaculars, the term also commonly includes the inhabitants of Norse home communities during this period. This period of Nordic military, mercantile and demographic expansion had a profound impact on the early medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Estonia, Kievan Rus' and Sicily.

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.

Geats Northern-Germanic people

The Geats, sometimes called Goths, were a North Germanic tribe who inhabited Götaland in modern southern Sweden during the Middle Ages. They are one of the progenitor groups of modern Swedes, along with Swedes and Gutes. The name of the Geats also lives on in the Swedish provinces of Västergötland and Östergötland, the Western and Eastern lands of the Geats, and in many other toponyms.

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

The Swedes (Swedish: svear; Old Norse: svíar / suar 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.

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 and Dutch 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 heart 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".

Sagas are prose stories and histories, composed in Iceland and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Scandinavia.

Danes are a North Germanic ethnic group native to Denmark and a modern nation identified with the country of Denmark. This connection may be ancestral, legal, historical, or cultural.

The Danes were a North Germanic tribe inhabiting southern Scandinavia, including the area now comprising Denmark proper, and the Scanian provinces of modern 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 Low German, referring to their southern border zone between the Eider and Schlei rivers, known as Danevirke.

Icelanders are a North Germanic ethnic group and nation who are native to the island country of Iceland and speak Icelandic.

Viking revival movement

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.

Gutes population of the island of Gotland

The Gutes were a North Germanic tribe inhabiting the island of Gotland. The ethnonym is related to that of the Goths (Gutans), and both names were originally Proto-Germanic *Gutaniz. Their language is called Gutnish (gutniska). They are one of the progenitor groups of modern Swedes, along with historical Swedes and Geats.

History of Scandinavia aspect of history

The history of Scandinavia is the history of the geographical region of Scandinavia and its peoples. The region is in northern Europe, and consists of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Finland and Iceland are at times, especially in English-speaking contexts, considered part of Scandinavia.

Gothicism Swedish cultural movement

Gothicism or Gothism was a cultural movement in Sweden, centered on the belief in the glory of the Swedish Geats, who were identified with the Goths. The founders of the movement were Nicolaus Ragvaldi and the brothers Johannes and Olaus Magnus. The belief continued to hold power in the 17th century, when Sweden was a great power following the Thirty Years' War, but lost most of its sway in the 18th. It was renewed by the Viking revival and Romantic nationalism in the early 19th century, this time with the Vikings as heroic figures.

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.

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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  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...CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  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'.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  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. "Viking, n.". Oxford English Dictionary . Oxford University Press. 2018. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  16. Cleasby, Richard; Vigfusson, Gudbrand (1957). "víkingr". An Icelandic–English Dictionary (2nd edition by William A. Craigie ed.). Oxford University Press.
  17. Bosworth, Joseph; Northcote Toller, T. (1898). "wícing". An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
  18. Richards, Julian D. (2005). Vikings : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN   978-0191517396 . Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  19. Baldour, John Alexander; Mackenzie, William Mackay (1910). The Book of Arran. Arran society of Glasgow. p.  11.
  20. Linden, Eugene (December 2004). "The Vikings: A Memorable Visit to America". Smithsonian Magazine. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015.