Why were the Viking raids so terrifying?

In 793 AD, the western catholic world experienced a true shock that would send a shockwave of fear and consternation throughout Europe. Lindisfarne is an island just off the Northumbrian coast and was an established sacred ground for Christians. In the monastery lay the bones of Saint Cuthbert, who had in his life been the monastery’s bishop and was now revered as a saint. This raid on such an important Christian site is often referred to as the start of the Viking age and would spread fear across the Anglo-Saxon lands. This fear would spread to even more organized empires such as the Francian Empire.

At the beginning of the raids, the western civilizations had not many notions of the Norsemen and had therefore not prepared for swift raids on their coastal cities. That is exactly what the Vikings capitalized on. Swift coastal raids on seemingly unwary settlements and monasteries proved to be an invaluable tactic for the Vikings.

It would be impossible for the Anglo-Saxons to position a standing army on every single coastal city, which made the raids truly terrifying; one could never know where the Viking longships would show up next.

What if you were an Anglo-Saxon farmer?

Imagine you are a farmer on the coast living a normal life, acting out the grueling work required day in and day out. Exhausted you would return to your humble shack, enjoying a late meal before finally laying down on your hard bed made out of straw. The evening is as any other. Crickets can be heard from outside your window, the distant sheep settling for the night in a neighbor's farmstead. You close your eyes, drifting into the sweet lands of a dream. Then, out of nowhere, you hear the piercing screams from your neighbor and smell the smoke sweeping in with the sea breeze. Mixed with the cries of agony, you can hear deep voices shouting in an unintelligible language.

No preparation, no warning, just the screams from the pillaging and raping by pagans you have never even seen before. They take all the valuables, kill all resisting men, kidnap the women and children to sell as thralls, and then set out to sea leaving a ghost village in their wake. You manage to hide in an underground storage you built a few winters back to escape some of the taxations which would only increase each year to “stop the heathens from invading further”, much good did that tax ever do. Minutes turn to hours and the screaming finally stops, leaving an eerie silence in its wake. Then, you hear horses stampede into the void village. Hearing a familiar language, you step out of your hiding place, making sure to quietly conceal the entrance, just in case. The reeve’s men have finally arrived! Scanning the area, you see no signs of the wild men that just assaulted your entire village, no signs of your friends or that sweet, sweet tavern girl you have had your eye on for so long. Everything was wiped away in a matter of moments.

Painting by Willem Schellinks.

Hearing this carnage happening to a neighboring village and knowing one could be next would certainly put fear and anxiety into every man, however pious one would be. This element of surprise and brutality that would ensue is what made these raids truly terrifying. The Vikings could almost be seen as commando troops of the medieval ages, as they were often raiding in small groups, striking fast, and then retreating before any reinforcements arrived.

A very wise jötunn. Only appears in this poem

A very wise jötunn. Only appears in this poem