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Vikings invade First Tuesday Speaker Series

By Staff | Dec 12, 2018

From left, Shepherdstown Visitors Center Director Marianne Davis, Karen Glennon, of Shepherdstown and Shepherd University History Professor Sally Brasher watch Koll's Kreations Artisan Ken Koll carve a Norse-inspired pattern into an animal horn, during the First Tuesday Speaker Series. Koll also portrays a Viking, Lord Valdis of Gotland, in The Society for Creative Anachronism. Photo by Tabitha Johnston.

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Although the New World was named “America” in honor of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, historians now recognize the Vikings as the first Europeans to encounter the New World. The Vikings, however, did not settle in the New World, according to Eric Knibb, who portrays the Viking character of Baron Fergus of Hanna in The Society of Creative Anachronism.

Knibb has spent 30 years of his life studying history related to war and The Society of Creative Anachronism, to ensure his portrayal of his character is authentic. During the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ on Dec. 4, Knibb discussed the Vikings’ influence on both the Old World and New World.

“The Viking Age began in the year 800 A.D. Viking raids continued in Europe for the next several centuries, up until the year 1066 A.D.,” Knibb said, mentioning the Vikings had a strategy which helped them continue their raiding for many years.

“The Vikings had a technology that many people didn’t have–their long ship. These ships were, generally speaking, 50 to 60 feet long, and were made of boards nailed together,” Knibb said, explaining the shallow, long boats made traveling easy, as Vikings could pick up the boats and carry them over long stretches land as they sought to continue their voyages over water.

The Vikings’ clinker-built boats also made seafaring easy, as the boards were nailed together to allow the ship to move with the waves, rather than against them.

According to Knibb, the Vikings were originally merchants, buying and selling with continental Europe. But as Christianity became the major religion in Europe, the Christian rulers refused to trade with the pagan merchants. The Vikings were left without a livelihood, and found raiding monasteries and towns for wealth and slaves to be a profitable alternative to their original business. The Viking age ended, according to Knibb, with many Vikings converting to Christianity, settling in areas throughout Europe and finding new careers, since their new religion would not allow them to continue raiding monasteries.

“A lot of Vikings converted to Christianity, because there were a lot of advantages to being a Christian. To do anything in Europe, you needed to be with the movers and shakers of Europe — the Roman Catholic Church,” Knibb said. “Ironically, they started their raiding by ransacking monasteries. When they became Christians, they had to stop attacking the monasteries.”

Although Knibb said the majority of Viking history is based in Europe, he said the Vikings didn’t have much trouble finding the New World, once they had settled in Iceland. As seafarers, the Vikings were trained to identify what the sky looked like when it was covering land, and recognized the sky in the distance, covering the New World. During the Vikings’ brief explorations of the New World, they attempted to trade with the native people.

“The first encounter the Vikings had with Native Americans ended with someone dying,” Knibb said. “When Leif Erikson founded his colony, he said the residents could trade wool, milk and cheese with the natives–anything but metal. But eventually the Native Americans attacked them, and they left their settlement after the attack.

“The Viking history in North America is a small part of American history,” Knibb said.