Kringla heimsins, sú er mannfolyt byggir . . . These are the words that open the 13th-century History of the Kings of Norway. Written in Old Norse (the language spoken in medieval Scandinavia) it means “The orb of the world, which mankind inhabits.”
Penned by an Icelandic chronicler, Snorri Sturluson, the History is an important source on the Vikings, who held Europe in thrall from the eighth to the 11th centuries. Their trading and raiding sent them to the far horizons of that “orb,” sailing west to Britain, then Greenland, and even reaching North America. As well as their infamous brutality, Viking success depended on navigational skills, essential not just to navigate Europe’s rivers and Atlantic coastline, but also to venture south from their homeland all the way to the Mediterranean: “That great sea,” as Snorri Sturluson describes it, “that goes in through the Straits of Gibraltar all the way to the land of Jerusalem.”
Evidence of Viking settlements in England, Ireland, and Russia and their trade routes as far as present-day Istanbul and “Serkland” (the land of the Saracens, i.e., Baghdad) is plentiful; the Vikings’ Mediterranean foray, however, is a more shadowy affair. According to the handful of sources available, it took the form of a remarkable, and audacious, raiding voyage led by a hell-raising naval commander, who brought terror to Muslim Spain, France, and Italy. He sent his boats south probably with the ultimate objective of sacking what must have seemed a tempting prize: Rome.