In an age in which the Roman Empire had fallen and the Western world was in a state of flux, Viking raiders appeared on the European coast and waterways to raid the countryside. While feudalism was eventually developed to protect citizens from this threat, security took a long time to ensure, and Vikings were a nearly constant presence up through the end of the Middle Ages. Transported by their longships of unparalleled design, Vikings could appear nearly anywhere with great speed. Despite their mobility, when the rare military obstacle arose Viking warriors would not shrink from the challenge.
The most common element of a band of Viking warriors was a freeman, who was a landowner who could not afford high quality weapons or armour. Freemen often joined raiding campaigns primarily with hopes of greater wealth. Generally speaking, these men were armed with a single one or two-handle axe, and may have bought or built themselves a light wooden shield. Freemen formed the mop-up element of a Viking force, usually only useful to help control civilian populations.
Though lords and knights were not generally used to describe wealthy Vikings, the concept of a powerful landowner is nearly identical to later European impressions. Wealthy and powerful Vikings could afford the best equipment available, and thus outfitted themselves and their closest brothers in arms with them. Swords, metal spears, chain mail, and helms were all characteristic of these Viking warriors, the most influential leaders of which were the ones who organised and lead the raids themselves.
As the Middle Ages wore on, more Europeans began to respect the Vikings for their ability as warriors, despite the carnage of Viking raids. As a result, some bands of these Norsemen were sometimes hired as elements of a professional army. Though slightly varied in formation and equipment, these warriors were generally called huscarls, men outfitted with heavy armour and several two-handled axes for both throwing and wielding. A powerful force in a European army, both King Cnut and Harold Godwinson used huscarls to great effect.
As in many cases in history, a whole subject is sometimes remembered merely for its extreme parts, and the Vikings are no exception. Any text that describes the Vikings as lusty, crazy, bloodthirsty barbarians usually bases its information on the existence of berserkers, a contingent of Viking forces. These men, whether stimulated by psychological drama, drugs or rage, would sometimes lose control of themselves, killing indiscriminately and fighting with incredible strength and speed. Though a fearsome enemy, berserkers formed a danger to their own troops as well because their fits of rage sometimes translated into erratic and unacceptable behaviour off the battlefield.