For more than two hundred years during the Middle Ages the Christian countries of Europe were attacked on the southwest by the Saracens of Spain, and on the northwest by the Norsemen, or Northmen. The Northmen were so called because they came into Middle Europe from the north. Sometimes they were called Vikings (Vi'-kings), or pirates, because they were adventurous sea-robbers who plundered all countries which they could reach by sea.
Their ships were long and swift. In the center was placed a single mast, which carried one large sail. For the most part, however, the Norsemen depended on rowing, not on the wind, and sometimes there were twenty rowers in one vessel.
The Vikings were a terror to all their neighbors; but the two regions that suffered most from their attacks were the Island of Britain and that part of Charlemagne's empire in which the Franks were settled.
Nearly fifty times in two hundred years the lands of the Franks were invaded. The Vikings sailed up the large rivers into the heart of the region which we now call France and captured and pillaged cities and towns. Some years after Charlemagne's death they went as far as his capital, Aix (aks), took the place, and stabled their horses in the cathedral which the great emperor had built.
In the year 860 they discovered Iceland and made a settlement upon its shores. A few years later they sailed as far as Greenland , and there established settlements which existed for about a century.
These Vikings were the first discoverers of the continent on which we live. Ancient books found in Iceland tell the story of the discovery. It is related that a Viking ship was driven during a storm to a strange coast, which is thought to have been that part of America now known as Labrador .
When the captain of the ship returned home he told what he had seen. His tale so excited the curiosity of a young Viking prince, called Leif the Lucky, that he sailed to the newly discovered coast.
Going ashore, he found that the country abounded in wild grapes; and so he called it Vinland , or the land of Vines . Vinland is thought to have been a part of what is now the Rhode Island coast.
The Vikings were not aware that they had found a great unknown continent. No one in the more civilized parts of Europe knew anything about their discovery; and after a while the story of the Vinland voyages seems to have been forgotten, even among the Vikings themselves.
So it is not to them that we owe the discovery of America , but to Columbus ; because his discovery, though nearly five hundred years later than that of the Norsemen, actually made known to all Europe , for all time, the existence of the New World .