Monday, 8 May 2017

How Far Does the Traditional View of the Vikings Equate to Reality?

by Libby Young

Viking longboat, Norway's National Museum of Arctic Studies
The common and often inaccurate perception of the Vikings has undergone many changes throughout history.  Today, attitudes towards the Vikings are relatively positive, and this reflects the growing regard the Vikings have earned since 19th century romanticism popularised the (inaccurate) image of a man with flowing blond locks sporting a horned helmet. Prior to this time, however, traditional attitudes were not so forgiving, as people chose instead to equate the Vikings with unimaginable savagery and brutality.  Although many of the myths that surrounded these Scandinavian warriors have been dispelled, there is some truth in the old stories, as well as falsehoods in the modern ones. By exploring topics that range from the roles of women in society to the longboats that came to symbolise the Vikings, I will investigate whether these traditional views have any grounding in reality.

The Vikings were a Scandinavian, sea-faring people who were most prominent from the 8th to the 11th centuries in what was known as the ‘Viking Age’. The term 'Viking' is misleading, as it suggests the Vikings were a unified nation which was not the case, as they came from different countries within Scandinavia.

The view of the Vikings as brutal warriors stems from one of the first Viking raids in England, and was perpetuated by Christian monks in the early middle ages. In 793 AD, Vikings attacked St Cuthbert’s church in Lindisfarne, Northumbria, and the event was later described by Alcuin of York (an English scholar and clergyman) in a damning letter that would shape attitudes towards the Vikings forever: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race… The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.” As Christian monks such as Alcuin were some of the few literate people at the time, these understandably one-dimensional records became the basis for the image of violence that surrounded them. 

The myths that sprung from these encounters are largely inaccurate. One such myth is that every Viking spent their time raping and pillaging without restraint, all the while exhibiting unheard of brutality and violence. However, this view fails to take into account the everyday life of most Vikings. Although raids were frequent during the summer months, only a relatively small proportion of men went on them, and for most people the majority of their time was spent as either farmers, traders, or craftsmen. In addition to this, although Viking warfare was undoubtedly violent, it was not exceptionally so for its time. For example, in 782AD, approximately 4,500 Saxons were murdered by the orders of the Frankish King Charlemagne in the so-called ‘Massacre of Verden’.

Thanks to the horrifying tales of rape and pillage spread by the Early Medieval monks, it is not hard to presume that the brutal warriors had little respect for women. However, as it is increasingly known today, Viking women enjoyed much freedom. There have been numerous discoveries of female warriors who were often initially misidentified as men, and a 10th century Irish text called,  'War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill', even records a woman leading a fleet of Viking ships. Not only were Viking women allowed to fight alongside their men, but they were also respected within society.  Viking women were given the responsibility of managing the household, family farm or trading business when their husbands were absent and, if widowed, would adopt the role on a permanent basis. This role was often symbolised by the rings of keys buried with many women which showed both their roles and power.  In addition to this, they could inherit property, request a divorce and even reclaim their dowries if their marriages ended. However, although these rights were greater than those held by many women both then and during later times, they were not utterly unique, as Viking women shared many of the same privileges as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, at least until the Norman invasion of 1066.

As the Vikings had a penchant for raiding churches, it was commonly believed that they were  uncivilised and had little intelligence. However, this myth can be dispelled by both their longboats and their democracy.  According to William Fitzhugh, the director of Norway's National Museum of Arctic Studies, the Viking longboats were: 'unbelievable - the best in Europe by far'.  Archaeological evidence has shown that the Vikings reached cities such as Rome and Baghdad, settled in Greenland and although they didn't remain for an extended period of time, they reached and attempted to settle in North America approximately half a millennium before Columbus. Another fact that dispels the myth of a savage people is their democracy.  Wherever the Vikings settled, they also founded this enduring aspect of their society.  Both the oldest continuous parliament and the oldest parliament in the world were founded by the Vikings; founded in 930 AD the Icelandic 'Althingi' is thought to be the oldest parliament in the world, and Tynwald, the Isle of Man's parliament, claims to have held meetings at midsummer for well over a millennia.

Yet despite all of these remarkable achievements that are inconsistent with the monks' tales of horror, there is some truth in their words. The raiding for which the Vikings are so famous had such a grievous effect on its victims that the European Carolingian Empire, for example, is believed to have paid nearly 14% of its entire economy in exchange for hollow promises of peace. Even our local area did not escape unscathed: Southampton, which was a major trading centre, was largely abandoned in the 9th century Portsmouth itself was assaulted and conquered in 787 AD due to Viking attacks. Even after the area was reclaimed it suffered continual attacks until the Norman invasion of 1066.

The stories of cruelty towards both each other and their victims is not completely unfounded either, as a massive part of the Scandinavian economy was slavery. The term 'to be held in thrall' meaning to be under someone’s power, traces back to the Old Norse term for a slave: ‘thrall’, and some argue that the word ‘slave’  itself arose from the heavy targeting of the Slavic people by the Vikings.  Although slavery was common at the time, the Vikings were one of the few societies who would sell their own countrymen into slavery, a stark contrast to the Christians who vehemently opposed it.

In conclusion, the traditional perception of Vikings has many flaws. The nightmarish legends that horrified medieval people failed to show the finer points of Viking life, such as the fairness with which they treated their women; the extraordinary craftsmanship of their boats; the immense distances they travelled and the role the Vikings had in founding countries. Meanwhile, the romanticism of the 19th Century disregards their full capacity for barbarity. It is important to remember that the Vikings were a deadly force, and that perhaps the Christian monks should not be judged too harshly for their quick condemnation of the Scandinavians who plundered their lands with alarming force. In my opinion, however, this is all part of what makes the Vikings such an interesting society, as without their periodic raiding they would have been unable to achieve their greatest feats that should be remembered and celebrated even to this day.

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