Article: Historiography or Hearsay: Our view of the Vikings


November 10th 2006 - by Quietus

Behind the priest-slaying bogeyman lies a developed, civ­il­ised people who beg for proper, impar­tial study after these long years of pseudo-historical exile.”

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhab­ited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Bri­tain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St. Cuth­bert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its orna­ments; a place more ven­er­able than all in Bri­tain is given as a prey to pagan peoples.”

-Bishop Alcuin, Letter to Eth­elred, King of Northum­bria (extract)

It is a well known piece of his­tory. On the 8th June, 793 CE [1], the first of a series of coastal raids from Scand­inavia struck the Holy Island of Lindis­farne. The wild pagan raiders unleashed a pre­vi­ously unima­gin­able terror on the peaceful monks. Simeon of Durham writes in his His­toria Regum Anglorum et Dan­icorum: “[The Vik­ings] came to the church of Lindis­farne, laid everything waste with grievous plun­dering, trampled the holy places with pol­luted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treas­ures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fet­ters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea… It was 400 years until Lindis­farne regained its past glories, long after the end of what his­tor­ians came to call ‘The Viking age’ (793 CE – 1066 CE). In that time, count­less other attacks would shake the coasts of Bri­tain and France. Viking raiders would pen­et­rate even into the Medi­ter­ranean as they unleashed a reign of terror: raping, pil­la­ging and slaughtering with uncaring abandon and an ana­themic hatred of Chris­tianity.

At least, this is what the chron­icles tell us. Con­tem­porary accounts are abuzz with the atro­cities of the northmen. “Summa pia gratia nostra con­ser­vando cor­pora et cus­todita, de gente fera Nor­man­nica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna” runs a reli­gious litany of the period: “Our supreme and holy Grace, pro­tecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage Northman race which lays waste our realms”: one of many pos­sible sources for the infamous, more suc­cinct, but almost cer­tainly apo­cryphal ‘Fury litany’, (“A furore Nor­man­norum, libera nos Domine” – “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord, Deliver us!”) quoted so freely in many books and art­icles on the sub­ject. Europe almost leaps from the Dark Ages of his­tor­ical uncer­tainty with chron­icles, accounts and let­ters detailing the depred­a­tion of the Vik­ings.

It is all so clearly laid down, that until the mid twen­tieth cen­tury it was mostly taken as fact: most of our his­tory of the Vik­ings, and indeed the very concept of the Viking age, comes from these doc­u­ments, and the works of mainly nine­teenth cen­tury scholars. It is only com­par­at­ively recently that revi­sionist his­tor­ians have stopped accepting these sources at face value, indeed, when one thinks for an instant, there are some things that do not add up. Alcuin’s let­ters, to the King of Northum­bria and the Bishop of Lindis­farne, are the only con­tem­porary sources for the raid. If the fact that, des­pite the raids severity, there still was a Bishop of Lindis­farne for Alcuin to write to does not make us ask ourselves some ques­tions, then the place that Alcuin sent his let­ters from should. For the single con­tem­porary account of the sacking of Lindis­farne was written by Alcuin whilst he was at the court of King Char­le­magne in Aachen, over 500 miles away. It is, in fact, agreed by a growing number of revi­sionist his­tor­ians to be little more than pro­pa­ganda, an opinion which requires us to undo the major mis­take of earlier his­tor­ians in attempting to under­stand the his­tory of Scand­inavia and its place in Europe and the wider world at this time, which is to view it as somehow apart from the rest of Europe. For the loc­a­tion of Alcuin at the time he wrote his famous let­ters is sig­ni­ficant for two reasons, and our erro­neous view of the Vik­ings cannot be unbound from Alcuin’s per­cep­tion of the Saxons.

In 775 CE Char­le­magne had launched full-scale into a bloody war to con­quer and, more import­antly to our pur­poses, Chris­ti­anise the Saxons. The bru­tality of this con­flict cannot be under­es­tim­ated. The Saxon nobility sub­mitted to an alli­ance with Char­le­magne and a series of mass bap­tisms cul­min­ating in 777 CE after a suc­ces­sion of suc­cessful cam­paigns by Char­le­magne. How­ever, the Saxons did not hold fast to their word, and not only con­tinued wor­ship­ping their own gods, but executed a series of upris­ings against Char­le­magne throughout the rest of the eighth cen­tury (They would only be quelled in 804 CE). Char­le­magne responded ruth­lessly against such oath-breaking and apostasy with mass exe­cu­tions of pris­oners and by laying waste to the Saxon’s sacred groves. The Saxons in turn began burning churches in retali­ation. Aachen was Charlemagne’s base for waging this war, and the prox­imity of Alcuin to this con­flict can be seen on the map below:

Why is this of import­ance? There are two reasons: first, Saxons being driven north by the con­flict into Den­mark and the Scand­inavian pen­in­sula may have been one of the instig­ators of the Viking age. But more import­antly, his­tor­ians such as Prof. Janet Nelson have high­lighted the fact that the pre­ju­dices of con­tem­porary chron­iclers such as Alcuin in their view of ‘pagan races’ and ‘northmen’. If we con­sider mat­ters for a moment, it is no wonder that Alcuin’s mind instantly jumped to images of church desec­ra­tion and murder: he was tar­ring all pagans with the same brush. There is no archae­olo­gical evid­ence that the Vik­ings did any­thing more than steal Lindisfarne’s silver and gold (and why should they have any respect for Chris­tian sym­bols, or even com­pre­hend them, being at this time still Pagans?) There are no mass graves to sug­gest the wanton murder of holy men, and no evid­ence of burning. The main source is Alcuin, whose authority in the matter can be likened to that of a journ­alist reporting on cas­u­al­ties in the battle of Stal­in­grad from Berlin, with no other inform­a­tion but that ‘there is a battle hap­pening in Stal­in­grad’. A staunch sup­porter of Charlemagne’s Chris­ti­an­ising mis­sion, it is highly likely that Alcuin embel­lished his report to a lesser or greater extent. And here I must state the con­clu­sion I have come to per­son­ally in my research: the Vik­ings, such as they existed, were indeed coastal pir­ates and traders; indeed, the word ‘Viking’ came to Eng­lish in the 18th cen­tury from a Scand­inavian word meaning only those who engaged in such activ­ities (In Medi­eval usage ‘Viking’ referred to a pirate, rather than to any cul­ture; when the Vik­ings had left their boats behind, they were no longer called Vik­ings), pre-loaded with Romantic con­nota­tions. How­ever, these Vik­ings have, along the way, been loaded with a repu­ta­tion for extraordinary bru­tality that has no real basis in fact. Par­tic­u­larly from the tra­di­tional British stand­point, the Vik­ings have been in a curious pos­i­tion of being roman­ti­cised and demon­ised, whilst Scand­inavian nations and later even Nazi Ger­many, would mix his­tory, hearsay, folk­lore and myth­o­logy into the so-called ‘national romance’ move­ment, fur­ther mud­dying the waters. The basis for this vast his­tor­ical mis­con­cep­tion, it would seem, is the accepting at face value of not only con­tem­porary chron­icles, but many of the sagas and earlier his­tor­ical studies of dubious proven­ance and pur­pose.

The Sagas are lit­erary works written down mainly in Ice­land between 1180 and 1400. They fall into five rough cat­egories: Legendary Sagas (For­nal­darsögur), Icelandic Sagas or family sagas (Íslendin­gasögur), Kings Sagas (Konun­gasögur), Chiv­alric sagas (Rid­darasögur) and Bishops sagas (Bysko­pasögur). Of these five, the Kings sagas, par­tic­u­larly Heim­skringla (“The Orb of the World”) a col­lec­tion of 16 sagas by Snorri Sturluson present us with the most accurate his­tor­ical inform­a­tion about the period in ques­tion: Though the Heim­skringla starts in legend, with the quasi-mythic Swedish House of Ynglings, it then goes on to detail the reigns of more his­tor­ical Norse mon­archs, chiefly Olaf Har­aldson, and is well regarded as a his­tor­ical source: even in this work, it is hard some­times to tell what is fact and what is fable. Its his­tor­icity can be attrib­uted in the main part to the recent nature of the events its later pas­sages describe: other sagas, par­tic­u­larly the Íslendin­gasögur, are sep­ar­ated from the period which they nar­rate by some 200 years or so (they are con­cerned with the so-called saga age (sögu-öld), which took place from ca. 950-1050 CE and are written down some time between 1220 and 1400 CE): in these cases the accuracy of the retell­ings must be ques­tioned, though in most cases these sagas only deal with events in Ice­land itself, and are thus of little use when dis­cussing wider his­tory. Some of them are intrins­ic­ally more rel­evant than others. Egils saga, the story of the family of Egill Skallag­rímsson and his des­cend­ents, is, for example, a bloody tale from whose pages are often plucked tales of Viking atro­city. Egill was a notorious rebel and pirate, said to have made his first murder at the age of seven, and who by his death had amassed a horde of dis­hon­our­ably obtained silver. Sim­il­arly Jóms­víkinga saga deals with the exploits of the notorious Joms­vik­ings – famed for their heroism and bloodthirsty nature. The mis­take in this instance is to read these sagas as a typ­ical story of 10th cen­tury Viking life. It has instead been sug­gested that Egill’s story was recorded not because it was typ­ical, but because it was unusual, and indeed sen­sa­tional: it would be just as illo­gical to sup­pose that the story of Dr. Crippen would indicate a marked tend­ency toward mur­dering ones wife in Edwar­dian Bri­tain. We have even have a pos­sible explan­a­tion for Egill’s sociopathic beha­viour: Jesse Byock has advanced the theory, based on a careful study of the saga, as well as later his­tor­ical evid­ence, that Egill may have suffered from Paget’s Dis­ease, a bone con­di­tion that would have caused him almost con­stant low-level pain. As for the For­nal­darsögur, it should be rel­at­ively clear the amount of his­tor­ic­ally accurate inform­a­tion they con­tain simply from their name: how­ever, par­tic­u­larly during the time that National Romance was gaining pop­ularity in the Scand­inavian coun­tries they were studied and accepted to a much greater level, and though they have nowadays, apart from the very last sec­tions of the Her­varar saga, among others, been dis­cred­ited as sources of his­tor­ical inform­a­tion, and have also had interest dir­ected away from them by the con­nota­tions of National Roman­ti­cism fol­lowing the Third Reich, much of their base imagery has infilt­rated into the pop­ular canon of Viking his­tory, fur­ther mud­dying the already murky waters of his­tory. It is from this period that many of the most false and enduring pieces of Viking apo­crypha come: The horned helmet, the skull cup, the rite of the blood eagle [2] and many indi­vidual tales.

Archae­ology has told us a story of the Vik­ings some­what dif­ferent to that spun by the, as we have seen, unre­li­able doc­u­mentary sources. Unfor­tu­nately, archae­olo­gical evid­ence for the Viking age is rel­at­ively scarce. Scand­inavian archi­tec­ture of this period made almost exclusive use of turf, wood and other nat­ural mater­ials, which have only sur­vived in a very few instances and in lim­ited ways. Most often, the Vik­ings of this period must be examined through their arte­facts, which often give us a pic­ture at odds with the normal his­tor­ical pic­ture. In York, for example, Pagan and Chris­tian arti­facts have been found along­side each other, pre­served in anoxic wet clay, making the common held view of a deep hatred between the two faiths seem unlikely. Indeed, other archae­olo­gical finds have gone fur­ther, and we even see arti­facts like the Wolf’s Cross (right), a syn­thesis between the Cru­cifix and Thor’s Hammer, which indic­ates a much easier level of cul­tural exchange than the simplistic pic­ture of church burning and forced con­ver­sion, which we have already seen fits more with the Saxons than with any Scand­inavian peoples. A fur­ther clue is the type of arti­facts most com­monly found: not swords, or axes, but combs, used by both men and women reg­u­larly at the time, a fact which rather con­tra­dicts the idea that Vik­ings were unusu­ally dirty and unwashed. (This ste­reo­type, by the way, is based to a good degree on a mis­reading of Ibn Fadlan’s account of his time amongst the Rus [3]. The ref­er­ences Fadlan con­stantly makes to ‘filth’ and ‘impurity’ are more to do with tra­di­tional Islamic con­cepts of clean­li­ness, such as the unclean left hand, rather than gen­eral unclean­li­ness. Indeed, it is some­what remark­able for the time that the Rus washed every day, even if they did share the basin.) Many Viking archae­olo­gical sites con­tain no weapons at all, merely brooches, needles, coins and other examples of an every day exist­ence. Other finds at York indicate that in the 10th Cen­tury the town was trading as far afield as the Byz­antine Empire, a fact sup­ported by massive finds of Arabic coins in Got­land. Trading, but not raiding.

But the real key to the mis­un­der­standing of ‘Viking age’, as we have seen, is that it exists only as a descriptive term for a range of activ­ities which has, then, become a gen­eral descrip­tion of a group of indi­viduals, rather than a race or nation. Whilst we can speak of ‘Anglo-Saxon Cul­ture’ with ref­er­ence to an integ­rated sense of national iden­tity we cannot speak of ‘Viking’ cul­ture, or ‘Viking’ art, in such a way. Viking was merely a life­style prac­ticed by some Scand­inavians. The term has fur­ther become com­plic­ated by being over­laid with inter­pret­a­tions from the 18th and 19th cen­turies which speak more about the cul­tural pre­con­cep­tions of the peoples of those times than they do about medi­eval Scand­inavia. The men who recorded the sagas were not fear­some war­rior poets, but sedate Chris­tian farmers, trying to get a touch on a more heroic age and answer important ques­tions about their society. When we talk of ‘Viking his­tory’ we really mean a little archae­ology col­oured by the desires of later gen­er­a­tions to ‘remember’ their ancestors as hairy heroes in horned hel­mets.

We have seen then that our view of the Vik­ings is based on three dis­tinct sorts of sources: his­tor­ical texts, the his­tori­ograph­ical inter­pret­a­tions of these texts, and the archae­olo­gical evid­ence. We also see that in our common under­standing of the Vik­ings our view has been weighted far too readily towards the first two. We have approached the Vik­ings with a con­cep­tion formed already in our heads by eighth and ninth cen­tury pro­pa­ganda and the nation­al­istic and romantic ends of the eight­eenth and nine­teenth cen­tury ‘Norse Renais­sance’ move­ment, which put little store in the dull but un-fanciful family sagas (once described by Wil­liam Paton Ker as “among the drear­iest things ever made by human fancy”) but instead con­structed a false his­tory based on the deeds and ideals of heroes who were, at the most semi-mythical, if not com­pletely fic­ti­tious. When we peel away these layers of often wilful mis­in­ter­pret­a­tion we see a time more com­plex, more enig­matic, and, maybe most import­antly, a bit less exciting than the one we ima­gined. And this, surely, is the reason for the con­tinuing power of these base­less myths and ste­reo­types: the horn helmeted warrior-poet is some­thing exotic, some­thing awe­some in his ber­serk fury, whereas a trader or sheep farmer is just all too normal. Our own desire for romance, shaped by cen­turies and crys­tal­lised by Hol­ly­wood, has blinded us to the basic reality of his­tory and obscured what may ulti­mately be a much more fas­cin­ating and nuanced pic­ture of a people highly accom­plished in art, crafts­man­ship, ship­building, nav­ig­a­tion, lit­er­ature and a host of other skills. As Else Roes­dahl writes: “The pic­ture of a bar­baric North is no longer valid. It was cre­ated partly on the basis of written sources, and partly on the ideo­lo­gical grounds that European cul­ture, clas­sic­ally inspired and Chris­tian, was ‘superior’.” Behind the priest-slaying bogeyman lies a developed, civ­il­ised people who beg for proper, impar­tial study after these long years of pseudo-historical exile.

Notes:
[1] C.E. = Common Era; AD
[2] Ronald Hutton, in ‘The Pagan Reli­gions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy’ writes “the hitherto notorious rite of the ‘Blood Eagle,’ the killing of a defeated war­rior by pulling up his ribs and lungs through his back, has been shown to be almost cer­tainly a Chris­tian myth res­ulting from the mis­un­der­standing of some older verse.” (p. 282)
[3] Rus is a name for the (Swedish) Vik­ings who, during their explor­a­tions, sailed up the Dnjepr and other rivers, through Russia, to the South East. This is also where the name Russia comes from.

Recom­mended reading:

Hutton, Ronald “Reli­gions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy” (Bristol, 1991).

Mag­nusson, Magnus, “Vik­ings!” (London, 1980).

http://​www​.bbc​.co​.uk/​h​i​s​t​o​r​y​/​a​n​c​i​e​n​t​/​v​i​k​i​n​gs/
http://​www​.jorvik​-viking​-centre​.co​.uk/​t​r​i​a​l​s​p​l​a​s​h​2​.​htm
http://​www​.viking​.ucla​.edu/
http://​en​.wiki​pedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​J​o​r​vik
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Anse_aux_Meadows
http://​en​.wiki​pedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​L​e​i​f​_​E​r​i​c​son
http://​en​.wiki​pedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​N​o​r​s​e​_​s​aga
http://​en​.wiki​pedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​V​i​k​ing

Com­plete list of sources:

Books:

Árni Böðvarrson, ed., “Íslenzk orð­abók” (Reyk­javik, 1980)

Byock, Jesse L. “Viking Age Ice­land” (London and New York, 2001)

Cardew, Philip W., “Genre, His­tory and National Iden­tity in Icelandic Saga Nar­rative” (Leeds 1996).

Hutton, Ronald “Reli­gions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy” (Bristol, 1991).

Mag­nusson, Magnus, “Vik­ings!” (London, 1980).

Mont­gomery, James E. trans., “Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah” in Bell, Joseph Nor­ment ed., “Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies Vol. 3” (Edin­burgh, 2000).

Roes­dahl, Else, “The Vik­ings”, in Margeson, Susan M. and Wil­liams, Kirsten trans. (London, 1991).

Simon of Durham, “His­toria Regum Anglorum et Dan­icorum”, (Durham, circa 1129) in F.J. Tschan trans. (New York, 2002).

White­lock, Dorothy ed., “Eng­lish His­tor­ical Doc­u­ments c.500-1042” (Oxford, 1979).

Weber, Gerd Wolfgang “The dec­ad­ence of feudal myth: towards a theory of rid­darasaga and romance” in Lindow, J, L. Lön­nroth, G. W. Weber eds., “Struc­ture and Meaning in Old Norse Lit­er­ature” (Odense, 1986).

Whaley, Diana “Heim­skringla: an intro­duc­tion” (London, 1991).

Doc­u­ment­aries:

Evid­ence of Vik­ings’, Time­watch (BBC, 1995)

Web­sites:

http://www.arthritis.ca/types%20of%20arthritis/pagets/default.asp?s=1
http://​www​.bbc​.co​.uk/​h​i​s​t​o​r​y​/​a​n​c​i​e​n​t​/​v​i​k​i​n​gs/
http://​www​.cath​olic​-forum​.com/​s​a​i​n​t​s​/​n​c​d​0​0​2​8​7​.​htm
http://itsa.ucsf.edu/~snlrc/britannia/lindisfarne/lindisfarne.html
http://​www​.geor​getown​.edu/​f​a​c​u​l​t​y​/​b​a​l​l​c​/​o​e​/​w​i​d​s​i​t​h​-​t​r​a​n​s​.​h​tml
http://​www​.jorvik​-viking​-centre​.co​.uk/​t​r​i​a​l​s​p​l​a​s​h​2​.​htm
http://​www​.pc​.gc​.ca/​l​h​n​-​n​h​s​/​n​l​/​m​e​a​d​o​w​s​/​i​n​d​e​x​_​e​.​asp
http://​www​.thenorth​east​.fsnet​.co​.uk/​L​i​n​d​i​s​f​a​r​n​e​.​htm
http://​www​.trin​.cam​.ac​.uk/​s​d​k​1​3​/​s​d​k​m​i​s​c​/​e​h​d​l​i​s​t​.​h​tml
http://​www​.viking​.ucla​.edu/
http://​en​.wiki​pedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​J​o​r​vik
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Anse_aux_Meadows
http://​en​.wiki​pedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​L​e​i​f​_​E​r​i​c​son
http://​en​.wiki​pedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​N​o​r​s​e​_​s​aga
http://​en​.wiki​pedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​V​i​k​ing