This coming Saturday, my wife and I will be joining friends to go to the ‘Vikings! The Untold Story’ exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland. In preparation, I have watched the documentary, ‘The Art of the Vikings‘ by Dr Janina Ramirez. I’m also about half-way through The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, ed. Peter Sawyer, And so I have a few thoughts about Vikings and the Viking Image.
I concur with people such as Ramirez that Vikings — or, rather, early mediaeval Scandinavians — are more than just a bunch pillagers. This is evident from the artworks they have left behind as well as any Viking-age traces in Scandinavian literature such as The Poetic Edda or The Saga of the Volsungs. Furthermore, the historical record of ‘Viking’ activities demonstrates that they were explorers, settling Iceland and Greenland as well as having some presence in Newfoundland, as well as traders — I recommend Ibn Fadlan for the Eurasian activities of Vikings — and mercenaries, as in the Varangian Guard at Constantinople. There are other aspects of the rehabilitation with which I can agree.
But we cannot ignore the fact that Vikings were raiders and conquerors as well. The fact that this is the image that is imprinted on our consciousness is not because of the biased press of a bunch culturally-elitist monks from Britain, Ireland, and Frankia (as well as Muslims from Spain and North Africa) — it is because these peoples encountered the speed and power of Scandinavian armies in raiding mode, coming in with faster ships than anyone else and slipping away before a reasonable defence could often be mounted.
While these are not always the first encounters these regions had with Scandinavians, they are often the first encounters of certain peoples, and they are certainly the ones that will leave the strongest impression on the imagination — especially when different (or even the same) groups keep coming back from Scandinavia to raid the Loire or the Seine or Armagh or to settle in Dublin or Yorkshire or Normandy or Ukraine.
If you are a local farmer or landowner, perhaps the Ealdorman, the beauty of Scandinavian skaldic verse, the niceties of Scandinavian traditional religion, the exquisite artwork and handicrafts of Scandinavian artists, the complexities of Scandinavian society and government don’t really matter. What matters is the presence of an invading army and the loss of property that entails.
So — I am in favour of rehabilitating early mediaeval Scandinavian culture. Find out the cool bits, the good bits, the beautiful bits. But let’s not pretend that large numbers of Scandinavian men did not go pillaging and raiding other parts of Europe from the late-eighth through mid-tenth centuries.