Once more Mr Nice Guy: the Vikings and violence

(I shall schedule a post about war and violence for 11 o’clock on Armistice Day! Of course! That’ll be, er, something… Anyway. The robot Jonathan Jarrett should cease with this post and real editing resume next.)

We know, of course, that Vikings are always a hot topic. But the latest round of press coverage of Viking scholarship (even the newspapers know that Vikings are a hot topic) is giving me awful dejà vu. If you have a look at this story in The Daily Telegraph, perhaps not exactly Britain’s most forward-thinking go-ahead periodical but as with many others always eager to help so-called scholars make fools of themselves, you will find that we’re back into the fluffy phase of the old raiders-or-traders debate. You know the one? The one where we ignore all the victims’ reports of the violence of the Vikings’ attacks and say how really they were just traders out for a quick buck who didn’t mind knocking over the odd church when there was nothing more remunerative to do. This time we’re not saying how the Vikings weren’t really that numerous so the sources must be exaggerating (which was Peter Sawyer’s take), we’re not saying how the stimulus they brought both to the economy and to the few governments that were able to resist them was vital in developing Europe, which has been argued and argued persuasively, and we’re not even saying that a lot of the places that write stories about how serious the Viking attacks were are trying to explain why they need a lot more land, honest, or where they got the lands of some other less fortunate house from; there’s actually a lot of mileage in that one but it’s not what’s being said here. Instead we’re stressing that the Vikings weren’t really barbaric, because they took care of their hair and liked to dress sharp (or indeed baggy).

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

“Academics claim… ” is never a good sign, is it? Well, Telegraph, and regrettably Cambridge’s Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic, who appear to be behind this latest whitewash in an attempt, among other purposes, to placate the feelings of “British children” who “are quite likely to have Viking ancestry”, I have some small history with correcting myths about the Vikings on the Internet, so let’s make it clear that some ‘academics’ don’t claim this at all. Of course the spin is the Telegraph‘s, who have cherry-picked the bits most likely to contradict what people were told at school. And they include bits that I would never seek to disagree with, like:

Although Norse men and women may have sometimes liked fighting and drinking, and were sometimes buried with weapons, they also spent much of their time in peaceful activities such as farming, building, writing and illustrating.

I know this, OK? Obviously there were farmers back in Scandinavia. They had runes, and could leave us quite complicated messages in them, so no-one should be calling them illiterate. Is anyone? (Although, of course, what is not known is how generally those runes could be read, but as exactly the same dispute is to be had over the Christian West and Latin in the same period, fuelled indeed by the writings of King Alfred, one of its greater literary children, I think we can call that a draw.) And the kick that Viking styles of art gave the West is widely known and again, not to be denied. Here I go not denying it:

Brooch based on Ringerike-style stone carving from Götland

Brooch based on Ringerike-style stone carving from Götland

Right, now my turn. We can also not deny:

  • that as a result of Viking attacks, for all that they exploited internal dissensions, the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and substantial parts of Scotland all fell to Norse or Danish overlordship, and that the last single ruler of the whole Carolingian Empire, Charles the Fat, was forced to abdicate at least in part because of his inability to deal with what his contemporaries perceived as a Viking menace;
  • that Viking armies large enough to defeat the best that the kings of the time could raise, on a good day, were in practically continuous operation on both sides of the English Channel for most of the late ninth century, and over-wintered in Britain and France, where indeed few better than my Department know that they did produce some very lovely metal-work and artefacts at their warcamp before returning to the warpath in Spring;
  • that many Danes, Norse and Swedes made their way East to work as bodyguards for the Byzantine emperors, where they were among the most feared soldiers available to him;
  • that Viking colonies established in what is now Ukraine generated a lot of the income they won, yes, as traders and merchants, by mounting repeated slave-raids into the Slav countries to their north and west, from which indeed the modern English word ‘slave’ derives;
  • that rather a lot of monasteries and churches, being easy undefended targets with money, did in fact genuinely close down because of repeated attacks by the ‘Northmen’;
  • and that the extensive, witty, highly artistic and picturesque Norse literature of later eras delights in stories with ridiculous and if at all possible obscene body-counts and gore ratings, including burning, rape and mutilation.

And you also have to admit, please, that the evidence often used that the Vikings were enthusiastic traders has been of disputed interpretation for sixty years or more—I originally edited here about the relevant paper precisely because I heard about some work coming out of the ASNC team which appeared to have forgotten this. Please, people, remember Philip Grierson. Also, those of you who so love that anecdote about Viking personal grooming, which runs of course:

They were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many frivolous devices. In this matter they laid siege to the virtue of the married woman, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobility to be their concubines

will you please take into account that it is by a twelfth-century writer, and that contemporary sources recording the annual attacks and raids should perhaps be given more weight than this however wonderful a story it is? Or, if you prefer, ask what this says about John of Wallingford (for it is he!) and his sense of appropriate hygiene…

I am not, you understand, saying that all Scandinavians of the ninth and tenth centuries were in fact unwashed unscrupulous warmongering cut-throat psychopaths, any more than the ASNC team are saying, through the stencil the Telegraph has placed over their work, that they were all soft-hearted over-barbered craftsmen with poetic souls and startlingly-cut trousers. But everyone seems to want to tip the emphasis one way or the other. We don’t need to! They were all of these things! Sometimes even in the same person, but there were certainly both farmer-craftsmen and boatloads of hairy warriors around at the same time. We can have both! Although, when we admit the hairy warriors, we should bear in mind that just because you’re looting a Christian sacred place in a hit-and-run raid from the sea, you can still at least do something stylish with your hair, as that slate from Inchmarnock that I mentioned the other day, of which I have now found the picture below, shows….

Sketch on slate from Inchmarnock of Vikings stealing St Ernan's reliquary

Sketch on slate from Inchmarnock of Vikings stealing St Ernan's reliquary

And really, it’s not only not a matter of not maligning the living or even the dead (I think many Vikings, however nicely they dressed or how clever a piece of knotwork they could carve, would have felt more than a bit miffed to be called “a settled and remarkably civilised people who integrated into community life“). Firstly, it reduces the wonderful interest of this culture to neglect either side. To call them boneheaded illiterate berserkers is obviously unfair; but so is it to neglect the fear and awe that their warriors could bring with them. To emphasise their economic and cultural aspects is important, but not at the expense of the political and military impact they had on Europe. And whatever balance one comes to of those sides, they have to have room for both the artwork and the bloodshed, they have to be able to explain both Jelling style and the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, both runestones and Varangians, both sagas and, well, sagas. All the events and phenomena listed above have to continue to be explicable no matter how nuanced you make your Vikings, because if you try and take the ‘viking’ out of the Vikingr, large parts of ninth- and tenth- century history stop making sense…

An example of one man. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which was kind of to the Viking Age what Altamont was to the hippy era, when it all goes wrong and poisonous, not only did Harald Hardrada King of Norway die, but so did his nephew Olaf. He had been in the thick of the fighting, and he was known to the later writers as Olaf the Flashy, because of his taste in personal adornment. I tell you, you can have both. The era that invented and lauds James Bond really shouldn’t need telling that someone can plausibly be all of heroic, well-dressed and pathologically violent…

I’m not going to try and set basic reading for journalists here, but I wonder how many of the readership may have come across the recent articles trying to achieve a balance on the ‘how violent were the Vikings?’ issue, either Jinty Nelson’s summary, “England and the Continent in the ninth century: II, Vikings and Others” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 13 (Cambridge 2003), pp. 1-28; Simon Coupland’s “The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History” in History Vol. 88 (London 2003), pp. 186-203, or most interestingly perhaps, because of doing real exploration of the monastic narratives and the truth behind them, either of Anna Trumnore Jones, “Pitying the Desolation of Such a Place: Rebuilding religious houses and constructing memory in Aquitaine in the wake of the Viking incursions” in Viator Vol. 37 (Berkeley 2006), pp. 85-102 or Hélène Noizet, “Les chanoines de Saint-Martin de Tours et les Vikings” in Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie : colloque de Cérisy-la-Salle (Caen 2005), pp. 53-66. For general reading you could probably just start with Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997) and see where it takes you. Not, I’m guessing, into journalism… I would however also like to mention Fergus Fleming’s The Viking Invader, which is a should-be present for any medievalist in your life, and something of which I for some reason don’t have my own copy. Ahem. Christmas is very soon isn’t it? Anyway.

18 responses to “Once more Mr Nice Guy: the Vikings and violence

  1. We have a similar controversy here in Canada, about citizens of the Province of Alberta. Are they hardworking, salt-of-the earth cowboys — or brain-dead oil-rich hicks? Scholarship is divided. Some point to their stetsons as evidence of sartorial creativity, others that digging holes in the ground and watching money gush out indicates a lack of proper respect for the work ethic. Does the Calgary Stampede qualify as high culture? Or does it just mean they’re really dumb? And how can they have produced a famous lesbian country singer? What’s that all about?

    Ever since one historian explained to me that the English didn’t mind being conquered by the Normans because they came to appreciate the “wonderful Norman sense of humour”, I’ve grown steadily more confused about the past. A Russian once told me that Russians would always hate Germans because they invaded them and tried to submit them to German culture, but they always loved the French. “But didn’t the French invade Russia and try to submit Russians to French culture?” I asked. Well, yes, but that was different, the French wrote good poetry and appreciated the Russian Soul.

    A shipload of Vikings are knocking at my door, collecting for UNICEF. The tall, blond one is smiling, but he’s waving a big axe.

    Somebody help me. I can’t figure anything out.

  2. Ann Thropologist

    A fine, sustained and elegant rant, Dr J. It rather puts me in mind of the people who try to argue that Andean cultures are all peace and love and complementarity because of their nifty binary moiety systems, and you have to go ‘Well, yes, but they do still make a point of getting together and beating the sh1t out of each other once a year in order to maintain the balance, and it is quite scary to watch.’ You can have all kinds of exquisitely carved temple decorations in the place where you carry out human sacrifices. Similarly, in the Aymara past when warriors took a head as a trophy, women would wrap it in a specially splendid piece of weaving in order to ‘reincorporate’ it as part of their social universe. The textile was probably exquisitely done and very beautiful, but it was still used to wrap up somebody’s severed head.

    And really, saying someone is ‘integrated into community life’ means naff-all about their proclivities for, say, a quiet night in with a cup of warm milk, as opposed to going off looting and pillaging. What if they were integrated into a community of fearless baresarkers, eh? Eh? Sloppy use of the word ‘community’ there.

  3. Even the sagas make bersekers something of a feared rarity, I believe, but of course you’re more generally right. Anyone who’s been in a military unit with a permanent base will probably be able to tell us about their community life. My short stay on a RAF base as a cadet showed me, for example, an even more exaggerated love of the ritual of fried breakfast than usual for the British and a complicated system of drinks owed for favours. There must be anthropological work on such communities, no? I wonder if it’d be worth using it to try and guess some things about the winter camp at Torksey where all those finds I linked to came from…

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head with this post, Jonathan, especially in your point about Vikings being marauders *and* farmer-craftsmen rather than one *or* the other. As you say “we can have both”. I find it bizarre that anybody still feels a need to lump disparate and often unconnected groups of Scandinavian people under a single personality type. Is it so difficult to imagine a Norse crofter in the Hebrides tending his small flock of sheep while waving to his cousin sailing by in a longship full of terrified Irish captives? Like I said, you summed it all up rather neatly.

  5. Thankyou, sir, I am quietly pleased with this one too, though mainly for finding an online picture of that slate…

  6. Are you trying to say that the Vikings were, well, real, normal, european people with everyday lives and and interests and of course a decent amount of succes in international, er, commerce? :-)

    For those not up to a Grand Unified View of ‘the Vikings’ we might add to the above reading list:
    Frederik Svanberg: “Decolonizing The Viking Age 1” Lund (Stockholm) 2003, a published dissertation in archaeology in which Svanberg delivers a thorough critique of ‘the Scandinavian Viking Age’, which he sees as a construct of 19th century scholarship influences by nationalistic and evolutionary ideas popular at the time.
    His main point lies in his analysis of the creation of the Viking Age as a ‘colonialism of the past’ which he finds to be completely incompatible with the actual archaeological remains. A must read.

  7. What, sorry, seeing the Vikings as colonists? I can see how that would be a nineteenth-century perspective all right, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it since Stenton. Mind you, that’s still so standard that it’s probably worth countering…

  8. Er, that was maybe a bit unclear. :-)

    Svanberg sees 19th century scholars as the colonial power colonizing a past people (idem est the Vikings) and shaping it in their own image by exactly the same means as if it were a foreign but contemporary people.

    Thus writing the history of the Vikings, according to Svanberg, has been a way of colonizing “the other” (the people far away (in this case far away in time)) and turning them into “yourself” by writing their history as your own history – and that’s where it gets nationalistic.

    Hence the creation of the Viking Age as a ‘colonialism of the past’.

  9. The problem with the conventional argument that ‘the Vikings were really, really violent’ is the unspoken presumption that too often comes with it, ‘unlike other early medieval peoples’. Carolingianists are less prone to this, being more aware that Charlemagne was a thug with good PR, while the Vikings were thugs with bad PR. (I once even gave a paper with the tiltle ‘Franks as Vikings’). But insular historians (in both senses) are prone to start imagining that before the Vikings came the English were all sitting round peacefully and being civilised. Whereas it’s obvious from Alcuin that Northumbria was a snake-pit, and likely that Offa waded through a lot of blood to get to where he was, but we don’t know the details. And if you ever try and discuss this comparison, you tend to get a lot of sub-Alfred Smyth hysteria about blood eagles, raped nuns and martyred bishops, as if bishops and nuns never ever got killed or raped by Christians. Guy Halsall has made a serious attempt to think about whether there was something different qualitatively about Viking violence, but that’s rare.

  10. Henrik, that’s pretty heavy, but couldn’t the same argument be made about the Middle Ages as a whole? I’m sure I remember some scholar having said that every generation remakes the past in its own image, which is just the same process without the hostile terminology, isn’t it?

    Magistra, all I can say to that is fair points all, but I don’t think whitewashing the Vikings to match the false image of the ‘enlightened’ peoples really helps with that problem.

  11. I can’t say that I agree completely with Svanberg, but his critique of the Viking Age as a construct is enlightening.

    Magistra said: ‘Whereas it’s obvious from Alcuin that Northumbria was a snake-pit, and likely that Offa waded through a lot of blood to get to where he was, but we don’t know the details.’

    Same thing goes for the Vikings, IMHO.

  12. Thanks for the fine posting, which I have come across rather late in the day. It might be worth pointing out that the little media frenzy arose from a single A4 sheet produced in my alma mater, the ASNC department, intended to entertain visiting 10-year-olds and their parents with some little juicy morsels of medieval evidence about vikings, of the sort that don’t usually get an outing. As is so often the case, the tone, content and original context of the primary source were rapidly forgotten in the chain reaction that followed the initial rather inflated report–and indeed it’s unclear than /any/ of those who reported the thing had direct access to the rather innocuous flier itself. And the rest is Google-able, as they say. All in all, the media response was a fine example of the misuse of evidence… Or should that be ‘colonization’?

  13. I guess I didn’t give the Telegraph enough rope. Thanks for the response. But seriously, how many ten-year-olds do you think are likely to be upset by the idea that they might be descended from bad-ass killing machines?

  14. Bad-ass killing machines with /great/ hair.

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