The Way of the Warrior

Tom Shippey

Vikings are here again, thanks to the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend (until 22 June). The problem for the exhibition’s organisers – and for Philip Parker, whose book The Northmen’s Fury seems designed to tie in with it – is that we know too much about Vikings already. We know what they looked like: big, hairy, threatening, wearing horned helmets as like as not. We know what they did: rape and pillage. Along with the Crusaders, King Arthur and Robin Hood, they form a major part of our medieval imaginary.

For fifty years now specialists in Viking studies have been trying to convince us, without much success, that ‘Viking’ is a job description, not an ethnic category, that behind the generic figure of the raider there was a complex Scandinavian culture of traders, craftsmen, artists and poets, and that contemporary accounts of Vikings – Frankish, Irish, Anglo-Saxon – should be seen as overblown, given that they come from the monks and clerics who were the Vikings’ main targets. In fact contemporary sources are in solid agreement on many of the key points and historians have relied on them to construct a narrative history of Viking incursion, so it seems a little high-handed to call on the monastic chroniclers for names and dates while denying what they were most anxious to convey: fear, horror and loathing. Sceptics may conclude that just as there was, to quote the exhibition’s accompanying book, a ‘19th-century view of the Vikings purely as raiders and killers’ – a view powered by the Victorians’ readiness to see themselves, their navy and the British Empire as a neo-Viking culture – so there has been a late 20th-century view, this one taking a kind of Charlemagne perspective: if the destiny of Europe is ever closer peaceful integration, its history will need to be cleaned up, but what are the chances of a 21st-century view of the Vikings when we know, post-Kosovo and post-Sarajevo, that not even a united Europe can eliminate atrocities and massacres, and when there is new archaeological evidence of extreme violence in the Viking era being uncovered all the time? The exhibition, a collaboration between the British Museum and its counterparts in Denmark and Germany, and the book, which was put together by a dozen experts, ought to be the place to find the answer.

Though the experts continue to betray a certain amount of nervousness, even embarrassment, about the popular image, their book and the exhibition itself are visually stunning. The book contains photos of Viking-era buildings, reconstructed with the help of Scandinavian government grants: the windowless longhouse at Ribe in Denmark, the larger one (6500 square feet) at Borg in northern Norway and the stave church from Urnes. The last two are set off by the dramatic mountain and fjord scenery behind them. The turf-roofed buildings at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland look less ambitious – is that where Leif the Lucky set up his búðir or ‘booths’ in the Greenland Saga? – but they also look exceptionally snug. Like their descendants, the Vikings had domestic insulation completely licked.

In the exhibition itself, pride of place goes to that other speciality of Viking craftsmanship, the great warship found at Roskilde in Denmark not twenty years ago, and now labelled Roskilde 6. A hundred and twenty feet long, forty oars a side, barely twelve feet wide, it looks mean and dangerous even as partial timbers on a stainless steel frame. The book also shows us the great upsweep of the prow of the much better-preserved Gokstad ship, one of the best-known Viking images. Queen Margrethe of Denmark’s foreword is illustrated by a shot of the Sea Stallion under sail, a replica of another ship found at Skuldelev near Roskilde but built near Dublin; and by a much humbler piece of scrimshaw work, a stave of juniper wood decorated with ships’ prows and dragon heads, which was found with other artefacts in the frozen ground of Bergen and carries a runic inscription: ‘Here sails the Sea-Brave (hafdjarfr).’ Viking ships were works of love as well as art.

Ships and buildings, then, but also, on page after page and throughout the exhibition, hoards and weapons: axes, spearheads, swords and shields, helmets and ring mail. The smith clearly took as much pride in his work as the carpenter. The Vale of York hoard, which dates from the 920s, contains silver coins, a Frankish liturgical cup, arm rings and what’s called ‘hack silver’. Sunhild Kleingärtner and Gareth Williams carefully point out in the accompanying text that the hoard represents ‘long-distance trade … gift-giving and social exchange’, but it looks a lot like loot. Its owner never came back for it. What happened to him?

Some believe the far larger Cuerdale hoard from Lancashire, 8600 items in all, to be the war chest of a Viking army, perhaps retreating from Dublin; others, in keeping with the late 20th-century preference, think it was a donation, from the Frankish Church maybe, towards rebuilding English churches. In which case, how did it get lost?

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[*] Tom Shippey wrote about the Repton find in the LRB of 22 July 2010.