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?
The exhibition’s organisers do their best to give a balanced view, though it’s one that favours the trader/craftsman image over the raider/killer. The opening section is called ‘Contacts and Exchange’, not ‘Loot and Robbery’, but is followed by one on ‘Warfare and Military Expansion’. They make good use of runic inscriptions, like this one from Gripsholm in Sweden:
They journeyed boldly;
Went far for gold,
Fed the eagle
Out in the east,
And died in the south
in Saracenland [á sirklanti]
It isn’t clear whether the translation deliberately misses out the approving adjective trikila, or in standard form drengiliga, ‘in manly fashion, like warriors’.
The Gripsholm stone is one of 26 commemorating what seems to have been a failed expedition to the east led by Ingvar the Far-Travelled. By contrast, a rather self-satisfied stone from Yttergärde in Sweden memorialises a man called Ulf, who took three ‘gelds’, or pay-offs, in England: one from Tosti (unknown, not King Harold Godwinsson’s brother), one from Thorketill (probably ‘the Tall’, a leader who changed sides in disgust over the 1012 murder of Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury, pelted to death with ox bones) and one from Knut, i.e. King Canute, the greatest Viking of them all, ruler of England, Denmark, Norway, and after his victory at the Holy River in 1026, much of Sweden as well. By which time the Viking era was nearly over.
The section on ‘Belief and Ritual’ is fascinating. Anyone who has read A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok (2011), or Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen (1960), or even followed the Marvel Comics series Thor, will already know about Odin and Loki, fire giants, frost giants and the Midgard Serpent. But it’s astonishing how much of what we know comes from a single source, Snorri Sturluson’s 13th-century Prose Edda, and how little we know outside it. The attempts made by Scandinavian archaeologists to reimagine the notorious sacrificial site are particularly gruesome: the flayed horse scaffold at Lejre, or the sacred grove at Frösö (‘Frey’s Island’), where the Swedish worshippers of Frey seem to have hung up not only elk and stag heads, but also whole bears – and, very probably, people too. Then there’s the ‘Fyrkat woman’, a lady of some status buried in Jutland with what looks like sorceress gear: charms, henbane seeds, an iron wand and material for ‘witch ointment’. Vikings readily turned Christian for tactical and diplomatic reasons, but one wonders whether the religion took root.
What’s downrated in this wealth of material is literary evidence. Though we have native material, in Old Norse, we don’t have the English and Frankish chronicles mentioned above. While all the prose and much of the poetry is post-Viking era, it is remarkably consistent; it’s also what created the now unpopular 19th-century view. The kings’ sagas and such legendary sagas as The Saga of the Volsungs, even the sagas of Icelanders, all betray a fascination with last stands and noble deaths, like those of King Hrolf, Ragnar Hairy-Breeks, Eirik Blood-Axe, the Jomsvikings, Gunnar Hamundarson and the not very saintly Saint Olaf. We hear nothing of them from the British Museum, and in the book Neil Price has only two pages on ‘The Way of the Warrior’, one of them devoted to challenging ‘the idea that “proper” Vikings were necessarily male’. It’s true that the literary evidence provides examples of female heroism, and of noble female suicide (Signy, Brynhild, Njal’s wife Bergthora), but Viking armies were entirely male, as far as we know, and necessarily so. ‘Debunking’ myths and ‘challenging’ stereotypes sometimes just makes the myths and stereotypes look more secure.
Philip Parker’s title, The Northmen’s Fury, suggests a return to the 19th-century view – hair, beards and horned helmets – but his subtitle, ‘A History of the Viking World’, more accurately describes the book. Chapters 4 to 7 follow the Vikings (actually the Scandinavians; the Vikings were occupied elsewhere) across the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and North America, then back to Russia. Either side of that are chapters describing the first Viking attacks on Britain, Ireland and France, and chapters on the second series of Viking wars, in which Scandinavian kings like Knut established short-lived ‘new empires’ in England, Normandy and their own homelands. Parker tells the story thoroughly, with good references and a sprinkling of updates, but there is no advance on Martin Arnold’s The Vikings: Culture and Conquest (2006), or Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross (2009), or even Gwyn Jones’s magisterial History of the Vikings (1968, revised 1973).
Consider the ‘key questions’ Parker starts with. First, why should Scandinavian societies have turned so suddenly to overseas raiding, and second, why, after several centuries, did the raiding stop? The answer to the second question is obvious. It got too tough. As societies from Ireland to Germany became more organised, centralised and militarised, it became hard for raiders to make a living. The high point of Viking profitability was probably the 82,000 pounds of silver extracted from England in 1018 by King Knut. Less than fifty years later when King Harald Harðræði, or Hardrada, tried to extract more, the expedition failed so badly that it was never tried seriously again.
More interesting is the question of why the Viking age began in the first place, and how they managed to get away with it for so long. In the popular imagination Vikings were all big, strong and aggressive, and their victims a bunch of pale, weedy monks and bookworms. There may be some truth in this, but there must have been Vikings of average size as well, while the kings and nobles of Western Europe were never short of champions and musclemen.
The conventional explanation for Viking success, found in the British Museum’s book and in Parker, is superior naval technology. Viking ships are remarkably beautiful: light, fast and shallow-keeled, Viking longships were ideal for raiding, rapid beaching and quick withdrawal, and for deep penetration via smaller rivers.
But were they really so much better than Anglo-Saxon or Frankish ships? Many would argue that the first Viking age started in the last years of the Roman Empire, when Saxons, Heruls and others repeatedly attacked the shores of England, France and Spain in ships not notably inferior to those of the Vikings centuries later. The idea that the Vikings somehow perfected sail technology, and that this gave them an advantage as decisive as firepower would prove to be, is open to question and can’t be the whole story. The British Museum’s book says, rather defensively, that Vikings were ‘neither unusually atrocious nor universally successful in battle’, but the fact remains that when Viking armies clashed with Franks, Celts or Anglo-Saxons – hardly pussycats – they usually prevailed. It wasn’t strategy, or logistics, or numbers, or better tactics, or weapon technology. What gave them their edge?
The disquieting answer became apparent as soon as the legends and myths of the Vikings were rediscovered: the societies of Scandinavia were just unusually aggressive, even by the high standards of Roman and post-Roman Europe. In 1689 Thomas Bartholinus the Younger published his compilation of excerpts from the poems and sagas in an attempt to explain ‘the contempt for death among the still pagan Danes’. He concluded that their endemic fearlessness was powered by a religion and an ethos that exalted death in battle, and offered its adherents not salvation but the hope of glory – life after death, in Valhöll (‘the halls of the slain’), where the entertainment wouldn’t be praising the Lord, but fighting and feasting, and where the undead heroes would be raised to life every evening to fight again the next day. Nor would this be eternal life: gods, heroes and Valhöll itself would be extinguished in the fires of Ragnarök. As the Old Norse poem Hávamál, ‘the Words of the High One’, puts it, ‘Age gives no man mercy, though spears may spare him.’ You might as well fight heroically, since death and destruction are certain anyway.
Do we have better evidence for this than Bartholinus? Parker mentions the weapon dumps of southern Denmark, the earliest of which, from c.300 BCE, was found at Hjortspring on the island of Als. It contained a trove of shields, mail coats and weapons, including 169 spearheads, as well as a boat. Interestingly, it is not a sailboat or even a rowing boat (as Parker says it is) but a paddle boat, a 60-foot war canoe. In the near landlocked Baltic this may not have been as impractical as it seems. A modern crew got a replica up to more than eight knots, probably faster than a Viking age longship under oars, but their endurance was limited. Why bury it along with the hoard of weapons? Classical authors noted with alarm the wasteful and threatening Scandinavian habit of taking neither booty nor slaves. Instead, they tended to offer weapons and captives alike to their savage gods: at Hjortspring they buried what looks like four 22-man crews, their officers and men carrying swords and lances. The Vikings’ ancestors had practised raiding on each other. Eventually they got good at it.
Perhaps not good enough, at least not for a while. The strange peace of the post-Roman centuries – a peace that lulled the English into a false sense of security, until the 793 CE attack on Lindisfarne – needs an explanation. One fact we have, and Bartholin didn’t, is the story of the raid of King Hygelac on the Netherlands in about 525 CE. This disaster, which forms the backdrop to Beowulf’s life in the Old English epic (Hygelac was his uncle), seems, like the Hardrada disaster five hundred years later, to have deterred imitators.
The Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundkvist has pointed out in Mead-Halls of the Eastern Geats (2011) that both attack and respite may have been caused by the rise of the powerful Frankish Merovingian kingdom. The post-Roman pirate economies of the north were enriched for a while by trade and tribute. When the flow of gold dried up – the Merovingians wanted it all for themselves – an enterprising king like Hygelac may have decided to repair his fortunes by raiding, not trading or negotiation. But once his society and those of his neighbours had definitively lost ‘the favour of the Merovingian’ (as Beowulf accurately says) the Scandinavian golden age stopped abruptly – until, that is, the Merovingians themselves disappeared.
There are other indications of an unusually warlike ethos. Parker mentions the 37 Scandinavian skeletons found in 2008 in the grounds of St John’s College, Oxford, but not the 54 headless skeletons, also Scandinavians, found near Weymouth in 2009. (There were 51 heads in a pile close by, as one can see from a grisly photo in the British Museum’s book. No doubt the missing three heads ended up on stakes.) The strange thing about the Weymouth dead is that they had all been beheaded from the front. Why? It can’t have been easy to do. Perhaps the explanation is the one given in both a famous scene of The Saga of the Jomsvikings and the legend of St Magnus of Orkney: proud warriors scorned to die with their heads bowed, and refused the blindfold so they could see death coming and prove they wouldn’t flinch.
Parker doesn’t shy away (as many have) from the details of ‘the Northmen’s fury’, but he doesn’t try to analyse it. This must be partly because he hasn’t mastered the native accounts in Old Norse that offer the best insider’s view of ‘the way of the warrior’. When Parker uses Old Norse words and phrases he gets them as often wrong as right. In his discussion of Njals saga he reproves ‘the murderous behaviour’ of Njal’s friend Gunnar, said to be lethal in hand-to-hand combat, striking so fast he seems to be wielding three swords at once. But Gunnar is reluctant to show off his prowess unless attacked. At the end of Chapter 54, when his brother congratulates him on a successful defence, he says rather sadly: ‘I wish I knew whether I am any less manly (óvaskari) than other men, for being so much more reluctant to kill than others.’ In his society, killing is manliness. But some men, even champions, have their doubts. The whole ideal of drengskapr (manliness? magnanimity?), which for some precluded pelting old men to death with ox bones, could be nuanced, it seems.
Both Parker and Gwyn Jones before him consider the Battle of Svold as another famous last stand to add to the list. Parker treats it as just another incident in a long history, but it provided one of the great bravura pieces of Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla. Snorri has King Olaf contemptuously dismissing the Danish element in the coalition he faces (softies), as well as the Swedes (gluttons), but he notes the approach of Jarl Eirik’s famous longship Ironbeard, second only to his own Long Serpent, more warily. ‘We must expect a sharp fight from that bunch,’ he remarks. ‘They are Norwegians like us.’
In the fight a leading role is played by Olaf’s henchman Einar Þambarskelfir, the great archer, whose bow breaks at a critical moment. ‘That was Norway breaking/’Neath thy hand, O king,’ Einar says in Longfellow’s once famous version. His Einar resembles Orlando Bloom’s Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies: ‘Graceful was his form, and slender.’ But it was Jones, who knew the Old Norse material backwards, who first pointed out that the traditional location of the battle (which Parker accepts) was strategically improbable, and that Þambarskelfir probably means not ‘shaker of the bow-string’, but the more characteristically Viking ‘wobble-guts’.
The Vikings were not impressionable people, still less deferential. Maybe that was another reason for their military success. Kill the thanes and ealdormen of an Anglo-Saxon army, as at the Battle of Maldon, and the churls of the shire-levy might reflect that there was nothing in this for them. Viking low-rankers had their own notions of pride, and probably, to use the modern military cant, superior ‘small-unit cohesion’, likely fostered by sailing together as ships’ crews. Besides, by my own calculation, every Viking present at Maldon might have gone home with a thousand silver pennies, two years’ stipend for a senior English ecclesiastic, unimaginable wealth for a landless Danish younger son. Three such pay days, and like Ulf of Yttergärde you were a somebody back home. You could even afford your own runestone.
It seems that modern writers on the Vikings feel they have to position themselves between the two polarities: raider/trader, conquest/culture, hammer/cross, legend/life. But maybe they just did what paid off in different circumstances. The henchmen of Sunday-observing St Olaf, the missionary saint, advancing to their war cry of ‘Christ-men, Cross-men, King’s men’, may not have been so different from those of Ivar the Boneless, ‘cruellest, most victorious, most pagan of kings’, who may be commemorated by the dreadful cenotaph found at Repton.Only the terms of trade, and of war, had changed.