Year of the Viking

Patrick Wormald

  • The Vikings by James Graham-Campbell and D. Kidd
    British Museum, 192 pp, £8.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 7141 1352 2
  • The Viking World edited by James Graham-Campbell
    Weidenfeld, 220 pp, £11.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 906459 04 4
  • The Northern World edited by David Wilson
    Thames and Hudson, 248 pp, £15.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 500 25070 7
  • Vikings! by Magnus Magnusson
    Bodley Head, 320 pp, £10.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 370 30272 9
  • The Vikings by Johannes Bronsted
    Penguin, 347 pp, £1.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 14 020459 8
  • Viking Age Sculpture by Richard Bailey
    Collins, 288 pp, £10.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 00 216228 8
  • The Viking Age in Denmark by Klaus Randsborg
    Duckworth, 206 pp, £7.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1466 5

Few can still be unaware that 1980 in Britain is as much the Year of the Viking as of forest fires, record interest-rates and the SAS. There is, for once, no ostensible centenary reason for this, although, as a matter of fact, the year 980 did see the resumption of the Danish raids that were to culminate in Cnut’s kingship of England.

The reason, rather, is that the last twenty years have seen a major revision in the understanding of Viking activity and its impact on Europe, largely, though not entirely, through the work of archaeologists. David Wilson, Director of the British Museum, is among the most distinguished of these, and the exhibition which he and his pupils have mounted there (until 20 July) quite properly commemorates their achievement and that of their Scandinavian colleagues.

This, in turn, has prompted publishers to commission new books on the Vikings and reissue old ones. Meanwhile, the BBC, not content with giving David Wilson the chance to preview his own exhibition, and showing a typically daft Hollywood epic on The Vikings, has permitted Magnus Magnusson to concentrate his peripatetic interests on his first and greatest scholarly love, the world of his ancestors. The laudable result is that the General Reader now has a better chance to understand up-to-date academic thinking on the Vikings than on almost any other aspect of Europe’s early history.

The first four of these books have a lot more in common than the immediate circumstances of their birth. In the case of the first three this is scarcely surprising, because they involve much the same authors. David Wilson contributes forewords to both James Graham-Campbell’s volumes, and James Graham-Campbell writes for David Wilson’s, while Christine Fell is, as it were, the religious affairs correspondent for each of them. Magnus Magnusson’s ‘book of the film’ is without even a foreword by David Wilson, and is pitched at a more popular and chatty level, but otherwise shares many features with the others.

All four are concerned with what archaeology has now shown us about Viking ships, Viking towns and trade, Viking ‘home-life’ and Viking art, and rather less concerned with what other sources can tell us about Viking settlement and social organisation. All four are a good deal more interested in the evanescent Norse discovery of America than in their well-chronicled activities in France and historically decisive foundation of Normandy. All four may be described as coffee-table books, and all four sustain their publishers’ well-earned reputation for superb illustrations – though a symbolic reductio ad absurdum of modern techniques is the obliteration of much of David Wilson’s foreword to The Viking World by the sensitively photographed Beach in the Gloaming over which it is printed. None of the four is without irritating, if ultimately unimportant, historical inaccuracies: one assumes, in all charity, that it was a bemused publisher’s assistant who wrote the caption describing a scene on the eighth-century Franks Casket as the sack of Jerusalem by the Crusaders (1096). Above all, each of these books is marked by the same strongly defensive tone about the Vikings, a point to which I shall return.

Granted their general similarity, not to mention their price, readers may not wish to invest in more than one. But it is worth stressing that their choice will not be easy, because each has its own merits. The Vikings is the official exhibition catalogue, but it is much more. As well as listing the exhibits, it discusses their background in a series of thematic chapters, including a lucid introduction to Viking Art. The general quality of its illustrations is so high as almost to pre-empt the need to visit the exhibition (the temperature on the day of my visit was nearer tropical than arctic), were it not that photographs give no idea of the all-important consideration of scale. The Viking World, James Graham-Campbell’s more expansive meditation on the same themes, is further enriched by admirably clear diagrams and line-drawings, notably in Sean McGrail’s contribution on ships. This chapter supersedes all other discussions of the subject in English, and Ray Page, on letters runic and poetic, offers a remarkable example of how an expert can demonstrate the general interest of a very technical topic without sacrifice of scholarly integrity.

The Northern World hardly succeeds in its professed purpose, ‘to examine the origins of both the common and the different elements of the peoples of northern Europe’ – it would be surprising if it did! But it does have a wider scope than the others, adding chapters on the continental Germans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts and (a notable eye-opener) the Slavs to four which are Scandinavian-orientated, and it contains some truly astonishing illustrations of what 19th-century romantics made of Norse myth and history. Christine Fell’s chapter on gods and heroes is not only fuller and more balanced than her other essay on this theme, but is also among the best short introductions in English. Finally, Magnus Magnusson’s Vikings! contains much that was not, if my memory serves me correctly, ‘seen on TV’, and thus avoids the bittiness of parts of the series. His enthusiasm and wide knowledge of both Viking literature and Viking archaeology have produced a book which is not only even more up-to-date than the rest but a real pleasure to read.

Just what a revolution in Viking studies these books achieve and represent is clearly, if unintentionally, revealed by the reissue of Johannes Bronsted’s The Vikings, which was first published in Danish in 1960, and appeared posthumously in English five years later. In its day one of the two standard works on the subject by Scandinavian archaeologists, it is now, through no fault of its author, seriously out of date. It is neither necessary nor charitable to list examples, but readers tempted by its low price should be warned that no one would now accept this book’s discussion of the coinage evidence, or its dating of such monuments as the Danewierke and the four great circular ‘camps’ of Denmark, or its description of Turgeis, Olaf and Ivarr in Ireland. One can only doubt the wisdom of republishing it this year.

But the most striking contrast between Bronsted and the others thus far considered may be found in the former’s general conclusion: the Vikings brought ‘destruction, rape, plunder and murder’, and though they later threw their energy into colonisation, they ‘could teach Europe nothing’. It will not take readers of Wilson, Graham-Campbell and Magnusson long to discover that they beg to differ. A consistent theme of all four volumes is that, in the words with which Wilson opens the exhibition catalogue, ‘the Vikings have had a bad press’: they ‘were administrators as well as pirates, merchants as well as robbers’. Or, to quote Magnusson’s introductory remarks: ‘Today, there is ... less emphasis on the raiding, more on the trading, less on the pillage, more on the poetry and artistry, less on the terror, more on the technology, of these determined and dynamic people, and the positive impact they had.’ In short, they used to be ‘a bad thing’; they should now be considered, at least in part, ‘a good thing’.

The first decisive step in this revisionist direction was taken in 1961 by the professional adviser to Magnusson’s series, Peter Sawyer. His The Age of the Vikings, one of the few recent studies not reissued this year, was a brilliant essay whose basic purpose was to explain the Viking explosion by arguing that there was nothing very exceptional about it. The Vikings were warrior bands in pursuit of land and treasure, of the normal Germanic type. About 800, the technological revolution that was the Viking ship permitted them to transfer their predatory instincts to the West. But in the West, they were unable, as pagans, to distinguish between secular and ecclesiastical wealth, and, unfortunately for their reputation, the western sources for the time were almost wholly the work of their clerical victims. These sources therefore emphasised Viking destructiveness a good deal more than they did that of the equally brutal Christians, who tended to leave churches alone. The result has been a very one-sided historical view of the Vikings.

Much of Sawyer’s argument has remained highly controversial, notably his downgrading of the size of Viking armies. But his emphasis on the distorting perspective of clerical chroniclers, and on the constructive element in Viking activity, has been profoundly influential, leading scholars such as those under review to query the scale and pagan motivation of Viking destruction, and to seek archaeological proof of their commerce and culture. There is much that is true, and much indeed that is common-sense, in this view, but it is legitimate to wonder whether the reaction has not now gone too far.

In the first place, it all depends what one means by Viking. Most of these books discuss the origins of the term, which remains a mystery. But there is no doubt that to the Scandinavians, who were the only ones to use it in the period, it meant a sea-borne military adventurer: in other words, in the commonest terminology of the Latin chronicles of the time, a pirate. In The Viking World, James Graham-Campbell pleads convenience as his excuse for applying the word to all aspects of Scandinavian activity, though he concedes that it is wrong to imply that all Scandinavians in these centuries were raiders. The trouble is that the usage leads, here and elsewhere, to an argument that is either misleading or circular.

It is technically inaccurate to describe comb-manufacturers in York or metalworkers in Norway or even settlers in Iceland as Vikings – to say nothing of the bugs photographed in Magnusson’s book! It is stating the obvious to argue that Scandinavians who were not Vikings were not pirates intent on rape and pillage. The Vikings represented one aspect of Scandinavian culture and society in the ninth and tenth centuries. Certainly, it is important to establish that the Scandinavian expansion which the Vikings spearheaded had other aspects and other consequences. But this does not prove that Vikings were not what by definition they were: destructive and disruptive pirates. One might as well argue that the KGB is not a force of evil because Russians make good gymnasts.

The question of Viking trade is also worth further thought. Norwegian graves of the period have turned up a fair number of smart or precious objects of western provenance, including mounts that seem likely to come from books and reliquaries. The modern fashion is to ascribe their presence to trade rather than plunder. This may well be reasonable for domestic bowls and buckets. But Dark Age churchmen did not do business by ripping the ornaments off their books and shrines. At some stage in its journey to pagan graves, metalwork with these origins (and it includes what may well have been panels from the shrine of St Columba on Iona) simply must have been looted.

In a warrior society, where Odinn was God of both war and trade, the line between commerce and rapine would have been even harder to draw than nowadays, but this argument cuts both ways. The Irish evidence suggests that Dublin, one of the ‘good things’ produced by the Vikings, grew fat on raiding and trading slaves, and the same may well have been true of the cities founded or developed by the Swedes in Russia. Was Sir John Hawkins a merchant or a buccaneer? Did his commerce bring benefits to West Africa?

Finally, each of these books follows Sawyer’s lead in regarding Viking desecrations as more an unfortunate by-product than a deliberate purpose of their activities. We are told that Scandinavian paganism was ‘unfanatical’, ‘detached’, even ‘tolerant’. There is some evidence for this, not only in sagas but also in contemporary Christian sources, although ‘cynical’ would perhaps be a better word for the reported attitude of some Vikings to Christianity (it was still alive in the great-great-great-great-grandson of the founder of Normandy, William Rufus).

But unless we are to jettison a lot of our evidence, it is not the whole story. The Vita of the remarkable Frankish missionary in ninth-century Scandinavia, St Anskar, is the only detailed contemporary source for conditions in the area, and it was written by a man of Danish origin, his successor St Rimbert. It allows no illusions about the existence of popular resistance to Christianity. Indeed, it is almost the only Dark Age account of a mission which ultimately failed. In the 11th century, Adam of Bremen wrote a history of Anskar’s see at Hamburg, which had more direct experience of Baltic society than any other. He had no doubts of the virulence of Scandinavian paganism, fomented as it was by magicians and soothsayers (in other words, priests), and he gave detailed descriptions of human sacrifices. Adam made mistakes, and historians are usually sceptical of his evidence on this last point, but it does not stand alone.

In a Radio Times interview announcing Magnusson’s series, Peter Sawyer compared references to the gruesome Viking ritual of the Blood-Eagle, whereby, in honour of Odinn, a man’s lungs were draped across his shoulders like an eagle’s folded wings, to stories of Uhlans bayonetting babies. The difference is that First War German newspapers did not exult in spiked infants, whereas it is Scandinavian sources who fully describe the Blood-Eagle. Magnusson confidently assures us that ‘there is not a scrap of historical evidence that it ever happened outside the fevered imagination of saga-writers,’ which is presumably why it is not even mentioned in the other books. But it depends what one means by scraps.

The earliest clear reference to the carving up of Aelle of Northumbria by Ivarr the Boneless (867) comes in a praise poem written for Cnut (i.e. before 1035). Writing in the 980s, Abbo seems to describe something very similar (and certainly horrible) in his Passio of another of Ivarr’s victims, Edmund of East Anglia (869/70). It is not clear what better evidence one is entitled to expect. In the nature of things, pagans did not write their memoirs and few Christian eye-witnesses of Viking atrocities would have survived to tell the tale (if they had, the present climate of opinion would no doubt put their account down to the ‘fevered imagination’ of Christian chroniclers). Before the emerging orthodoxy on Viking attitudes to Christianity takes root, it is only proper to insist that there is at least as much evidence for fanaticism in Vikings (as opposed to traders and settlers) as there is for cynicism, let alone tolerance.

One of the strongest pointers to the strength of Scandinavian paganism is the fact that the memory of it survived conversion. Unlike Anglo-Saxon secular literature, the sagas preserve many traces of pagan cult. Unlike other Germanic peoples, Scandinavian migrants featured pagan symbols (Odinn’s raven, Thor’s hammer) on their coins. Unlike Anglian stone crosses of the eighth century, authentic banners of a transformed faith, Northumbrian sculpture after the Danish settlement drew copiously on pagan myth and heroic legend. This last point is one of many significant things to emerge from Richard Bailey’s delightful Viking Age Sculpture.

Bailey sets out to make artistic and historical sense of the large corpus of often fragmentary and seldom (in present condition) aesthetically gratifying stone-carving in tenth and 11th-century northern England. Quite apart from establishing the dating, iconography, origins and technique of the sculpture, and beyond even showing the artistic quality of at least some examples, Bailey has many lessons for the historian per se, which are in no way invalidated by his own trivial inaccuracies. Among them are one of the most serious statements yet against Sawyer’s case for relatively thin Scandinavian settlement in England, and his demonstration, as against the other books under review, that the Lindisfarne ‘lunette’ is not a commemoration of a Viking raid, but a gravestone forecasting the Day of Doom.

If the strongest impression made by this latterday year of Viking invasion is of revolutionary change in recent Viking studies, a secondary impression is that they are again in danger of getting stuck. We really ought now to be beyond the 1066 and All That level of good things and bad things. Fundamental questions remain to be asked about the nature of early Scandinavian society, and the way it shaped, and was shaped by, the Viking Age. Nor is this simply a job for the archaeologists. The native written sources, legal, historical and literary, nearly all post-date the period, but it would be surprising if they do not to some extent reflect earlier times, as their equivalents for the Anglo-Saxon invasions are generally considered to do. One possible approach is to follow Sawyer’s lead further, and consider the Scandinavian evidence in the light of what is reliably known about other Germanic and Indo-European peoples at a similar stage of development.

In these books, for example, a central question for students of other Germanic invaders remains almost unasked. Who led the Viking armies, and what sort of leaders were they? Though no longer monsters, the Vikings are still headless – a case of Hamlet literally without princes of Denmark. Alfred Smyth’s recent approach to these problems, in Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles, 850-80 (1977), has encountered considerable critical resistance, but it did not deserve to be ignored, as it has largely been here. Again, it is worth remembering that scholars used to think that Scandinavian legal records preserved a relatively pure form of Tacitus’s primitive Germanic democracy – a possibility not to be lightly dismissed. But what then was its relationship with the kings and earls who appear in western sources? It is fair to say that Peter Sawyer is now himself leading further research along these lines.

Meanwhile some angles of inquiry are indicated in the last of the books under review, Klavs Randsborg’s The Viking Age in Denmark. This is a study of ‘the formation of a state’ in Denmark, through the evidence of the runestones, rural and concentrated settlements, burials and coin-hoards of the Viking period. Though it is the work, like the others, of an archaeologist, Randsborg is more concerned than they with the dynamics of social change, and his conclusions are potentially important.

Unfortunately, he has elected to write his own English, and the result, to put it mildly, can be hard to follow. The statement, ‘Denmark in about 1000 was socially similar to England before the Norman Conquest, with grants of land apparently being obtained in return for short-term, essentially military, obligations,’ makes linguistic sense, but if it means what I think it means, it is definitely untrue, and one can only conclude that the learned author meant something else. The book would no doubt be easier to use were one familiar with the considerable corpus of secondary literature to which it refers, but, again unfortunately, nearly all this literature is in Scandinavian languages, and the reference system would try the patience of a spider with serious claims to sanctity.

To the Viking-saturated reading and viewing public of 1980, it must seem a rum thing to say, but we still lack a wholly convincing and adequately wide-ranging History of the Vikings in English. We are deeply in the debt of these authors and their colleagues for all they have enabled us to see of Viking skills, technical, artistic and literary. But we are still some way short of understanding all that the Viking Age amounted to.