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Vikings: Creators or Destroyers? Paradox and Bloodshed
By Praetor and Peter Simpson-Young, 3 July 2007; Revised
Category: Medieval Europe: Political History
Before determining whether the Vikings were all mere pirates and warriors or whether they added something to the “dark age” they lived in, it is necessary to define what is meant by “Viking”.
There is some controversy about the origin and original meaning of the word Viking, however in modern English speaking counties it is often taken to mean all people belonging to the culture of Scandinavia and Sweden during the “Viking age” (793 AD – 1066 AD generally). As this is the most well known definition in our society, and to allow the exploration of the question/issue in detail, this is the definition used for this report.
When the English speaking world thinks of Vikings they think of large, savage, bearded warriors arriving from the sea on Longships with sculpted dragon heads. They are depicted wielding fearsome axes and wearing horned helmets, looting monasteries, decapitating priests and burning villages. This view is understandable considering that this is how (in most cases, except for the horned helmets) the contemporary or near contemporary historians of Western Europe (the area of the world most emphasised in this period by the English speaking world) described them. A great example of this is the Annals of the Abbey of Xanten from 845-853 AD.
However, is the view put foreword by the Abbey of Xanten and other Monk Chroniclers of the so-called Dark Ages accurate? In order to answer this question it is essential to look at the historical context of the writings and of the Vikings themselves.
However, if there was anything seen as a war crime by the Christians of Western Europe, it was killing monks and other clergy and looting monasteries or other religious structures. This was relatively rare in those regions because of the common faith of the people of Western Europe.
However, the Vikings, who in the majority of their territories for the majority of the Viking age were polytheistic (believed in multiple gods), had no such qualms with raiding religious communities particularly considering their great wealth and usually very little protection. Many Vikings “made a living” or otherwise employed themselves as raiders (indeed the word Viking by some definitions exclusively refers to said individuals), and it makes sense for raiders to choose a target that is both poorly defended and wealthy. This made Monasteries a logical target.
The monks who wrote many of the surviving histories however, not surprisingly, had a problem with this - as did many of their sovereigns, local lords or bishops on whose behalf many of these histories were written. This is a great incentive for bias both intentional (eg. to portray a sponsor in a favourable light) or bias created by the beliefs and perspective of the writers. It should be noted that the Vikings did not systematically write down histories of their own. This does not mean that they were entirely illiterate. They kept verbal accounts of their sagas which were passed down and embellished from generation to generation. These sagas may have been eventually transposed into written form in the Runic writings of the culture. The problems with this form of written communication was that very few Europeans would have been able to understand this (even most of the population of Scandinavia would have been illiterate) and this would not have been read and understood.
This lack of (understandable) written history and the fact that the traditions were communicated with songs, ballads and poems which described experiences mixed together with their folklore and myths, means that accurate accounts of their voyages and experiences are rare. Hence we are forced to rely more on the accounts of others who, aside from their likely bias against the Vikings, would only record interactions with their society and hence other aspects of the society would be lost. These only provide a narrow glimpse of the wider Viking culture and lack key information about their culture, society and Domestic life (as few if any of said monks or other chroniclers would have visited Viking homelands). In addition, chroniclers – much like today’s journalists – focus on the “big” events. The mundane day-to-day trading does not sell newspapers. This does not invalidate these histories, but rather we need to take into account the perspectives and motivations of the chroniclers.
Scandinavia has a cold climate, harsh environment and generally poor soils not conducive to good agriculture. Farming was hard and survival difficult. However, there were abundant metal natural resources and good quality lumber available. Vikings became gifted craftsmen and, with a population strung along an extensive coastline, boat builders, turning to the sea to improve their quality of life through raiding, trading and colonisation.
This culture was the first to discover North America as they sailed across the Atlantic. They reached the Eastern end of the Mediterranean sailing past Constantinople, and they discovered Greenland and Iceland. They traded as far away as Baghdad and they colonised Normandy and the Ukraine. They are considered by historians to be some of the greatest explorers of the Dark Ages.
The abundance of metals allowed the manufacture of axes to help work the lumber, and nails to help with ship-building. It also allowed the manufacture of weapons and armour. Coastal living led to high seafaring skills. The harsh environment developed a tough, hardy culture.
They needed to trade their ships, their metals and weapons and their expertise including their skill as warriors and mercenaries. For example, they were the Varangian guard of the Byzantine emperor and were considered the finest mercenary army in Europe at the time.
The problem for the Vikings was that they had little to trade aside from their crafts and fighting skills. But why trade when you can take? They developed the technique of “commando” type raids – arrive unexpectedly from the sea, land quickly, launch a quick and brutal attack using terror tactics, pillage and leave before opposing forces can be mustered. The Viking longboat was, at that time, the fastest ship in the rougher waters of the Atlantic Ocean ensuring pursuit was pointless.
The Vikings were raiders by choice – because they could.
A culture needs to be judged in relation to contemporary neighbouring cultures, and not by the standards of 21st century Australian culture. As we have seen in our own short history – eg the stolen generation, capital punishment – what was acceptable to our parents and grand-parents may not be acceptable today. The Vikings therefore need to be judged in the proper context of their time and place.
The stereotype tells us that the Vikings were basically savages, but we need to keep in mind who wrote the stereotype. This was a time of almost constant warfare and, as previously stated, there were no accepted “rules of war”. Brutality to civilians was commonplace. Raping was common and pillaging was a way to pay the troops and pay-back the opposition. Why were the Vikings judged so harshly?
They were noted for their ferocity in battle. They were big and strong and wielded large battle axes. The psychological impact of these raiding warriors who hit hard and then leave before they can be hit back would be one of terror and frustration.
They also, for the majority of the Viking Age, were polytheistic – worshipping other gods and not “respecting” the sanctity of churches, monasteries or clergy. This was not an age of religious tolerance. Simply being polytheistic would be seen as a legitimate reason to consider them as barbarians. The chroniclers were quick to condemn their attacks on the establishment and members of the church. However, was the church in any position to condemn the Vikings for such actions? This was an age of “warrior-bishops” where many bishops were in truth local rulers and commanded an army, and where the church’s teachings were spread by the sword. The princes and warrior-bishops of the time hardly showed the same courtesy to the priests and sacred sites of others (other religions) that they expected from the Vikings, indeed they were often deliberately attacked and destroyed (a good example of this is the destruction of polytheistic Saxon religious sites by the Catholic emperor Charlemagne). The Viking therefore could see no difference between the clergy and the laity and treated both with equal terror.
If the Vikings were more brutal than their contemporaries, then their treatment of the clergy could not be given as the reason. They were a warrior culture (indeed the pre-Christian Vikings idea of heaven was a place where the best warriors of their culture fought all day and feasted all night in preparation for Armaggedon) - a higher percentage of their population, compared with their neighbours who were more agriculturally based (because Viking land as formally mentioned was comparatively infertile), were warriors - and as such the average Viking would have committed more acts of violence then the average person of most neighbouring cultures.
As already stated the Vikings were gifted craftsmen, boat builders and seamen. They explored the north Atlantic discovering Iceland and Greenland and, many historians believe, reaching and colonising North America centuries before Christopher Columbus (see the saga of Eric the red). They colonised much of modern day Ukraine helping to found the Kieven-Rus civilisation; the first urban culture in Russia and the Ukraine. They settled in Normandy developing the region into a major local power. Their vessels reached the eastern end of the Mediterranean. They established Dublin as a major trading post. The Viking king Canute became king of England and was renowned as a wise ruler. In all of this they established probably the most extensive trading network in the area. As you can see, to many places, they brought civilisation rather than destroyed it. Clearly Fighting was not the only thing they were good at.
The stereotype Viking is a brutal, crazed, axe-wielding maniac incapable of anything else. Yet we do not judge the Roman Empire to the same standard – a society of gladiators and crucifixions. We look at Rome and marvel at its engineering skills and literature and law. Julius Caesar was both an enlightened orator and writer, and responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Gallic civilians. We see no paradox here. The Vikings were violent, but they were also skilled craftsmen and metallurgists. They could make fiercesome blades and beautiful jewellery and chess pieces with equal skill.
There is not now, and never has been, a paradox between violence and creativity. None of us as individuals like to be “put in a box” and, as historians, we need to be careful that we do not do the same with cultures.
Viking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viking (date retrieved 27th of July).
Internet medieval sourcebook http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook1n.html (date retrieved 27th of July).
Author unknown, Annals of the abbey of Xanten 845-853, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/xanten1.html (date retrieved 27th of July).
Author unknown, Annals of St. Bertin, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/843bertin.html#Bertin, (date retrieved 27th of July).
Author unknown, The Chronicle of St. Denis based on Dudo and William of Jumieges, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/843bertin.html#St.%20Denis, (date retrieved 27th of July).
Author unknown, Abbo’s wars of Count Odo with the Northmen in the reign of Charles the fat, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/843bertin.html#abbo, (date retrieved 27th of July).
Author unknown, Saga of Eric the red, http://www.sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en, (date retrieved 27th of July).
This source serves as a key example of a monastic history in the form of a chronicle written during the Viking age in modern day France, this type of historical document was common in the region and time period of its origin and hence is very useful in that it provides a key example of the literary sources on which were so key in forming the stereotype of the Vikings. This source also provides information about both the nature and savagery of Viking raids and evidence of the connections of Catholicism with war and the state, when it mentions bishops leading their community’s forces to oppose the Vikings in battle, though in this particular instance it was for defensive purposes. The source has a clear bias in that it is not objective and clearly identifies itself with the Catholics, not surprisingly as it was written by monks. At one point the annals even claim that Jesus Christ took aided the “Saxons” in a battle against the Vikings, this is a clear example of bias based on religious beliefs. Though all this indicates that the source is unreliable it is however extremely useful for the argument of my essay as an example of the bias of ecclesiastical historians, particularly in regards to the Vikings. Of course the source has many limitations firstly it is an extract which may mean that key information to correctly interpret what information I possess is missing, not to mention the context of the extract within the whole text is unknown. Thus it is very difficult to know the central argument of the source, though the general tone is unmistakable in its hostility to the Vikings; however this does Not mean that it is necessarily inaccurate.
Vikings, throughout history, have been famous for their blood-thirstiness. The Vikings were the Scandinavian people, who’s greatest power was during the Viking Age (793–1066). The first recorded raid occurred in 793 A.D, when Vikings invaded a small island off the coast of Britain and attacked a monastery in Linisfarne, a farming town on the east coast of England. A priest from the monastery wrote; “They were like stinging wasps, and they spread in all directions like horrible wolves, wrecking, robbing, shattering and killing not only animals but also priests, monks and nuns.”. Due to the lack of literacy of the Vikings, the prominent written records of Vikings during that time was by priests, like that one, who had survived the terrible attacks. Inevitably, the priests will be biased and will have a one sided view. Thus blinding people about some of the true beauty of Viking culture.
Throughout this essay, the term Viking refers to the culture of the people in the Scandinavian region. Presently, these lands are the lands of the northern European countries, such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Note that Vikings are sometimes considered only be the pirates of these people, however I will refer to all of them, farmers, slaves, and warriors, as Vikings. The Viking people are sometimes referred to as Danes, or Norsemen, however this essay will only refer to these people as Vikings.
The Vikings developed the association with violence and destruction due to their lack of Christian morality prominent in Europe at that time, being pagans, who’s religion supports fighting and war, however this will be discussed later on. The European and Asian countries at the time based their lives on morals and ways of life such “chivalry” and “bushido”. This meant that it was not considered honorable to kill a holy man, a women, or a child. So when the Vikings, not thinking in those ways, invaded and plundered, they killed in a way other cultures thought atrocious. The Vikings believed the honor was in fighting and in family, thus from viewing the situation from their point of view, there behaviour was not so atrocious. Fighting for Vikings was deeply connected with religion. To a Viking, dying at battle was a honorable way to die, and the harder they fought, the more they will be rewarded when they died. It was believed that when they die, they go up to Asgard, which is the Viking heaven, and fight next to Odin, the chief Viking god. The better the fighter they were, the more he will like them3
They were also considered destructive due to the motivation behind their actions. Most wars and conflicts, for other cultures, were started over disputes or often over land or power. However the Vikings attacks were about making money. Plundering was a strong source of income for the Vikings, whether it was taking money and livestock, or taking slaves for trading in the east. This shows how the difference in opinion has a strong influence on the judging of the Viking people.
The destructive nature of the Vikings derives from their skills in fighting. The skill of Viking warriors came from their extensive training from a young age. As young children, they were introduced to weapons, but by the age of 12 they had begun serious weapon training. By the age of 16, they children would go off and fight for their family or their nation-states. These young and now violent children were trained with battleaxes (with long handles), and swords. However, the preferred Viking weapon was the spear. The Vikings had two forms of spear, a spear for throwing, and a spear for thrusting into an opponent. Vikings would also used bows, arrows, and other missiles, however not as often as the hand weapons.
Berserkers, or Berserks, were men who were sometimes considered half bear, half human. They were said to be superhuman, because Odin was protecting them. They fought for different people, depending on who would pay the most, making them mercenaries. Berserks were ostracized from society, however it is said that Erik the Red was once a Berserk who moved back into normal society. This shows that viciousness and violence is considered normal, for a mercenary would not be accepted back into today’s Christian society. Evidence suggests that Berserks would work themselves into such a frenzy by taking a narcotic mushroom called the Amanita muscaria or by being placed in a small cage and constantly poked with a pole. This cage was then rolled onto the battle field and the cage door opened. This quote is from Ynglinga Saga, written by Snorri Sturluson, a Viking poet born in 1178 and died in 1241; “His men went to battle without armor and acted like mad dogs or wolves. They bit into their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed men, but neither fire nor iron harmed them. This madness is called berserker-fury.”7
The Vikings created a thriving and strong culture which had a large impact on the future, creating a legacy prominent in many societies throughout the world. The Vikings were creators because they created a rich thriving culture, they created settlements, prosperous trade, contributed to languages, and a relatively equal system of government. The Vikings aimed to be more civilized unlike the other barbarian invaders they saw. The Vikings created an artistic and democratic culture, with such arts as songs, dances, games, mythology and sagas, some still talked of today. An example of this is in the famous trilogy, “Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien which is said to be based around a famous opera called “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, four operas about Norse mythology, written by Richard Wagner.  Their culture was enriched with music, singing, and dancing, as well as sports and board games. Chess, and similar games, were played frequently throughout the Viking Age, portraying a peaceful and artistic culture. The Vikings were also the first people to invent sledding, skiing and ice skating, using sharp wooden skates as a means of transport and a pastime3.
Rígsþula (Appendix 3) is an old poem written somewhere between 1100 and 1250 AD. From this poem, one can get a glimpse of the culture the Vikings created. This can be achieved through viewing the culture in terms of the food eaten. A comparison can also be made regarding the different social classes; “Then took Edda a thick loaf heavy of bread hard-baked and full of bran; a bowl then bore on the board Edda, filled with the broth of boiled calf-meat.” This stanza of the poem shows us the food that the lower class people ate at that time. This meal consisted of a thick, hard bread with a meat broth. This is compared to the “a light-baked loaf she laid on the table, of wheaten meal, white and thin. A full trencher on the table she put, silver-plated, and set forth then flitches of bacon and steaked fowl also; there was wine in a crock, were the cups gold-plated…” –A meal consisting of a soft, white bread, with bacon and some form of poultry and wine.
Such little distinction between classes, such as same dietary habits, attending the same feasts, festivals, and political events, could be considered as a productive and fair model of society. The Viking society was divided into three classes: Slaves, Freemen, and Nobles. In Rígsþula, and mentioned above, you can see the difference between classes. It can be seen that, although they had different living conditions, they did not vary greatly. One must also take into account that the poet may have been using the social classes as a metaphor for changes in time or something of the like, so it is quite likely he emphasized the negatives in the lower class, and the positives in the higher class. Other sources show that within classes, there was strong family ties, where people would identify themselves by their family. A lower class citizen could achieve higher status by plundering land or money, making his way up society. Status was also inherited, so the oldest son would receive all the wealth and status of the father, meaning the women did not inherit their father’s wealth, yet would have inherit the same status. The Nobles and higher class citizens still waged wars and fought for their family or nation-state, however would invest in more effective weapons and armor3. Such equality would ensure less socio-economic discrimination, which would in turn create more trust within the community. A trusting community would be a safer community and a more comfortable community, compared to the more socially discriminating cultures such as in England and China at the time.
The Vikings created a culture where women had a strong place within society, attending government and running the households. At the Thing, the government meeting for an area, people would go to administer justice, discuss legislate and to vote for leaders. At these Things, all people could attend, including women, showing the equality in a Viking society5. Like in most societies, women often looked after and made the food, medicine, and had to look after the farm when the men had gone hunting, trading or fighting. “The good wife sate and swayed her distaff, braided the yarn to use for weaving.”- As can be seen from Rígsþula. However, unlike other cultures, women had strong influence over her family and society. A clear example of this is the fact that women were in charge of minding the key to boxes of money or the family’s food and clothing.
The Vikings created settlements all throughout Northern Europe, in modern day England, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Wales, Italy, all through the north coast of Europe, and around the Black Sea. This is shown in the attached map (Appendix 4). The Vikings also had settlements in Russia, and had control over townspeople. After an invasion of Kiev in 880, the Vikings had full control over Russia for around 700 years. Evidence shows that the Vikings traveled west as far as North America (known to the Vikings as Vinland), as Erik the Red explores the coast, after discovering Greenland in the late first century.
The Vikings created trade with many other countries around the world, traveling as far east as Persia, Constantinople, China and India. Constantinople, the centre of trade for the Arab world, would trade silk and spices for slaves that the Vikings had taken from European villages3 throughout the first century. Appendix 1 is a photo of a bronze statue of Buddha found in 1954 in Helgö, Sweden. The statue is from India, which would have been traded by the Vikings, and brought back to Sweden. However it is unknown as to when it was traded.
One of the most prominent legacy the Vikings have to this day is their effect on the English language. The Scandinavian people created such words as “die”, egg”, “law” “anger”, “box”, “clumsy”, “cunning”, “fast”, “rotten”, “ruthless”, and “welcome”. Place names have also been strongly influenced by the Vikings, including names with the suffixes; “by”, “thorpe”, and “ton”. So places such as Selby, Whitby, Scunthorpe, Wolverhampton, Bolton and Preston.11, 5.
The Viking long boats, as seen in Appendix 2, were made in a way that gave the Vikings an advantage that most civilizations did not have, they could travel upstream this able to attack towns next to rivers, and handle deep water travel. The long boats where designed to have flat, shallow, yet quite streamline bottoms, making them travel fast and giving these depth capability. The longboats were also used in a genius method of protection, such as seen for the royal town of Roskilde, Denmark, sometime during the Viking age . Six Viking ships were sunk in the shallows of Roskilde fjord to prevent any boats, other that Viking boats, to get past. Other Viking ships knew how to get past the sunken ships, as well as having shallow hulls, preventing collisions5.
The Vikings were clearly both creative and destructive, however it is not a paradox, for their creative aspects and destructive aspects occur on separate levels. The Viking frame of mind, derived from their society and culture, provides the Vikings with the skills and drive to create for their society and to destroy for their society. This destruction and creation was clearly discussed throughout this essay. For such a paradox to occur, creation and destruction must be active on the same level, for example it would be a paradox if one destroyed and created the same rock at the same time, however it is not a paradox if you destroyed a rock and created one next to it. To say Vikings are creators and destroyers is generalizing the existence of the Viking race into one action or object, which, of course, is ridiculous.
The Vikings were both violent and atrocious, yet artistic and creative. Due to this, it is a shame that the such beauty is overshadowed by their negative reputation. However, we must learn to look past the violent reputation associated with the Vikings, and then one can learn from the equality and success of a democratic and artistic society.
References and Footnotes are displayed in the end of the article.
In olden times, say they, on earth-paths green there wended his way a wise god ancient, rugged and mighty - Ríg was he hight. Walked unwearied (in middle ways); to a dwelling he came, was the door bolted. In gan he go, on the ground was a fire, at the hearth, hoary, sate husband and wife - Ái and Edda,in old headgear. Well etwixt the twain of the toft benched him. Then took Edda a thick loaf heavy of bread hard-baked and full of bran; a bowl then bore on the board Edda, filled with the broth of boiled calf-meat. Well knew Ríg wisely to counsel; he rose up thence, ready for sleep; on middle bedstead his berth he made, betwixt the twain of the toft laid him. And there stayed he three days together; then walked unwearied in middle ways. Moons full nine went meanwhile by. Gave Edda birth to a boy child then, (in clouts she swathed) the swarthy-skinned one. Thrall they called him, and cast on him water (dark was his hair and dull his eyes.) On his hand the skin was scraggy and wrinkled, (nasty his nails), his knuckles gnarled, his fingers thick, his face ugly, his back hulky, his heels were long. He gan to grow and gain in strength,betimes took him to try his might: to bind bast ropes, burdens to pack, to bear faggots home the whole day long. Came to his cot a crook-legged wenchwere her soles dirty, and sunburnt her arms, her nose bent downward; her name was Thír.
On middle seat she sate her down, by her side did sit the son of the house; whispered and laughed and lay together Thrall and Thír whole days through.
A weaver's beam out of wood he shaped - his beard was brushed, and banged, his hair - in kirtle tight-fitting; were planks on the floor.
(Then took Amma)
(a full trencher on the table she put with boiled calf-meat, the best she had.)
(Well knew Ríg wisely to counsel), he rose up thence, ready for sleep; on middle bedstead his berth he made, betwixt the twain of the toft laid him.
And there stayed he three days together (then walked unwearied in the middle ways). Moons full nine went meanwhile by.
He strode in straightway, was straw on the floor. Sate there the good folk, gazed at each other, Father and Mother, with their fingers playing.
Well knew Ríg wisely to counsel, on middle seat he sate him down, betwixt the twain of the toft he benched him.
References and Notes: