Should We Admire the Vikings?

Neil Price

Subsequent cultures have misinterpreted a civilisation that was open and tolerant, reflected by their vast footprint across continents.
Guests from Overseas (1901) by Nicholas Roerich
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Almost everyone has heard of the Vikings, and most of what they’ve heard is remarkably consistent. Even now, the stereotype remains resolutely violent, maritime, and male, with a tangent promoting the ‘Viking woman’ as uniquely empowered by comparison with her sisters in neighbouring cultures. As they say in Scandinavia, this is a ‘modified truth’, and it has a long pedigree.

The Vikings are of course people of the past, dead and gone for over a millennium—but at the same time, they inhabit a curiously haptic kind of history, one that appears to return whatever pressure is applied to it. Medieval writers were among the first to put their fingers on the scales of hindsight, beginning a chain of confirmation bias that still continues. Those scholars and churchmen reinvented their pagan ancestors either as nobly misguided forebears or, later, as agents of the devil. In the manuscript illuminations of Romance literature, with a kind of Orientalist prejudice they became Saracens, enemies of Christ depicted with turbans and scimitars. For the dramas of Shakespeare’s England, the Vikings were taken up as violent catalysts in the early story of the kingdom’s greatness. Enlightenment thinkers reinvented them as noble savages, a vision enthusiastically adopted by the nationalist Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries. Searching for their own emerging identities, Victorian imperialists scoured Scandinavian literature looking for suitably assertive Northern role models, expressing the manifest destiny of the Anglo-Saxons through their Nordic cousins. The logical end of that trajectory came a century later, when the Nazis appropriated the Vikings in pursuit of their racist fictions, elevating them as a spurious Aryan archetype; their modern successors still plague us today. Different again, elements of the broad Pagan community seek a spiritual alternative that draws inspiration from Viking religion, with Tolkienesque flavourings added to a cloudier Old Norse brew. All these and many more, including today’s academics and the audiences for historical drama, have taken the fragmentary material and textual remains of the Vikings and recast them in moulds of their choosing. At times it can seem that the actual people have almost disappeared under the cumulative freight they have been made to bear. One recalls Brideshead Revisited and Anthony Blanche, “Oh, la fatigue du Nord“.

All this was very much in my mind while writing my new book, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (Basic / Allen Lane) which appeared in August 2020. There is certainly veracity in the clichés—the carnage of the raids, the merchant ventures, the oceanic exploration—but the basic issue remains the same as ever, in that all these readings ultimately focus upon differing degrees of approval. A great many people still today clearly, and publicly, admire the Vikings. But should they?

I suspect that the question itself is an irrelevant distraction for many academics, but this is a mistake and a kind of convenient evasion. In studying the Vikings, not least as experts at a time when expertise is under fire, we cannot ignore the effects of their more problematic legacies.

A good place to start is with clarity, being open about what we know and what we don’t, and also about why that is. It sounds obvious, but it perhaps needs to be stated plainly that the ideological crushes of Victorians, Nazis and all the others actually say nothing at all about Viking-Age realities, only how they were subsequently abused and weaponised. Dismantling these misconceptions is a necessity. Today, respect for the Vikings also comes in many different forms beyond the overtly political, from re-enactment to tourist attractions, genres of metal music, gaming, and much more. Some of this can be naïve in its relationship to the darker aspects of Viking-Age behaviour, but usually with positive intent. Nonetheless, this can also be deconstructed.

Another gateway is the realisation that much of what has been written on the Vikings comes from the perspective of their victims: excepting brief runic inscriptions, the early medieval Scandinavians did not produce their own histories until centuries later, and for the contemporary record we must rely on the chronicles of their neighbours. What about how the Vikings saw themselves?

Viking Expansion

The people of the North lived inside a world of stories, one that continued even in the Middle Ages and into the later centuries of their memory—indeed, amongst many other things, this is what the sagas are. I decided to frame my book in terms of the Vikings’ original story, that of the cosmogony, and their beliefs concerning the creation of humankind—hence the Ash and Elm of the title, the first man and woman in the mythological tales. This is a difficult path to tread, as almost every aspect of the sources is problematic (I should have had a chapter titled ‘Norse mythology: it’s complicated’), but if we are to view the Vikings on their own terms, then where better to start than with who they believed themselves to be?

This raises the question of how we choose to write, and just as important, how we choose to read. Some of the most interesting scholars draw as much professional inspiration from creative writing as from academic works. They understand how literature has its own feedback: from now on, for example, conventional histories of Tudor England will forever be built in the shadow of Hilary Mantel, though we should not assume that our publics are unable to recognise the distinctions. Ancient lives were as tangible and real as our own, but William Gibson has rightly observed that the writing of history is unavoidably a kind of speculative fiction of the past — not in the sense of being invented, but rather as a fluid, changing undertaking, rooted in the instabilities of how we view the future. I get nervous around academics who resist that insight, who replace necessary self-doubt with illusory conviction.

As I make clear early on in my book, every specialist has their own Viking Age, and Children of Ash and Elm is very much mine. The volume is the careful product of 30 years’ professional study, but it is also personally reflective, consciously subjective and conjectural. The micro-historian Carlo Ginzburg has noted how there are scholars—like him, like me—who embrace an element of intellectual risk, a certain deliberate play of mind that can still be fenced about with a balanced assessment of probabilities. A kind reviewer of my book (Rebecca Onion, in Slate) found its arguments “lyrical, unnerving, specific, and passionately uncertain, all at once”; that is precisely what I was aiming for, and may we all be so gifted with critics who genuinely engage with what we are trying to do.

As an archaeologist, part of my aim was to take the reader very much deeper inside the Vikings’ material world than is usually the case. The same Slate reviewer wrote that she fell in love with the book when she reached the paragraph that was just a list of bread—she couldn’t have known, but by odd coincidence, this passage was the very first one I composed. Vikings with crunchy snacks, fried dough balls, and herb-flavoured loaves were exactly the sort of people I wanted to write about. The same applies to children’s toys, Viking bedding (including a remarkable orthopaedic pillow), indoor lighting, silk outfits à la mode, the economies of sheep farming, and so on and on. But alongside this, always, was the horror of what the famous raids and the blood rituals really entailed: no wonder Christians thought the Northerners were a judgement from God.

The Vikings certainly earned their reputation for maritime robbery with (extreme) violence, slaving, and murder. Scandinavian war leaders cultivated the glamour of their image, the troubling beauty of their weapons, all elevated to poetic heights by the commissioned boasting of the skalds. As Joseph O’Connor recently wrote in his novel Shadowplay, describing the kings in early medieval epic, “shown but never said to be vainglorious thugs, said but never shown to be heroic or admirable”. But the Vikings were also relatively tolerant in their attitudes to the wider world, exhibiting little overt racism, and open to foreign ideas (the first missionaries began to preach in Scandinavia because the local elites allowed them to do so, and listened with interest to what they said; to put it mildly, the surrounding Christian cultures did not reciprocate). The Viking diaspora stretched from the North American seaboard to the Asian steppe, with all that this implies in terms of encounters and exchanges on every level, including the most intimate. There is evidence for a broad spectrum of gendered identities, some socially sanctioned, some not, but again going far beyond their European contemporaries’ structures. Inside every Viking man was a spirit-woman protector. The Norse landscape hummed with supernatural life and numinous power thronged with an invisible population of beings with whom humans shared their world. The Viking mind was a very big mansion indeed, with many rooms.

This approach is not uncontroversial, a persistent irritant being the suggestion that it is nothing more than a reflection of contemporary concerns, projecting the present onto history. Acknowledging diversity, in the widest sense, is not a matter of ‘fashion’. Questioning our attitudes to the past is not the same as reworking it in our image. Beyond those who simply want their Vikings to remain macho and male, some just seem unable to accept that early medieval Scandinavian culture and beliefs were far from homogenous, and that this was not necessarily contradictory. It is not hard to understand that the brutal killers of the raids could also have produced marvellous verse, or that a society of systemic misogyny could—in specific situations —have accorded considerable status to women. Even the deep-seated homophobia of the time could be undermined and subverted, not least in the complex arenas of sorcery in which ‘unmanly’ men could access a peculiarly terrible power. That Christianity brought, in context, a culture that further oppressed women and gradually disenfranchised the populace in favour of centralised royal diktat does not mean that the traditional spiritualities of the North had been a paradise of nature-loving tree-huggers. Yes, they really did have sacred groves—in which they ritually murdered both people and animals.

Ultimately, the Vikings were themselves, nobody else. They are fascinating, to be sure, but ‘interesting’ is not the same as ‘admirable’. I have tried neither to condemn nor to rehabilitate, but instead simply to see them clearly, in the context of their times.

If my book has one message, it is that the people of the Viking Age were individuals every bit as complicated as we are, embracing all sorts and conditions of humanity. And really, why would anyone imagine otherwise?

Neil Price is Distinguished Professor of Archaeology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. A specialist in the Viking Age and the pre-Christian religions of the North, his books have appeared in 17 languages.

Aspects of History Issue 5 is out now.