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The Vikings Invented Soap Operas—So Why Do We Depict Them As Brutes?
Ronald Hutton

The Vikings Invented Soap Operas—So Why Do We Depict Them As Brutes?

By Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Vikings are returning to the nation’s public attention with the opening of a major exhibition at the British Museum, “Vikings: Life and Legend,” and the simultaneous publication of Philip Parker’s history of the Viking world, The Northmen’s Fury. These are the latest developments in a relationship that has long been ambivalentand especially so since the Victorian era.

On the one hand, the Vikings are part of us, because they settled in areas of Britain so densely and so permanently. Anyone who lives somewhere with a name ending in “-by” (or a headland with one ending in “-ness,” or calls their valley a “dale,” or the nearest hillside a “fell”) is living in a landscape that Vikings named, while our language is peppered with their words: “niggardly,” for example, is derived from the Old Norse for “miser.”

To the 19th-century British, the Vikings could seem like kindred spirits. These early-medieval Scandinavians were, like the Victorians, the greatest sailors, traders and explorers of their day. They embodied courage, enterprise and that most prized of public school virtues: manliness.

Their achievements were extraordinary. Between the 8th and 12th centuries (“the Viking age”), they became the first people to operate simultaneously in four continents and so tie much of the world together. They were the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic and reach North America (which they called “Vinland”); they settled in Iceland (permanently), Greenland (for centuries) and Newfoundland (briefly).

In the other direction, they founded the first Russian state, based in Kiev, while a body of them made up the personal guard of the Byzantine emperors at Constantinople. Becoming the paramount power in the British Isles, they gave Ireland its first towns, including Dublin, while their fleets penetrated as far south as the Mediterranean and the coasts of North Africa. Occupying a slice of France, they founded the Duchy of Normandy and, reinvented as Normans, proceeded to conquer England, Sicily and parts of Italy, Wales, Ireland and Syria. It is this tremendous story that Philip Parker’s book retells.

On the other hand, the Vikings were also the people against whom the British nations initially defined themselves. The early English had developed a sense of themselves as a people, with a language and as followers of a branch of the Church, but they were divided into different kingdoms. It took the prospect of conquest by Viking warlords to forge them into a single kingdomone of the most intensely governed in the worldand this achievement became part of the country’s epic story. King Alfred became “the Great” by organising the national resistance to the Vikings. Though they came back a century later under Cnut and triumphed, by that time England was too strongly wrought to break: the Danish conquerors took it over intact and handed it, peacefully, back to native rule when Cnut’s dynasty died out.

Scotland was also a product of the Viking menace, as Picts and Scots joined forces against the invaders. The battle of Largs in 1263, an episode in the last attempt by a Norwegian king to assert control over the western Scottish seaboard, later became one of the milestones on the road to Scotland’s development as a nation. Followed as it was by the addition of the Hebrides to the Scottish realm, it eventually became the nautical equivalent of Bannockburn in Scotland’s historical imagination.

Above all, Vikings were not just viewed by the early-medieval British as enemies but as enemies of an especially dreadful kind: the epitome of barbarism and heathendom. All of historians’ source material for their early impact on Britain was written by the victims, who emphasised the wanton lack of restraint with which the Vikings plundered Christian churches and killed their clergy and the cruelty with which they ravaged settlements and farms. They flouted every rule of conduct that the European Christendom of the time had developed, precariously, to limit human savagery.

After a relatively short time, the Vikings adopted the culture of Christian Europe en bloc, with kingdoms, coinage, literacy and, above all, the full Christian panoply of churches, clergy and home-grown saints. At this point, however, the British historical memory just redefined them as no longer Vikings – linguistically, this is correct, because the term “Viking” originally meant a roving raider, not a Norwegian, Dane or Swede engaged in any other activity.

Victorian admirers of the Vikings pointed out in vain that they were wonderful crafts­people, especially in metalwork, and terrific poets and storytellers, inventing, in the form of the family saga, one of the world’s most enduring and popular genres of entertainment: the soap opera. A cursory glance at world history reveals that people are capable of making beautiful things while doing horrible things to their fellow humans. Some authors have pointed out that the Vikings’ settlements in foreign lands gave rise to important and dynamic new peoples such as the Normans but, on the whole, the 19th-century British settled for the view that they had been barbaric, even adding impractical and historically inaccurate horns to their helmets to underline their bestiality.

In this respect, the Victorian era in Britain lasted until the 1960s. Hollywood, as usual, reinforced older stereotypes, with actors such as Kirk Douglas and Michael York playing Danish warlords as savages who might ultimately be susceptible to redemption. A notorious television advert in the early 1970s for Super Soft shampoos showed the doe-eyed actress Madeline Smith being carried off as a sex slave, quivering with delight, by a flaxen-haired Viking warrior.

By this time, however, scholars led by Peter Sawyer were reacting against the dominant tradition. They condemned Viking atrocity stories as propaganda produced by monks who had been determined to blacken the reputation of their opponents, who happened to have the wrong religion. Such revisionists pointed out that early-medieval Christian Europeans were just as brutal in warfare, while the Vikings operated more frequently as merchants, settlers and explorers than pirates. They argued that the Vikings had brought clear benefits to the lands in which they stopped or settled, by founding towns, extending farmland, releasing accumulated capital and establishing enormous trading systems. When the last exhibition on the Vikings was held at the British Museum, in 1980, it joyously embraced this new, benevolent image.

Since then, the scholarly pendulum has swung again but only halfway back. It is recognised now that the Vikings were generally not much more badly behaved than their contemporaries; yet they still evoked a peculiar horror because they broke all the usual rules. Unlike other aggressors, they came from the sea and struck before resistance could be mobilised properly. Until their arrival, offshore islands had been natural sanctuaries, perfect for monasteries; in the Viking age, any settlement on one was like a goat tethered for a tiger. Although Christian Europeans sometimes attacked churches, they were aware that it was particularly wrong to do so, whereas the pagan Vikings made no distinction between religious and secular buildings, looting and burning both with an equal lack of inhibition.

Having conquered a region, the Vikings rebuilt its economy, society and political structures and adopted its religion and much of its culture – yet they generally did so after destroying all those things as they had existed previously. Sympathy today must depend on whether you prefer the before or after models.

They were raiders and traders by turns. An invading Viking army, having spent a summer looting and fighting, would settle down for the winter and establish a market in which they would sell off booty to local people and newcomers. In one commodity, the two aspects blended inseparably: they were avid slave traders. When scales for weighing goods are found in Viking settlements in the Hebrides, is this proof that they came as peaceful merchants? Or were they used for reckoning the value of chopped-up, looted bullion? Or did the scales have both uses?

 

The exhibition at the British Museum was conceived in very high places. Most such events are proposed by curators, who then persuade their directors to authorise them. This one was produced by the museum’s charismatic director, Neil MacGregor, with his opposite number at the National Museum of Denmark. It is a joint venture between the two museums and one in Berlin and its complexion will vary slightly between the three institutions. Much of its form in London is the work of Gareth Williams, a lifelong Viking enthusiast who visited the 1980 exhibition as a boy and remembers its impact on him.

A number of factors have changed significantly since 1980. The first is that there is less money for anything; as a result, objects have to be selected with more care. The second is that the perceived centre of the Viking world has moved eastwards. Until recently, the Anglo-American view placed that centre in the Atlantic, which was the focus of the last major museum exhibition about the Vikings (at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, in 1999).

This is, however, historically skewed. In Viking times, North America was still in the Stone Age and the Atlantic was seen purely as a source of raw materials, while Arab states were the most highly developed civilisations. The entire population of early medieval Scandinavia could probably have fitted comfortably inside Baghdad.

On this, the new exhibition has benefited from the opening-up of Russian collections to the west. In the Soviet era, the Iron Curtain stood in the way of collaboration; meanwhile, where Russian nationalism was based on a Slavonic identity, western scholars portrayed the Viking contribution to the foundation of Russia as pivotal. (Both views are correct.) Since the end of communism, the two sides have been able to work together, resulting in a substantial and valuable Russian component in the exhibits.

The displays as a whole, which mostly consist of grave goods (an inevitable bias of the surviving evidence), illustrate every aspect of early medieval Scandinavian life, at home and abroad, with two emphases. One is on the central role of ships in life and in the imagination. They made the Vikings’ achievements possible – they were the best vessels in the world, equally able to cross oceans and penetrate far up rivers. As such, they feature as children’s toys and in graffiti. The exhibition’s pièce de résistance is the display of the longest Viking warship ever found (one of the largest that could have been built), discovered at the Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1996. Measuring more than 37 metres in length, it was almost certainly a royal vessel – it is several feet longer than the ship portrayed in one saga as the biggest ever known – and forms a terrific climax to the displays.

The other emphasis is on the multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan nature of Viking culture and its geographical sweep, from what is now New England in the US to the Silk Road of central Asia (here, the themes converge with those of Philip Parker). Arab wealth poured into Scandinavia along the trade and raid routes in the form of coins, more than 150,000 of which have been found at former Viking settlements. As a result, the most common inscription found in the Viking world was not one in the native runes but “There is no God but Allah,” engraved in Arabic on the currency that jingled in pouches and chests.

Some displays emphasise the reality of multiculturalism. In the tenth-century hoard of coins and ornaments found in the Vale of York, there are references to places as far apart as Ireland and Uzbekistan. The Hunterston brooch, found in Ayrshire, is a glorious Celtic confection of gold, silver and amber made in pre-Viking times and owned subsequently by a noble with the impeccably Gaelic name of Melbrigda; but he wrote his name on it in Old Norse, using Viking runes. The objects with religious or magical significance reference the familiar northern gods, known from Wagner’s libretti as much as from books of mythology, but are also now connected in the exhibition with shamanic practices that echo tribal customs found from Greenland to Siberia.

The exhibition implicitly proclaims the importance of globalisation, the value of technology (in this case ships) in bringing peoples together, the power of fashion in forming identities and self-expression, the ability of consumer goods to unite people regardless of language or ethnicity, the benefits of keeping good relations with the new Russia and the need to respect Islam. It is a snapshot of the preoccupations of the intellectual British psyche in 2014.

The show strikes the current scholarly balance, acknowledging that Vikings could be greedy, violent and brutal – but also creative, adventurous, generous and accepting of new ideas and cultures. This is the view taken by Philip Parker’s book, which combines texts long familiar to historians with the latest scholarship. Parker has a traveller’s eye for landscape and a storyteller’s sense of events and character; The Northmen’s Fury is probably the most lively and well-informed introduction to the subject available today.

Both sides of the Victorian equation remain. The Vikings were noble savages: at times more noble; at others more savage. More important, however, is that their culture is currently appreciated more than ever before as not only rich and complex but as an ever-developing meeting point of styles, concepts, artefacts and stories from most of the northern hemisphere. As such, the Vikings have become message-bearers and mirrors for the concerns of a new century, remaining as adaptable and expressive long after their time as they were in life.

“Vikings” runs from 6 March to 22 June
“The Northmen’s Fury” by Philip Parker is out on 6 March (Jonathan Cape, £25)

This piece first appeared on newstatesman.com.                                                                                                      

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