Melanie McDonagh

Sorry – the Vikings really were that bad

Forget that guff about peaceful farmers with an interest in travel

Sorry – the Vikings really were that bad
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Sometimes the really obvious take on history turns out to be the right one. For generations, we all assumed that the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in Belgium at the outset of the first world war and enthusiastically reported in the British press were Allied propaganda. Yet recent research suggests that quite a lot of it was true.

Well, the same goes for the Vikings. For almost half a century, the academic line on Vikings has been that our old idea of them as raping, pillaging bastards who’d sack a monastery as soon as look at it was a childishly transparent bit of propaganda, perpetuated by Christian monks who were obviously biased against the pagan Northmen. As a recent Cambridge conference put it, ‘Vikings shared technology, swapped ideas and often lived side-by-side in relative harmony with their Anglo-Saxon and Celtic contemporaries.’ So much for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

An admiring editorial in the Guardian duly observed of the Vikings that ‘Men wore stylish baggy trousers and jewellery, as well as spending a lot of time on their hair. And according to Hillary Clinton, no less, Viking society gave women considerable freedom to trade and participate in political and religious life. Before long, the Vikings lived side by side with the people they invaded, leaving many of us with our own inner Viking. There’s a lesson there.’

Well, an impressive new exhibition that’s coming to the British Museum next year, Viking, now in Copenhagen, presents a different take on the Vikings than the revisionist notion of them as proto-feminists and early multiculturalists. They were, as we first thought, violent bastards. In contrast to recent exhibitions which have focused on their (perfectly real) record as city founders, brilliant seafarers and traders with an interest in good governance, the exhibits return us to the traditional image of pillagers, raiders and aggressive colonisers: the artefacts are hard to square with them as peaceful farmers with an interest in travel.

The longboat on display is a weapon of war, and the alarming swords, spears, battleaxes and lozenge-shaped arrows tell their own story. As do the iron slave-collars from Dublin. One observer suggested that the Lewis chessmen in the exhibition biting on their shields recall their reputation for bloodlust. Because, you know, even in a violent age — and monastic chroniclers were perfectly used to violence — the Vikings’ cruelty and joy in battle put them in a class of their own.

Of course the revisionists have a point that there is more to them than this; but what you might call the hinterland of the Vikings has been familiar for over a century; the entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, takes supposedly modern assumptions about their assimilating tendencies as a given and observes that the sources are largely one-sided. What’s more interesting are the reasons for the contemporary need to view the Vikings in a light completely other than the terror of the West.

The flip answer would be that liberals, including scholars, are so captivated by modern Scandinavians, from the women detectives right through to the welfare, that it seems like an error of taste to bring up dirt from the ninth century. A more serious approach is suggested by Professor Stefan Brink in his introduction to The Viking World, a compilation of the best contemporary scholarship on the period: ‘Every era uses history for its own purposes; every time shapes its own history. And especially during periods of strong political hegemony… it has been common to… sanction the politics you pursue. The focus on the warrior Viking in Nazi Germany is an obvious example. In post-war Europe, battered and tired of war, it was more welcome and natural to focus on the peaceful side of the Vikings, as traders.’

One scholar who has made it his business to cut through revisionist cant is David Dumville, professor of history and palaeography at the University of Aberdeen. He puts the fashion for cuddly Vikings squarely down to ‘Swedish war guilt about not participating in the war and American political correctness’. Half a century ago, he says, no one would have said all this; the fashion started with a 1962 book by Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings. But the problem is that the Vikings-as-peaceful-traders approach has now been academic orthodoxy for two generations and its proponents are still getting grants as cutting-edge revisionists. ‘We’re being invited to forget vast amounts of things rather than investigate radically serious new options,’ he says.

For a saner approach, he suggests ‘the simple thing is to go back to the chronicles which were on the whole contemporary records and see the extraordinary similarity between what was happening in different contexts and continents. I don’t think there’s any way round what the contemporary sources are saying.’ Admittedly, later accounts were downright lurid. ‘Babies on spearpoints were later propaganda from the 13th century,’ he says. ‘Overwhelmingly the most colourful accounts came from that point. But among contemporaries, no one was in any doubt that Vikings were bad news.’

The exhibition at the British Museum may be a good first step in what you might call the de-rehabilitation of the Vikings, without losing sight of the insights of the revisionists, chief of which is that they absolutely did not wear horned helmets. It is, after all, only doing justice to the simple facts of history if we return to the version of history immortalised in the old Guinness ad: Looting and pillaging was thirsty work.