Goodbye to the Vikings
The term ‘Viking’ as it is commonly used is misleading, warping our perception of the Middle Ages. It should be retired.
There was no such thing as a ‘Viking’ in the medieval period. Use of the term emerged in the 19th century. The word wicing occurred in Old English and víkingr in Old Icelandic, but were used very differently, to mean something like ‘pirate’. Academics nod to this when we assert that ‘viking’ was a job description rather than an ethnicity, but we don’t always take on board the full implications of this distinction. In Old Icelandic víkingr could be applied to any pirate regardless of where they came from or when, or what language they spoke; they might be Estonians or Saracens, for example. It is also noteworthy that it is almost never used to describe the people who we today call ‘Vikings’. Many of the men labelled ‘Vikings’ in textbooks and popular histories were warriors led by kings on military expeditions with clear political objectives, such as the Great Heathen Army that fought Alfred the Great or the Norwegian force that accompanied Harald Hardrada to his death at Stamford Bridge in 1066. Calling such people ‘Vikings’ would be like calling 18th century British, French or Dutch naval officers ‘pirates’ simply because they wore vaguely similar hats and sailed vaguely similar ships to Blackbeard.
The word ‘Viking’ seems to have entered modern English in the early 19th century, when medieval Icelandic literature was beginning to be translated into major European languages. Initially it was used in the original medieval sense, but by the 1860s it was starting to be used to describe all early medieval warriors from Scandinavia. The final development, the ‘ethnicisation’ of the word that allows the use of terms such as ‘Viking farms’, ‘Viking towns’ and ‘Viking women and children’, is much more recent and has gradually crept up since the Second World War. This is insidious; by linking military prowess and savagery to an entire ethnic group, it encourages its appropriation by racial supremacists.
No such thing
The issue with the term is not merely semantic. This conception of ‘the Vikings’ seriously distorts our understanding of European history. We have tended to group almost all Scandinavian activity between the 790s and the mid-11th century together under the ‘Viking’ label, creating a distinct ‘Viking Age’ and an imagined ‘Viking’ culture and identity. The evidence, however, does not support this analysis.
First, the Scandinavian homelands were extremely varied in environment, social structure and history. Denmark is flat and fertile, its islands cleared, by the year 800, of predators for millennia. It had a complex settlement pattern that was at least as sophisticated as anything found in England. Danish soldiers and settlers coming into ninth-century eastern England found landscape and settlement patterns very like those with which they were familiar and people who shared very similar economic and social structures. They were not savage barbarians penetrating a more civilised realm. The Danish lands had the greatest capacity to sustain population in Scandinavia and it is likely that the majority of Scandinavians lived in Denmark in this period. Norway, whose western fjords provide the stereotypical backdrop to the ‘Vikings’, was a relative backwater with a tiny population and was most important as a route, the ‘North Way’, to the Arctic regions and the luxury goods, such as furs and walrus ivory, that they provided.
The surviving textual sources for the period all come from outside Scandinavia, but some fairly consistent patterns emerge. In the late eighth and the ninth century Irish, English and Frankish chronicles generally refer to Scandinavian aggressors as ‘heathens’ and this, rather than any ethnic identity, seems to have been what struck the victims of these attacks as significant. The 793 raid on Lindisfarne, often said to herald the ‘Viking Age’, is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thus: ‘The ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne with plunder and slaughter.’ In the following year the Annals of Ulster recorded ‘the devastation of all the islands of Britain by the gentiles’.
The previous two or three centuries had witnessed what seemed to be the unstoppable growth of Christendom, both East and West. This had been interpreted as part of God’s plan and its apparent reversal caused consternation among the ecclesiastical writers who have provided us with the record. As Alcuin of York wrote: ‘Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan people, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made.’
From the surviving evidence from Britain and Ireland it is, at first, quite hard to distinguish opportunistic raiding, to which the term ‘Viking’ might have been applied by contemporaries, from political action. The attack on Lindisfarne is often presented as an opportunistic raid, but in fact the force that executed it remained in Northumbria over the winter and was defeated in a pitch battle the following year, some of their ships having been destroyed by a storm.
The Carolingian sources clearly distinguish diplomatic and military interaction between the Franks and the Danish kings from seaborne raids, over which the latter had little or no control. The Royal Frankish Annals record Charlemagne establishing a fleet and coastal defences against pirates in 800, for example. But by the later ninth century most of the recorded action in the British Isles seems to be political and led by kings looking to conquer territory.
The decades around 900 see polities established by Scandinavian dynasties in Britain and Normandy and the adoption of Christianity by their leaders at least. Contemporary sources cease to describe the attackers as ‘heathens’ and tend to name leaders and refer to armies by their place of residence, whether that be East Anglia or Dublin.
In about 903, shortly after the contested start of Edward the Elder’s reign, for example, the Chronicle tells us that his cousin and rival Æthelwold ‘induced the army among the East Angles to break the peace and they harried over all Mercia until ... they crossed the Thames’. Eventually they were pursued home and their king, Eohric, was killed. East Anglia was, at this date, part of the Danelaw. This group’s forebears had come to Britain from Scandinavia in 865 and they had been settled in East Anglia for more than 20 years, so it is likely that Eohric and most of his warriors had been born and brought up in England as Christians.
The ‘Viking’ dynasty that ruled Dublin and contested rule of Northumbria with the descendants of Alfred in the tenth century were descended from men who had left Scandinavia in the middle of the ninth century. On the maternal side most of them probably had local ancestors. They had very little in common in behaviour, genetics or belief systems with the raiders of the 790s. Indeed one of their greatest kings, Óláfr Cúarán, who had at times been king in Northumbria as well as Dublin, retired to the monastery of Iona in 980. At least one of his granddaughters was a nun.
What is usually seen as the final phase of the ‘Viking Age’, from the 990s to the 1070s, saw military and diplomatic relations between Christian kings in both the West and in Scandinavia. By this date Denmark at least had become part of Latin Christendom. Characterising a ruler like Cnut as a ‘Viking’ is nonsensical. He attended the imperial coronation of Conrad II in Rome in 1027 and founded and endowed churches across both his English and Danish realms. Similarly, Harald Hardrada, often termed ‘the last of the Vikings’, was the brother of a saint and spent much of his career in Byzantium. His invasion of England in 1066 was a political action in which he was supported by factions within the kingdom he was invading. Eleventh-century Scandinavian kings such as Cnut and Harald had far more in common with their successors in the 12th and 13th century than they had with eighth- and ninth-century heathen raiders.
Sporadic seaborne raiding on Britain and Ireland by small groups unconnected to any political or military action continued into the 12th century. Indeed, activity of this sort, classic ‘Viking’ behaviour, is perhaps more characteristic of this later period than it is of what we might consider the ‘Viking Age’ proper. These raiders originated from the Scandinavian diaspora in the Scottish islands. Hebrideans, and even Orcadians, like the infamous Sveinn Ásleifarson, plagued the coast of Ireland and western Britain for a century after the Norman Conquest; it was only the English invasion of Ireland that put an end to it. The Western Isles in particular had little capacity for supporting anything beyond subsistence farming and predation on rich lands was the key to local chieftains maintaining their position at home.
The construct of the ‘Vikings’ conflates and blurs the distinction between eighth- and 12th-century pirates. Tenth-century kings based in Dublin and Christian rulers such as Cnut, all of whom lived in very different societies, had different belief systems and political and economic objectives. Each of these contexts needs to be dealt with on its own terms and not within a 19th-century construct that has more than a hint of racist essentialism to it. It is high time that historians, both academic and popular, ditched the Vikings as an outmoded and dangerous way of thinking. The Vikings never existed; it is time to put this unhealthy fantasy to bed.
Alex Woolf is a senior lecturer in History at the University of St Andrews.