What About Vikings?

There are two things everyone is required to say nowadays when discussing the Vikings.

  1. The Vikings did not wear horns on their helmets. The idea of horns comes from costume designers for Wagnerian operas, who picked up the idea of horns from images in certain decorative items found in Northern European archaeological digs. These images, however, are older than the Viking Age, and almost certainly represent priests in ceremonial dress. Horns on helmets are an incredibly bad idea in a fight. They give your enemy a lever to knock your helmet off with.
  2. Although the Vikings are commonly thought of as violent barbarians, they were really farmers and merchants, and no more violent than anyone else in their time. Because they attacked monasteries, the monks who were that age’s chroniclers left biased reports about them to posterity.

My own opinion of these two statements above is that Number One has been repeated so many times that it shouldn’t be necessary anymore (though I’m constantly surprised at how many people don’t know about it). As to Number Two, in my opinion it’s a half-truth at best, a political and philosophical statement rather than a historical fact.

In the past European history was written with a bias towards Christianity and Western Civilization. That bias has gone out of fashion. Today the bias goes the other way. Christianity is oppression. Western Civilization is all about racism. From this point of view anyone who fought against Christian Europe must be a hero or a victim. Under this scenario the Vikings become the good guys, the monks the oppressors and aggressors.

There is much to admire in Viking life and culture. I’ve spent more than 40 years of my life studying them, so obviously I don’t despise them. They practiced a form of democracy, lived by a heroic code of honor, gave their women rights that other women in Europe did not enjoy at the time, and built really cool ships.

On the other hand, their democracy was constructed on oligarchic lines, and all men were far from equal, especially thralls (slaves). Their heroic code of honor led to blood feuds and long cycles of retribution. Their women (in my opinion) were not nearly as emancipated as is often implied by historians. A woman, for instance, could inherit a chieftainship but was not allowed to actually exercise it, because women weren’t considered capable of the kind of violence the job required. Their inheritance rights actually increased after the conversion to Christianity, for the pragmatic reason that the Church discovered they were more likely than men to make gifts of land to the Church, providing they had land to give. This made the Church their constant advocate in matters of property and inheritance law. A survey of Viking Age female skeletons from all over Scandinavia shows that women grew taller and gained bone mass after the conversion (this is from Sawyer and Sawyer’s book Medieval Scandinavia, published by the University of Minnesota Press ). As far as I can see, that doesn't argue for oppression.

The ships were really cool though.

The Vikings were the foremost European slave merchants of their time. When historians point to their trade activities as proof that they weren’t all violent, they often leave out the fact that a very large portion of that trade involved kidnapping and selling human beings. The Vikings harvested slaves from the Slavic tribes of Eastern Europe and transported them south through Russia to the rich markets of Muslim world. Masses of Arabic coins found in Scandinavia bear witness to this bloody industry.

Since I’m a Christian, I feel that the pendulum has currently swung too far in the Vikings’ favor. Certainly the Christian kingdoms of Europe at the time had major sins of their own to answer for. It may be that in terms of violence and oppression there was little to choose between the Christian kingdoms and the heathen Norse. But I believe that the Vikings would never have made the progress, moral and scientific, that were made by Christian Europe in the centuries that followed. I am convinced that it’s a good thing my ancestors were converted.

I think Vikings are exciting, and I enjoy playing a Viking with the Viking Age Club of the Sons of Norway when I get the chance.

But you know what? I wouldn’t want a real Viking to move in next door.