The Viking Age: between fact and fiction
Many myths surround the Viking Age and most of them are quite inaccurate from the historical point of view. Most of the popular misconceptions about the Norsemen can trace their origin in the works of the Catholic monks of the early Middle Ages or various Romantic artists and writers of the 19th century.
Among the most well known myths concerning the Norsemen that have been preserved to these days include the fact that they worn horned or winged helmets or that they were ruthless barbarians without a proper culture.
Below you can read an analysis on the Viking Age, separating the fiction from the facts in an interactive way with some visual and video materials. But first, let’s set the records straight by defining some basic terms.
The Viking Age was the period of time in medieval history that is officially documented in the medieval chronicles to have started in 793 and ended in about 1066, coinciding with the Battle of Hastings (or from late 8th century to mid 11th century).
It was an eventful period which was marked by trade, conquest and exploration throughout much of continental Europe as well as overseas, in places such as the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland or Newfoundland in North America.
The reasons behind the Norse expansion can be identified as follows:
- The geographic and demographic situations. Given the fact that the climate in most of Scandinavia couldn’t support agriculture and that the overpopulation in the coastal areas which were favourable to many human activities (including agriculture) represented serious concerns, the Norsemen had no alternative but to expand by either trade or conquest.
- Political pressure could signify another cause that might likely caused the Viking expansion. Before Denmark, Norway and Sweden became unified kingdoms, early medieval Scandinavia was fragmented into many earldoms, each ruled by a local earl (jarl). In order to obtain more influence and recognition, each earl could decide to conquer proximal lands and then trade with the neighbouring civilisations so as to ensure social, political and economical stability to the earldom.
- By spotting a weakness which likely stemmed from internal divisions in the neighbouring kingdoms outside Scandinavia, the Norsemen could easily take advantage of this situation by conquering and colonising new lands. So it was, for instance, that the Danish Vikings took advantage of some division in the empire of Charlemagne in the early 9th century and eventually seized control of Normandy, or that the Norwegian Vikings conquered several parts of northern Britain.
- The expansion of the Frankish Empire might have led to the military campaigns of the Norsemen in Francia and/or Britain. The Frankish Empire under Charlemagne was close to invading modern day Denmark during the Dark Ages.
Below you can watch a short video presentation on the Viking Age from Cans youtube channel:
The etymology of the word ‘Viking’
Unfortunately, nowadays many people use ‘Viking‘ as a blanket term for all early medieval Scandinavians. The Vikings were an important part of the Norse culture, but it doesn’t mean that during the early Middle Ages everyone was a Viking in Scandinavia.
Aside from ‘going a Viking’ — which meant that one could have opted to set sail in search of new land overseas – the Norse society comprised most notably blacksmiths, farmers and fishermen.
Therefore, the denomination ‘Viking’ used in the purpose of denoting any person from early medieval Scandinavia is erroneous. In reality, the Vikings could have been pirates, merchants or even poets. Both men and women could have gone a Viking.
Consequently, the term which should be applied to all early medieval Scandinavians in an accurate historical context is ‘Norsemen’ or ‘Northmen’ (singular form: ‘Norseman’ or ‘Northman’), meaning ‘man from the north’, native speaker of the Old Norse language (which had two main types of dialects: Old East Norse and Old West Norse).
Thus, this word can be used in order to identify any person in Viking Age Scandinavia, although by the beginning of the Middle Ages the Scandinavians were divided into different sets of people (i.e. Danes, Swedes and Norwegians).
From the Old East Norse dialects of the Old Norse language Danish and Swedish emerged as modern North Germanic languages, while from the Old West Norse dialects Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic were derived.
Also, when using in a phrase ‘the Norse’ instead of ‘the Norsemen’ it means that the term is used in order to denote the medieval Norwegians (i.e. West Norse) and not to the East Norse as well. The West Norse colonised and conquered most notably Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, but also other small archipelagos in the North Atlantic or the Irish Sea such as the Faroes, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Hebrides or the Isle of Man.
The Danes conquered mainly parts of southern Britain, eventually establishing the Danelaw in England and collecting the Danegeld tribute (‘the Dane tax’ in translation), as well as an important region in modern day France, namely Normandy (whose denomination stems from the Old French word ‘Normanz’ — ‘Northman’).
Nowadays, in the three main spoken North Germanic languages, the term ‘nordbo’ (definite plural forms as follows; Swedish: ‘nordborna’, Danish: ‘nordboerne’, Norwegian: ‘nordboerne’/’nordbuane’) refers to the Norsemen.
Now that we have defined the basic terms, let us briefly clarify 10 notorious myths which surround the Viking Age.
Stereotypes concerning the Viking Age: ruthlessness, ferocity, aggression, horned helmets and many more
Point 1: Ferocity and cruelty
The Norsemen were referred to by Catholic monks in their chronicles as barbarian heathens who did not hesitate to kill churchmen and loot church holdings. In 793, a group of Norwegian Vikings raided the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, located less than one mile off the north-eastern coast of the Kingdom of Northumbria (now northeastern England). This episode, along with the raid at Iona, were written down in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and in the Annals of Ulster.
Since then, a tremendous misconception about the early raids of the Vikings in Britain is generally associated with the Norse culture, specifically that being polytheistic the Norsemen plundered abbeys because of religious reasons.
In fact, the Norsemen didn’t attack the Catholic monasteries because of religious reasons, but rather for booty. Additionally, the Norsemen first traded, then attacked. It is true though that some Norsemen weren’t far from the description attributed by the Catholic chroniclers, especially when it comes to the semi-legendary Jomsvikings or the Berserkers, and that their bloody conduct can as well be historically accurate sometimes.
You can watch the following video presentation on the matter made by John Green from Crash Course World History channel uploaded on youtube which debunks this myth:
Point 2: The Norsemen were a unified nation
During the Viking Age, most of inhabited Scandinavia was scattered into petty kingdoms known as earldoms. These earldoms were each ruled by a local jarl (or earl), a magnate in charge of his or her own estate. It was only during the end of the Viking Age that unified powerful kingdoms emerged in Scandinavia.
Point 3: Horned or winged helmets
There is no real archaeological evidence to date that can prove the fact that the Norsemen worn helmets with wings or horns attached to them. In fact, the only near-intact Viking Age helmet was unearthed on the site of a farm called Gjermundbu from Ringerike, a municipality located in eastern Norway. For more information on the matter, please see this article. During the Bronze Age however, the Norsemen could have worn horned helmets, but only for ceremonies, not on battlefield.
Point 4: The Viking Age started in 793
Until quite recently it was indeed thought that the Viking Age commenced along with the raid at the Lindisfarne monastery from Northumbria in 793. Nonetheless, a series of archaeological discoveries found beneath the old marketplace in the small town of Ribe, southern Jutland suggest that the Viking Age actually started roughly 70 years earlier.
Point 5: The Norsemen were illiterate
Yet another false statement about the culture of the Norsemen is that they were illiterate. Not only did they have a unique alphabet known as ‘futhark’, but the runic alphabet — as it is mainly known — had several sets of its own.
Point 6: The Norsemen lacked hygiene
The Norsemen had a healthier lifestyle and a better sense of hygiene than most of the Europeans of their time. Archaeological discoveries from various burial mounds prove the fact that the Norsemen used razors, tweezers and ear spoons. They also used a rather strong soap for bathing, but also for bleaching their hair. This is proven in the following video material on NuthShellEdu’s youtube channel:
Point 7: The Norsemen raided only in proximity of Scandinavia
Some of the Norsemen did indeed raid regions which were nearby them (such as along the Baltic coastline or northern modern day Germany or Poland), but this doesn’t necessarily mean that that they stopped there. Subsequent Viking parties landed in Francia, sieging Paris in the process, modern day Italy, the Iberian peninsula and even as far as Eastern Europe and the Caspian Sea.
Below you can watch a short video presentation made by Cans on youtube on the siege of Paris by the Norsemen:
Point 8: The Norsemen didn’t have a proper culture
In fact, they had a proper culture. The Norsemen had a very complex culture as well as several significant art styles. The predominant art styles during the Viking Age were the Oseberg style, the Borre style, the Jellinge style, the Mammen style, the Ringerike style and the Urnes style.
Point 9: The Norsemen didn’t have a cultural legacy
The cultural legacy of the Norsemen is quite present in many regards in Western and Northern Europe, from linguistics to genetics. The English language was very much influenced by Old Norse during the Viking Age for instance. So it is that there are roughly nine hundred English words of Danish origin. There are also many cognates in Danish and Standard English such as ‘husband’, ‘egg’ or ‘leg’. Aside from England, the Danish Vikings gave the name of Normandy in France.
Point 10: The Norsemen didn’t know to adapt in other societies
Another false statement is that the Norsemen were unable of adapting themselves in other societies than their own. In many cases, wherever they settled down they would have gradually gave up speaking Old Norse and start assimilating in the native culture.
Subsequently, the Norsemen became speakers of the languages spoken in the territories where they had arrived. So it is that in Ireland they became speakers of Irish, in Sicily they became speakers of Sicilian, and in Normandy they became speakers of Anglo-Norman, a relative of French. This is proven in the following video presentation on NutShellEdu’s youtube channel:
Documentation sources and external links:
- Do You Really Know the Vikings on www.fieldmuseum.org
- Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum is set to explode some myths about the hordes (and their hoards) on www.independent.co.uk
- 10 Things You May Not Know About the Vikings on www.history.com
- Viking Age on www.wikipedia.org (in English)
- Viking voyages began earlier than thought on www.thelocal.no
- Cleanliness – Did Vikings Take Baths? on www.danishnet.com
- Health and Medicine in the Viking Age on www.hurstwic.org
- Viking Age Runes on www.viking.archeurope.info
- Why Is This the Only Existing Viking Age Helmet? on www.thornews.com
- 21 Viking Myths Debunked on www.buzzfeed.com
- Viking History: Facts & Myths on www.livescience.com
- Top Ten Myths About Vikings on www.vikingrune.com
- Viking Warrior Women: Did ‘Shieldmaidens’ Like Lagertha Really Exist? on www.tor.com
- The construction of the Viksø helmets on www.en.natmus.dk