Were the Vikings really as ruthless as we once assumed?

Whether it is on TV, in a historical novel, or at a museum exhibition, the Viking is often portrayed as a bloodthirsty warrior bent on slaughter, rape and pillage. Many people today associate the word “Viking” with brutality, barbarism and some of worst atrocities committed by man-kind. As a result, it is no surprise to find that almost everyone nowadays has one distinct image of the Viking in their minds. But just how ruthless were the Vikings when they were around and is our interpretation of them today really an accurate one?

The arrival of the Great Heathen Army at East Anglia, c. 865.

There is no denying that some of the Vikings really were as vicious and as savage as portrayed in modern day literature and the media. The arrival of Vikings on the shores of England in 793 AD (at the small island of Lindisfarne), heralded the beginning of 300 years of bloody raids on Britain and Ireland. In that same year, a man named Alcuin wrote about the barbarism that the Vikings had inflicted on the people of York, after he witnessed how “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”

Almost 100 years later in 865, this violence intensified when the Great Heathen Army, lead by Ivar the Boneless*, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ubba and Bjorn Ironside, landed in East Anglia. The army consisted of roughly 3,000 Viking soldiers, intent on reaping the many riches that England had to offer. It wasn’t until the Battle of Edington in 873, where Alfred the Great defeated King Guthrum, that the Army was finally halted. A peace treaty soon followed which ended hostilities between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings (or Danes as they were more commonly known) and allowed the two to live alongside one another. In season 1 of Netflix’s The Last Kingdom this is shown when King Guthrum in baptised by Alfred.

(*Ivar the Boneless was particularly cruel. According to the sagas, he put Edmund, king of East Anglia, up against a tree and had his men shoot arrows at him until his head exploded!)

The Battle of Edington as depicted in The Last Kingdom. The story follows a man named Uhtred Ragnarsson at the time of the invasion of the Great Heathen Army.

However, while this is all historically accurate, often when it comes to drama and literature, the media has a tendency to exaggerate the more violent side of the Vikings. In Hollywood’s 1958 movie ‘The Vikings’, starring Kirk Douglas, the Danes show off their most horrific side in a “full-blooded depiction of rape, fire and pillage”, as one critic has called it. More recently in the History Channel series Vikings (2013), great attention is directed towards historical realism through the lavish use of dirt and blood, as well as brutal battle scenes. Similarly, rape and the threat of sexual violence are portrayed as an unavoidable aspect of the violent life of a Viking.

As well as in media, the image of the Viking has also been used by various racist and fascist movements around Europe. During the 1930s and 1940s, for example, the Nazi party integrated the concept of the Viking as a central part of its racist ideology. The Viking was seen as a symbol of strength, an elitist hero of the Aryan breed.

Heroic portrait of Hitler youth in uniform from around 1935. Text reads: “The German Student…Fights for Furher and People”

Nevertheless, despite their somewhat violent nature, which has been overvalued throughout history, more recent archaeological discoveries could suggest that the Vikings were more than just raiders and pillagers. In the 1970s, during the construction of a shopping centre in the Coppergate area of York, Viking homes, clothes, jewellery, and a helmet were found well preserved in the moist earth. This led to the creation of the city’s Jorvik Centre, as the Vikings were seen as a domestic, family-oriented people. Furthermore, in the early 2000s, excavations in the Malar Valley, Stockholm, uncovered evidence of a flourishing agricultural community dating back to the Viking age. Numerous Viking grave fields containing bodies of as many as 40 to 50 individuals were also discovered at these ancient village sites. Amongst them, excavators unearthed remains of scarce ceramic vessels, occasional metal artefacts and various everyday objects. Consequently, this has given rise to the notion that the Vikings were actually more civilised than we originally assumed.

Viking burial site near Stockholm, where plates, pots and other domestic tools were found alongside traditional Viking weapons.

Further evidence of the Vikings as a more domesticated and obedient race comes from the largest body of written sources on the Vikings from the 9th and 10th Century. Interestingly, they were written in Arabic and they dictate how the Vikings reached the Caspian Sea and came into contact with the Khazar empire. They may even have got as far as Baghdad if one mid-9th Century source is to be believed. As a result, this has led some academics to paint the Vikings as global traders more than warriors.

Altogether, from everything that has been taken into account, it is evident that the Vikings were both invaders and migrants, just as they were both domesticated and violent. Over the 300-year period that the Vikings harassed Britain for, they didn’t just raid, pillage and leave. Many of them actually stayed and assimilated themselves into the Anglo-Saxon community. A large number of Vikings embraced Christianity e.g. Haakon the Good converted to Christianity while in England. Consequently, this signifies that the story of the Vikings was not just one of conquest, but also one of immigration.

There is no doubting that some of the Vikings were ruthless warriors, bent on pillage and plunder. However, to assume that all Vikings were bloodthirsty and vicious would be an inaccurate representation as well as an unjust one. What came after the Vikings was arguably worse; the Normans more often oppressed the local populace instead of integrating with it as the Vikings did. Overall, therefore, I think it is fair to say that the Vikings were not as bloodthirsty as many would assume, even though their violent nature does make good TV.

2 thoughts on “Were the Vikings really as ruthless as we once assumed?

  1. Great overview
    Nothing can change my Viking image since the TV series The Last Kingdom
    A bit shallow of me sorry!

    Like

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