Post-classical history

Chapter 12
Reinventing the Vikings

At the outset of this book I observed that ‘Viking’ was not a common term in the 9th and 10th centuries, and that our modern image probably owes more to recent appropriation of the term than to any historically-based reality. In subsequent chapters we have looked at what archaeology can tell us about the cultural identities of those peoples who lived in Scandinavia and its colonies during what we now call the Viking Age. But every age has reinvented the Vikings and in this chapter we will examine some of these more recent reinventions.

Nineteenth-century Vikings – the Romantic revival

By the 16th century there was scant appreciation of Scandinavia’s early history, and knowledge of the Viking Age was virtually nonexistent. Despite Ole Worm’s catalogue of Danish monuments, Danicorum Monumentorum (1643), scholarly interest was limited. Europeans were more concerned with their classical past and the great civilizations of Greece and Rome. From the late 18th century, however, Vikings began to become fashionable again, not as cultural heroes, but exactly because they were considered barbarians. Vikings and other early medieval cultures provided indigenous European examples of Rousseau’s ‘Noble Savage’.

This new enthusiasm for Vikings became particularly intense in Denmark and Sweden after both countries suffered humiliating military defeats. In 1807 Nelson bombarded Copenhagen; in 1809 Sweden lost Finland to Russia. With the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars patriotic romanticism grew in many countries. In Scandinavia, the educated classes felt the need to recover the power and vitality of the Viking Age. Vikings became core to their maintenance of a sense of national identity. In 1808 Nikolai Grundtvig’sNorthern Mythology was published in Denmark. Grundtvig (1783–1872) campaigned to infuse the Danish education system with the Viking spirit. Today he is widely regarded as the founder of lifelong learning. Grundtvig retold the Viking myths in the form of a chronology of the sagas, the aim of which was to develop the prestige of Scandinavia in Europe. In 1811 the Gothic Society was founded in Sweden. Its purpose was to encourage the patriotic spirit and encourage archaeological research. An all-male group, its anthem was ‘In ancient times Goths drank from horns’. Drinking horns were given pride of place in middle-class dining rooms throughout Scandinavia. Its members included Erik Gustaf Geijer, whose poem The Viking portrayed an ideal society where harmony depended on the balance between free farmers and high kings, and Esaias Tegnér, author of the poetic romance Frithiofs Saga.

While poets and students met to read Old Norse songs and poems, they looked to archaeology for a Viking Age that could be displayed. Burial mounds were obvious man-made features and were targeted for investigation. One of the royal mounds at Jelling was dug in 1820; the second in 1861. The three great mounds at Old Uppsala were dug in 1846–7 and 1874; in 1852 the Borre ship burial was excavated. From 1873–95 Stolpe excavated over 1,000 graves at Birka. At about this time the term ‘Viking Age’ was used for the first time in Scandinavia by Oscar Montelius, to refer to the period 800–1050.

At the same time as agricultural improvements and deep ploughing were leading to a rapid increase in the pace of archaeological discoveries in Scandinavia, industrialization and urban growth were creating an urban proletariat who saw themselves as Swedish or Danish rather than as the inhabitants of local farming districts. Norway was part of Denmark up to 1814; then it became part of Sweden until achieving independence in 1905. Nationalism was particularly intense and regional dialect studies were taken as proof of a greater Norwegian affinity with their Viking heritage and Old Norse than with either Denmark or Sweden.

In summary, the image of the Vikings in 19th-century Scandinavia was characterized by a number of features, several of which have had lasting impact. First, a homogeneous Viking Age culture was identified in Scandinavia, lasting from 800 to 1050. This Viking Age was seen as a step on the evolutionary ladder, equivalent to those of Stone, Bronze, and Iron in a grand Darwinian perspective. The Viking past was owned solely by the Scandinavian nations and the key historical actors were the early Viking kings, particularly those involved in unification. Where possible, their history should be written from documentary sources, and illustrated by archaeological finds. Its main themes were political unification, Viking voyages, and the process of conversion to Christianity. By the 20th century the Vikings had become one of a small number of ‘great civilizations’, and interest focused on the rise of the Scandinavian states. However, differences between regions were secondary to a shared common culture and language, visible in the archaeological evidence.

Outside Scandinavia, Vikings were also taken initially to represent pre-classical barbarian culture, but the romantic appeal of the sagas soon became combined with the revival of interest in the northern world and the search for northern ‘primitive’ ancestors.

In Britain the Vikings were reinvented in accordance with Victorian notions of race, valour, and enterprise. Comparisons were drawn between the Viking spirit and the enterprising spirit of Victorian entrepreneurs and explorers. Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon were revived as university subjects equal to the classical languages, and chairs were endowed particularly in northern industrial towns, such as Manchester and Leeds. Victorian writers also fuelled the popular interest, and the Pre-Raphaelites turned away from classical to Norse and Germanic heroes. Even the landscape was appropriated and for them the Lake District was a Viking landscape, frozen in time. In 1892 the Viking Society for Northern Research was founded, and began the publication of Sagabook, the first periodical devoted to the study of Vikings. There was particular interest in the links between Germanic myth and Christian teaching, which encouraged the study of Viking sculpture as it depicted events in heathen mythology alongside Christian scenes in ways which emphasized the parallels.

Richard Wagner (1813–83) . . . and horned

Richard Wagner used a series of sagas and other sources when he composed The Ring of the Nibelung, first performed 1869–76. Reworking his Norse sources, Wagner combined two stories: the tale of Sigurd and the account of Ragnarök, the downfall of the Norse gods, to create a pastiche of Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. He is often credited with popularizing the idea of horned helmets, giving one to the character Hunding in the Ring cycle. In later productions horned helmets were most closely associated with the Valkyries, but as originally staged the Valkyries wore helmets with wings. Wagner and his costume and set designer Carl Emil Doepler probably borrowed the idea from the costumes in stage plays about ancient pre-Viking Germans, and used it in the original production of Tristan und Isolde in 1865.

In fact Vikings first acquired horned and winged helmets during the 19th century. Romantic artists began to explore mythology, depicting a hodgepodge of Germanic, Celtic, and classical motifs. The Swede Gustav Malmström gave horns to Vikings in illustrations for an edition of Frithiof’s Saga (1820–5), but may have borrowed the idea from prehistoric Scandinavian rock art. There are depictions of horned figures in the Viking Age, on a tapestry from the Oseberg ship burial, but they are shamanistic figures in a ceremonial procession. The only surviving horned helmet is Iron Age, dredged from the Thames at Waterloo Bridge in the 1860s, and now in the British Museum. Some Viking warriors did wear helmets in battle, but they were simple conical affairs, such as that found at Gjermundbu, in Sweden, or that depicted on the Middleton cross.

William Morris (1834–96)

William Morris, designer, author, and revolutionary socialist, developed a passion for medieval Scandinavia while an undergraduate at Oxford. Morris identified with the Norse heroes and learnt Icelandic from Eiríkr Magnússon, with whom he translated a number of sagas. His two voyages to Iceland, in 1871 and 1873, were highly influential on his art, poetry, and politics. His Icelandic epic poem, Sigurd the Volsung, was published in 1876. Morris’s friends in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, particularly Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown, also had romantic Viking themes in their paintings. For Morris, however, the Norsemen were hardworking socialists. As a founding member of the Socialist League, Morris was at the centre of political unrest in Britain in 1886–7. His visionary novel News from Nowhere became an essential socialist text and his influence runs down to Clement Atlee and the post-war welfare state. As late as the 1970s his views on the environment led him to be recognized as a founding father of green politics too.

William Collingwood (1854–1932)

As a student reading Greats at Oxford, William Collingwood came under the patronage of John Ruskin. After studying at the Slade between 1876 and 1878, he became a research assistant and secretary to Ruskin, travelling with him, and living close by in Coniston. During the 1890s Collingwood developed his painting skills but also published regularly in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, of which he was to become Editor and then President. Collingwood was drawn to Norse legend and felt that the Lake District represented a Norse landscape. He wrote a series of novels, including Thorstein of the Mere (1895) and The Bondwoman (1896) set against that background. In 1897 he visited Iceland and later published, with Jon Stefansson, his Pilgrimage to the Sagasteads of Iceland. He was a member of the Viking Club, and served as its president. He became particularly interested in the artistic aspects of Norse culture in England, and devoted himself to drawing and cataloguing the stone sculpture. This was published shortly before his death as North-umbrian Crosses of the pre-Norman Age (1927), perhaps his most important work.

Sir Walter Scott was fascinated by the Norse history of Scotland and set the opening scene of his novel The Pirate (1828) at the Shetland site he christened Jarlshof. A host of children’s books were published, notably Ballantine’s Erling the Bold (1869) and Sabine Baring-Gould’s Grettir the Outlaw (1890). Meanwhile historians were also writing academic books on Vikings. In 1841 Thomas Carlyle published On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History in which he saw Oðinn as the emblem of the strong inspiredleader, and in 1875 he produced The Early Kings of Norway.

In general, however, when Vikings were described by English historians, they often appeared as treacherous barbarians, and as foils for the great hero King Ælfred. It is not surprising that the German-speaking rulers of Great Britain and their supporters should look to the Anglo-Saxons as their forebears. For the English, then as now, the Anglo-Saxons were the ancestral us, while the Vikings were them. The Scandinavians only settled in part of England and the subsequent ‘reconquest’ made the whole episode seem like a temporary blip in the development of a unified English kingdom and, unlike the Norman Conquest, the Viking invasions created no long-term constitutional changes.

Furthermore, the Vikings in England failed to produce a historian; their deeds were known solely through the eyes of the West Saxon chroniclers, and so long as later historians accepted this propaganda as fact, the Vikings were guaranteed short shrift. It was Ælfred, Victorian school children were taught, who unified the nation, saved the English from the invaders, and founded the British Navy, while mixing with the common people with ease, despite burning their cakes. On the other hand, the Vikings had also to be portrayed as worthy adversaries, and by the end of the 19th century were almost seen as benefactors of the lands they raided. They were equated with nobility of adventure and in many places were seen as the founders of democracy.

Vikings and Nazis

In Germany under the Nazis a more sinister interpretation of Vikings developed. During the late 19th century Wagnerian mystique was merged with Nietzsche’s elitist philosophy of the superman. Some Germans began to see themselves as the Herrenwolk, or master race. Vikings became their own racial forebears and role models, destined to defeat their inferiors in other countries.

After Germany’s humiliating defeat in the First World War, these ideas were turned into party politics by Hitler and his followers. The Nazis attempted to close ranks with the so-called Aryan people of Scandinavia. When they came to power in 1933 they began a crusade against modern ‘decadent’ culture, systematically replacing it with their own version of Aryan culture, based on Vikings, Old Norse mythology, Wagner, and German peasant culture. The Vikings became part of the fair-haired, blue-eyed, clean-living ideal of the National Socialist Party. At its most extreme, Nazism intended to replace Christianity with the old paganism of the Germanic gods. The excavations at Hedeby in the 1930s were strongly backed by the political apparatus of the German state, which wished to emphasize a unity with the people of Scandinavia which had little foundation in reality.

Similar ideals were adopted by right-wing groups in the Scandinavian countries. The Norwegian National Socialist party used the barrow cemetery at Borre, Vestfold, in Norway, as a backdrop for political rallies from 1935 to 1944:

We gather here because the people who united Norway in one kingdom were buried here. These people carried the name of Norway all over the world. It was these people who founded states in Russia and, in a certain sense, also the British Empire.

Northern European Neo-Nazi groups continue to seek intellectual justification by perverting aspects of pre-Christian religious beliefs and appropriating Viking sites, notably those with ceremonial associations, such as Old Uppsala.

Fakes and forgeries in the United States

Amongst many of the modern inhabitants of North America the quest for European ancestry is an important part of their cultural identity. Many have seized upon finds that purport to show pre-Columbian European settlement, and some have not stopped short of inventing them.


17. Second World War recruitment poster

In 1879 a Swedish emigrant arrived in Douglas County in Minnesota and settled in the town of Kensington. In 1898 he announced that when digging deep in his fields he had found a large rune stone, c.0.8m in height, between the roots of a large poplar tree. The text purported to say:

8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on a voyage of exploration west of Vinland. One day’s journey north of this stone we camped close to two rocky inlets. One day we went out fishing and on our return found the dead bodies of ten of our men, red with blood. AVM deliver us from evil. 14 days journey away from this island, then men are keeping watch over our ships. 1362.

Prominent Scandinavian and American runologists immediately declared it to be a fake as the runes were nonsense. Nonetheless it was exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum as a genuine artefact in 1948–53. By 1950 no fewer than 24 runic inscriptions were cited as evidence for Norse settlement in North America. Subsequently the Kensington runes were proved to have been carved with a chisel of a type sold in Minnesota at the end of last century and the farmer was found to be an amateur runologist with a collection of books on runes. The Runestone Museum in Alexandria, however, still features the Kensington stone as its prize exhibit.

The authenticity of the so-called Vinland map has been even more bitterly contested. The map was published by Yale University in 1965, having been bought on their behalf, reputedly for one million dollars. It comprises a pen and ink map of the world on thin parchment. The representation of the Old World is consistent with maps of the Middle Ages, and follows the custom of placing some fictional islands in the Atlantic. It also includes, however, two large islands in the North Atlantic: Greenland, and a second island labelled ‘Vinland, discovered by Bjarni and Leif in company’. The map was supposedly created in Germany or Switzerland, probably in association with the Council of Basle, which met 1431–49.

In fact, there are several reasons for regarding it as a forgery. First, Greenland is depicted as an island, although this was not discovered until 1902. Second, the depiction of the eastern North Atlantic is based upon 16th-century Portuguese maps that only gained public attention in the late 19th century. Finally, the ink was tested in a Chicago laboratory and found to contain titanium pigment not available before 1917 at the earliest. In fact, this ink is now falling off the map. However, like all good forgeries the Vinland map has refused to go away. In 1986 the ink was reanalysed at the University of California. There it was declared that only microscopic amounts of titanium were present and that both ink and parchment were consistent with a 15th-century origin. One of the interesting features of both the Kensington rune stone and the Vinland map is that, for those people who want to believe in them, scientific evidence can be dismissed as unimportant, or beaten into submission.


18. The Vinland map is a pen and ink drawing of the world purporting to have been made in the 15th century: the land labelled Vinland is shown top left

As is generally the case in the writing of history there are political undertones to all of this. Earlier attempts to find ancestral Europeans in America did so at the expense of native North Americans. Indigenous monumental architectural achievements could not be accepted as the product of barbarian cultures which had been all but exterminated by the white man, and it was important to establish a prior claim for 19th-century settlers. Stone structures and burial mounds were cited as evidence of Viking activity, rather than accepted as the work of a sophisticated palaeo-indian or Inuit culture. Scandinavian finds were found further and further down the eastern seaboard of the United States, although they were still concentrated in areas of high 19th-century Scandinavian immigration.

Today the message has changed, but is just as loaded. Despite the fact that the only attested Viking site is at L’Anse aux Meadows (p. 110), firmly in Canada, in 2000 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington staged a major Viking exhibition, to mark the 1000th anniversary of Leif Eriksson’s historic voyage. The preface to the book which accompanied the exhibition (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000) was by Hilary Clinton. The First Lady noted that Viking women were active participants in politics and religion, while thedisappearance of the Norse on Greenland may have been a consequence of poor environmental management. The volume editors accepted the lack of evidence for long-term Viking settlement in America, but noted that (p. 24):

Perhaps the most important outcome of contact was the familiarity Native Americans gained about European habits, behavior, and materials which helped them take best advantage of future interactions.

Jorvik, DNA, and Vikings today

In the 21st century, in Europe, Scandinavia, and North America, the Vikings carry huge popular interest: they sell books and television programmes, advertise goods, and persuade people to visit museums. When the decision was taken to create a new type of museum in York, the subject chosen was not Romans or Anglo-Saxons, but Vikings. When it opened in 1984, the Jorvik Viking Centre attracted over 800,000 visitors in its first year, taking it into the top three tourist attractions. Shortly after Jorvik was reopened by Tony Blair in 2001, following a £4 million facelift, the 12 millionth customer passed through the door. Visitors are now invited to go back in time and travel through 10th-century Jorvik in suspended time capsules, for the ‘authentic Viking encounter’. With ambient sound systems, directional aerosol sprays, and robotic chickens, this is a truly 21st-century Viking experience.

For those seeking a more active Viking lifestyle, re-enactment groups have flourished in Europe, Scandinavia, and North America. These cater for all tastes, from those with an eye for detail and rigorous policing against any anachronistic costume items, to those which just provide a legal excuse for a good fight, and even some which combine both. For the descendants of ‘Briese-Bane’ (or bone-breaker) there is even an active Viking re-enactment group in Queensland, Australia. Although some groups initially focused upon the Viking warrior and raider stereotype, they have moved with the times and now have Viking camps in which traders and craftsmen, women and children, are welcome. In Britain, The Vikings, originally founded in 1971 as the Norse Film and Pageant Society, is the oldest Dark Age re-enactment group. They regularly appear at English Heritage sites, and as battle extras in films and TV documentaries. Membership is rigidly stratified, as unfree thralls, fri-halls, drengr, and jarls. The society has a membership of over 600, and its own website at!


19. Street scene, Jorvik

Another way in which Vikings have taken over leisure time is though metal-detecting. In eastern England and some parts of Scandinavia this popular hobby has begun to provide evidence for dense Viking Age settlement. Official schemes to record finds are now starting to put some of this information into the public domain ( Some metal-detectorists are no doubt motivated by financial gain, which has brought them into conflict with archaeologists, but many took up the hobby because of a genuine interest in the past.

Other people believe that they are Vikings or are descended from Vikings. DNA research has raised misguided expectations that it might be possible to identify a Viking gene and I occasionally receive letters and email messages from those whose hair colour, family name, or temperament leads them to believe that they are the direct descendants of Viking settlers. In fact it is very hard to say anything about individuals from their DNA, although stronger statements can be made about populations. Identifying Vikings from hair colour or skull shape is even more unreliable, as physical characteristics bear only an approximation to genes, and environment can be an important factor, although blood groups provide a closer proxy for DNA.

A major genetics survey carried out for the BBC in 2001 took DNA samples from men at a number of sites. In the main, small towns were chosen and the men tested were required to be able to trace their male line back two generations in the same rural area. The aim was to reduce the effects of later population movements, assuming that in-between the Norman invasion of 1066 and the 20th century movement would have been limited. The tests looked at the Y chromosome, which is only carried by men. Samples taken in modern-day Norway were used to represent the Norwegian Vikings, and samples from Denmark represented the Danish input. The results were disappointing but probably not surprising. Eastern England has been subject to invasion from adjacent areas of the continental mainland for countless millennia. Some migrations are historically attested although the majority, going back into prehistory, are undocumented. In England the survey team encountered difficulties in distinguishing between the DNA of Saxon and Danish invaders. The outlying Scottish isles provided the most conclusive evidence of a Scandinavian presence. In the Northern and Western Isles, as well as in the far north of the Scottish mainland, Norwegian genetic signatures were found. In Shetland and Orkney 60 per cent of the male population had DNA of Norwegian origin, although again it is very difficult to establish the date that this was transmitted from modern populations. Other research has found that the DNA of the modern-day populations of the Central Lakes and north-east Derbyshire differs from that of the surrounding areas, in a way that is much closer to that of Denmark.

Attempts have been made to extract ancient DNA from excavated human remains, but there are great risks of contamination. Indeed, results of a recent test appeared to show that a Viking warrior from Repton had come from Africa! Techniques are still being refined but for the present they may be unreliable. Oxygen and strontium isotope analysis of teeth appears to be more promising. Put crudely, we are what we drink, and the chemical composition of the water consumed in childhood is preserved in our teeth. Given the distinctive geology of some areas, including Norway, it is possible to define a fingerprint for the local water, making it possible to identify those who grew up there, such as the Norwegian woman from Adwick-le-Street (p. 71).

However, it is important not to confuse race and identity, by talking of ‘Viking blood’ or ‘Viking genes’. Our genes determine neither the language we speak nor the clothes we wear, and cultural factors are just as important as DNA in determining who we are. We are also acutely aware of the dangers of developing attitudes based on biological race. Modern archaeologists and historians have adopted the term ethnicity to indicate identity which is cultural rather than racial.

Jacquetta Hawkes famously wrote that ‘Every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves’, by which she meant that Stonehenge has been a Druid temple, a landing site for flying saucers, or an astronomical calendar, according to the interests of the times. The same could be said about our stories about Vikings, and they have been alternately, noble savages, raiders, marauders and rapists, peaceful traders, entrepreneurs, explorers, early democrats, or IKEA sales personnel, according to what we want them to be. This small volume has attempted to use recent archaeological research to introduce what is important to know about the peoples who inhabited Scandinavia in the 9th to 11th centuries and to trace those expansions which brought them into contact with other early medieval societies. It has explored how the term Viking came to be applied to them, and examined how they have been reinvented many times, from the Icelandic Sagas to 21st-century heritage attractions.

In each of the situations in which we encounter Scandinavian settlers their Viking identity is rather different, and nowhere is it unmodified. A Scandinavian settler in early 10th-century Northumbria may have retained the Norse tongue, but with various English borrowings. When he went to the growing urban market in Jorvik he would have seen new cellared and plank-built workshops, unlike the old Anglo-Saxon or Danish houses. In Jorvik he may have bought new brooches for his new English wife, neither in the style her mother wore, nor like those worn by the women back home, but in a hybrid form, reflecting elements of both fashions. When he died, if he were wealthy, he might expect to have a stone memorial erected over his grave, not like the grave of his father, nor like the graves of the English. If study of the Vikings has a contemporary message for us it is that identity is not an immutable concept. Further research should continue to help elucidate the circumstances in which new identities are formed and the ways in which they are expressed, not just for Vikings, but for all societies.

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