Post-classical history



Huge warriors with golden beards and savage eyes sat or lounged on the rude benches, strode about the hall, or sprawled full length on the floor. They drank mightily from foaming horns and leathern jacks, and gorged themselves on great pieces of rye bread, and huge chunks of meat they cut with their daggers from whole roasted joints […] All the world was their prey to pick and choose, to take and spare as it pleased their barbaric fancies.

ROBERT E. HOWARD, ‘The Dark Man’ (1931)1

When I was growing up, my idea of what a ‘Viking’ should be was not, I presume, very different from that imagined by anyone else of my generation.

My grandmother – who lived in Glastonbury, Somerset – was a full-time carer and companion to a (to my young eyes) elderly disabled gentleman whom I knew only, and affectionately, as ‘Venge’. An Italian by birth, who in truth luxuriated in the name Bonaventura Mandara, Venge was an exceptionally kind and gentle man, with a love of brandy, cigars, cards and horse-racing: he was, in other words, a jolly fine fellow. He would often encourage me, sprog that I was, to clamber on to his bad leg (always propped up horizontally in front of him, encased in a steel and leather contraption that both frightened and fascinated) and read me the cartoon strips from the back of his newspaper. Only one of these left any kind of impression.

Hägar the Horrible – a comic strip drawn by the American cartoonist Dik Browne – was probably my first encounter with a Viking. The eponymous Hägar fulfilled all the stereotypes: an unruly faceful of red beard, an unashamedly horned helmet, a flagon of foaming ale, an aversion to bathing. In essence he remains the classic ‘Viking as barbarian’, essentially indistinguishable from the cartoon caveman. That was fine with me. Hägar and his frequent anachronistic assaults on large medieval stone castles fitted easily into early childhood visits to Glastonbury spent rampaging around the ruins of the medieval abbey and staring through the windows of King Arthur themed crystal shops.

When I was a little older, I remember being taught about the Vikings – the only time I ever encountered the subject in compulsory education. I must have been about eight, and although perhaps not best equipped to appreciate the significance of what I was learning, I remembered that lesson when all else had faded away. The thing that stuck, the one key message that lodged most firmly in my brain, was that no Viking ever wore, possessed – or perhaps even imagined – a horned helmet.

The absence of horns on Viking helmets invariably comes as a blow to those who aren’t prepared for it. Many is the occasion on which I have been obliged to plunge in this particular knife; it is remarkable to witness, in fully grown adults (in fact, especially in adults), the visible shrinking of the spirit that accompanies the unexpected death of an image formed in childhood. There may well be, and I apologize for it, readers of this book who are right now experiencing the bewildering combination of anger and disbelief that accompanies the detonation of this fact-bomb.

To a small boy weaned on Hägar the Horrible the news was, well, horrible. I still remember the frustration of it all – if the Vikings didn’t have horned helmets, why had I been lied to? Thankfully my young mind was still fertile enough to bounce back from this mental napalm. The blow was also softened slightly by the discovery that the helmets they did wear were almost as cool (or so I tried to convince myself) as their cornigerous surrogates. The evidence for helmets of any kind, however, is slim. Aside from scattered fragments, only one complete Scandinavian helmet of the Viking Age has ever been found. This is the famous Gjermundbu helmet (named after the place in Norway where it was buried, along with its owner), an arresting object defined by the sinister half-facemask that was intended to protect the eyes and nose. Its owl-like visage – cold, impassive and predatory – was the face presented by at least one Norwegian warrior in his battle-cladding.2

Outside Scandinavia, other helmets have been found in graves that may, on the strength of their form or contents, have been the burial places of Vikings – or, at least, of people with a cultural affinity to Scandinavia. But none of these – most of which have been found in what is now Russia and Ukraine – is distinct from the material culture of the (non-Viking) local populations. Are these Viking helmets? If the only qualification is that a person of Scandinavian extraction might once have put one of these things on his head then the answer must be yes. But these helmets are radically different to the Gjermundbu helmet: open faced, conical, distinctly eastern – and worn by all sorts of other people who were definitely not Vikings. So perhaps these were just helmets that some Vikings happened to wear – not ‘Viking’ helmets at all. Perhaps these were no more ‘Viking’ helmets than the Volga salmon they ate for dinner was ‘Viking’ fish. But, of course, that is equally true of the Gjermundbu helmet as well – simply putting it on didn’t make the wearer a Viking, and we can’t even be certain (no matter how probable it may be) that it was made by, or even worn by, someone born and bred in Scandinavia. As we shall see, material culture can be a most treacherous guide to ethnicity.

The problems lie both in the semantics (the word ‘Viking’) and in the underlying premise that ‘the Vikings’ were a ‘people’ whose characteristics can be listed like a Top Trump card or tabulated like a character-class in a role-playing game. It is fair to say that Vikings, in this sense at least, never existed.

Most modern academics have an uneasy relationship with the term ‘Viking’, and reject the idea that it can be used as an ethnic label. Its original meaning is disputed. It could mean people who hung around in bays getting up to no good (from ON vik, meaning ‘bay or inlet’) or perhaps people who frequently showed up at trading settlements (from OE wics); there are, also, other possibilities. However, its original derivation is largely irrelevant – what is important is what people thought they meant by it when (and if) they used the word. As a common noun (in its Old Norse and Old English forms Vikingr and Wicing respectively), the word was used rarely during the Viking Age and was applied only to a minority, not all of whom were Scandinavians. In Old Norse poetry composed in praise of Viking kings (known as skaldic verse), much of which dates to the Viking period, the word was as likely to be applied to the enemies of Scandinavian kings as to home-grown marauders. Indeed, one of the rare English uses of the term is found in Archbishop Wulfstan’s lament, c. 1014, that slaves were running away from their English lords to become ‘Vikings’.3Who the Vikings were, therefore, could be a relative concept. It was never an ethnic category, and in most cases it seems to have been used disapprovingly, suggesting that ‘Vikings’ could prove as much a menace to Scandinavians as to their victims elsewhere.4

Runestones – memorials to the dead erected during the Viking Age and inscribed in the runic alphabet that was used to render the Old Norse language in written form – also record a number of instances of the word. In most of these cases the word appears as a personal name, and this phenomenon is known from Viking Age Britain as well: a man called ‘Wicing’ was minting coins in Lydford (Devon) on behalf of King Cnut in the eleventh century.5 The implication is that the term ‘Viking’ wasn’t necessarily negative, and although we can’t know for certain if these were names given at birth, it accords well with a society in which individuals revelled in tough-guy epithets.6 Indeed, the abstract form of the noun (ON viking), particularly as encountered in later Icelandic literature, meant a seaborne mission involving adventure, violence, plunder and risk, and was a normal and honourable means by which a man might make his name.

The poetry of the tenth-century Icelander Egil Skallagrimsson – contained in the thirteenth-century saga of his life – sums up, in words which just might originate with Egil himself, a view of the indulgent nature of Viking parenting:

My mother said to me

That they would buy for me

A ship and lovely oars

To go away with Vikings,

Standing in the stern,

Steering the glorious ship,

Then putting into ports,

Killing a man or two.7

In this sense, ‘Viking’ was fundamentally something that one did or was a part of, and there is very limited evidence that the word was used in this way during the Viking Age. A runestone erected by a mother in Vastergotland (Sweden) implies that to engage in ‘Viking’ activity (in this case in the west – that is, in Britain and Ireland) could be considered praiseworthy: ‘Tóla placed this stone in memory of Geirr, her son, a very good valiant man. He died on a Viking raid on the western route.’8

However, there seems to have been an expectation that a man (it was almost certainly an overwhelmingly – if perhaps not exclusively – male occupation) would, at some point, settle down. Supported by the wealth accrued during his Viking days, he might set himself up as a farmer and landowner, the head of a family, with a good reputation among his peers. He might take on some public duties at legal gatherings, and he would use his wealth to patronize poets and craftsmen and perhaps even organize trading expeditions. He would become, in other words, respectable. Inevitably, however, there were always individuals who were sufficiently bloodthirsty, marginalized, restless, irresponsible, fame-hungry, greedy or outcast to make the Viking lifestyle a permanent occupation – these outsiders would have been among those who self-identified as Vikings, and it is for these people that the disapproval of Scandinavian skalds seems to have been reserved. This distinction between being and doing was perhaps a little like the different attitudes that a young person might encounter if he or she were to state an ambition to become ‘a traveller’ rather than merely to ‘go travelling’.

All of which is rendered somewhat irrelevant by the unavoidable observation that hardly anybody was ever called a Viking during the Viking Age itself: they were referred to across Europe and beyond as Danes, Dark Heathens, Dark Foreigners, Fair Foreigners, Foreign Irish, Gentiles, Northmen, Pirates, Pagans, Rūs, Scythians and Varangians, but hardly ever – in Old English – as Vikings (wicings). As we have seen, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tends most frequently to speak of ‘Danes’, despite considerable evidence to indicate that many of the Vikings who found themselves in Britain came from all over the northern world: various Viking leaders can be shown to have had Norwegian origins, runestones commemorate the death of Swedish Vikings in Britain, and even the Viking dead themselves, through analysis of the oxygen isotopes in their teeth, can be shown to have grown up as far afield as Estonia, Belarus and high latitudes beyond the Arctic circle.

The early English had form when it came to conflating complex cultural phenomena into a homogeneous ‘them’ – the diverse inhabitants of much of Celtic-speaking Britain had been labelled wealas (‘foreigners’, whence the modern ‘Welsh’) and treated as a largely undifferentiated rabble since at least Bede’s day. Likewise, ‘Danish’ seems to have become a convenient catch-all term for people who predominantly spoke Old Norse, wherever they actually came from.9

One might expect that modern historians would have long ago developed more subtle approaches to complex issues of identity and cultural affiliation. And yet, until relatively recently, it was widely assumed that past ‘peoples’ could be identified as essentially unchanging racial blocs with cultural traits that were stable, heritable and identifiable through language, behaviour, skull-size and material culture. This ‘culture-historical paradigm’, accompanied by racist bricolage of varying offensive shades, was driven by the twin engines of misapplied Darwinist logic and the German revolution in philology (which had demonstrated the interconnections between Indo-European languages and the mechanics of linguistic development). Social, cultural and racial development was soon seen to be as predictable as vowel mutation and as inexorable as evolution.10 It was only during the second half of the twentieth century that these views began to change and mainstream academia started thinking more critically about past ethnicity.11

It is no coincidence that in Anglophone scholarship this shift coincided with the loss of Britain’s Empire and the country’s diminution as a global power. The culture-historical model shared many features with the system of racial classification that had been used by academics and administrators to reinforce the discriminatory structures of the British Empire – and in particular the position of white English men at the pinnacle of the world order they had invented. It was a classic circular argument – the fact of Empire proved the superiority of the British, the innate genius of whom had made British global supremacy inevitable. At the time, the obvious implication was that the greatness of Britain had been present in the genes; for, if cultural traits were – like DNA – handed down the generations, then surely the seeds of that greatness lay in the blood of mighty ancestors. And, of course, they found greatness in abundance: in the Romans whose civilization prefigured their own Empire, in the Anglo-Saxons whose Germanic origins had (in their minds) brought law, democracy, freedom and a distinctively ‘English’ Christianity to Britain, and, increasingly, in the Vikings.12

As the nineteenth-century children’s author R. M. Ballantyne wrote in 1869, ‘much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!’ A stirring message for the Empire’s future administrators.13

The British Empire was in essence a maritime concern. From Francis Drake to Horatio Nelson its greatest heroes and progenitors had been seamen. Even Alfred, the ninth-century king of Wessex, was fêted (on the strength of very little evidence indeed) as the founder of the English navy.14The Vikings, as a seafaring people, seemed to embody and prefigure all the greatest traits and achievements of the British: the spirit of commerce and adventure, the cutting-edge maritime technology, the suicidal bravery on land and sea, the discovery and settlement of new and exotic lands, the rattling of sabres in the faces of savage natives – even the cheerful pillaging of Catholic Europe with a gusto of which Drake would have been proud. The thought that these qualities had been reproduced in the British – not only by the example but in the very blood of the Vikings – was a tremendously exciting one in the intellectual climate of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here was a myth of origins that did not rely on the Mediterranean parallels and exempla that had been the staples of classical education since the Renaissance; the Old North was real and palpable in the cold salt spray of home waters, and the roar of Boreas carried the family ghosts with it.

So, out of half-digested Icelandic sagas, Wagnerian wardrobe cast-offs, classical ideas of barbarian virtue and a good dose of romantic nationalism, the classic image of the Viking was born: blond and bare-chested, lusty and bold, a noble savage for the north European soul. This, incidentally, was also the crucible in which the horned helmet was forged, a fantasy propagated and popularized through book illustrations. Thomas Heath Robinson’s illustrations for the English retelling of Frithiof’s Saga, published in 1912, have a lot to answer for in this respect, and Arthur Rackham’s drawings accompanying the translated libretto of Wagner’s Ring cycle didn’t help either; even though the Ring wasn’t ‘about’ Vikings, the valkyries, gods, dwarves and other paraphernalia of Norse myth placed it in the same milieu. Most importantly of all, it was in the latter part of the nineteenth century that the word ‘Viking’ came popularly to be applied to these people, their culture and their age.15

In the light of modern attitudes towards Britain’s imperial project, it is now hard to view the enthusiasm of men like Ballantyne without cynicism. The approving comparisons made by men of the nineteenth century between themselves and their Viking forebears now carry a grim irony. Shackles and collars have been excavated from major Viking commercial centres at Dublin and elsewhere along the trade routes to the slave-markets of central Asia; they are functionally and technologically identical to those used in the African slave-trade that underpinned much of Britain’s vast imperial wealth. The greed, brutality and callous disregard for the art and culture of others that the British were periodically to display across the globe were aptly prefigured in the rapacious Viking lust for silver, slaves and tribute. The qualities that some in the past saw as ‘manly vigour’ might very well strike us today as psychopathic tendencies – whether manifested in the eleventh-century Norwegian king Harald Hard-ruler or the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British general Horatio Herbert Kitchener. And, as Britain’s Empire unravelled in the decades following the Second World War, misty-eyed nationalist eulogies to the North became ever more absurd, and comparisons with the recently humiliated Nordic countries increasingly unwelcome.


The marchers move with a practised military discipline, boots polished to a high shine, brass buttons gleaming. At the front march the Rikshird (the State Troopers) in navy blue, followed by the Kvinnehird (the women’s brigades) and the various youth groups gathered together under the banner of the Nasjonal Samling Ungdomsfylking (‘National Unity Youth Front’). Everywhere there are shining eyes and waving banners, gold crosses on red fields, eagles and swords. They move like an army, down from the plain little whitewashed church towards the barrow cemetery. The hump-backed mounds rise and plunge in the grass, like leviathans playing in the shallows of Oslo fjord, the glittering waters spreading out to the east.

A pouchy-looking fellow, with limp sand-coloured hair and slightly bulgy eyes, is standing at a podium. As he begins to speak, the faces of the young men and women assembled before him look up in rapture, glowing with the promise of a golden dawn.

‘Norwegian women, Norwegian men. Today, we are gathered in a historic place, at a historic time in the lives of our people … It was from here, where the Yngling dynasty has its graveyard, that – with thought and deed acting in concert – Norway became united […] Was it not the Viking kings, the Ynglings resting here, the strong Nordic men, who one thousand years ago drove forward the will of the Norwegian people […]?’16


The speaker was Vidkun Quisling, leader of the puppet regime that governed Norway under close supervision from Nazi Germany between 1942 and 1945, and chairman of the Norwegian fascist movement Nasjonal Samling (‘National Unity’). Between 1935 and 1944, Nasjonal Samling held meetings during the Pentecost holiday at the Borre national park in Vestfold, near Oslo.17 The park is the setting for a cemetery of forty surviving grave-mounds, the largest of which are 23 feet tall and up to 150 feet in diameter. In 1852, one of the mounds was demolished by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration for the purpose of gravel extraction. In the process, the remains of an elaborate Viking Age ship burial were discovered. Although the excavations were botched and most of the evidence of the ship itself was lost, the treasures that were found accompanying the burial were spectacular. Gilt-bronze bridle fittings, with their knot-work and zoomorphic decorations, gave rise to the definition of a new Viking art-form: the ‘Borre’ style.18 These were some of the first artefacts that allowed Norwegians to imagine the splendour of Viking Age power, and historians eagerly took up the Borre site as emblematic of national origins – a powerful symbol in the period around 1905 when the independent kingdom of Norway formally came into being after more than 500 years of political and dynastic union with Denmark and (latterly) Sweden. In 1915, Professor Anton Wilhelm Brøgger sensationally claimed that the ship burial was the grave of Halfdan the Black, father of Harald Finehair (c. 850–c. 932) – the man credited as the first king of a unified Norway. This built on medieval traditions that considered the Borre mounds to be the cemetery of the legendary Yngling dynasty, from which Halfdan and Harald ultimately sprang.

These elaborate confections of folklore and invented tradition have disintegrated under scrutiny in recent decades. But, in the political climate of post-independence Norway at the beginning of the twentieth century, a national myth of such potency went unchallenged. In 1932, with Brøgger as its indefatigable cheerleader, Borre became Norway’s first national park – a sacred site, as he saw it, in the birth of Norwegian nationhood.19

These were the myths that Quisling, and men like him, eagerly embraced. Borre was not the only Viking Age site that Nasjonal Samling commandeered for their propaganda – they also met at the iconic battle-sites of Stiklestad and Hafrsfjord where Quisling told his audience (wrongly), ‘Norwegian kings sat on Scotland’s throne and for almost four hundred years Norwegian kings ruled Ireland,’ pointing out too (and stretching the truth almost as much) that ‘Ganger Rolf [Rollo], who was a king of Norwegian birth [he wasn’t], founded a kingdom in Normandy [he didn’t] which was so powerful that it conquered England [150 years later].’ The promotion of the archetypal Viking image – the aggression, the expansionism, the machismo – became a powerful recruiting tool for the Nazis and their fascist allies. Numerous propaganda images (the majority produced by the Norwegian artist Harald Damsleth) featured lantern-jawed Nordic types riding the decks of dragon-prowed long-ships, alongside more sophisticated and esoteric uses of runic scripts and mythological allusions. These fostered a spurious sense of continuity between the Viking Age and the National Socialist project. The deep roots and time-hallowed legitimacy that these symbols implied lent the ultra-modern ideology of racist nationalism a gravitas that helped it to transcend its inherent novelty and absurdity.20

It was the latter quality that fascist movements in Britain never quite managed to escape: P. G. Wodehouse’s brilliant lampoon of the British politician Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists, or ‘Blackshirts’ (with Roderick Spode’s ‘Blackshorts’), proved that the British capacity to laugh at anything was a useful barricade against the pompous po-facedness of fascist demagoguery.21 But the ultimate failure of British fascism is perhaps also testament to the fact that, by the mid-twentieth century, the medieval (including the Viking) past – so relentlessly plundered by nationalist movements across Europe – had already been integrated into British national culture in forms which were harder to bend into totalitarian shape. Nevertheless, the degree to which the Nazis successfully co-opted the image of the Vikings into National Socialist propaganda can be measured in the long-term and widespread contamination of northern European heritage. J. R. R. Tolkien’s deeply held loathing for ‘that ruddy little ignoramus’ Adolf Hitler rested in no small part on his recognition of the damage done by ‘Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light’.22

It remains the case today that too warm an enthusiasm for the ‘Germanic’ past can raise suspicions (often justified) of unsavoury politics: the subject remains a fecund repository for the imagery of racist propaganda. This taint is one of the quietest, most tenacious and most ironic legacies of the Third Reich.23

This squeamishness about the Vikings and their world would lead ultimately to a thorough reappraisal of the Viking Age in the decades following the Second World War. Pioneered by the British archaeologist Peter Sawyer, revisionist histories sought to downplay the lurid violence and warrior ethics of the Vikings, emphasizing instead their artistic, technological and mercantile achievements.24 There is no doubt that it was a necessary corrective, rebalancing the Viking image and dispelling a plethora of myths and falsehoods that had stood unchallenged since the Middle Ages. However, far from liberating the Vikings from nationalist captivity, the new narratives provided a fresh palette with which revivalists and nationalists could embellish what had previously been a relatively two-dimensional image. Viking ancestors became pioneers without equal, craftsmen and poets, engineers and statesmen – as well as remaining the warriors and conquerors they had always been. All of which was true of course, at least of some individuals at certain times and in different places. But the desire to demystify the Viking Age also brought in train a new myth: that the Vikings – with their storytelling and home-making, their pragmatism, their games and their shoe-menders – were essentially the same as we are, but fitter, stronger, clearer of purpose, uncorrupted by modernity. Peering into the Viking world, some have found a mirror reflecting back all that they would wish themselves and the modern world to be: simple, undiluted, purified …

But, as we shall see, the Vikings were strange. They were strange to their contemporaries and they should be strange to us too. Theirs was a world in which slaves were raped, murdered and burned alongside the decomposing corpses of their dead owners, a world where men with filed teeth bartered captive monks for Islamic coins, where white-faced women smeared their bodies in fat and human ash and traversed the spirit world in animal form: it is not the template for a brave new world that I, for one, would choose. Thus ‘the Vikings’, to us now and to their contemporaries in their own time, could represent something both familiar and alien: they could be weird and remote, monstrous even, but also bound tightly into narratives of who the English-speaking peoples have felt themselves – wanted themselves – to be. It is a complex and enduring problem, and shifting emphases in the presentation of the Vikings and their homelands, from the eighth century to the present day, illuminate the preoccupations of the modern psyche just as much as they do the realities of the Viking Age itself.25

All of which is to say that the whole idea of the ‘Viking’ needs to be handled with care. As it is used in a modern sense (and in this book), the word is largely employed as a term of convenience. It is used to define a period, the seaborne warriors whose activities characterized that period, and the shared cultural connections, ideas and art-styles (mostly, but not exclusively, of Scandinavian origin) that both bound people together and spawned new identities. It is important to recognize that – like the reality of all human life – what we mean by the term is chaotic, contestable and imprecise, resisting easy definition. How that chaos is, and has been, negotiated is in part what this book is about. And thinking about it is important, because the stereotypes can be deadly.


Norwegian propaganda for the SS by Harald Damsleth, 1940–5

In the 1940s, hundreds of young Norwegian men, stirred by images of their ‘Viking’ heritage and convinced by nationalist propaganda of the threat from Russian Bolshevism, signed up for the ‘Norwegian Legion’. They were promised that they would be fighting in the interests of a free and independent Norway. Instead they found themselves, barely out of training, ordered by German officers into the meat-grinder of Hitler’s Eastern Front. A hundred and eighty of them (around 20 per cent) were killed before the legion was acrimoniously disbanded. Those few who remained committed to the Nazi cause were integrated into the SS Nordland Division, a force of mainly Scandinavian volunteers which had formerly constituted a part of the SS Wiking Division. These were the men who were inspired by the Viking-themed propaganda images churned out by the Reich and who had listened misty-eyed to Quisling’s fantasies in the supposed burial ground of Halfdan the Black. The men of SS Nordland, convinced of the superiority of their Viking blood, would go on to commit atrocities in eastern Europe which were equal to the crimes of any of their Nazi peers.26

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