Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Just how bad were those Vikings? I mean, relatively speaking...

I recently had a familiar conversation. A friend had been reading Egil’s Saga and commented on all the (apparently) wanton destruction and killing that takes place. And I found myself, as always, trying to defend these old buddies of mine. Trying to explain how they really weren’t all that bad.

But how bad were they really?

I don’t subscribe to a black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us view of things. The way I see it, there’s one world, with good and bad all mixed up in it and in us. If you put Egil’s behavior into the cultural context, of course, it looks pretty normal and it brought him success. You could see it as an example of a Darwinian struggle to pass on one’s genetic code. You could see Viking behavior in general as a cultural evolutionary strategy.

But that’s not good enough for me. I just love these guys (and girls) and I hate to see them put down. I can list their accomplishments. Egil’s poetry, for one. Evidence of other literature (albeit oral) and legal codes. Ship design and navigation. Architecture, runestones, metalwork, wood carving, agriculture and animal husbandry, trade, and—don’t laugh!—foreign relations and statecraft.

Okay, I admit it, I have a strong interest in promoting a positive view of the Vikings, even if it means pointing out everyone else’s negatives!

So just what were the European non-Viking alpha males of that era up to? (I mean, when they weren’t at church.) Surely they couldn’t have been, uh, killing anyone?

Around the time of the first Viking attacks on England, we have the “rise of the Kingdom of Wessex, which overcame the Cornish Welsh and the southern dependencies of Mercia…enforced the submission of both Mercia and Northumbria.” Just how did they enforce the aforementioned submission? Did they make the Northumbrians wear women’s underwear?

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Uí Néill and the Eóganachta were the primary adversaries, with the Laigin stuck in the middle, forced--upon pain of…uh…having their lunch money stolen--to accept the “overlordship” of one or the other. They had been fighting for centuries and when the Norse appeared on the scene they made no bones about using alliances with the newcomers to further their own agendas.

And then there was Charlemagne, whom people seem to love for reviving Roman “culture.” (I'm not sure whether gladitorial combat to the death was included in that.) He was operating around the same time as our friends from Wessex. Here’s how he’s described by one author: “…[Charlemagne] spent his long reign fighting continual aggressive wars…conquered the remaining fragment of Frisia and…Saxony…absorbed Bavaria…establish[ed] protectorates over the nearer Slavs…[in] conflict with the Avars, whose downfall he contrived with the aid of the Bulgars…annexed the Lombard kingdom…” And in his spare time he did needlepoint, skipped gaily through the forest, and hosted telethons to raise money for poor starving orphans…actually that last bit is true, and I understand it helped him get into heaven in spite of it all. (That and protecting Pope Leo III when he was assaulted by his enemies, who, by the way, were not Vikings.)

Have I made my point yet? Bear with me, I've got one more example.

I can't forget the Germans in the tenth century. Henry the Fowler collected tribute from the Danes, I believe. What he had to do to get that tribute, I can only imagine. Otto I “humbled or dethroned other dukes...spent [years] fighting in south Italy…suppress[ed] Bavarian revolt…attempted invasion of France…died…while organizing a campaign against the Saracens.”

“Excuse me, but I’d like to try out that throne now.”

“Oh, yes, Otto, please, do have a sit! And can I get you a nice mug of cold beer?”

Perhaps I’m being snide, but there are some important points to note here. Most obviously, these guys had literate public relations people at work from the very start, whereas the Vikings did not write their own stories. Even the modern vocabulary is telling: the Vikings plundered and pillaged, but the others “overcame,” “enforced submission,” “conquered,” “annexed,” “absorbed,” “humbled and dethroned,” etc. Anti-pagan bias historically played a big part, too.

Finally, the English, Irish, French and German leaders fit within a traditional, and in a sense, evolutionary, view of history that sees the creation of the nation-state as an end that justifies the means. Thanks to newer currents in historiography we can move away from that view now. The Vikings certainly used violence, but they were not alone, and they also had their creative, honorable sides. The more we discover about them, the more there is to admire.


Hoffman, Ross J.S. and James J. Flynn. Medieval History With Questions and Answers. Littlefield, Adams and Co. 1965. (Okay, so this one’s a little old, but this is the stuff we were given when I was in school.)

McEvedy, Colin. The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. Penguin Books. (And would you believe it? I can’t find a date on this thing! I promise it’s not from the dark ages, like that other one. The ISBN is 0140512497.)

Moody, T.W. and F.X. Martin. The Course of Irish History. Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1994.