The Vikings William Morrow
The Viking World
“The Vikings” 1980, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 4, 1980 to January 4,1981
The Vikings are upon us again, and this time with none to echo a prayer as endlessly plausible as it was ever unverifiable: “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord, deliver us!” For this is a peaceful re-entry, which began as an exhibition in the heart of London, of sudden advent but long preparation, and by design revelatory of our ancient despoilers in all their manifestations at home and abroad, domestic as well as martial, cultural as well as destructive, openers-up of trade-routes, word-hoards, and world-pictures, as well as of purses and jugulars. This laudable design is reinforced by the appearance of two new books on the subject, one of them, The Vikings, by James Graham-Campbell and Dafydd Kidd, intended to serve as the exhibition’s catalogue. The other, James Graham-Campbell’s wideranging survey The Viking World, is no less welcome, for it is high time for a popular or, rather, public reappraisal to follow the established scholarly one. This may involve a loss of folklore along with the historical gain, but the two are not so exclusive of each other as is sometimes supposed.
A word first about the very considerable advances in Norse-Viking studies conducted in the English-language world during the last quarter of a century, most of them commanding a high degree of public interest. Some events like the nine-hundredth anniversary of the epochal victory and defeat at Stamford Bridge and Hastings reinforced a widening interest. Others like the uncovering of Norse Dublin and the excavation of the Anglo-Norse town at York had both a local and national appeal. The raising of five medieval Norse ships which had been sunk to block the channel at Skuldelev (Peberrenden) in Roskilde Fjord, Denmark, and the building and putting to sea of faithful replicas of the Norse longship brought a new awareness of the realities of Viking seamanship and sea power. Of particular interest to Americans was the increasing evidence of a Norse presence in the Western Hemisphere. The excavations at Brattahlid in southwest Greenland of Norse homesteads and “Thjodhild’s Church” confirmed that the right sort of colony was there at the right time to lend substance to saga accounts of Norse voyages to the North American continent c. 1000 AD.
In the Sixties the Vinland Map achieved world fame with what everyone hoped would be the first portrayal on any map of any part of the New World in general, and that part of it we now know as Canada and the United States in particular. In the Seventies the fame changed to notoriety as one more vellum bit the dust, but these setbacks happen, have happened before, and will happen again. Altogether more important was the steady homing-in on northern Newfoundland as the possible, then probable, then certain site of Norse settlement. The decisive archaeological reports appeared in 1977, and the historical survey is expected to appear later this year. There could be no more golden welcome for “The Vikings” exhibition in New York.
Briefly, who were the Vikings, so-called, those potent contributors to history, legend, and myth? This is the question put and answered in the opening chapters of The Vikings, “Introduction and the Scandinavian Background,” and in the first two chapters of The Viking World, “Pagan People and Their Lands” and “Viking Warriors.” They were Scandinavians, the inhabitants of the much-partitioned and fought-over lands which would become Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. But a truer meaning of the word víkingr can be drawn, I think, from the related word víking, which means a freebooting voyage, and by extension the business or profession of seaborne piracy. A Viking was one who went a-viking and was engaged in the forcible acquisition of other people’s property, including those most valuable properties of all, their life and liberty. All Scandinavians were not víkingar, Vikings, and all Vikings were not pirates all the time; but enough of them were and came into sufficiently hurtful contact with their overseas neighbors for “Viking” to become an emotively descriptive term, at home neutral and sometimes admiring, abroad resentful or contumelious, for all unwelcome visitants from “up there.”
Their bad reputation started immediately. Inevitably our documentary knowledge of the Viking Movement (that is, the manifestation of the Viking Age, c. 780-1100, outside Scandinavia) we owe in large measure to those who justifiably regarded their inroads with fear and loathing, and especially the monkish chroniclers of Church and State. It has become the thing to say (I have said it myself) that the Vikings were no worse than the other baleful predators of humankind, but assuredly they were no better, and who expects a reasoned remonstrance from the toad beneath the harrow? From Lindisfarne and Jarrow, Iona and Armagh, from Dorchester and Dorestadt, Paris and Périgueux, Chartres and Melun, the clamant voices of anti-Viking outrage and protest soared to God on high and lapped among men below. For where throughout the ninth and tenth centuries were they not?
Their story is unfolded in chapters 3 and 4 of The Vikings, “Traders and Looters” and “Viking Settlement,” as in Mr. Graham-Campbell’s corresponding “Land-Seekers” and “Merchantmen.” The coasts and river lanes of Western Europe lay open to them; most of what are now the unified kingdoms or nations of England, France, and the Celtic lands were conveniently and fatally divided into warring realms, lordships, and factions. The lands bordering the great Russian rivers Volga and Dnieper and their tributaries were ripe for exploitation by compact, weapon-bearing bands of traders fair and foul, who would set up marts, stockaded towns, and eventually such city-states as Kiev; and the Arab lands and the Eastern Empire were sources of that most loved metal silver, and insatiable marts for furs and slaves (the Vikings were devoted slavers). Eastward they would eventually work the enormous trading grounds and waterways from the Baltic and its gulfs to the Black Sea and the Caspian, with links to the silk empires beyond the mariner’s rose, and access to Constantinople, Miklagarth, the Great City. Westward-over-sea they found the grassy sheep-runs of the Faroes, the butter-laden pasture and millennial hunting-grounds of Iceland, where the foot of man had never trod; and westward still the unculled fisheries and seal nurseries of the southwest Greenland fjords; and still in the eye of the setting sun the timberlands and fur-bearers of Labrador and Newfoundland.
The causes of this Scandinavian outpouring of “tumultuary arms and numbers” would carry us beyond our brief. But land-shortage and overpopulation at home, faction and expulsion accompanying the forging of the Scandinavian kingdoms, were part of it; and the lure of pasture and timber, portable plunder and undefended riches elsewhere another part. The freeman looked for gainful employment, comradeship, self-improvement; great men sought an aggrandizement of rank and territory and the wealth that went with them, honor in this life and fame thereafter.
Toward the realization of the universal human dream of wanting all you can get, and getting it if possible for nothing, the Scandinavian peoples for well over two hundred years had one supreme instrument: the viking ship. In northern and western waters it was unrivaled—or rather they were unrivaled, for the Norsemen had ships for every practical purpose, including warfare, trade, and ocean-going. But it was the longship which most impressed itself on Europe and posterity. Handsome, sturdy, roomy enough, proceeding under sail or oars or both, highly maneuverable with her advanced steering, of shallow draught and comparatively low freeboard, and finally of unrivaled seaworthiness, she was the key to Viking success. The account of Norse ships in The Viking World contributed by Dr. Sean McGrail is first-rate. It discusses their size, shape, and function, the timber and tools that went to their making, their performance, and the skills of those who designed and manned them. It also finds room for a “Visual Glossary,” a device so compulsively desirable and right that one wonders how any author ever managed without it.
Her day would pass, and its passing heralded a sad sea-change for Viking dominance abroad. But in the eleventh century the world was changing anyway. England, France, Normandy were deploying their superior resources; there was too much dissension and warfare back home; the Vikings had no exportable political or social system; their religion sank before Christianity; their language made no true headway against Latin and the Western European vernaculars. Above all they lacked manpower to consolidate their swift gains. The Viking achievement had been formidable, yet less than conclusive. At home the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden had taken recognizable though far from immutable shape; abroad they had consolidated the island-republic of Iceland and ensured the continuing existence of the Duchy of Normandy. Their contribution to geographical knowledge and discovery was impressive, and they had spun a veritable spider’s web of trade-routes and mercantile dealing with peoples near and far. They supplied a useful leaven of new blood and enterprise to many peoples: they were by nature energizers.
But somehow it all came to less than it should have—with the brilliant exceptions of the statecraft and European role of the Normans, and the flowering of poetry, prose-narrative, and historical writing in Iceland. But nothing of Norse power would survive west of Iceland, though the legends were potent; the Icelanders, freed from the oppression “of kings and ruffians abroad,” were soon Icelanders pure and simple; the Danes of the Danelaw became Englishmen; while in Russia the East-faring Vikings, the Rus, were submerged in Slav confederacies and eventually in the vast empire to which they gave their name.
All these matters receive attention and illustration in the splendid exhibition at the British Museum in London and The Metropolitan Museum in New York. But before we discuss the exhibition, let us spare a few paragraphs for that ferocious northern stereotype, the Viking image, which has haunted us for over twelve hundred years since Charlemagne maneuvered Sigfred king of Nordmannia into the misleading light of Frankish history and Paul the Deacon declined a visit to the royal Nordic bumpkin who (Oh horror!) knew no Latin. Most of us were brought up on the assumptions that the Age of the Vikings was a Heroic Age and the Viking a Hero of a more than normally violent kind. Such assumptions can be true without being wholly true.
What we know about any Heroic Age, particularly among the Germans and the Celts (the most relevant to us), comes from its literary (i.e., written or incised) and archaeological remains. These suggest that such an age has a society consisting of three divinely ordained classes: first, a warrior-elite at whose head stands a king, lord, chieftain, of divine descent or at least redolent of some divine aura or savor; second, a class of free men with a right to land and opinions and the obligation to discharge such honorable and satisfying tasks as farming, building ships and houses, and practicing a craft and trade; and third, a class of slaves, who do the world’s dirty work and have no guaranteed rights at all.