Martin W. Jürgensen/National Museum of Denmark

‘Saint Olaf’s sailing race’; fourteenth-century wall painting in the parish church at Skamstrup, Denmark

The Vikings. Were they worth it? Why should these “filthiest of God’s creatures, who do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating, nor do they wash after having sex,” as a Muslim observer noted in about 920, be the subject of major exhibitions in London and Berlin, with the concomitant miseries of overcrowding, overcharging, and overwhelming the public?

The London show, which closed on June 22 and goes on to Berlin in September, attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, not because it was so good but because that is what big exhibitions do. The crowd management was careless, but the customers kept coming, either because of the continuous rain outside, or because schools and parents need this sort of thing to occupy their charges. What they found in this case was a new hangar or barn built onto the old museum. They entered a sequence of small compartments displaying jewelry, carvings, and weapons, with inscriptions like the quote from Ibn Fadlan above on the upper part of the partitions, and cards describing the exhibits very curtly at the height of a young child. Earphones were available, and these explained things at greater length, so that the visitors stood in front of the cases blocking the view until the machine said its piece. The resulting congestion gave an impression of mass engagement, but most people were waiting to get a peep or trying to make their way through.

When they did, they escaped into the long hall, to find the star of the show: a skeleton of light steel rods in the shape of the 122-foot warship described here as Roskilde 6. The original, of which a few planks survive at the bottom of the skeleton, was built in about 1025 to carry a crew of between eighty and one hundred armed oarsmen, and later sunk to block a channel leading into Denmark’s main island. This giant rowing boat, the biggest found so far, was probably ordered by King Canute, who succeeded in dominating both Scandinavia and the British Isles for about sixteen years, and could use the English tax system to pay for his fleet. The length of this vessel thinned out the crowd somewhat: we perched above it and along it and tried to imagine what it looked like when it was not a skeleton. At the far end there was a replica of the big Jelling stone, which a Danish king had had carved, painted, and inscribed with runes to commemorate Harold, the tenth-century king of Denmark and Norway, who is said to have “made the Danes Christian.”

Not all of them, and not very Christian, but epitaphs are not written on oath, and that massive monument, with Jesus standing in the shape of a cross, entangled in vines or boughs, on one side and Judah’s lion locked in combat with the Old Serpent on the other, is usually seen as the baptismal certificate of the Danes. Walking all the way around the ship, you reached the Lewis chessmen—the medieval chess set discovered on the Isle of Lewis off northwest Scotland in the nineteenth century—which postdate Vikings, but suggest a capacity for mock warfare as well as for the real thing. Then came the exit to the big shop, where you could remind yourself that these shows serve eager commercial interests.

Those of the museum, of course, which needs the prestige and huddled masses to meet running costs and be like other museums. Also the interests of the many scribblers and publishers offering new and old printed material. At the British Museum there was a choice of more than thirty books. Chinese toymakers have exported plastic drinking horns, trumpets, and other noisy goods. You could also buy the work of fur hat and chunky sweater retailers, of fake jewelers and silversmiths, of replica armorers and craftsmen. You could even buy a 100 percent silk necktie of curious in-wrought light blue and indigo design, such as Varangian chiefs used to wear when admitted to the presence of Byzantine emperors. “Dry clean only,” alas.

It was all to be expected in the modern museum, and in the exhibition we found at least an extraordinary assembly of old Nordic objects, or of things that look like them, presented with no more sinister purpose than to engage the attention. Yet a trip to the national and ship museums in Denmark, where a version of the exhibition was first mounted in late 2013, will reveal that it is not impossible to have more space for the exhibits, clearer labeling (with some very silly and modish exceptions), and more humane marshaling of visitors. They gave you earphones there, too, as everywhere. Essential for the blind and hard of hearing, and perhaps that rules out an alternative for the less impaired. I mean a printed guidebook with concise numbered explanations of the exhibits, the numbers corresponding to numbers in the showcases. The people could then decide what they want to see, read about it, and keep moving.


Another question: Who were “the Vikings”? The exhibition shows a selection of the art, craft, and technology of people in and from the region we call Scandinavia, who lived between about 750 and 1066 AD and ranged for various purposes over a much wider terrain stretching from Newfoundland to western Asia. Those who went raiding by sea were called Vikings, and they were usually a small and somewhat suspect minority. At some point in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century someone, and then everyone, decided to apply this word—which derives from the Old Norse for pirate—to the whole Nordic population, as if all Americans were to be called cowboys or outlaws. A thousand years ago there was no one term to describe speakers of the Nordic varieties of the Germanic language family. They were called Northmen, or Danes, or Swedes, or Gauts, or Ruotsi (Russians), depending on circumstances, not entirely on where they lived. They had versions of the same language in common, and the shortened runic alphabet to write it.

Their societies were varied and mutable, mostly based on family farms, either in association with each other (Iceland and Greenland) or under chiefs and kings (Scandinavia). Overseas, they combined in camps, forts, and towns, and tended to become parasitic on, or subject to, whatever were the native political arrangements. In the great expansion of that age, which took many forms (colonization, trade, conquest, job-seeking in alien armies), Vikings were the specialists in slave-hunting and treasure-finding and blackmail.

Most of the stuff in the London exhibition relates to a much bigger picture than that of seaborne depredation. No Vikings could have afforded the huge longship that dominates the big room, or the Jelling stone, or the brief but impressive hegemony of King Canute over most of the north of Europe. These were the work of an altogether superior class of blackguard, whose history invites speculation about state formation, urbanization, monetization, national identity, and even “joining Europe.” There is a lot of that sort of commentary in university circles, which suggests that the impulse to fit the old Northmen and women into modern theories of development is not exhausted.

They don’t fit comfortably into such schemes. They never developed a great state, nation, or civilization: only a diaspora of small ones, and an extraordinary post-conversion literature. They lost whatever cultural identity they had quite soon after settling down among the Irish, English, Franks, Balts, Finns, and Slavs. Their remarkable initial successes in war inspired land forces that were better fed and armed to organize and defeat them. This year is the thousandth anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, near present-day Dublin, one of several defeats that showed the Ostmen, the Fair Strangers, and the Dark Strangers (as the Nordic settlers were called) that they would never be able to dominate even Ireland if that is what they had intended. The tons of silver and bullion imported to Scandinavia over this period, partly by raiders, were used to wear or buy support or hoard, rather than to invigorate a new economy. The creation of Russia by Nordics was no small achievement; but the idea of turning a series of tribute-collecting chiefdoms along the route to Byzantium into the monarchy of Kiev came from the envoys and missionaries of Constantinople. The monarchy was a product of the Byzantine emperors’ foreign policy, rather than a Viking plan.

Still, they did build remarkable ships, and the excavated remains of some of the ships have rightly been accepted as symbolic of the Northmen, as pyramids are symbolic of the ancient Egyptians, the Parthenon of the ancient Greeks. Theirs was a shipshape culture. Babies could lie in ship-shaped cradles, and children play with toy ships. When they grew, they could scratch images of ships on every possible surface, and some of them even rode horses with their feet in boat-shaped stirrups. They built houses designed like ships, and sometimes repaired them with fragments of ship. Women could wear ship brooches and clasps, and remain busy for months weaving ships’ sails from wool, and dyeing them.

Most men spent much of the summer turning trees into ships’ timber and the timber into ships. The better-off could look forward to cremation or burial in boats, and then have their mounds or graves enclosed in ship-shaped settings of upright stones, sometimes, as originally at Jelling, of very large circumference. If they were poets they would rack their brains for new and old metaphors for ships, so that much of the natural world would remind them of sea transport, even horses, bulls, birds, and snakes.


However, to achieve lasting fame in the ranking of great civilizations, it is inadvisable to work in timber. Wood rots. In air, untreated, it rots, usually within a lifetime; underground, in acid clay, it can survive for millennia, unseen. The great work of archaeologists over the last 150 years has been to bring so much of this work to light. We can now grasp the glory of it in replicated halls, streets of houses, causeways, forts, and ships butting through the sea with crews instructed in the rediscovered art of oar and one-sail navigation. There was no one type of Viking ship, since we find five or six built for different purposes and ranges, of which the giant long-ship was the precarious primate.

Compared with the chunky and costly Mediterranean big ships of the ancient world, held together with massive braces, rivets, and riders, waterproofed with inner plank skins, the Norse model was flimsy. The Norse ships were undecked unless made to hold merchandise, their buoyancy threatened by waves over the gunwale, their sides easily holed, their backs broken, and their capacity limited by rowing benches. Their strength was simplicity. The timber was cut thin, shaped and fitted into overlapping planks by tools no more elaborate than the axe and the auger, wielded by village craftsmen.


Wikinger Museum Haithabu/Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Germany

Copper alloy pin with dragon’s head, Hedeby, Germany, 950–1000

There was no need for the naval architects of the Romans. Calculations of stress and wave resistance were based on trial and error and local tradition. They didn’t use saws. Splitting and warping timber lengthways, with the grain, gave a more resilient plank, and the abundance of woodland all over Scandinavia freed shipwrights from the recurrent shortages of supply in Greek and Roman navies. The story of the technical development of northern shipping is retold in The Viking Ship by Gareth Williams.

The English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was inclined to scorn outlandish civilizations, was puzzled by the old Norsemen. “I admit they got to America,” he once said, “but did they have any ideas?” By which I think he meant: Is there any way of knowing what their ideas were? It was a fair question, because we are or were taught to believe that Greeks, Romans, Elizabethans, Florentines, et al. are memorable for what some of them thought, whatever they actually did.

It would be no good to have replied by playing the Old Norse literature card. That literature was mostly written after the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity, and the church has a way of providing converts both with ideas and with the means of recording them. Still, there are inscriptions on rune-stones and praise-poems commemorating kings and heroes—and these date from well before the conversion, or at least some of them do. It seems that for the most part they chose to follow oral tradition since they could have written other poems or accounts down if they wanted.

Christianity had a stimulating effect on both runes and praise-poems. The older poems ring the changes on about a half-dozen ideas. That the chief or king is invincible; that the chief or king is fearless; that all the others fear him; that gods and goddesses must be propitiated; that killing is admirable; that feasting is good; that the ruler’s generosity with food, drink, weapons, and silver is unlimited. That makes seven, and to bring it up to eight, we can add this: I, the poet, am an admirable man and a very good poet. These ideas, if that is what they are, are neither exciting nor original; the excitement lies in the way they are expressed, and can hardly be communicated in any other language than the original Old West Norse or Icelandic.

As for the runes: the stock of ideas differs from those in the poems, but not in complexity, originality, or applicability to the human condition outside the Viking age. This is not to suggest that the old Northmen lacked ideas; merely that those expressed in two very specialized and limited mediums would probably not have impressed Lord Dacre. To find more, it is necessary to look hard at artifacts, burials, and monumental landscapes, which if probed with the fallible instruments provided by anthropology (comparative and social) and art history enable us to ascribe ideas to the long-dead—though never actually to know them.

To take the most obvious example: on all of the objects in the exhibition are the distorted and fragmented animal motifs cut and stamped on all materials from about 200 to about 1500. They conformed to varying styles throughout the North, which can be used for approximate dating and geographical location. Their often wild and almost illegible disfigurement is said to have been started by Germanic barbarians as a deliberate ideological choice, to reject the naturalistic animal forms of the Romano-Christian Mediterranean civilization. The disfigurement is said to have been intensified by Nordic craftsmen as a marker of identity. They wanted to assert native values by contorting and disarticulating the bear, the boar, the raven, the horse, the serpent, and the eagle, and when the lion was introduced from the alien South, it too was put through the wringer and made to roar in ur-Nordic.

Possibly. The objection is that there was no compulsion or even inducement for barbarians to follow classical styles of art at any point in this long millennium, so that their preference for an alternative need not have been owing to a rejection of the other. What they could copy—decorative foliage such as appears on the Jelling stone, cribbed from a gospel book but given a new life—they did. But the amazing perfection of human and animal figures in some late Roman silver dishes and bowls was technically too difficult for the Nordic craftsman to reproduce. They were not the first barbarians to see horses as dashes, curves, and scrawls. See the huge outlined White Horse on the downs above Uffington.

This is not to say that deducing ideas from dead things is impossible or a waste of time; merely that in the case of the Northmen it is much more difficult than with the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose statues and decorative motifs are backed by collections of mythology, contemporary comment, and history. Before the thirteenth century there is little enough of that in the North, but there is sufficient archaeological reading of whole burials and cemeteries, and of entire landscapes, reconstructed as they looked a thousand years ago, to deduce or infer what people meant by them.

As a guide to that branch of learning, the fourth chapter of the exhibition catalog, Vikings: Life and Legend, is helpful. Separate essays by Neil Price, Peter Pentz, Lars Jørgensen, and Jan Bill fit together the ideal world of dragons, gods, the afterlife, and magic with the holy sites, vestiges of propitiation and ritual, and all the other finds, some of them on display in the exhibition. The book is not a guide to the exhibition but a sort of contrapuntal statement of how things look at present in this field of investigation. In chapter three there are sections by Matthias Wemhoff and Anne Pedersen describing the opulent halls and amenities of the chiefs and rulers who eventually led or drove their dependents to the momentous bath of baptism.

The history of Nordic baptism is long and difficult, conducted over more than three centuries, starting in the 820s when the first Danish king to be baptized entered the great hall of the imperial Frankish palace at Ingelheim with his entire retinue. As reconstructed, this room represented Christian kingship at its most attractive and awesome, from the glittering throne to the many-colored wall paintings lit by a blaze of light from tall upper windows inconceivable in even the longest hall back in Denmark. If the lesson was that if King Harold, enriched with Frankish silver and gold and swords, would only stick to the Christian faith then he might hope to reign in similar glory in his own country, it was wasted. Harold’s own kinsmen turned against him and he was reduced to the status of a pensioner on the imperial frontier.

Over the ensuing centuries heathen or apostate Northmen would persist in defeating and robbing Christians, even when they allowed Christian clergy to live and work in Scandinavia. This impasse must have involved a real conflict of ideas, as well as a trial of strength, and it seems that the eventual victory of the beliefs advanced by the Catholic Church was achieved with no unconditional surrender of native belief and practice. Whereas in Anglo-Saxon England memories of the old gods hardly appear in any written source at all, the Icelander Snorri was able to compile a complete pagan mythology and theology more than two centuries after what many thought was the conversion of the island.

The poets were still composing work reeking of pagan allusions even when the themes were Christian. Conversion there and in Scandinavia had not obliterated Thor, Odin, and Freya; they had merely been demoted from the top table to sit and brawl and scandalize the pious on the lower benches. It was a remarkable survival, but not unique. It had happened before, with the adoption of classical mythology and culture by educated Christians in the Roman Empire. For them, to be baptized was not to be brainwashed, and their bifocal vision dominated European and American education almost to the present day. The Nordic symbiosis of two kinds of sanctity had no such glorious future after the thirteenth century, since power rested with the Christian hierarchy. The bishops and abbots were uninterested in the heathen survivals in Snorri or in the Danish historian Saxo, and were actively engaged in combating the residual polytheism of the continental Balts—i.e., in such places as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Nevertheless, while it lasted there was an interplay of ideas, ill-recorded and inferential, but still detectable in the art and literature and crafts of the medieval North.

This is true especially of Iceland (for which no room seems to have been available in this exhibition). Of course, our sensibilities are so tender that there is almost nothing about the Old North that cannot frostbite our inquiries. Those who cannot stand the brutal militarism of the Scandinavian Vikings should perhaps look north and west, beyond the British Isles, to the Arctic waters where Nordic migrants faced their severest challenges with little prospect of easing their settlements with the riches of adjacent civilizations. Slaves had to be imported from Ireland, seven hundred miles to the south, and what natural resources were found in Iceland, especially timber, were soon exhausted by the early settlers. The Icelanders were a rough and ready lot, but in time adjusted to reduced circumstances, found ways of feeding livestock and horses, trading, and winning the prizes for the best poetry in the Nordic world. They combined into a Christian commonwealth, kingless, oligarchic, and violent but subject to law; and there it is now a humane and educated society.

The record of the Greenlanders, the Nordic settlers who lived there from about 1000 to about 1450, is just as impressive. To establish two colonies of several hundred farms and a bishopric was heroic, considering the lack of metal, timber, grain, or slave labor, and the small supply of walrus and narwhal ivory that were the only local products in demand elsewhere. Their landing and survival in Newfoundland for a few years never developed further into the New World, even if it might have been a source of regular supply of ship’s timber. The ingenuity they showed in maintaining farms on the West Greenland coast, using irrigation to raise temperatures, constructing byres and houses in the most fuel-efficient ways, making do with every possible substitute food or material—this makes them worth remembering, if not at all suitable for Viking exhibitions.

The public will always prefer a good story, with plenty of action, to an appreciation of farming under difficulties. Publishers and authors know it well, and there has been a long stream or dripping faucet of books entitled The Fury of/The Coming of/The World of/The Saga of/The History of the Vikings, at least since the 1890s, when Charles Francis Keary, a British Museum employee, produced The Vikings in Western Christendom. The latest Age of the Vikings is by Anders Winroth of Yale University, who has an impressive knowledge of the sources, the archaeology, and the modern historical literature. He begins in a rather journalistic style: “Finally the chieftain took his high seat. The warrior band had waited eagerly on the benches around the great hall, warmed by the crackling fire, quaffing bountiful mead.”

This should not deter the reader, even if it is now nearly a century since anybody “quaffed” even a martini in jest. Winroth really knows what he is writing about, and has done the research. He skillfully distinguishes the fictional berserkers and blood-eagles from the better-attested violence of raiders and is illuminating on the archaeology of the Greenland settlements and their mysterious end: not with a bang, but with the whimper of deserted livestock. His chapter on ships concludes that a big longship would have been the product of 40,000 hours of work over seven months, a huge and risky investment; but most ventures to distant parts were not conducted in warships, but in cheaper smaller vessels, and they went far “because they simply knew their way, not because they had access to any advanced navigational tools.” He sees politics as consisting mainly in competition for kingship through competition in largesse: accumulating service of all kinds by incessant giving. This quasi-Darwinian selection did reduce the main kingdoms to three by 1000, (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden), but they were unstable institutions for two or three centuries to come.

His most fascinating insights concern the dark subjects of Nordic mythology and religion, which he tries to detach from the observations of outsiders and from Snorri’s later reorganization, with the help of the archaeology of cults. He concludes that Christian and pagan customs were not in the stark opposition implied by theology, but coexisted and interacted over the whole Viking age, unable to win exclusive rights over most people, even if, by the end, the Christians bagged the kings. A ninth chapter, on “Arts and Letters,” explains the rationale and intricacies of Skaldic verse, as a means of building cohesion within a chief’s armed retinue, and this can serve as the clearest introduction to the subject now available. The general conclusions obey current rhetorical convention, as with “Thus Scandinavia entered the mainstream of European history.” Nevertheless I recommend the work to anyone with little knowledge of the subject and a wish to learn more.