Ruthless or Routine? How popular culture has misrepresented the Vikings.

Whether it is on TV, in a historical novel, or at a museum, the Vikings are often portrayed as bloodthirsty warriors bent on slaughter, rape and pillage. People today associate the word ‘Viking’ with some of the most barbaric and atrocious acts recorded in history. As a result, it is no surprise that the Vikings have received a bad name. But just how ruthless were the Vikings, and is our interpretation of them today an accurate one?

The arrival of the Great Heathen Army at East Anglia, c. 865. Image found at: https://www.archaeology.org/issues/289-1803/features/6355-viking-great-army

There is no denying that some Vikings were as savage as those portrayed in modern day literature and media. The arrival of a Scandinavian raiding party at Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. heralded the start of 300 years of bloody attacks on the British Isles. In that same year, a priest at the court of Charlemagne wrote of a Viking attack on York after hearing that “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets”.

This violence and bloodshed reached its peak almost a century later when the Great Heathen Army, led by Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ubba and Bjorn Ironside, landed in East Anglia. The army, consisting of roughly 3,000 soldiers, conquered large swathes of territory in Northern England, including the city of York. Thus, this marked a significant shift in Viking activity from the simple raids of the previous century. It was not until the Battle of Edington in 873, when Alfred the Great defeated the Danish King Guthrum, that the Army was finally halted.

Although well recorded, these events in the hands of TV and film have suffered from inaccuracy. In Hollywood’s 1958 movie ‘The Vikings’, starring Kirk Douglas, Danish warriors are thrown into a “full-blooded depiction of rape, fire and pillage”, as one critic described. More recently, in Netflix’s The Last Kingdom great attention to historical realism is achieved through the lavish use of dirt and blood, alongside brutal battle sequences. Similarly, rape and the threat of sexual violence are portrayed as common to the Viking way of life.                                                                                 

Heroic portrait of a Hitler youth in uniform from around 1935. Image found at: https://www.ushmm.org/propaganda/archive/poster-german-student/

As well as in the media, the image of the Viking has been used throughout history to promote the agenda of radical movements. During the 1930s and 1940s, for example, the Nazi party incorporated the concept of the Viking into its racist ideology. According to them, Viking features formed the basis of the ultimate Aryan being.

However, despite their violent depiction, recent archaeological discoveries suggest that the Vikings were more than just warriors and raiders. In the 1970s, the discovery of Viking homes, clothes, and jewellery during the construction of a shopping centre in the Coppergate area of York led to the creation of the city’s Jorvik Centre. For the first time ever, this portrayed the Vikings as a domestic, family-oriented people.

Viking burial site near Stockholm. Image found at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidnikel/2019/07/06/viking-grave-discovery-in-sweden-leaves-archaeologists-stunned/?sh=665f37795e57

Furthermore, in the early 2000s excavations in the Malar Valley, Stockholm, uncovered evidence of a flourishing agricultural community dating back to the Viking age. Numerous Viking grave fields containing bodies of as many as 40 to 50 individuals were discovered at these ancient village sites. Alongside them, excavators unearthed remains of ceramic vessels, metal artefacts and various everyday objects. Consequently, this has given rise to the notion that the Vikings were more civilised than we originally assumed.

In the History Channel’s hit drama series Vikings, a lot of effort is put in to illustrate the Vikings as a more complex and sophisticated race. For example, emphasis is placed on the fact that many Vikings were actually farmers as well as soldiers. Alongside this, Ragnar Lothbrok, one of the shows protagonists, is continually depicted as stuck between the Nordic beliefs of his world and the Christian beliefs of the Western world. This is not to say that classic Viking imagery does not feature in the show. Ivar the Boneless appears as malevolent and twisted figure who finds pleasure only in killing others. Nonetheless, even by the show’s standards viewers get the sense that he is not your typical kind of Viking.   

The Battle of Edington as depicted in The Last Kingdom. Image found at: https://aelarsen.wordpress.com/2017/11/26/the-last-kingdom-testudos/

Altogether, the Vikings were both peaceful settlers and violent warriors. Over the course of 300 years, they did not simply raid and pillage England. A large number of them actually stayed and assimilated themselves into Anglo-Saxon society, with many Vikings converting to Christianity. The story of the Vikings was not just one of conquest, but also one of peaceful migration.

It is true that some Vikings were considerably similar to those made out in popular culture. However, to assume that all of them were bloodthirsty and ruthless would be inaccurate and unfair. In many ways, what came after the Vikings was considerably worse; the Normans of the 11th Century were renowned for oppressing the local populace instead of integrating with them as the Vikings had done. Therefore, I think it is fair to say that the Vikings have been cruelly misrepresented in modern culture, even if they do make good TV.

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