The Vikings discovered America and traded slaves in Baghdad. They sometimes buried their dead in ships, but probably did not burn them. And they did not wear horned helmets. Historian Eleanor Barraclough separates myth from reality and recommends books on the medieval Norse pillagers who have fascinated everyone from Hollywood to Hitler.
Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough is a lecturer in medieval history and literature at the University of Durham. She appears regularly on BBC radio and is the author of Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas
What is a Viking? I was quite intrigued to learn, from your book, that it is not a particular ethnic group, but an activity. I could be a Viking, for example.
If you go off, over the summer, and raid coastlines and pillage monasteries, you’re a Viking. You’re also ‘going on a Viking’ because there are two forms of the word: a noun—the person who does it—and the verb—the thing they’re doing. It’s being a pirate or a raider or a pillager. In a way, when you think of the Vikings, that’s the image that springs to mind. So it is accurate, to some extent, except the problem is that people, including me, use it as an easy shorthand for the inhabitants of the medieval Nordic world, and that’s not true.
Who are they then, those inhabitants?
We often use the term ‘Norse.’ They wouldn’t have used that term themselves, but they’d have talked about the general cultural area, the language, the Northern-ness. You might also say medieval Scandinavians, but the Norse diaspora, the area of settling, extends far beyond that: they go off and settle parts of the Northern Isles, France, Iceland and, also, Greenland for 500 years. So it’s much broader, which is, I think, why Viking becomes used, starting in the 19th century, as a general word for that culture. It’s a modern invention.
What language did they speak?
We tend to call it ‘Old Norse.’ There are different forms of it: what they spoke in, say, Sweden was different to what they spoke in Norway, and specific to different places within those countries. It’s closest to modern Icelandic. Modern Icelanders can read Old Norse in the same way we might be able to read Shakespeare.
So the centre of this world was Norway, and then they expanded to Iceland?
They also expanded to Iceland from the British Isles, to some extent, but yes, most of the males come from Norway. So that’s the language that is imported into Iceland, and so, because most of our texts are written in Iceland, that’s the form of the language that we know most about.
Were the Norse sagas written in runes?
No, that is a big misconception. Runes are a form of writing linked to the Latin alphabet, because of the influence of the Roman world, up into Scandinavia, in the first centuries AD. Runes are very angular: down lines and triangular lines, not horizontal lines. That’s because runes tended to be written on pieces of wood where if you go along the grain, you’re likely to split the wood and it’s not going to be very clear—or on pieces of stone where you can’t do curves easily.
“There are parts of rural Sweden where they were still writing in runes in the 19th century.”
Some of the earliest runes that we have will just say the name of the item or the material it is made out of like ‘bone.’ Later on, you have memorial stones from throughout the Norse world, particularly Sweden, with, say, ‘X put this stone up in memory of Y.’ That would be written in runes. That goes all the way up to after they’ve converted to Christianity. There are parts of rural Sweden where they were still writing in runes in the 19th century.
There was also an amazing discovery made in the harbour in Bergen in Norway where they found hundreds of runic inscriptions, mostly on little pieces of wood, and even one on a walrus skull. This opened up a whole new world, so you could see where runes were being used in all sorts of contexts. They’re almost like post-it notes. You’ll have one saying things like, ‘Auste says come home for dinner,’ or ‘I love you, kiss me.’ And there’s a couple of really rude ones, like, ‘You have a lovely pussy. May a prick fill it up.’
One aspect of the Vikings that your book really emphasises is how far they travelled. They went everywhere, even to Constantinople. Did they really do all this in open boats?
Pretty much. You could rig things up to get some shelter. You start to get ships being dug up at the end of the 19th century, and then you can see what they actually looked like. For example, there’s the amazing Gokstad ship in which two very high status women were buried.
People have also done ship reconstructions. There was one, based on the Gokstad ship, that sailed all the way from Bergen in Norway to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, just to prove they could do it.
Since then, they have found quite a lot more. For example, in the harbour in Roskilde in Denmark, they found several elderly warships, that had been sunk as some form of defence. You can see what sort of ships they actually used and some of them have been reconstructed. One of them, Skuldelev 2, was built in Dublin around 1042. You can tell by dating the wood how old it is and where it came from. So people increasingly started to see the sort of ships they would have used. But yes, these open sea voyages were incredibly dangerous.
And cold, presumably.
Really, really cold. You don’t really see that in Viking TV series—they’re just there, intrepidly going over the water. But of the first ships to set out from Iceland to Greenland—there were 24 or 25 of them—about half of them didn’t make it. They were either lost or ended up back in Iceland. There was a huge amount of death, but we don’t know so much about that. Occasionally you get stories of ships being washed up on the coast, or people being rescued from shipwrecks or their bodies being discovered.
These were long, dangerous, often really quite unpleasant voyages.
Can we see the Vikings as adventurers who wanted to see the world?
To see the world, but also get as much as they could out of it. It’s exploration, it’s colonisation, it’s settlement, it’s resources. Resources are always key. Greenland is a good example. Erik the Red is outlawed from Iceland and makes a permanent settlement in Greenland in 985 or so, which lasts for almost 500 years. When we realise how many resources there are, particularly further North, beyond the Arctic Circle—walrus ivory, walrus hide, polar bears—it makes sense why they’d want to settle there.
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It’s not just for the sheer thrill of it—although there is an amazing text called The King’s Mirror, written in Norway in the mid-13th century. It’s a dialogue between a father and a son, and the son asks, ‘Why do people go to Greenland?’ One of the reasons the father gives is along the lines of, ‘Because they want to prove how great and manly they are, and it is an amazing adventure.’ So there clearly is something in the mentality as well.
The first book on your list is The Vinland Sagas, the original Icelandic sagas. ‘Vinland’ is their word for America, is that right? A country of wild grapes.
‘Vin’ is their word for wine, related to the grapes they find there. It’s hard to know exactly what area they’re talking about. Coming down from Arctic Canada, we can match up Baffin Island to the Helluland or ‘Stone slab land’ they talk about in The Vinland Sagas—it’s very rocky. Further south, you get the coast of Labrador, which they called Markland or ‘Forest land’ because there are lots of trees. And then they talk about this area called Vinland. It’s not America as we think of it, it’s more Newfoundland and then heading down the coast to Nova Scotia: the St Lawrence River region.
And there are grapes there?
There are things that they describe that people have matched very closely to specific areas and concluded, ‘Well, they can’t have been any further north or south, if that’s truly what they saw there.’
What we now call The Vinland Sagas is two sagas: the Saga of the Greenlanders or Grœnlendinga saga and the Saga of Erik the Red or Eiríks saga rauða. What’s interesting is that they don’t seem to have known about each other directly. One isn’t copying the other. But they seem to be drawing from this collective pool of cultural or oral memory. That makes for some very interesting similarities and, also, differences.
We should probably mention, as you do in your book, that these sagas were originally oral traditions, but then they’re written down from the 13th century onwards.
Some of them are literary creations, but yes, often they have long oral tails stretching back into the past. The Vinland Sagas are pretty early, they get written down in the first half of the 13th century. In them, there are what seem to be the remnants of real sailing directions. So they say, ‘Bjarni went two days in that direction and then turned, and then went northeast for that much time.’ It makes sense: you follow these routes. That’s how we can match up where things are, because until the 1960s, there was no archaeological evidence: there was no material evidence that they’d got to the North American continent at all.
And then what happened?
In 1960, the archaeologists Helgi Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad went out to Newfoundland. The story goes that they asked one of the locals, ‘Do you know of any kind of ruins or lumps in the ground, anything like that?’ And one of them says, ‘Yes, actually, follow me.’ And they dig, throughout the 1960s, and find these amazing remnants of Norse buildings and a small amount of other archaeological material. It seems that the site wasn’t used for very long. The middens weren’t full, there weren’t any burials. There’s no sign that they were trying to make a go of things there, it may have been an overwintering site, a place to get supplies sorted, almost like a springboard to head further south where things are more bountiful. The Vinland Sagas said that before the archaeological evidence was found.
So it’s the story of Erik the Red—who is outlawed from Norway because of some killings, and then outlawed from Iceland because of some more killings. What I find amazing is how readable these sagas are.
These ones are. Some of them aren’t. Have you ever seen Monty Python, “Njorl’s Saga”? It’s a spoof of a saga and it’s all very epic. The voiceover is going, ‘I will tell you the tale of brave Njorl, son of x, son of y, son of z,’ and Njorl keeps trying to get on his horse, but he can’t because the voiceover is still going on and on recounting all of Njorl’s genealogy. Some of the sagas really are like that. The first couple of chapters, you’re thinking, ‘Come on, get going!”
But it makes sense, because they’re writing within the context of 13th century Iceland. People would have known or been related to a lot of the characters in the sagas, so they want to know the lineage. It is important, but these ones are more readable. The Vinland Sagas are my favourite.
At times, it feels very modern. For example, as you mention in your book as well, after Erik the Red finds Greenland, he goes back to Iceland to tell everyone about it. The saga says he calls it ‘Greenland,’ because he thinks people will be more tempted to come if it has a nice name.
That’s what the saga says, but it also makes sense, when you go to Greenland. There were two settlements, the Eastern Settlement, which is further south, and the Western Settlement to the north. In the Eastern Settlement, there is a lot of green in the areas around the fjords. Modern Greenlandic farms are often built near to the ruins of Norse farms because that’s where the best land is. Most of the rest is just ice and rock and scrub. And Iceland isn’t really that green and lush itself. So yes, calling it Greenland was early tourist board marketing, but also had some truth—at least in the early years. It gets a little hairier later on.
There’s no barrier to reading this real Icelandic saga firsthand.
None. It’s particularly interesting reading the two, because, as long as you know the context, you can see they’re different. But then, for example, both of them describe these horrible plagues in the Western Settlement, and then hauntings. That’s amazing, if you think they’re drawing on a common oral pool. By reading them, you get first-hand access to what medieval Icelanders saw as their history, but you also get access to their storytelling culture and how they viewed the world.
I always think of Norse myths, but this is more history.
The question I get asked most often is, ‘Is it true that the Vikings got to America?’ But I’m asked it in a way that they clearly expect the answer to be ‘No, that’s just a myth.’
The sagas aren’t history as we would think of history, but that doesn’t make them any less so. What we decide to put on a map is not objective geography, it is what we decide is important. That is also true in history. We are all coming to history with our own preconceptions, our own agendas, our own needs. What we want to find is often more to do with ourselves than the past. That’s always been the case and so why should that be any less true for medieval Iceland?
I loved the photo you have in your book—is it of Erik the Red’s farm?
It’s a reconstruction of what is called Thjodhild’s Church. Thjodhild was his wife, and according to the sagas, she converted to Christianity and wouldn’t let Erik sleep with her afterwards. He was really cross about it. The site where the church is based is meant to be their farm, although there is some debate about that. They did find a very, very early church, and built a reconstruction for the millennial celebrations.
It was definitely there or it might have been there?
There was definitely a prominent Norse farm with a very early church. If I had to jump one way or the other I’d say that it is Erik the Red’s farm. It makes sense.
Tell me about your second book, A Description of the Northern Peoples by Olaus Magnus, written in 1555.
In 1539, Olaus Magnus produced an incredible map. It’s called the ‘Carta Marina’, the sea map, and it’s of the far north, the Scandinavian countries and over to Iceland. It’s got monsters in the sea, and some very strange land creatures, but it is not mythical. It is the first time you see a genuine attempt to map and depict the Scandinavian north as if it were a real place. The map is just beautiful, the details—you can spend hours looking at it. There are herds of reindeer pulling men on sledges across the ice and thunderbolts coming down and famous buildings from legendary times.
“These were long, dangerous and often really quite unpleasant voyages.”
A Description of the Northern Peoples is the accompanying book, which he always promised he was going to do and finally published in 1555. Olaus Magnus was the last Catholic bishop of Uppsala and he got kicked out of the country because Lutheranism arrives in Sweden. So it took a bit of time to get the book printed.
It’s an encyclopaedic text. There’s a chapter “On the different shapes of snow,” with all these tiny cookie-cutter shapes of snow and frost. Then a chapter called “On snow castles built by young lads”—and they’re all up in an amazing wedding-style snow castle, with these bums going in and out and throwing snowballs at each other. Here we have: “On men racing over the ice for a prize”—and there they are on horses. I also like “On lodgings upon the ice for travellers.” A lot of these images are of the sort that are on his map. Most of the book isn’t about the Viking age. It’s written in the early modern period, but because there’s a lot about history, it also looks back into the Scandinavian past.
Is it about Lapland?
Some of it is about Lapland. He did actually travel there a lot, so it is the first realistic description of the region. He talks about how the Lapps—or the Sami as we call them now—cement marriages with fire and the parents of the married couple strike flints for sparks for fertility. He really does know his stuff.
But there are 22 books and there is all sorts of stuff in them. He’s quite interested in the art of warfare, for example, but because it’s the north, it’s the art of warfare on all sorts of different terrain: land, sea and ice. How do you fight a battle on ice? There’s the different tribes, different traditions, the different religions.
“Every ninth year, nine males of every kind—animals and humans—were said to be sacrificed there and then hanged upside down in the grove so their blood drained away.”
Book 3 is “On the superstitious worship of demons by the people of the North.” Most of what he is talking about is the Norse gods, the pagan gods that we know: Odin, Thor, Freya. He’s the bishop of Uppsala so he’s not going to like this sort of thing. He says, “I’m going to disclose the gross errors of the northern people and their worthless veneration of idols which were brought in by the guile of demons.”
He sometimes draws on older sources written by people like, say, Saxo Grammaticus who was a Danish historian writing around 1200, and Adam of Bremen, who was writing in Northern Germany around the year 1070. Both of them are describing what we would call Viking Age culture. So drawing on their work, Olaus Magnus has a chapter called, “On the three greater gods of the Goths.” Usually we think of Odin, here depicted as the god of war, being the high god, the ‘All-Father.’ That’s because of how he is depicted in the Snorra Edda, the 13th century source that is most famous and useful for describing paganism in the Nordic world. But Olaus Magus puts Thor, the god of crops, in the centre and Odin’s wife Frigg, the goddess of plenty, and Odin on either side of him.
Olaus Magnus describes pagan rituals of the Viking Age, that we also know about from other sources, particularly at Uppsala, where he’s meant to have had his bishopric. He has a picture of a pagan temple there—which, in his illustration, looks suspiciously like a Christian church—where they were said to conduct pagan sacrifices. Every ninth year, nine males of every kind—animals and humans—were said to be sacrificed there and then hanged upside down in the grove so their blood drained away.
This particular ritual is something that we read about from written sources which are fairly late because, obviously, the pagan Norse weren’t writing things down apart from in runes, which is different.
Later writers discuss these pagan rituals in overblown, hyperbolic terms, and this is one of the finest descriptions of it. But of course he’s never seen anything of the sort himself. There is archaeological evidence of cultic activity at Uppsala, and of a big temple that may have stood there. There’s some evidence of cultic ritual, but there certainly aren’t, as they talk about in later texts, 72 conveniently weathered skeletons that have been hanged. But there was clearly something going on.
What’s interesting about Olaus Magnus’s work is that it’s the first attempt to try to make sense of a Viking Age historical past, but he’s having to do it within the context of his own knowledge, which is limited, and his own Christian beliefs, which colour his interpretations.
It’s quite bloodthirsty.
Yes, and part of the reason we like the Norse or Viking culture nowadays is because it’s a bit bloodthirsty. So Vikings, the TV series, has this amazing scene from Uppsala where they do this pagan sacrifice. It is so overblown, it’s so dramatic. They’re getting all that information from people like Adam of Bremen, but then, later on, people like Olaus Magnus as well.
Erik the Red: does the ‘Red’ refer to blood?
Some people say temper, some people say hair, some people say bloodthirsty. It doesn’t actually say in the sagas.
Olaus Magnus is also brilliant because he is just really funny, so he’ll say things like, ‘There’s nothing more delightful than watching squirrels frolicking across the snow.’ Then he says things like, ‘I should’ve learned the Latin name for this fish, but I was really hungry and I just wanted to eat it.’
This is the sort of encyclopaedic history that we’ve lost, in a way. You don’t have that extent of a personal voice anymore. He’s brilliant. He’s just really fun and the pictures are amazing.
There’s this big smorgasbord of stuff: later on he talks about giants, and particularly one giant called Starkader, who appears in some of the sagas. So we’ve got, again, this link back to the Viking past, but in a very different form, which we wouldn’t recognise—and probably the people who originally were telling these stories wouldn’t recognise either. But it shows that people are interested in the Viking Age, even in the early modern period, and that interest just grows and grows and grows.
The interest in the Vikings over time is a good moment to delve into your next book, Vikings and Gods in European Art by David Wilson.
This is actually a catalogue for a big art exhibition that took place a few years ago, but it’s a really useful book—I give it to students to read. He goes through artistic depictions of Vikings and pagan gods all the way from when they’re rediscovered—with people like Olaus Magnus—up to the end of the 20th century. In it, we see that it’s not just the reception of the Vikings and the Viking Age that changes, but it’s also, again, this idea that history is what we want to make of it. The reason that we are attracted to particular things changes, depending on our own preoccupations.
For example, if we go back to the 17th century, we see Harald Klak, who is a Danish king in the early 9th century, being baptised by Louis the Pious. There’s also a picture of the Danes making peace with one of the Anglo-Saxon kings. But the pictures have absolutely no sense of historical reality as we think of it. We would not look at them and think of Vikings. They’re wearing almost contemporary costumes. That’s interesting for thinking about how history develops, because at this point, they had no archaeological evidence, nothing to back these things up.
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At the southernmost tip of Greenland, there’s a Norse site called Herjolfsnes, and archaeologists started to excavate the churchyard there in the 1920s. Because of the pack ice that surrounded the area, they found all sorts of clothing in the graves, all beautifully preserved. But earlier, we’ve got nothing like that, so people had less of a sense of what clothing was worn in the medieval Norse world.
Returning to the book, we then get into the 18th century. They only have the classical world that they’re very used to. So everything is couched within classical terms. There’s a picture of Thor from the end of the 18th century…
He’s looks like a Roman charioteer.
I think it’s meant to be Vulcan. It is all very much in the Roman style, and this goes on. Then, later, the physical depictions start to change, particularly when they start to dig things up.
So are they based on reality, the changes?
To some extent. When they start to find physical items they want to incorporate them, whether or not they were actually from the right period. So here we’ve got, from 1826, “Scandinavian sacrifice scene in the time of Odin.” Obviously there is no such thing as a ‘time of Odin.’ In the picture, a young boy is blowing on a horn, but the image is based on the 5th century Danish ‘horn of Gallehus,’ which is not from the Viking Age, but from several centuries before. And you’ll find in a lot of these images, as the 19th century gets under way, it could be 2000 years worth of material evidence crammed into one picture.
“We have very little evidence that they burned their dead on the sea in ships.”
Then, in the 18th century, with the growth of nationalism, Norway in particular is really keen to embrace its Viking heritage, as a way of separating itself from Denmark. So we see societies being set up to celebrate the Viking Age, to celebrate their Viking heritage. Across Scandinavia, at banquets held to celebrate Nordic identity, posters and banners are hung on the walls with images of Norse gods and legendary heroes.
For instance, the decoration round this Norse banner here is in the ‘Urnes’ style. This is the kind of swooping, interlacing effect with animals you see in stave churches from 11th century Norway. Again, you’re seeing real material evidence being brought into the picture, historical truth growing as more and more pieces of the puzzle are assembled, but at the same time everyone is bringing in their own agenda, in this case nationalism.
Another reason I like this book is that you see the development of the horned-helmet myth. Vikings did not wear horned helmets, and not with feathers either.
That’s something we see in modern depictions: if you put a horned helmet on something, you automatically think ‘Viking.’ It doesn’t matter that it is not historically accurate. We’re in an echo chamber of cultural references. People are just building on each other’s images. That’s always gone on.
How does that start then?
I think it was building on that classical model they saw and then wanted to emulate. The first time you really see horned helmets in illustrations is in a translation of Frithjof’s Saga produced in Sweden in the first decades of the 19th century. It was an incredibly popular saga. Even the Norwegian polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, had his own prized copy. Later on, you get Wagner’s Ring Cycle. For the first performance at Bayreuth, his costume designer came up with the idea of putting horned helmets on some of the characters and that’s a big association. It just grows and grows: it’s the echo chamber effect.
Here’s a painting from 1893: Frank Dicksee’s A Viking’s Funeral. Around this time, you start to see a lot of Viking ships. The Gokstad ship in Norway had just been dug up, and suddenly everyone was very conscious of these material artefacts, this evidence of the Viking Age. In the painting they’re burning a Viking chieftain. Actually, we have very little evidence that they burned their dead on the sea in ships.
They didn’t? Because that’s definitely a part of the Viking…
…cultural myth. That’s based on the account of a 10th century Arab diplomat, called Ibn Fadlan, who travels up the river Volga from Baghdad—ironically called the ‘City of Peace’ in his account. He’s going to see the Volga Bulgars who’ve just converted to Islam and, on the way, he meets all sorts of strange, crazy tribes. There’s one that worship penises, for example, and cut off each other’s heads without provocation.
But then, on the banks of the Volga, he meets a group he calls the Rus. The Rus seem to be—although there is some debate—the descendants of the Swedish Norsemen, traders who came down the waterways. They basically founded the modern Russian state, but they were a very small Scandinavian elite amongst a much bigger Slavic population.
The Russians, traditionally, didn’t like the idea that the European Scandinavians founded their state, so they emphasised the Slavic element. This has been a very big bone of contention: even Hitler got involved in it. He said that the Russians would still be living like rabbits, were it not for that fine drop of Aryan blood that began with the Vikings.
“The Nazis really jump on the Aryan myth of Vikings as a super race.”
Ibn Fadlan meets these Rus on the waterways, and he witnesses—again, quite luridly, so how much of it is fact I’m not sure—a funeral of one of the great Rus chieftains. A slave girl is sacrificed together with all sorts of animals. It is a long and really quite horrible death. She’s taken round the tents of the main chieftains and she’s made to have sex with them. Then she’s strangled and there’s a horrible old woman called the ‘Angel of Death’ who plunges a knife in and out of her ribs. Then she’s burnt on a ship with everything else that’s been sacrificed and the dead chieftain.
The story goes that when Ibn Fadlan is watching this ship go up, one of the interpreters turns to him and says, ‘You guys are idiots. You put your dead in the ground where the worms get at them, and we burn our dead so their souls go straight to paradise in the sky.’ So that’s our main source for the Viking ship burning. There is a mythological source as well, involving Thor, the dead god Balder and a dwarf being kicked into the burning ship. But that’s not history.
They did bury their dead in ships, sometimes, if they were high status enough. But there’s fairly little evidence that they burned them. That’s again part of the Viking myth. So in pictures like this that we see being drawn at the end of the 19th century, we see the start of the modern Viking echo chamber effect.
So this book explains all that?
Yes, and it also explains a lot about the role of the Vikings in the growth of nationalism. For example, when they were celebrating Columbus arriving in America, the Scandinavians and Scandinavian-Americans said, ‘We got there first!’ So suddenly all these pictures started appearing of Leif the Lucky going off to America.
In the 20th century, you see things like this Danish recruitment poster for the Nazis. You have many of these because the Nazis really jump on the Aryan myth of Vikings as a super race. When they invaded Norway, they started a programme encouraging Germans to breed with Norwegian women. Some 12,000 children were born to Norwegian women by Nazis soldiers. After the war, they were completely ostracised. One was Anni-Frid Lyngstad, from ABBA. She was the daughter of a German soldier and a Norwegian mother. They had to escape to Sweden.
These propaganda images were all drawing on the Viking past. You have Waffen-SS marching songs with sentiments such as, ‘We went off to all corners of the world, we discovered Iceland and Greenland, we settled France, England, and Ireland. Now we’re here under Quisling’—who was in charge of Norway, but very much in collaboration with the Nazis—‘and hurray! It’s like the coming of a new dawn of the Viking Age.’ So this book also addresses the darker side of the Viking perception.
I love this book because you can see something depicted visually and explained beautifully clearly all the way from Olaus Magnus up to the Nazis and beyond. It helps us to understand how Viking history has been interpreted and understood, used and misused over the centuries. It’s a really good book.
When did the Viking Age start?
The question is whether the ‘Viking Age’ is even useful to think about. There has just been a multimillion Euro project started in Sweden looking at the possible causes of the so-called Viking Age, and much depends on which part of the Nordic world you’re looking at. The classic date you usually see in history books is 793 AD, which was the year that Lindisfarne, an island monastery off the coast of Northumberland, was attacked.
Which is where your book opens.
Yes, but part of the reason my book opens there is to say, that’s a nice date, but it’s not that easy. Based on the archaeological evidence, what we would think of as the Viking Age seems to have actually begun a lot earlier in the Baltic region. Only a few years ago the ‘Salme Ships’ were found in Estonia – two Scandinavian clinker-built ships containing the remains of over 40 warriors killed in battle. Then we see various developments throughout the 8th century in different parts of the Nordic world, but things really get going in the 9th century, in terms of expansion, travel, raids and settlement.
Is that driven mainly by demographic pressure?
It’s driven by a whole host of factors that are very much debated. One idea that is being bandied around quite a lot at the moment, is that there was a gender imbalance, possibly caused by female infanticide. Raiders were going out to get treasure so they could become wealthy and attract women back home. There’s a small amount of evidence to suggest that this could have been true. You do find early booty—for example from the British Isles—in the graves of some Norwegian women.
“We know a lot about early ship technology from bog deposits in Denmark.”
There are other possible factors. For example, Danish raids begin around the year 800 when Charlemagne was in charge of the Carolingian empire. Charlemagne wiped out several thousand Saxons in what amounts to a bloody genocide, they were Christianised, and suddenly the Danes found the Carolingians on their borders. You see how they start interacting with them, using all sorts of different strategies—sometimes peaceful, sometimes not. But the Frankish annals report an increasing number of raids at that time.
Then there’s the expansion across the North Atlantic: to Iceland, Greenland, and (for a little while) North America. There are different factors in play there. More generally, advances in ship technology is often suggested as a possible cause of Viking Age activities, but scholars are quite dubious about that now. Ship technology is interesting because they do suddenly have these amazing ships. They couldn’t have done a lot of these things without that technology. So it might not be a cause, but it is certainly a help.
They’re even more dubious about population pressures as a cause of Viking Age expansion.
Often it’s more of a case of ‘show me the money.’ If you can raid and get a load of cash and possibly, eventually, some land, then that’s great. If you can ally with people who will give you that cash and possibly some land, possibly to stop you raiding, then that’s also great. If you can trade items such as furs, walrus ivory and slaves, and get a good price for them, then that’s brilliant.
Did they suddenly figure out how to go longer distances?
They had been developing their ships over the centuries. So, for example, by the Viking Age you see the clinker method where you have planks of wood built one over the next over the next. That makes them incredibly flexible and much more able to stay afloat in rough seas. They’re also very shallow bottomed which means they can land on beaches, on islands, and on the shores of Lindisfarne, for example. They don’t have to rock up in deep harbours. Shallow-bottomed boats are also very convenient if you want to go into Western Europe on the waterways: the Seine, the Loire, the Elbe, the Rhine.
They have square sails — but we see square sails depicted earlier on Swedish runestones, from around 700.
We know a lot about early ship technology from bog deposits in Denmark. After a battle, Vikings sacrificed weapons, possibly men, and sometimes ships and you get a lot of good preservation in the anaerobic conditions in a bog. From the boats preserved in bogs, we can see that a lot of those technological developments started fairly early. So it’s not like everything happens at once and the Norse are like, ‘Huzzah! Now we can all go raiding and exploring.’
One of the things that made me laugh—I don’t know whether it was in your book or in the sagas or both—is how places keep getting discovered by people being blown off course.
That’s often in the saga descriptions. They’re like, “Wow! Another huge land mass.” The question is, did they know what direction to go in when they set out to find new lands? They would have seen, for example, flocks of birds going in one direction. If a flock of birds is heading out to sea, there’s probably land there. How much is just getting blown off course, and how much is slightly more scientific is hard to tell. But it makes sense—in the same way that there were lots of ships that ended up at the bottom of the sea, there were going to be lots that got blown off course…
And discovered America!
Your next book is Nancy Brown’s Ivory Vikings. This is about 93 ivory chess pieces, made out of walrus ivory, found in the Outer Hebrides.
These are the Lewis chessmen. Most of them are in the British Museum. When they do the ‘100 best objects in the world’—those sorts of lists—the Lewis chessmen always end up on there. They were made in the second half of the 12th century and discovered in the 19th century on Lewis, under a sandbank, in slightly mysterious circumstances.
In this book—and I’m not sure I agree with everything in it: none of the books I’ve chosen are the last word on Vikings—Nancy Brown takes the idea of the Lewis chessmen and uses it to look at the Norse world in its entirety. She creates a chronologically multi-layered effect, all the way up to the history of their discovery.
She starts with a chapter on the rooks. Chapter 2 is on the bishops, then there are chapters on the queens, the kings and the knights. Each one focuses on a different aspect of Norse history. For example, for the queens, she’s looking at strong, powerful women.
“She traces how stories live and develop and change, which, for anyone who’s interested in storytelling, is really clever.”
What’s interesting is that she champions the idea of the Lewis chessmen being made in Iceland. There’s always a lot of debate as to where they were made. A lot of people say they were made in Trondheim in Norway. She sides with the more recent, Icelandic faction. Specifically, she says they were made by a woman called Margaret the Adroit who was in the service of Bishop Pall, who was a patron of the arts.
Whether or not you agree with that theory, what’s nice about the book is the way she teases out all these different threads that we don’t necessarily to associate with Vikings and the Viking age—like female craftsmanship. I really like the idea of a woman—called Margaret the Adroit—carving all this amazing artwork out of ivory in medieval Iceland.
The book also takes a broad, geographical sweep because a lot of Norse ivory came from Greenland. So you get a sense of how the different parts of the Norse world connect up. She deals with the question of how they ended up in Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Of course, the Scottish islands were Norse for centuries. Orkney was under Norse control until the 15th century. There’s another saga, The Saga of the Orkney Islanders which tells stories about the Norse rulers of these islands. There are also Norse runes carved on the Neolithic chamber at Maeshowe in Orkney, and at other sites all over the place.
Also, she looks at religion and what happens after the conversion to Christianity. She focuses particularly on this character, Bishop Pall, who’s a northern Icelander from Skalholt. Even as a person who studies the sagas for a living, we don’t really talk about The Saga of Bishop Pall very often—to be honest it’s not particularly exciting. But Nancy Brown suggests that the saga was written by Bishop Pall’s son, and she opens up this whole area of medieval Iceland—the creation of art and literature—that even if you’re an expert on this sort of thing, you’re unlikely to consider. I learned so much from this book.
Like I said, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with all of it by a long shot. She’s not an academic, but she knows her stuff. I think it would be a stronger book if she hadn’t decided what she thought the answer was and then take that as read, but it is a really interesting book.
I particularly like the chapter in which she looks at the earliest account of how the chessmen were discovered—it starts off as a fairly standard story—and how the story changes and becomes more dramatic over time. So first it’s a guy, then it’s a guy and his wife, then it’s a guy and his wife and a cow, and then the cow is itching its bum and breaks open the sandbank and the chess pieces are inside. It just grows and grows and grows, and she traces how stories live and develop and change, which, for anyone who’s interested in storytelling, is really clever.
“Scotland has an incredibly rich Viking history.”
There are also very sad parts. Brown talks about a man who was the assistant curator of manuscripts at the British Museum when the chess pieces were discovered. He was instrumental in getting them bought for the British Museum. She’s looked at his diaries, which he kept from the age for 18 all the way up to a few months before his death. This is a different sort of history, and it is tragic. Around the time when he was looking into the chess pieces, his wife has just died in childbirth. He’d been courting her for 10 years. Her father had only just allowed them to get married, and then she died. The chess pieces come onto the scene less than a year after her death, and so his diary is full of his grief and an almost mechanical fascination with studying these Viking artefacts.
She goes all they way up to the Scottish referendum, and how the Lewis chessmen get embroiled in that. There was a poster for the British Museum with an image of one of these chessmen, and it said something underneath like ‘Norway 1050-1200.’ Of course the Scottish nationalists were furious. They said, ‘No! These are the Lewis chessmen—that’s where they were discovered. We don’t even know where they were made, and you’re just taking away our role in this part of Viking history.’ Scotland has an incredibly rich Viking history of its own.
That’s the other thing that I think is very interesting about this book: there are some parts of the Viking world that we really do focus in on and others that we really don’t. For example, the Scottish Isles. We don’t think of that as being a strong part of the Viking story, and yet it is—and that’s why they seem to have ended up in Lewis. Possibly it was a trader going from Norway to Iceland—who knows?
I’ve spent a lot of time, growing up, on the Isle of Bute because that’s where my Dad was born. There’s an amazing Viking hogback grave marker in one of the ruined churchyards, like a giant piece of Toblerone. You find these all over the Scottish isles. Then, when you get up to the Northern Isles, everything is Norse. Most of the place names are of Norse origin. There’s a town in both Orkney and in Shetland called Twatt, which comes from ‘thveit,’ a Norse world meaning ‘cleared place.’ There are a million and one tea towels that have pictures of the ‘Twatt’ place name sign. I’ve got one in my office.
In Brown’s book, she creates windows onto different parts of the Viking Age—and the medieval Nordic world that comes afterwards—that I really didn’t know very much about.
Finally, you’ve chosen Ohthere’s Voyages. Tell me about this book.
This is a collection of articles written by academics drawing on one account, written in Anglo-Saxon England at the court of King Alfred, in Old English. This was at a time where, when we think of the Anglo-Saxons and Norse, it’s Alfred against the Vikings, Viking incursions, Vikings taking over the kingdoms of East Anglia and Mercia, it’s Viking Danelaw. In other words, we think of Vikings as the big, bad invaders.
Ohthere, however, seems to be an explorer and trader. He was from the very far north of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle, near the modern city of Tromsø. He travelled south to King Alfred’s court in Anglo-Saxon England, and described the far-northern Arctic world that he came from.
“There’s very much a sense of slavery as the grease that oils the wheels of parts of the Viking world.”
What I love about this book is that, again, it’s a window onto a part of Viking Age history that we really don’t consider. We don’t think of the Norse in the Arctic. When we think of the Norse, we think of them as being very far North themselves, but, of course, there are people living further north than them — particularly the nomadic Sami and other tribes in that Arctic part of Scandinavia and going over into Russia.
This collection offers different lenses onto that far, Arctic north, and the figure of Ohthere and who he might have been. It’s got articles on everything from what sort of ship he sailed in to who the people were who he calls the Finnas, and we call the Sami or Lapps.
Ohthere seems to have been a really wealthy trader. He sailed down the coast of Norway and stopped at a place that we know as Kaupang, which was the first Norwegian trading outpost. That’s possibly why he came to Anglo-Saxon England: to trade. Again, when we think of the Vikings or Norse, we don’t necessarily think of traders, so this is a different way of looking at the early medieval Nordic world. The book is also great because it’s got lots of pictures.
There’s a great chapter about an archaeological site at Borg, which was a chieftain’s farm in the very far north of Norway. This was close to where Ohthere would have come from, way beyond the Arctic Circle in Vestvågøy. There are pictures of what was left of the hall: the post holes and the ditches. But then we read about all these incredible things that they found there. For example, there were several little gold foil amulets called ‘gullgubber’ which literally means ‘little old men of gold.’ In the example in the book there’s one with two little faces, and they seem to be kissing.
Lots of these have been found from early Viking Age sites all around the Nordic world. Often they were placed in the postholes. So you dig your hole, and then you put your little ritual, votive offering in, then you put the pole up and you build the house around it. And since they’re gold, they would have been incredibly expensive. All sorts of other high-status items were found near the chieftain’s farmhouse as well—like glassware from the Frankish kingdom. So from this we can see just how many trading routes there were criss-crossing the length and breadth of Europe, and then further afield to Greenland, Russia and Baghdad. In hoards we often find huge numbers of Islamic dirhams, for example, little silver coins.
How did they get down to the Middle East?
Many came via the Russian waterways. There are Arabic accounts of what are probably Norse traders in Baghdad, but there was a whole network of traders going up and down the Russian rivers. So as long as you were part of that trade network, you could access valuable items like silver coins. There were trading goods from the far North that people really, really wanted, like furs and skins.
So people like Ohthere, or this chieftain who lived in the farmstead at Borg, would have been really powerful. There’s a picture of the reconstructed farmstead in the book: it’s absolutely huge, more than 80 meters long. So this isn’t a marginal, out of the way location. We have to rejig our idea of geography. When we look at a map of the world, we think of this region in the far north of Norway as being peripheral, but in the Viking Age it was incredibly well connected.
Where is Othere going?
Ohthere starts off somewhere near Tromsø, because he tells King Alfred that he lives the furthest north of all the Norsemen. At one time, he set off for the north, as far as the land extended, and then sailed east across the Arctic coastline of Norway towards the White Sea. He met all sorts of people who lived there, and was probably collecting tribute from them, or taxes. That’s something we see described in the later sagas. That’s also why the sagas can be so interesting: they can be narrative versions of earlier historical truths, even if they are in a highly stylised, sometimes romanticised, form.
Then Ohthere comes south and stops at Kaupang, this trading town in Norway. He goes on via the trading ports of Denmark, and then he comes to Anglo-Saxon England. So he has stopped at all the major trading points, presumably with the valuable tribute he collected from the people living in the Arctic north. He would have made a lot of his money from his connections to the far north, particularly in the form of furs.
The Anglo-Saxons want the furs, do they?
Everyone wants the furs. Anglo-Saxons, Franks, you name it. Wealthy people from further south want furs and walrus ivory.
What do they use that for?
Carving. Here you can see some walrus ivory panels carved with images of the apostles, from the court of Charles the Bald. If you want to carve something intricate and beautiful and rare, you carve it in walrus ivory.
Unfortunately, there were other things that were part of this trade network that we might not immediately think of today, because they weren’t portable artefacts, they were portable humans. Slaves. The Viking raids were also about picking up slaves—monks, women—and and taking them off. Dublin became the biggest slave market in Western Europe by the 10th century—and was Viking-controlled. There are some horrible accounts of women taken from, say, Anglo-Saxon England, impregnated, and then taken to be sold at the Dublin slave market.
They’re needed to work?
Or to be a concubine, if you were a woman.
The Islamic world really wanted slaves. They had a lot of silver and precious metals that people further north want. What they wanted was amber, furs and slaves.
You’ve also got the expansion of the Norse diaspora across the North Atlantic. If you’re settling in the North Atlantic, you need labour, and what better labour than slaves? Again, this ends up in the sagas in a very romanticised form. For example, a saga called Laxdaela Saga—The Saga of the People of Laxardal—features a slave who’s bought in the British Isles and taken to Iceland. Everyone thinks she’s mute, and she ends up as a concubine, having a child with the man who bought her. It’s only when they hear her talking to her son that they realise she’s not a mute. She’s Irish and—because this is a saga, and you can’t just have an ordinary Irish slave—she’s the daughter of an Irish king. There’s very much a sense of slavery as the grease that oils the wheels of parts of the Viking world, but further afield as well.
Going back to Borg: what were they able to grow on Norse farms?
They kept horses, cows, sheep, and grew grass so that they had winter fodder for the animals, otherwise, they weren’t going to survive up there. It wasn’t really about crops. That’s a huge amount of what is been transported back to Norway: you might go off to England with your ship laden with walrus ivory, furs and skins, maybe amber, and you come back with cloth, honey, barley and so on. These were also useful for making mead and beer. So the farms weren’t necessarily farms as we would think about them.
They were big on milk, right?
Yes, if you can turn it into cheese then it’s very portable and you can take it on long journeys. Out in Iceland, Skyr—a thick yogurt—was also very popular. In fact, it still is: supermarkets in the UK have started selling it because it’s high in protein.
Often you’ll find that the best farms are very near the sea or at least are in control of places that are near the sea because fish are also very important — dried fish that you can take on very long journeys. Particularly in Arctic Norway you can see the fish outside drying on huge racks, even today. They still eat it in Iceland. You can get it at the supermarket, this dried flaky fish. Personally I think it’s revolting—but then again, I’m a vegetarian.
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Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough is a lecturer in medieval history and literature at the University of Durham. She appears regularly on BBC radio and is the author of Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas
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