Who were the Vikings?
Vikings. Scourge of the sea. Pillaging and plundering their way through Europe. The feats of these legendary warriors have persisted throughout history and into the stories of modern pop culture, from the various appearances of Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the popular television series “Vikings” on the History channel. Recently, Vikings made their way into video games with the release of “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” the latest installment of the popular video game series that follows a Viking raider through a conquest of England. University of Northern Iowa history professor Jennifer McNabb knows the appeal of the Vikings legends all too well, having witnessed the history of these sea-faring people captivate the students in her history classes where she teaches the impacts the Scandinavian cultures had on medieval Europe. In this conversation, she discusses the modern conception of the Viking, picking apart what is true and what is myth.
When we think of Vikings we often have these images of powerful warriors and ocean-faring marauders looting and pillaging their way across Europe. What’s real and what’s overblown in this modern conception of Vikings?
The source record probably does the most to explain the legacy of the Vikings that we possess. The Vikings were often written about by people who saw themselves as their victims. Some of the current scholarly discussions are playing with the idea that the Scandinavians were essentially opportunists. They were traders. They traveled by water. When they found a strong settlement, they traded with that settlement, and when they sensed weakness, they capitalized on that weakness. So, when the Vikings landed some place and sensed weakness and wealth, that's a happy combo for them. When that happened, they did tend to seize what they wanted. And the places with wealth at that point of medieval Europe history tended to be establishments of the church, such as monasteries and other religious settlements, that were places that housed gold and silver and other items of value. The monks tended not to be warriors. And so that was a great combo for the Vikings. The piece of the equation that's significant is that the monks may not have been warriors, but they were writers, and so they left the written accounts of these people; the Scandinavians weren't generating their own. So in situ, the documents we have about the Vikings when they were most active in their pre-Christian period, come from people who thought them wretched and heathen. It's that old adage that the people who write the history are the ones who make the legacies, and they certainly did as far as the Vikings were concerned. So it's a testament to the longevity of these various Christian chroniclers’ accounts, giving these incredibly inflammatory reports about the Vikings, that they still provide the myths and legends that you see in Marvel’s Thor movies, History Channel’s The Vikings and Assassin's Creed.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes place during one of the Viking invasions of Britain in 873. What can you tell us about this period of history?
The Vikings are a significant part of the narrative of medieval England. It took a while after the Romans left Britain for any kind of centralized political authority to emerge. England itself was formed into what's known as the Heptarchy, which was a Game-of-Thrones-esque network of seven kingdoms. And there was a titular overlord called the bretwalda, but that individual was really not king of England. It's Alfred the Great who is first recognized as rex anglorum, but that actually just means he ruled the part of England that was not ruled by the Vikings. And the power Alfred did have is sort of consolidated out of the fires of Viking pressures. The Vikings at the time ruled a very significant portion of England. Alfred was essentially negotiating with the Vikings to buy himself time to fortify the land and have enough unification of his own forces to put forward a pretty solid defense of his territories.
The video game also includes elements of popular Norse mythology - Odin and Thor both make appearances, as does the titular Valhalla. But the Vikings actually converted to Christianity in their later years. Could you talk about the mythology aspect of their culture, and then explain how they transitioned into being Christians?
The Viking’s mythology featured a plurality of deities, which automatically puts it at odds with the Christian understanding of supernatural power. The Scandinavian mythology is very much connected to the natural world, and the Norse creation stories are not all that dissimilar to the Christian creation story. There’s a big flood narrative, for instance. There are some dark parts of the mythology featuring violence and destruction, which is embedded in the ways we think about Vikings today as a people naturally trending towards violence.
The story of their conversion to Christianity is complex and takes place over hundreds of years. There were Christian missionaries who made it their mission to convert these pagan peoples. And there were some very targeted efforts to introduce the precepts of Christianity to Viking kings. We know that a number of the kings recognized the political advantages of conversion to Christianity and how it allowed certain alliances to be formed. And the archaeological record tells us that there was an interesting period of coexistence, where you could find a burial site that would contain both Thor's hammer and a Christian cross. There are some interesting stories about Vikings seeing the Christian God as a war god. And that's very typical of the early barbarian tribes’ trajectory toward accepting Christianity as well.
What is the timeline of Vikings? When did they appear and when did their influence wane?
It used to be that the Viking Age had a very particular start date - the 793 attack on the Lindisfarne monastery off the northeast coast of England. So that was a very easy date that can be pointed to as the first time we see the Vikings really being the Vikings. We've now learned that’s historically inaccurate. Archaeology is doing a number of really interesting things to blow out the chronology of the Vikings. People are finding a lot of Viking ships in unexpected places, and dated back to unexpected times, much earlier than the late 8th century. But most texts will offer the eighth century through the eleventh centuries as the bookend dates for the “Age of the Vikings.” And the reason that the 11th century is often cited is as the conclusion is that's when the Christian conversion processes went into effect. So it's not like suddenly Scandinavia goes away as a European force. But the culture is changing. And the Vikings began to settle, so instead of always pushing to the next frontier, they concentrated on where they were. So, instead of this continued trajectory of exploration and conquest, we see instead consolidation and settlement. It’s an interesting flip of the script from the early years of the Vikings, when they were putting real pressures on the emerging kingdoms of medieval Europe. If you look at a map of the Vikings in action, they're coming from the north or sweeping down through the south or wheeling over land. It looks like Christian Europe is stuck in this vise, and the sort of miracle of all of that is that Christianity, ultimately, in a certain sense, domesticates the Vikings. After centuries of the Vikings conquering Christians, Christianity conquered the Vikings.