Essay – Viking Violence

Why have scholars come to such a wide range of views on the impact and destructiveness of the Vikings? Whose perspective do you find most convincing and why?

In regards to the question of why scholars have such a wide range of views on the impact and destructiveness on the Vikings, we must consider their available evidence, their choice of evidence, and their interpretation of this evidence, as well as their responses to dominant views. In the course of this essay we will focus on two major shifts in interpretation, this being Peter Sawyer’s work, and the responses to it. We will also consider which of these is most convincing.

One must first consider the main forms of evidence used prior to Sawyer’s revision. Unlike other barbarian cultures, there is no prominent contemporary account of history written by a Viking, such as Gregory of Tours, Bede or Jordanes. The written sources we have that come from Vikings did not appear until centuries later in the form of written sagas, or Saxo. The chief contemporary sources we have come from monastic accounts of encounters with Vikings, principally records of raids upon churches and the surrounding area, which coloured early views of the Vikings. One example of these accounts is from the Annals of St Bertin in the 840s/850s. Vikings are often referred to as ‘pirates’ who ‘pillaged, destroyed [and] burned’ regions with special mention of apparent heretic activity such as burning ‘the Church of St Martin’ and other monasteries.[1] We see similar evidence in the Annals of Xanten in the same time period. One quote in particular from 848 is tendentious of their view of Vikings, saying ‘The heathen [Vikings], as was their custom, inflicted injury on the Christians.’[2] The Martyrdom of St Edmund again shows this view of the Vikings, from 870. Abbo of Fleury notes that ‘the Danes came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom,’ referring to the Viking Ivar as ‘arrogant,’ and his followers as ‘heathens.’[3] Perhaps more important is the account of Edmund’s violent death, in which the Vikings ‘beat him with whips,’ ‘shot spears at him … until his was entirely covered with their missiles,’ then ‘dragged the holy man to his death, and with one stroke struck of his head,’ and later ‘hid the head.’[4] These types of accounts give a very consistent picture of the Vikings as heathens and violent destroyers, and this is why the initial dominant view of the Vikings focused on them as a force of destruction.

The publication of Peter Sawyer’s The Age of the Vikings marks a significant shift in the dominant interpretation of the Vikings towards a more sympathetic view. This can be in large part attributed to his use of new archaeological evidence, and re-interpretation of written sources. Deirdre O’Sullivan notes that this 1960s period of revisionism comes at a time of ‘unprecedented growth in Viking Studies, especially archaeology … [such as] excavation programmes [providing] a wealth of evidence about life in towns in the Viking Age,’ as well as similar work in rural areas.[5] Sawyer’s principal points of contention are in the unreliability of chroniclers. Sawyer argues that ‘contemporary descriptions of Viking fleets’ are untrustworthy, and historians trusting them ‘affected the interpretation of other evidence.’[6] Sawyer uses archaeological finds such as encampments, boats and grave goods in the earlier sections of ‘The Raids’ chapter in an attempt to prove claims of large Viking fleets are all exaggerated to some degree. He also uses the excavation of Birka, Hedeby and a site at Kaupang to emphasise the Vikings as traders, more so than raiders, in contrast to more dominant views. This allows Sawyer to argue that contemporary sources are less useful because ‘the principal victims of Viking attacks were unlikely to have presented a balanced and impartial view of their tormentors,’ and ‘there is every reason to suspect exaggeration in their descriptions of the size and destructiveness of the raiding bands.’[7] Sawyer’s views differ so widely from both his contemporaries and current historians because he has used archaeological evidence and his own reinterpretation of written sources to shape his view of the impact of the Vikings.

Peter Sawyer’s interpretation was met with several differing views, and one response to Sawyer’s view came from Patrick Wormald, in Viking Studies: Whence and Whither, which covers points of agreement and divergence. Wormald criticises Sawyer’s apparent disregard for sources that didn’t prove his point by using Alfred Smyth as contrast. In Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles, 850-880 Smyth uses late Scandinavian evidence, such as Ragnars saga and Saxo in following the impact of Ivar the Boneless, in conjunction with archaeological evidence and contemporary written sources such as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.[8] Smyth has been criticised by other historians for using sagas and Saxo as they are thought to be unreliable, and Wormald criticises them in turn, seeing even unreliable evidence as useful. He notes that ‘Ari’s Islendingabok is, however late, the first coherent narrative we have from the “Viking side”, and Adam of Brennen’s Gesta, however unreliable, is the first outsider’s attempt to write Scandinavian history.’[9] Wormald praises Smyth, because he ‘does not ignore any available evidence on principle.’[10] He also adds that ‘we should be less sceptical of the overwhelming testimony of a wide range of sources about the nature, scale and even leadership of Viking invasions.’[11] This wider use can explain why Smyth, and likely Wormald, would have quite different views compared to Sawyer and other historians. Wormald notes that ‘there is more to history than the award of red and black marks,’ meaning he believes there is too much focus on whether the Vikings were good or bad, and trying to prove this one way or another is colouring historical interpretations of the Vikings and the use of our sources.[12] Wormald’s piece is not a criticism of Sawyer, but a criticism of its negative impact, and it is implied that the view of Sawyer as overly sympathetic is misguided, as ‘Sawyer’s book was above all an attempt to explain, not to excuse, the Vikings.’[13] This misinterpretation has had an effect on subsequent interpretations of the Vikings, causing a stronger negative response to Sawyer than he perhaps deserves, contributing to the wide range of views about the impact of Vikings.

One area that has seen a lot of discussion is about the perception of how violent the Vikings were, with many responses to Sawyer’s work asserting that he is downplaying their violence. Ritualistic killing, specifically the ‘blood eagle’ and whether it ever happened, is an example of this debate. Smyth, as discussed, used Scandinavian sources frequently in his book, and he shows that both Saxo and Ragnars saga describe King Ælla has having a bloody eagle carved on his back, though he adds that there may be some doubt.[14] Roberta Frank writes it off as an invention and mistranslation, stating that ‘historians have long ceased to treat Icelandic sagas as reliable sources for the Viking age.’[15] This debate is indicative of a larger debate on proving the relative normalcy of violence in Europe, and whether the Vikings are worse than any other group. Sawyer notes that native violence in England was seen as just as destructive as the Vikings, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and as such ‘Vikings brought little that was new in the way of unpleasantness.’[16] Sawyer’s reasoning again includes the problem of monastic sources, that the different view of the Vikings is due to those ‘immediately concerned,’ the churchmen who were attacked.[17] Guy Halsall lends support to this argument by noting that, while Vikings are thought to be the only ones willing to attack the churches themselves, Bede, the Annales Cambriae and Gregory of Tours, among others, all describe instances of native attacks on or within churches.[18] Halsall also comments on the ‘blood eagle’, noting that whether it happened or not ‘Vikings were far from alone in putting defeated enemies to death in imaginative ways,’ again citing sources including Bede and Gregory of Tours.[19] This use of contemporary sources adds support to Sawyer’s theory that Viking raids were ‘an extension of normal Dark Age activity,’ and why other historians might agree.[20]

However, since Sawyer’s publication, many historians have moved toward that idea that the impact of the Vikings is a more complex discussion than Sawyer offers. Wormald criticises Sawyer for not thinking widely enough, stating that it is necessary ‘to put the Viking history in its wider European context.’[21] Wormald uses Smyth’s and his own study of kings in sagas to draw parallels to earlier history, and explain his reasoning that this growth of kingship ‘was both cause and effect of Viking activity,’ and that Scandinavia was in an ‘abnormal crisis,’ comparable to other ‘Germanic peoples’, as opposed to Sawyer’s view of Viking activity as normal.[22] While much of what Halsall writes supports Sawyer’s thesis, Halsall also notes that ‘to argue that Viking activity was or was not “normal Dark Age activity” is to view the question [of why Vikings are seen as so destructive] from only one side.’[23] Halsall argues that they were seen as so destructive at the time because they did not follow the same rules of war as those within England, as they attacked churches where others would stop at the door according to Sarah Foot; seaborne attacks were surprising where others were traceable on land; and they were considered ‘faithless oath-breakers.’[24] According to Halsall, the Vikings were seen so negatively because the introduced this ‘cultural conflict,’ that to the Vikings (and certain historians) seemed like normal warfare, but ‘from a Christian point of view these attacks were anything but normal.’[25] O’Sullivan has a similar viewpoint, that the historical view of the Vikings needs to ‘move on from questions such as who Vikings were, and what they did,’ because ‘we are dealing with a complex pattern of cultures and societies.’[26] These historians have a different view on the Vikings because they are considering them in a wider context, not the immediacy of monastic chronicles, or the closeness of Sawyer’s explanation of what they did and why.

The perspective I find most convincing is that of these later historians, as they are choosing to see the Vikings more complexly than the historians before them. As O’Sullivan said, ‘it is clear that any study must take account of a very wide range of different types of evidence,’ especially in the barbarian field of study, in which we have so little evidence in comparison to modern history.[27] These historians consider what can be learned from all sources, even the unreliable ones, as they are not simply looking for facts to prove how ‘good or bad’ the Vikings were. By stripping away this agenda and considering the Vikings simply as a ‘Different Thing,’ as Halsall describes them, we can make much better use of all the evidence, from archaeology to sagas. These historians thus make much more convincing arguments about the Vikings, and why we should study them in this way.

There are several reason why historians have such a wide range of views on the impact and destructiveness of the Vikings. Initially, it was a matter of the evidence we had available, chiefly the monastic chronicles and sagas which portrayed the Vikings negatively. Then in the sixties the dominant view was more sympathetic, because of a wealth of new archaeological evidence, and Peter Sawyer’s revisionism in The Age of the Vikings. This work caused a lot of controversy, and in response the dominant opinion of the impact and destructiveness of Vikings tended towards a middle ground between Sawyer and monastic chronicles, with historians considering all evidence in a wider context. This more recent view is most convincing to myself because it attempts to create a truer image without agenda. Historians have such a wide range of views because of the evidence they have, how they interpret it, and how they respond to dominant opinion.

References

Primary

Secondary

  • Frank, Roberta, ‘Viking atrocity and Skaldic verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle’ in English Historical Review (1984), pp. 332-343.
  • Halsall, Guy, ‘Playing by whose rules? A further look at Viking atrocity in the ninth century’ in Medieval History 2.2 (1992), pp 3-12
  • O’Sullivan, Deidre, ‘Changing views of the Viking Age’, Medieval History 2.1 (1991), pp. 3-13.
  • Sawyer, P.H., The Age of the Vikings (London, 1971).
  • Smyth, Alfred P., Scandanavian Kings in the British Isles, 850 – 880 (Oxford, 1977).
  • Wormald, Patrick, ‘Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, in The Vikings (London, 1982), pp. 128-53.

[1] Annals of St Bertin 843-859, sourced from https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/843bertin.asp

[2] Annals of Xanten, 845-853 sourced from https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/xanten1.html

[3] Abbo of Fleury: The Martyrdom of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia, 870 sourced from https://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/870abbo-edmund.asp

[4] Abbo of Fleury

[5] Deidre O’Sullivan, ‘Changing views of the Viking Age’, Medieval History 2.1 (1991), p1

[6] P.H. Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings (London, 1971). P121

[7] Sawyer, Age of the Vikings, p120

[8] Alfred P. Smyth, Scandanavian Kings in the British Isles, 850 – 880 (Oxford, 1977). p226

[9] Patrick Wormald, ‘Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, in The Vikings (London, 1982), p142

[10] Wormald, ‘Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, p143

[11] Wormald, ‘Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, p148

[12] Wormald, ‘Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, p148

[13] Wormald, ‘Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, p144

[14] Smyth, Scandanavian Kings in the British Isles, p189

[15] Roberta Frank, ‘Viking atrocity and Skaldic verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle’ in English Historical Review (1984), p334

[16] Sawyer, Age of the Vikings, p146-7

[17] Sawyer, Age of the Vikings, p146

[18] Guy Halsall, ‘Playing by whose rules? A further look at Viking atrocity in the ninth century’ in Medieval History 2.2 (1992), p5

[19] Halsall, ‘Playing by whose rules?’ p3

[20] Sawyer, Age of the Vikings, p202

[21] Wormald, ‘Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, p148

[22] Wormald, ‘Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, p147

[23] Halsall, ‘Playing by whose rules?’ p10

[24] Halsall, ‘Playing by whose rules?’ p7-9

[25] Halsall, ‘Playing by whose rules?’ p10

[26] O’Sullivan, ‘Changing views of the Viking Age’, p12

[27] O’Sullivan, ‘Changing views of the Viking Age’, p12

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