Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade

Stefan Lovgren in Stockholm, Sweden
for National Geographic News
February 17, 2004

"Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. … Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert, spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples."

So wrote religious scholar Alcuin of York in the late eighth century in a letter to Ethelred, king of Northumbria in England. He was describing a violent raid by Vikings on a monastery in present-day Scotland.

It is no wonder that the Vikings have a reputation for mindless savagery. Since the Vikings were unable to write, much of their history was recorded by British and French clergy—the very people who fell victim to the Viking raids.

But were the Vikings merely primitive plunderers?

Far from it, say scholars. Using archaeological and other evidence, researchers have in recent years been piecing together a more complex picture of the Vikings that sharply contradicts the stereotype of the Vikings as mere barbarians.

"The Norsemen were not just warriors, they were farmers, artists, shipbuilders, and innovators," said Ingmar Jansson, a professor of archaeology at Stockholm University in Sweden. "More than anything, they were excellent traders who connected peoples from Baghdad to Scandinavia to the mainland of North America."

Exaggerating Atrocities

The origin of the word "Viking" is highly disputed. Some experts say it means "pirate." Others believe it refers to people coming from the region of the Viken (the old name for Norway's Oslo Fjord).

Today, the word "Viking" is used to refer to the people who lived in Scandinavia—Sweden, Norway, and Denmark—from around A.D. 750 to 1100. However, not everyone was a Viking.

"Viking is misused as an ethnic term," Jansson said. "The Vikings belonged to the upper class. They were the sea warriors. But most people were just Scandinavians. For them, the normal life was to stay home and be a farmer."

Still, the Vikings are best known for their sea voyages. Along the coasts of Western Europe, they traveled to the Mediterranean and North Africa. By way of the Russian rivers, they reached Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and beyond to Baghdad in Asia.

The Vikings quickly developed a fierce reputation. In letters to their bishops, Christian priests in Britain and France chronicled the violent deeds of the Vikings, which included attacking wealthy monasteries and killing women and children. (Many churchmen believed the Viking raids were God's punishment on the Anglo-Saxons for their sins.)

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