3 Common Misconceptions About the Vikings

There is a tremendous amount of lore surrounding the Vikings. This is partly due to the fact that we realistically know little about them compared to, for example, people of the high middle ages. It is also due to representations of them in primary sources, which were primary written by the Vikings’ victims who painted them in a negative light. Recent scholarship has done much to undo many of the misconceptions help by popular culture about the Vikings, and here I will outline three of the most pervasive among them.

1. They were more violent.

Yes, the Vikings were violent, but no more violent than any other people at the time. It was an age of violence. In fact, the most violent regime to emerge from the the vacuum left behind by the Roman Empire were the Carolingians, who conquered most of continental Europe with the intent to forcibly convert all pagan tribes to Christianity and to slaughter all who resisted. So effective were their campaigns that there wasn’t an army in the world who dared face them at the height of their power under Charlemagne, not even the Vikings. Not until the death of Charlemagne and the emergence of constant warring between his son and grandsons over inheritance did larger scale Viking raids begin in Carolingian lands (France/Germany/Poland).

There are historians who even argue that it was the violence propagated by the Carolingian empire that, in part, incited the beginning of the Viking Age.

2. The Conversion to Christianity Occurred Quickly.

The Christianization of Scandinavia did not occur overnight. The first monarch from any Scandinavian territory to convert to Christianity was Harlad-Klak of Jutland, who did so only to rally support from the Carolingians to help him in his claim to the throne of Denmark in around 815 A.D. His conversion is not even seen as legitimate by most historians, and more of a political move than an actual conversion.

The Church made several concerted efforts to proselytize in Scandinavia as early as the 820’s, with a notable voyage by Anskar to Birka to visit the Rus. Over the course of a century, the church slowly won over Danes and Swedes, and eventually Norwegians. By the time of the reign of Harald Bluetooth, which began in 958, a significant number of Danes were Christian. It was at this point that Harald Bluetooth took it upon himself to make the conversion of his kingdom official by making Christianity the state religion.

Despite the official conversation, it was not until the mid 11th Century that we may say Christianity was prevalent among the Vikings, and pockets of paganism survived in Scandinavia well into the medieval period (1066-1492).

3. They were a united people.

When we use the word Viking, we really do a disservice to the memory of Viking Age Scandinavians. It is a blanket term that is used to apply to anyone who lived in and left Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) between the years 790 A.D. and 1066 A.D. They were not, however, as unified a group as we remember them today. The period immediately preceding the Viking Age was a time when settlements in Scandinavia were relatively isolated from one another, except for trade. These settlements had their own traditions, often owed allegiance to differing deities, and developed in parallel with, but separated from, other settlements.

By the late Viking Age, there were numerous groups who differed from one another significantly. Archeologically, there was a distinct, shared culture that existed at the outset of the Viking Age. This is evident in the Grobin Colony, in what is modern day Estonia, that was founded as early as the eighth century and is archeologically identical to finds in Gotland. But the Viking Age lasted three centuries, and during that time the Vikings developed separate identities based on geographic location, religion, and even culture in many respects. What further compounded this divergence is the fact that Vikings adapted to the places they colonized. By 1066, a Viking in Ireland would have been very different from a Viking in Normandy, or a Viking in Norway or Denmark.

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3 Comments

  1. Dennis J. Hagner says:

    It would be nice if we could see a larger version of these maps. 🙂

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