When reading online articles about the Vikings, it’s easy to get suspicious about the veracity of an author’s sources. The pressure to publish–and publish frequently–means taking a quantity over quality approach to writing about history. Although not immune to errors, I have personally begun to see a great many articles circulating in social media circles that are highly suspect. Most notable among these was the claim by one author that half of all Viking warriors were female. While a romantic thought, it is not accurate. The study sited by the article was grossly misinterpreted to fit into a carefully molded and wishful idealism of who the Vikings really were. In truth, Viking Age Scandinavians travelled and settled far away lands, but like the settlers of the New England colony, for example, the presence of women did not mean that half of New England’s militia were female. That is why I feel it is important to communicate to my readership the reality that is the study of Vikings in academia. There is no clear-cut narrative, and everything from how they built their ships to how they prayed to their gods is a big maybe.
Nearly every “fact” about the Vikings is debatable.
1,000 years separate us from the last of the Vikings, and that distance means we have completely lost touch with who they were. Despite efforts to reconstruct their culture and belief systems, academics are mostly in the dark about the bigger picture of Viking Age Scandinavian paganism and society. As with everything else, there are those out there in the webisphere who will claim to know otherwise, but the reality is that the Vikings’ culture was obliterated and assimilated by Christianity long ago. They left no written record, and the documents we do have are post-Viking age writings by Christian clerics whose veracity in their assertions is certainly worth suspicion. The last 20 years of study on the Viking Age have produced a wealth of new finds whose discoveries have shattered old paradigms and rewritten history, but have at the same time complicated the field. Therein lies the caveat to the study of Vikings: we have lofty clues about who they were with no definitive answers.
Archeological finds have complicated the field.
One might think digging up clues in an investigation might help to piece together a more accurate picture of the Vikings, but this is certainly not the case. As an example, we have the Osberg ship whose burial artifacts raise more questions than they answer. The woman buried with the ship, and her companion who is assumed to have been her slave (but not for certain), also raise questions. Some theorize she was buried because she was a person associated with magic, while others think she may have been royalty. Her post-mortem condition further complicates things as she suffered from physical deformities and, according to a recent genetic study, had a propensity to grow hair where women typically do not. Were the physical deformities valued? Did they hold significance in the community? (for a full synopsis on the Osberg burial and the questions it raises, read Robert Ferguson’s Vikings) All of these finds have done little to help us accurately reconstruct Viking Age society in Norway. Although this may seem frustrating to the average history buff, the fact that the field is further complicated by these mysteries is an exciting prospect for an archeologist or historian. It is an exciting time to be an academic in the field of Viking history!
Ultimately, we know very little for sure.
To illustrate how little we know about the Vikings, historians prior to the year 1900 didn’t even know for sure if the infamous dragon-headed prows of legend had ever actually existed. In fact, until the discoveries of the Gokstad and Osberg ships in the early 1900’s, historians were not even certain of the shape of the ships. Other than the Gotland Picture Stones, historians had very little to go on. Certainly, we now know more than we did 100 years ago, but what we knew back then set an incredibly low bar. Thus, one of the most important things to remember about the study of the Vikings is that we know very little, and everything we see published either in books or on the internet is but one interpretation of the clues, subject to debate and re-evaluation and to be labeled a big, fat MAYBE.