History has falsely remembered the Vikings as brutish, amoral barbarians with no respect for anyone but themselves. What we know of the Vikings comes to us primarily from the works of Christian clerics (the only literate people of the Viking Age in Europe) who happened to be the Vikings’ favorite victims. Thus, monastic orders made sure to vilify their foe. Initially, these were the only sources available to scholars of the 19th century who began to piece together the history of the Viking Age. Their early conclusions, steeped in the values and prejudices of the day, have lent to the stereotypical frameworks of the Vikings we have grown accustomed to in literature and the media. In the past twenty years, however, the misrepresentation of the people we know today as the Vikings have redressed; new finds and evidence point to a much more cultured and intellectual population. Archeologists, historians, and medievalists now acknowledge that our previous understanding of Scandinavian culture in the early medieval period has classically been incorrect. A more holistic approach to the field has shown us that indeed Viking Age Scandinavians had rich traditions and, most importantly, a central culture of learning.
The culture of learning in Viking Age Scandinavia begins with a myth. Norse mythology was central to the establishment of Scandinavian institutions and power structures as well as cultural life and social expectations. In particular, the myth surrounding the leader of the Aesir, Odin, resonates profoundly even today among many who ascribe to Norse paganism. Odin, creator of men, obsessed with knowledge. He prided himself on his ability to learn and to apply that learning to his life. His obsession led him to take extreme measures. In the myth called “Mímisbrunnr” Odin visits a well located beneath the world tree Yggdrasil guarded by a mystical character named Mimir. The water of the well was said to contain great wisdom and knowledge and allow those who drank from it to see the future. Odin desired greatly to take advantage of the wisdom contained therein, but that knowledge came at a price. The well’s guardian asked for one of Odin’s eyes in exchange for one drink. Odin obliged him. His desire for knowledge superseded all other carnal pleasures available to him.
The myth serves as a counterpoint to the old paradigms of scholarship on Viking Age history. Odin, the most beloved deity in the Norse pantheon, strived for knowledge. Any devotees to his worship would assuredly have strived to emulate this most prominent character trait. As it turns out, archeology has provided the evidence we need to prove this cultural attribute. Evidently, the Vikings brought home much more than just loot. One example is the finding of a sword, the Ulfberht, whose construction required a technology not available to most of Europe until hundreds of years later. Analysis of the metals in the sword has shown the steel’s purity to be nearly that of crucible steel. What does this mean? Simply put, the purity of the steel would have required temperatures higher than any fire made by any blacksmith in Europe at the time to produce. The technology to produce such an artifact tells us that the Norse must have learned the technique elsewhere, likely in the East where Damascus Steel, a close second to crucible steel, was already in production. This import was made possible by the exploits of the Swedish Vikings, known as the Rus, who traveled across the eastern steppes of modern-day Russia as far as the Black Sea and the Byzantine Empire (see The Vikings in Georgia?). Trades and cultural exchanges were common, to the extent where an 11th century Arabic silver coin was found in Newfoundland! The Vikings, we now know, attained many advances and much wealth as a result of their travels.
Archeologists have found droves of evidence of technological imports across Scandinavia. Farming technology nearly identical to the technologies used in France and Britain suddenly appears in the archeological record around the midpoint of the Viking Age. It is proposed that those Scandinavians who returned from raiding brought home those technologies from the areas they raided. This also means that the Vikings undoubtedly did not always massacre everyone in sight. To have learned about the technologies and how they worked, they must have communicated with the owners of that technology and worked with them to familiarize themselves with its uses. Curiosity it appears reigned among the Vikings whose interests were, inevitably, to better themselves.
Why, then, if Vikings were so interested in learning did they sack and pillage instead of peacefully trade? One leading theory suggests the Christian Empire of Charlemagne forced their hand. Not only did Charlemagne threaten the Danes on their border, but he denied trade to non-Christians, trade which the Scandinavians relied upon. The violence perpetrated by the Christian empire undoubtedly influenced the Vikings‘ foreign policy. It might even be said that after the incident on the Elbe (see Why Did the Viking Age Begin?) the Vikings may have assumed that Christians were intrinsically violent, and so they treated them accordingly. We must remember that this was an age of violence. All of Europe experienced a period of horrific and constant warfare in the vacuum left by the Romans. Because the only people who could leave a record of the Vikings were Christian clerics, they fell victim to an ever-present and applicable historical phenomenon: propaganda.