A contentious issue that has long plagued both the study of Vikings and the place of Vikings in popular culture is the proper, accepted usage of the word Viking itself. Language matters, and how a person uses language greatly affects their worldview and how they perceive people, objects, and concepts. It is no surprise, then, that there are a growing number of people who are dismayed by today’s liberal use of the word Viking to describe a great number of things that it originally did not. Here I will attempt to clarify the origins of the word Viking, its usage across the ages, and the evolution of its modern usage, specifically in non-Scandinavian languages. As always, for further reading check out my selected bibliography.
The Origins of the Word Viking
The word Viking is derived from Old Norse. While its origins are not well understood, and historians are divided over where precisely the word originated, we do know the word began not as a noun, but as a verb. The Saga of Egill Skallagrimsson offers us one of the most compelling examples of the word’s original use, and his is the closest example to the actual usage of the word in its native language. In his opening passage, he describes a man named Ulfr as a man who, “lá hann í víkingu og herjaði,” which translates (roughly) to, “he was roving and fought.” In this context, the word Viking described an activity, roving, rather than the man.
Later in his saga, Egill goes on to use the word differently in the following passage:
‘With bloody brand on-striding
Me bird of bane hath followed:
My hurtling spear hath sounded
In the swift Vikings’ charge.
Raged wrathfully our battle,
Ran fire o’er foemen’s rooftrees;
Sound sleepeth many a warrior
Slain in the city gate.’
Here Egill uses the word to describe a group of people partaking in a certain action, which tells us the word Viking was also used to describe the men who partook in “roving and fighting”. It is this dual usage that has led historians to say that the word Viking described a profession. Jugglers juggle. Traders trade. Vikings go a-viking.
The Decline of the Word Viking
As the Viking Age came to a close, so too did the profession of roving and fighting. Hence, usage of the word Viking declined. Old Norse spent the next several centuries morphing into the modern languages of Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic. Although Icelandic is the closest modern language to Old Norse, Old Norse itself is considered a dead language, like Latin. In this context, the original usage of Vikings disappeared almost entirely for many centuries until it experienced a revival led by 19th Century historians from Western Europe.
Revival of the Word Viking
Spurred by the prevalent Romantic movement of the early 19th Century (1800-1850), a new interest in the medieval period took hold in Western Europe. Part of this movement saw a growing interest in a little-known, poorly understood part of early medieval history, the Viking Age. Historians flocked to the field with keen interest, seeking to shed light on this “dark” age. At the time, there was not yet the concept of the “Viking Age” but it is during this time that the concept was developed. It is also the 19th Century historians who first delineated the Viking Age between 793 A.D., the attack on Lindisfarne, and 1066 A.D, the Norman invasion of England. Through their efforts, they discovered an enigmatic people who plagued the early kingdoms of Britain and France, and whose origins they traced to Scandinavia.
We must remember that during the romantic period, there had not yet been any ship burial discoveries, no archeological digs of any significance, and the primary sources about the Viking Age were spread across Europe, many of them hidden away in age-old university archives or privately owned by Europe’s gentry. Misconceptions abound in this early period, and it is within this context that the word Viking made its appearance in non-Scandinavian languages.
A new political force also began to take hold in Western Europe, a concept that would be responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in the following century: nationalism. Beginning in the mid 19th century, the governments of Europe, both nascent democracies and established autocracies, sought to bend the narrative of history to suit their political aims. In France, for example, the official national narrative was that modern France was the product of the Carolingian empire, a holy Christian institution that helped to stabilize Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In England, the official historical narrative began with the Anglo-Saxon kings, like Alfred the Great, to emphasize that the English monarchy had a long and rich history, and to reinforce their legitimacy to the people they ruled.
It is within the context of nascent national fervor that the study of the Vikings began. Not surprisingly, they (the Vikings) were immediately painted as an enemy who threatened civilization and had to be defeated (us against them). In fact, the triumph of Christendom over “the ravages of heathen men”, as written in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, was regarded as a pivotal, divinely ordained achievement, exploited by the governments of Europe as a means to further incite national pride. This fearsome enemy from long ago, however, did not yet have a name. What then to call these invaders who attempted to thwart the Christian kingdoms of Europe?
No one really knows where 19th century historians, and later, society, picked up the word for use in non-Scandinavian languages. It may have been borrowed directly from the Scandinavians of the day, or perhaps taken directly from the Sagas of the Icelanders. Historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough explains in her book, Beyond the Northlands, that the first modern use of the word Viking was recorded in 1807, three decades before Queen Victoria’s coronation. The word wasn’t reserved for the “men who roved”, but instead referred to the entire Norse world. It is, woefully, a product of the “us against them” mentality, and an unfortunate oversimplification and mischaracterization of a time and people we now know to have been far more complex than previously acknowledged. From 1807 forward, this usage dominated the histories and the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries, and is by-and-large how most people use the word today.
So, Do You Use the Word Viking Correctly?
It all boils down to effective communication. Who is the audience? What is their level of knowledge in regards to the Viking Age? In his most recent book, The Age of the Vikings, Historian Anders Winroth takes the time to define his own usage of the word Viking to make his use of it clear to his audience:
His is a great example, and anyone who uses the word should be careful to define how they intend to use it, and to make clear the differences between its various usages. I, for example, use the word Viking more interchangeably because my intended audience are those just beginning to explore their interest in the Viking Age and who may not yet understand how its modern usage differs from the past (hopefully this article helps to clear that up!). However, in writing more in-depth histories, I focus my usage of the word on the “men who roved”.