Sunday, March 15, 2009

Erik the Guardian Reader

I've lost count of the number of column inches devoted to the claim that the Vikings are a positive role model for the contemporary, multicultural era. But whenever I've read a report in which the reporter, with wide-eyed amazement tells us that there was more to Vikings than raping and pillaging, I've never been able to repress the thought "and this is news to whom exactly"?

(For instance, I don't think it was exactly a secret that Alfred the Great and Guthrun agreed to share England, the Danes converted to Christianity - thrilled by its love your neighbour sentiments we may be sure - and that was an end to the trouble. Well, we'll get back to that in a moment).

Multi-culturalism 11th century style. It is
probably preferable to modern-day Luton, however.

It's become fashionable to regard the Vikings as master tradesmen, seafarers (they were that too) and to downplay all that rapine and fighting. Possibly its apogee was reached in the decision to name the technology that allows electronic devices to communicate with each other after Harald Bluetooth on the slightly spurious grounds that he'd first united Denmark and Norway.

And yet this vogue for presenting the Vikings as role models for a globalised, multicultural world seems a bit too goody goody and shiny eyed. The Vikings lived during the middle ages, a brutal and terrifying age, and they survived and thrived in it thanks to their own courage and resourcefulness. However, the most important lessons that era offers for our own age have always been along the lines of: "don't do things like they did in the middle ages".

Consider for example what the Viking presence in England led to. After the raiders started coming across the sea again, Ethelred Unraed surpassed his previous ill-thought out responses with the St Brice's Day Massacre, an attempt to kill all the Danes in England (who had indeed become well established in the country). The response was predictably brutal, of course, and when it ended with Cnut on the throne there's a good case for regarding Engand as part of the Viking world.

Remember, too, how the Viking era in England ended. Harold Godwinson (himself of Danish extraction) seized the throne. The last of the Vikings, Harald Hardrada invaded and, along with most of his army, died at Stamford Bridge. But while all that was happening, the Normans - essentially a bunch of French-speaking Vikings (now there's an alarming combination) - were en route for England. Their arrival spelled the end for the old ways of the English and the Danes. (And caused a fair few problems from the Irish, Welsh and Scots, but that's another story).

Consider also that the Vikings were also greatly in demand as mercenaries - the famed Varangian guard - and their skills at navigation and trade made them among the more successful slavers of the era, selling their Slavic captives in the east, taking cheap labour back to Scandinavia and, at the other end of the Viking world, populating Iceland with the children fathered by their Irish slave girls. (Incidentally, if you're going to drag unwilling Irish girls across the sea and have your wicked way with them, you'd need to be every bit as tough as the stereotype suggests). The raping and pillaging was central to who they were, because that was the only way they could survive and thrive. If it won them sufficient land in England or Ireland to farm then, yes, they might calm down a bit. Until the next wave of violence swept over them.

I don't doubt that the actual academic conference that started this current wave of Viking revisionism in the press is taking a more nuanced and subtle view about how the Vikings interacted with the other peoples of the isles. Really my beef is with the more simplistic press converage and the idea that one corrects a historic stereotype by downplaying the brutal realities behind that stereotype.

But when you get reports with headlines like Vikings 'lived harmoniously with our ancestors' it's probably time for a reminder that they were our ancestors too, and the "harmony" was more a case of two bunches of tough, warlike people finding a balance that removed the need for endless conflict.

If more British and Irish people start to see themselves as descendants of the Vikings, it'll probably be a positive thing. Apart from the vague sense of unity it engenders, the Vikings were a pretty impressive bunch. Brave, formidable and master seamen. Just don't make the mistake of thinking of them as cuddly Guardian readers who might have got a bit too boisterous from time to time.

UPDATE: Why, yes, The Guardian did indeed respond with an editorial praising the ability of two culturally similar peoples to co-exist in a sparsely populatred country once one lot had adopted the other lot's religion. "Before long, the Vikings lived side by side with the people they invaded, leaving many of us with our own inner Viking. There's a lesson there."



Blogger Glamourpuss said...

I would prefer not to embrace my inner Viking - the fashions were so unflattering.


12:24 pm  
Anonymous Erik the Reader said...

Your post is very informative!
If the Viking past is treated in this way why not change the public view on the Huns of Attila? :D I am Hungarian and even if my name is Erik I would nickname myself Erik the Hun (not the Viking). Huns have a positive image in Hungary, Attila is seen as a hero!

Interestingly after the Danish conquest of England Edward the Exile heir to the English throne took refuge in Hungary where he was kindly received by King Saint Stephen of Hungary, his son Edgar Ætheling was born in Hungary. Edward the Exile was recalled from Hungary to take the throne but died shortly after landing. His daughter Saint Margaret became the queen of Scotland.

2:23 pm  

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