- Empathy and the Etiology of the Viking Age
Empathy is an unpredictable tool. Until the end of World War II George Bernard Shaw remained willing to regard Adolf Hitler as a misguided but basically well-meaning leader, determined to help his people recover from what Shaw regarded as the overly severe terms imposed by the Allies after the 1914-18 war. Shaw's empathy with the sufferings of the German people, his ability and willingness to place himself imaginatively in their predicament and to feel what they felt, even led him to express the hope that the Dublin government would offer Hitler political asylum in 1945 should the news of Hitler's suicide prove false. Empathy can be perceived as worse than naive, as both immoral and politically dangerous. Some of the hostility toward David Irving's biographies of Hitler and Goebbels derived from the inclusion of anecdotes revealing that Hitler felt foolish wearing shorts; and that Goebbels, short, dark and club-footed, so greatly dreaded the prospect of inspecting ranks of tall, blond soldiers that he had difficulty sleeping the night before such parades. Such anecdotes of insecurity and frailty run the risk of encouraging an empathy that is inappropriate, even wrong. Behind the hostility lies the fear that too much free play of empathy across the intellect will lead to the rationalization of unacceptable behavior, and end by making it acceptable.
This question of how to handle empathy is of particular relevance for the historian who wishes to tell the story of the nonliterate Vikings, for in the main it was their Christian contemporaries and victims who wrote their history for them. The situation seems to call for an entire deconstruction of the written sources if any semblance of objective truth about the Viking phenomenon is to be reached. The Vikings were the Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Danish archipelago who, between about 800 and 1100 raided across mainland Europe from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. Initially these raids had the character of privateering ventures, undertaken by small fleets for the purpose of material gain. Before the end of the 9th century, however, huge armies transported in enormous fleets had established a series of Viking kingdoms down the eastern seaboard of England. The Viking enterprise reached its climax in the early 11th century with the conquest of all of England by the Danish King Svein and his son Knut, and Knut's subsequent establishment of a North Sea empire that comprised England, Denmark, and parts of southern Sweden and Norway. Yet for all its bewildering complexities, one fact about the Viking Age is clear: at the start of it the Scandinavians were mainly heathen, and by the time it ended they were mainly Christian. In essence the story is one of a clash of cultures, ending with the defeat and formal disappearance of northern heathendom, which was replaced by Christianity.
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Why did the Vikings embark on their campaign of violence? For most of the 20th century one theory in particular dominated. Articulated by the influential Norwegian historian Andreas Holmsen, it cites as the causes of Viking violence poverty, overcrowding, and anomalies caused by the practice of primogeniture, whereby the oldest son alone inherited all of his father's land and authority. This, according to the theory, left numerous landless and ambitious younger brothers with no better option than to band together to embark on a career of privateering as a way of achieving wealth and status. In the case of a fortunate few, like Rollo of Normandy, there might be the ultimate reward of a colony of their very own in which to exercise aristocratic privileges.
The popularity of Holmsen's theory is understandable. Overcrowding, poverty, hunger, and the need for self-assertion rank high among the perennially recognizable causes of violent emigrations. It has support, moreover, in the writings of contemporary and near-contemporary Christian historians such as Rimbert, who wrote the biography of Anskar, the Apostle of the...