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  • Violence and Historical Authenticity:Rape (and Pillage) in Popular Viking Fiction
  • Erika Ruth Sigurdson

Add pillage to rape and suddenly it has a certain air of knock-about fun.

—David Mitchell (2009)

The phrase “rape and pillage” has become almost synonymous with Vikings. In newspaper headlines, guidebooks, textbooks, romance novels, cartoons, and museum exhibits, “rape and pillage” acts as shorthand for any and all Viking crimes, whether real or purely fictional. Paradoxically, the phrase has become enshrined in the rhetoric of debunking, or at least problematizing, the simplistic notion of bloodthirsty Vikings. A popular introductory textbook explains that “dominating the popular perception of the people who flowed out of Scandinavia in the Viking Age is the image of the blood-thirsty warrior bent on slaughter, rape and pillage” (Forte, Oram, and Pedersen 2005, 299). More popular writing employs a similar rhetoric; in an article reviewing the new British Museum Vikings exhibition, Simon Armitage (2014) writes for the Guardian: “[T]hose simply seeking the raping and pillaging berserkers of legend may be surprised.”

The question of Viking brutality or its absence is one that has been debated for over fifty years, led in particular by the work of Peter Sawyer (1962). But in all these debates over Viking brutality, what seems never to be critiqued is the use of the phrase “rape and pillage” to denote an often unspecified range of Viking war crimes. For the image of Viking rape is one that is firmly ensconced in our modern imagination. On [End Page 249] film, in romance novels, and in a range of modern media, hairy Viking warlords rape women inside the wreckage of their burning villages. They carry off beautiful women with graphic and detailed threats of rape in captivity. Drunken, feasting Vikings grope and leer at buxom mead-hall wenches or scantily clad slave girls, and grizzled old Vikings reminisce about their glory days of raping and pillaging. It thus becomes clear that part of the answer to how the phrase “rape and pillage” came to be associated with Vikings must involve an exploration of how rape and violence against women has come to be so closely identified with Vikings and Viking raids. In what follows, I will attempt to chart the evolution of the trope of Viking rape, and how rape has come to be so closely associated with the popular image of the Viking. In the process, I also provide some discussion of the evolution of the phrase “rape and pillage” and attempt to demonstrate how its polemical usage in the early nineteenth century lent itself neatly to its later use in depictions of Viking rape and abduction.

The figure of the Viking often represents a very specific form of masculinity, one that encompasses notions of violence, dominance, and other aggressive traits. Recent research has touched on the role of the imagined Viking in naturalizing patterns of dominance in the present day, as in Anglo-American narratives of conquest and colonialism (Kolodny 2012), or in early twentieth-century Germanic ideologies of racial superiority (Irlenbusch-Reynard 2009). It is not surprising that they should also come to be associated with the domination of women, and with the extreme blurring of the lines between consensual sex and rape that constitutes modern rape culture.1 Vikings, with their giant battle-axes and muscular good looks, perfectly symbolize “the aggressive-passive, dominant-submissive, me-Tarzan-you-Jane nature of the relationship between the sexes in our [rape] culture” (Herman 1994, 45). With its close correlation to the broader “sex and violence,” the phrase “rape and pillage” has come to encapsulate this paradox and perfectly describe a violent, dominant form of male sexuality. The phrase is used in a remarkable range of texts and genres, from Danish guidebooks to modern romance novels. Not confined to descriptions of literal Vikings, the phrase is used to evoke a particular brand of male sexuality even in the present day. The hero of the modern-day romance novel, Gena Showalter’s Catch a Mate, for instance, is introduced in strongly medieval terms: [End Page 250]

From behind he was gorgeous. From the front he was even more delicious than she’d suspected. Unbelievably delicious actually. Tall...