- The Last Viking Battle
In the spring of 2014, the British Museum put on an exhibition of medieval artifacts called Vikings: Life and Legend. Normally, the exhibition would not have attracted more attention than such exhibitions generally do, but, this time, it became the subject of a heated debate in the British newspaper the Independent—usually not a forum for discussing medieval matters. At issue was whether the exhibition gave a correct picture of these “seafaring warriors,” as the paper called the Vikings. This debate was particularly interesting because it dragged out some of the skeletons in the closet of Viking scholarship over the past decades—and even centuries—and resulted in a caustic exchange of opinions. In this essay, I would like to discuss how this debate progressed, and then look at a few other spurious issues from the past that relate to the supposed nature of the Vikings and that refuse to go away.
On March 4, 2014, the Independent published a review of the exhibition called “The Vikings: Why Do the Seafaring Warriors Still Intrigue Us?” The review, which was written by Boyd Tonkin, the paper’s literary editor, was, on the whole, sympathetic as to how the [End Page 317] British Museum had presented its subject (Tonkin 2014).1 Among other things, Tonkin interviewed the curator of the exhibition, Gareth Williams, who told him that the Vikings had not been a bunch of untidy, shaggy blondes and that their lousy reputation resulted from attacking scribe-filled monasteries—which, in today’s world, would be equivalent to terrorist attacks on television stations. Williams then explained that the barbaric image of the Vikings had persisted up to the 1960s, when a more cultivated image took hold, and then went on to add that he believed that the truth was probably somewhere in between. Tonkin then proceeded to Oslo, where he interviewed Professor Jan Bill, Oslo University’s Professor of Viking Age Archaeology and Curator of the Viking Ship Museum on Bygdøy. Bill told Tonkin that he believed that the high tide of revisionism against viewing the Vikings as barbarians had arrived in the 1980s when the pendulum swung from carnage to culture. Tonkin’s article ended with a short discussion of a mass grave found in Weymouth in 2009 where the skeletons of fifty Scandinavian warriors were found. Their injuries were consistent with execution rather than battle. In other words, the Anglo-Saxons were not just innocent victims of vicious Viking attacks; they could be plenty ruthless themselves.
It was not long until the backlash against Tonkin’s review arrived. It came from Patrick Cockburn, a senior award-winning journalist who also writes for the Independent, and was published on April 6, 2014. The main title of Cockburn’s article was: “The Vikings Were Feared for a Reason,” and a subtitle further explained: “World View: Ignore Recent Revisionism. The Norsemen Carried Out Atrocities to Equal Those of the German SS.” In his article, Cockburn took aim at his colleague Boyd Tonkin, noting that “there seems to be a common disbelief about how nasty wars can be and a common desire to find alternative explanations or excuses for the perpetrators of war crimes.” Cockburn went on:
In the case of the Vikings, many historians since the Sixties have ignored compelling evidence that they were mass murderers, whose atrocities were equivalent of those carried out by SS divisions invading Poland 75 years ago. Writers all over Europe at the time of the Vikings . . . are at one in describing their savagery. But their terrified accounts of what happened were set aside by experts as biased because the eye [End Page 318] witnesses were often monks whose monasteries were prime targets of the raiders. Emphasis was instead put on the role of the Vikings as traders (though their main trade was in slaves), sailors, poets (though the Sagas were written much later) and craftsmen (though the most impressive objects in the Viking hoards were looted from other countries).(Cockburn 2014)
For further evidence of Viking atrocities, Cockburn pointed to the work of the eminent British historian Patrick Wormald (1947–2004) who had, among other things, discussed the executions...