Vikings: blood-thirsty warriors or misunderstood traders? Life is a complicated thing and of course there is plenty of room for Vikings to have been both. Still, a new exhibition at the British Museum has provoked some good counter-revisionist fun which serves as a timely reminder of the political dangers the past can pose.
The opinions of David Dumville, published in the Evening Standard last week, have been the most cited this week. He likes a good fight and a bit of a wind-up, but his argument was sensible and fair.
For a generation, since the publication of Peter Sawyer’s seminal The Age of the Vikings (1962), there has been repeated and concerted effort to rehabilitate the vikings. This Dumville attributes to ‘political correctness’, although a more nuanced version of the same argument could point to the growing prominence of sociology, anthropology and indeed concern for cultural relativism in universities from the 1950s onwards. The result of this was that the terms ‘vikings’ and ‘Scandinavians’ became used more as synonyms, when one might prefer to distinguish between ‘pirate-raiders’ and ‘people who live in Scandinavia’. ‘The word Viking is not an ethnic term: it indicates a lifestyle’, he says. Indeed (although of course there is plenty of cross-over between ‘vikings’ and ‘Scandinavians’).
Dumville’s main point is that the vikings were violent and disruptive, even taking into account the bias of our non-viking written sources. This is hard to dispute, especially when one considers the speed with which the polities of Anglo-Saxon England crumbled in the 860s when faced with sustained assault. We cannot, however, also deny that vikings were more than just blood-thirsty pirates. The same people, irrespective of labels, would engage in trade, farming, bead-making and poetry. We need both the violence and the ‘Scandinavian culture’.
Here, as it happens, Dumville’s lively counter-revisionism strikes an odd note when it comes to the British Museum’s exhibition. ‘This new exhibition punctures nonsense of this [politically correct] sort simply by presenting a solid dose of reality – from mass graves to loot from churches. Perhaps at last we shall return to reality’. Did you see Jonathan Jones’s review of the same exhibition in the Guardian a few days later? The tag line read ‘the longship at the heart of the British Museum’s new Viking exhibition is spectacular – but the rest of the show is a bloodless collection of bowls and brooches’. It makes you wonder if Dumville had been tricked. ‘There’s no stage-setting’, Jones moaned, ‘no gory recreation of the Lindisfarne raid, say, to get us in the mood. Instead, cases of smallish, similar objects throw visitors straight into some thorny problems of archaeology’. The whole thing offers ‘very little to fans of Horrible Histories’ he moans – which is sad, since the exciting juxtaposition of raiding and artisanal activities in Deary’s book is exactly what I thought Dumville had in mind.
Part of the problem might be that people don’t really want ‘a dose of reality’ when it comes to the vikings. They want the romanticism of free-spirited people with dubious moral compasses and a lack of interest in complex state structures. Often, what you get when you venture into viking studies, is a selection of pots, combs and beads made by people struggling to avoid interest in complex, emerging state structures. The reality is never quite as fun as the legend, even when Dumville’s involved. But I wouldn’t bet against someone in the next decade or so writing a genuinely compelling book on the vikings which changes the paradigm again and we can have some better stories. You can always hope.