How the Vikings Saved Europe and Got a Terrible Reputation
History teaches us that the Vikings were brutal, thieving invaders, but much of that history was written by Viking victims: European monks. New evidence says otherwise.
They say history is written by the victors, but what if the victims are the ones with the pens?
That is the bizarre circumstance surrounding the history of the Vikings, since the centuries-old myth that has come down to us about their brutal savagery originated with their victims—monks and priests—who had the monopoly on writing in that time.
As a result, the image we have today of the marauding Vikings is both wildly off the mark, and ignores the major contributions they made in shaping Europe during the Middle Ages. That demystification and deep dive into the world of one of history’s most iconic people is the subject of a new book, The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth. Not only are the Vikings completely misunderstood, he argues, but they may have saved Europe.
The Vikings weren’t picky about their raiding targets, but the short-term gains in booty and ransom achieved by attacking monasteries resulted in the Vikings being relegated to the “vicious barbarian” category of history. The monks in those monasteries were the only historians around at that time.
“Since [the Vikings] attacked those with a monopoly on writing, it is their deeds … that have gone down in history as infamous, irrational, and bloodthirsty,” writes Winroth.
A contemporary ruler like Charlemagne, he notes, is “today generally extolled as a founding father of Europe. France and Germany compete about who has the greatest right to claim him as their national founder.”
Charlemagne is the cultured hero of the age. The Vikings—not so much.
One of the reasons the Vikings are viewed so negatively is that their violence could seem wanton or irrational.
Part of that lies in the paucity of documentation of what the Vikings actuallydid during their raids. To many at the time—clerics in particular—attacking a monastery or church would have seemed irrational. Those who did document the raids, which were usually monks, had something to be gained by playing up the Vikings’ violence against religious figures, and they often resorted to broad, generic rhetoric about the “devastation” and “destruction” without specific detail.
Or, the documentation we are left with was written centuries after the events, often in poetry, often wrong. The horned helmets of the Vikings—they never existed. As for the other two famous images, the blood eagle and the berserker—those are the result of mistranslations.