Who Were the Vikings?
William Fitzhugh, curator in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, says the Vikings were far from simply brutish barbarians in horned helmets.
For centuries—indeed, ever since Viking raiders savagely attacked England's Lindisfarne monastery in A.D. 793—the Vikings have seemed to many to have been little more than blue-eyed barbarians in horned helmets. But archeological investigations of Viking sites stretching from Russia to Newfoundland have revealed a more human (if not altogether humane) side to the Viking character. In this interview with NOVA producer Julia Cort, William Fitzhugh, curator of a new exhibit on Vikings at the Smithsonian Insitution, offers compelling insight into this new image of the Norsemen and what he perceives as their catalytic role in Europe's transformation from a feudal society to an integrated group of modern nation-states.
NOVA: What must it have been like for the monks at Lindisfarne to be suddenly attacked out of the blue?
Fitzhugh: For them, the attack represented the vengeance of Satan on the Christian outposts of Europe. It was a terrible event, because the monks and the church centers had set themselves up in small, fortress-like places where they could pursue their studies and writings in peace, and it was an invasion of the sanctitude of Christ and their religion. This was totally unlike anything that had happened before. There had been outlaws, but to have shiploads of brawny characters show up at your isolated, supposedly sacred center, this was the ultimate horror.
NOVA: What did the Vikings actually do in these attacks?
Fitzhugh: Well, the attacks were very diverse. I mean, one misconception we have is that swarms of Vikings raided constantly all over the place, and it really wasn't that way. For the most part, the raids were totally independent. They were not the result of national armies or navies moving down into Europe, but rather the actions of individual Viking chieftains who grouped together followers and had one or maybe several boats. Occasionally, as in some of the invasions of Normandy, they organized whole flotillas and made a purposeful kind of attack, but generally they were much more individualistic. They had to find food, and they couldn't carry their food with them. They had to live off the land, so they drove people out and took whatever money and other valuables people had. And, of course, the church centers and monasteries like Lindisfarne constituted the major sources of wealth at that time.
While ruthless, Viking attacks were more about survival than subjugation, historians now say.
NOVA: Did they kill a lot of people in these raids?
Fitzhugh: In many cases they did. I think they were relatively ruthless, but remember, this was a ruthless age with far more than just peaceful farmers living peaceful lives. All sorts of things were going on in the British Isles and mainland Europe, including constant battles between rival princes vying for kingship and control of local regions. The Vikings were just another crowd, though a crowd that was non-Christian and had no compunction about killing churchmen or women or children.
That said, in general I think the victims were men, because the Vikings were great at absorbing people. They needed slaves, they needed people to help row, they needed people to help maintain their lifestyle. They regularly set up small villages and centers where they could overwinter or stay for months at a time, and they needed people to help run these establishments. So I think if you were able to put yourself back into the camp of a raiding Viking group, you probably would find Italians and Spaniards and Portuguese and French and Russians—a very diverse group built around a core of Vikings from a particular region, say, southern Denmark or an Oslo fjord. It wouldn't be just be blond, blue-eyed Norsemen.
Your typical Viking settlement would not have contained blond, blue-eyed Norsemen alone, but a cosmopolitan group of inhabitants.
NOVA: So what are the main challenges in finding the truth about the Vikings?
Fitzhugh: Well, one of the major problems in Viking studies is that we're biased towards the historical accounts—early chronicles that all came from the church centers or official reports to the kings or regional authorities. It's always been that way. Only in the past 20 years or so have archeological and other studies begun to provide information that fleshes out and in some cases contradicts or even replaces the historical record. These findings are giving us a totally different view of the Vikings. We see them archeologically not as raiders and pillagers but as entrepreneurs, traders, people opening up new avenues of commerce, bringing new materials into Scandinavia, spreading Scandinavian ideas into Europe. For instance, we see silk that originated in Asia appearing in archeological sites such as that at York (see The Viking Diaspora). This contrasts sharply with the early accounts, which were all from Europe, were inevitably based on victims' reports, and were extremely one-sided.
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© | Updated November 2000