Saturday, September 17, 2005

How Do We Know About the Vikings?

Sources and contemporary accounts
The Vikings have left many traces of their settlement which are still visible today. Archaeology provides physical evidence of their conquests, settlement and daily life. The study of place-names and language shows the lasting effect which the Viking settlements had in the British Isles, and DNA analysis provides some insights into the effect the Vikings had on the genetic stock of the countries where they settled. All of this provides valuable information, but the only reason that we have an idea of the 'Vikings' as a people is their appearance in the written sources.
'... the value of the written evidence is limited.'
Unfortunately, the value of the written evidence is limited. Not a lot of evidence survives, and much of what we have is either uninformative or unreliable. Many popular ideas about Vikings are nineteenth-century inventions. Others are the result of early historians accepting sources which modern scholars now regard as completely unreliable. In Scandinavia the Viking Age is regarded as part of prehistory because there are practically no contemporary written sources. Even in western Europe, the Viking Age is often seen as part of the 'Dark Ages', from which comparatively few historical records have survived.

Detail from the manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Surviving accounts of Viking activity were almost exclusively written by churchmen. These include monastic chronicles, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and similar Frankish and Irish Annals, which outline broadly what happened, at what date. There are also sources of a more directly religious nature, such as the much-quoted letters of Alcuin, and Wulfstan's famous 'Sermon of the Wolf', both of which chose to interpret the Viking raids as God's punishment on the Anglo-Saxons for their sins. Even the chronicles reflect the fact that the Vikings often attacked monasteries for their wealth, which created an obvious bias against them, and the hostile tone of these contemporary accounts has done much to create the popular image of Viking atrocities. However, modern historians have noted that the same sources show Christian rulers behaving equally unpleasantly, but without being condemned on religious grounds.Runes

Runestone from Uppsala in Sweden. The inscription reads 'Thorkunn and Bruni had this monument made, in memory of their father Igulfast'. One of the reasons that we have so few records from the Viking Age is that the Vikings did not become familiar with the Roman alphabet (the alphabet we use today) until they adopted Christianity. However, they did have another form of lettering, known as runes. Runes were normally carved, rather than written, and were therefore mostly used for fairly short inscriptions.
The word 'alphabet' comes from the Greek letters 'alpha' and 'beta'. Similarly, the runic alphabet is known as the 'futhark', from the first six runes. The original futhark had 24 runes, later reduced to 16. This meant that some runes were used for several different letters, but there were two runes for the letter 'a', two for 'r', and one for our 'th'. More runes were gradually added after the Vikings became familiar with the Roman alphabet. There were several different versions of some of the runes, and individual runes might be carved back-to-front or upside down. All these factors can make runes difficult to read.
'... it is likely that few people were literate in runes.'
It is unknown how many people could read runes in the Viking Age. Runic inscriptions on pieces of wood from Bergen in Norway show that runes were used for all sorts of everyday purposes later in the Middle Ages, but no comparable evidence has survived from the Viking Age, and it is likely that few people were literate in runes. However, the fact that some Vikings were able to carve their names on their possessions suggests that the use of runes wasn't uncommon.
Most of the surviving runes are found on large memorial stones. Very often they only have the name of the person in whose memory the stone was carved, and the names of those responsible for having it made. Sometimes the name of the rune-carver was also given. Occasionally the inscriptions describe the achievements of the person commemorated, and refer to historical events in which they were involved. For this reason, runic inscriptions are a valuable source for Viking history. However, because they are so brief, they never give a very full picture, and often raise as many questions as they answer.Coins

Coin of 'King Cnut', minted in York, c AD 900. This side has a distorted version of the name of York. The inscriptions on coins are normally even shorter than those on runestones, and contain even less factual information. Some coins have no inscription at all. Even so, coin inscriptions are contemporary texts from the Viking Age, and both the inscriptions and the images on coins can provide a surprising amount of information. Sometimes coins can provide information which is not known from any other source.
One example of this is the so-called Cnut/Ebraice coinage from Viking Northumbria, dating from the beginning of the tenth century. Ebraice is a version of the Latin name for York, Eboracum, which became Eoforwic to the Anglo-Saxons, and Jorvik to the Vikings. The other side has the inscription CNUT REX (King Cnut), although the letters are spread around the arms of the central cross design. This has nothing to do with the later and more famous Cnut (1016-35), and if it weren't for these coins we would have no idea that York was ruled by a king called Cnut around the year 900, although we do know of someone of that name raiding around that time.
'Images on coins can also be significant.'
Images on coins can also be significant. The small-scale Danish coinage of the tenth century has no proper inscriptions, although some of the designs were originally copied from Carolingian coin inscriptions. However, from the mid-tenth century the Danish coins begin to show clear Christian symbols. This supports Harald Bluetooth's famous runic inscription from Jelling at the same period, in which he states that he 'made the Danes Christian'.

Silver coin of 'King Cnut', c AD 900. This side has the inscription CNVT REX spread around the arms of a cross. By contrast, coins sometimes give a very different impression from other sources. For example, Ceolwulf II of Mercia (874 - c.879) is dismissed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as 'a foolish king's thegn', and has often been seen as a puppet of the Vikings. However the coinage shows a clear alliance between Ceolwulf and Alfredof Wessex, with both kings issuing coins of the same type. Since the coins are contemporary and the Chronicle was written some years later, the coins may be a more reliable source.Sagas

Saga of Gudmundr the Good, written c 1710. © The most detailed accounts which we possess of the Viking Age are the Icelandic sagas. Some of these deal with the deeds of powerful rulers, such as the kings of Norway or the earls of Orkney. Others deal with the 'ordinary people' of Iceland, although the central characters even then tend to come from the ruling class. Often the sagas describe events in great detail, including what was said by those involved.
'... the sagas were often written down two or three hundred years after the events which they describe'
This may sound ideal for the historian, but the picture is far more complicated. The earliest sagas weren't written down until the twelfth century, and many of the most famous ones are even later. This means that the sagas were often written down two or three hundred years after the events which they describe, and it is not always clear where the compilers of the sagas used earlier material and where they simply made things up. There is a further problem that the sagas are primarily works of literature. Both events and particularly speech might well be rewritten to give a particular literary effect.

Detail from Saga of Gudmundr the Good Historians in the nineteenth century accepted the sagas as more or less accurate accounts, except where they clearly strayed into mythology and fantasy. The graphic accounts of the sagas played a large part in the creation of the 'Viking' myth. More recently, historians have looked at the sagas more critically, and for a period in the late twentieth century, many historians wouldn't accept that the sagas had any historical value at all.
Today, most historians would accept that the sagas are not reliable, and that some saga material is clearly not factual, or reflects a much later society rather than the Viking Age. However, this does not mean that the sagas have no value at all. Sometimes the broad outline of events in the sagas is supported by other sources. In other words, we can use sagas to study history, but we have to be very careful when we do.Skaldic verse

Egil Skallagrimsson, the hero of Egil's saga, from a late manuscript. Egil's saga contains many verses attributed to the hero © One feature of the sagas may genuinely date back to the Viking Age. Many of the sagas quote poems written in a traditional form known as skaldic verse. There were various different metres, but all skaldic verse was written according to complicated structures, including internal rhyme and alliteration. The verses are often attributed to known poets, or skalds, many of whom were eye-witnesses to the events which they describe in their poetry. The verses were probably only preserved orally until they were written down in the sagas. Even so, it is argued that the rigid structure of the verses meant that they would be remembered accurately, since any changes would disrupt the structure.
This should mean that skaldic verse is a more reliable source for historians than the main saga text. However, skaldic verse presents many problems of its own. Firstly, the structures of skaldic verse were still remembered in the 13th century, and some verses are probably late compositions, even though they may be attributed to earlier poets. Secondly, the poems are not always reliable accounts. For example, a dramatic account of Eric Bloodaxe being welcomed into Valhalla by the gods is unlikely to have been written by an eyewitness.
'... a dramatic account of Eric Bloodaxe being welcomed into Valhalla by the gods is unlikely to have been written by an eyewitness.'
The rigid structures of the poems meant that the choice of words had to fit the form. As a result, we have to be aware that the poets were probably more concerned with poetic form than accurate description. The poems also use a form of words called kennnings. Kennings involve using a poetic paraphrase instead of a simple word. For example, the sea could become the 'whale's road', while poetry itself was described as 'Kvasir's blood' or 'Kvasir's mead' in reference to a myth about the origins of poetry.
This combination of factors means that skaldic verse is a difficult and often unreliable form of evidence. Nevertheless, it is not completely useless. For example, passing references in poems support both Frankish laws and archaeological evidence in suggesting that the vikings got some of their weapons from western Europe.


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