Were the Vikings Violent?

The vikings gave no quarter when they stormed the city of Nantes in June 843, not even when they found monks barricaded in the city's cathedral. "The pagans decimated the whole multitude of priests, clerics and laity" , according to the account of a witness. Among the victims, who were allegedly killed while celebrating Mass, was a bishop who was later canonized.

To modern readers, the attack seems monstrous, even by the standards of medieval warfare. But the witness' account contains a fair amount of exaggeration, according to Anders Winroth, a Yale history professor and author of the book. In the Age of the Vikings published in 2014. This exaggeration is often present in the writings of Europeans concerning the Vikings.

Looking more closely at the account of the Nantes attack, “a more reasonable picture emerges,” he writes. For example, after stating that the Vikings had killed "all the multitude" , the witness contradicts himself by noting that some of the clerics were taken prisoner. And there were enough people left, among the "many survivors of the massacre", to pay a ransom in order to recover these prisoners.

In short, aside from ignoring the unspoken rule that forbade treating monks and priests a certain way, Viking methods weren't all that different from those of other European warriors of the time, Winroth claims.

For example, in 782, Charlemagne, who is today portrayed as the first unifier of Europe, had 4,500 Saxon captives beheaded in a single day. “The Vikings have never reached such a level of efficiency”.

THE HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS TOLD BY THEIR VICTIMS

Were the Vikings really cruel? The Vikings were no more bloodthirsty than other warriors of their time. But they suffered from a poor public image, not least because they preyed on a more educated society than their own, and as a result most of the stories about them come from their victims. Moreover, the Vikings being pagans, they were the subject of a Christian narrative which presented them as an evil and diabolic external force.

“There is this general idea that the Vikings were an attractive and foreign people, like something that we cannot understand from our point of view. It just continues the story told by the victims in their day,” says Winroth.

In reality, according to him, “the Vikings were a kind of free-market entrepreneurs”.

To make sure of this, specialists have been pointing out for decades the aspects of Viking life that go beyond the warrior aspect that we know well. They therefore highlight the craftsmanship of this Nordic people, but also their trade with the Arab world, their settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland, the ingenuity of their ships and the fact that the majority of them remained on place after the raids.

After certain Viking raids, men of God went to meet the villagers of the surroundings to exaggerate the facts of the Normans by linking them to religion. “You see, evil sabbath upon you. The Normans came to plunder the city not far from there. It is a sign from God, because you have not been good, be good, believe in God and he will protect you”. This kind of sentence could have been heard after the Viking raids, in order to terrorize the population and above all to increase faith and their allegiance to their king, their protectors.

THE TRUE MOTIVATION OF THE VIKINGS RAIDS

According to Winroth, the Vikings did not go into battle for an irrational love of chaos, but rather for pragmatic reasons, namely building personal fortunes and empowering their clan leaders. As proof, great Viking leaders negotiated or tried to negotiate a payment.

For example, before the battle of maldon in England, a Viking messenger disembarked and shouted in front of more than 3,000 Saxon soldiers: “It is better for you that you avoid this fight by paying us tribute… We don't need to kill each other” . The English chose to fight, and were defeated. Like everyone else, the Vikings would rather win by negotiation than risk defeat.

All the places attacked by the Vikings were not decimated, despite the numerous assertions of the scribes who wrote "everything was destroyed" . We note that Dorestad (a center of commerce in what is now the Netherlands) was sacked four times within four years from 834, and still continued to prosper. Viking raids were considered "overhead" , and many of the traders who did business in Dorestad were undoubtedly Vikings.

Along the same lines, the Vikings were related to other Europeans. In the years 911, a Viking named Rollon, plundered the regions north of Paris and around the Seine. Fed up with the raids on his territory, Charles the Simple eventually gave Rollo the Norman lands, to defend his lands against further Viking raids, which was common practice at that time. Rollo then became du Normandie.

The Norse were prodigious traders, selling furs, walrus tusks and slaves to the Arabs in the East. Winroth goes so far as to claim that the Vikings provided much-needed monetary stimulus to Western Europe during this crucial time. Nordic trade allowed an influx of Arab dirhams, or coins, which helped ease the transition to a trade rather than barter economy.

But some specialist seem to say that small Viking groups were very bloodthirsty and very violent.

In the year 806, for example, the massacre of sixty-eight monks on the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, sowed terror in Europe. This action was intended to convince Charlemagne, among others, that it would be very costly for them to spread Christianity in Scandinavia by force.

Anders Winroth did not take a conventional route to becoming a Viking specialist. When he was a student in Sweden, where he is from, he was frustrated with how little he knew about the Vikings. And misinterpretations about this people "are just as widespread in Scandinavia" as elsewhere, he explains.

When his first research work on medieval ecclesiastical law enabled him to win the MacArthur scholarship, awarded over five years to allow the winners to continue and develop their activity, he used part of the funds to convert to the study of the Vikings.

When asked if he thinks there is a risk of going too far in domesticating the Vikings, Winroth replies: “To domesticate them means to see them in their context”.

For a historian, the goal is to place people in the context of their time (and not in the context of our time) this allows them to be humanized. And it is an undeniable good, even when it comes to people known for their acts of looting, rapine and massacre of monks.