Monday, 27 October 2008

Vikings Reassessed

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled by Kathryn Hadley

As part of the Festival of Ideas organised by Cambridge University from October 22nd to November 2nd, the department for Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic studies held an open afternoon on Saturday 25th October for primary school children, partly designed to reassess many children’s and popular perceptions of the Vikings as a destructive, warring and barbarous race. The department also published a leaflet explaining this common misinterpretation of much of the Vikings’ history. Academics warn against the dangers of such negative mass perceptions of the Norse invaders, arguing that children and teenagers in particular should be more informed of the positive aspects of their cultural and social impact on Britain. According to Dr Elizabeth Rowe, a Viking expert and lecturer in Scandinavian medieval history at the university:

It's damaging to think that they were simply a violent society, and easy to undermine them as a people who have no redeeming qualities.

Recent research has revealed that the Vikings were not merely a violent and drinking people; they were primarily peaceful, clean, hygienic and artistic. They did not wear horned or winged helmets and were not as hairy or dirty as was commonly imagined. They were fashion conscious and attached considerable importance to their appearance.

Evidence is notably based on the medieval chronicle of John Wallingford, who wrote about the eleventh century and went so far as to complain that the Vikings were too clean. They combed their hair every day, washed every Saturday and regularly changed their clothes. Entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also warn against overemphasising the violence and destructiveness of the Norse warriors. Although it records some battles, it does not do so for every year. Moreover, archeological evidence has challenged the common perception of the Vikings as a warring race. The first burial ground of Viking origin in Britain was discovered just four years ago in Cumbria. The remains of Viking men and women were buried notably with brooches and jewellery as well as with weapons.

Dr Francis Pryor, an archaeologist and regular on the Channel Four series Time Team has thus claimed that:

Far from the illiterate warring thugs in horned helmets who brought us to new depths of barbarism after landing by boat to sack monasteries and molest women, they were a settled and remarkably civilised people who integrated into community life and joined the property-owning classes.

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